Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Holidays in the Philippines

Ok, so I know I am on some kind of super-extended holiday. But the 'holiday season' was extra awesome as I spent it with my boat family in the Philippines, which is actually a great place to be for Christmas in particular. Petrina and Madara are the two fantastic crew who often get mistaken for real sisters and of course Brian, who is commonly referred to as 'Grandad' when I speak to strangers.  

We started off the season with the boat's very first Christmas tree (well it wouldn't be Christmas without a tree!), complete with a roaring log fire (on DVD at least), mince pies and air con.

 Brian spent Christmas eve afternoon visiting the local hot springs before getting a new tattoo ("Make your dream your story" in ancient Philippino script around his ankle). We attended Church on Christmas Eve - Brian took his 'girlfriend' and sat at the front to repent for all of his sins in the last year. Petrina had fun singing along to the evangelical tunes which didn't really mention Christmas whilst Madara and I played outside with the kids (we got kicked out for talking by Petrina). 

Christmas morning started with a group activity (my present to everyone) which involved a tricycle ride to a remote barangay to rebuild a families' home after it was detroyed by typhoon Haiyan. I was even luckier that they agreed to my harebrained scheme - of allocating money for presents to a much more worthwhile cause: the Glorio family, residents of barangay Balolo - a 20 minute ride from Coron town.

Typhoon Yolanda devastated the area in which they live. Trees are down everywhere - it's incredible to look at the size of them and wonder at the forces required to flatten them. Unfortunately, the Glorio house itself was another victim of the disaster - completely leveled by the winds. They were in a neighbor's house when it happened, around 10pm on the 8th November 2013. I'm glad they had the foresight to stay with the neighbour - not knowing whether their basic shack was strong enough to withstand the gusts of winds that went up to 200mph. 

Petrina was lucky enough to find snow!

With Tomas working every day (and earning a pittance) the family were forced to continue living in their neighbors' house, whilst weeds and insects adopted the remains of their own building. On Christmas we arrived with supplies and spent the day carting usable materials like pieces of wood from the old house to the new frame that Tomas had built in his free time. He'd been unable to progress further on the build because of a lack of materials - especially nails. The frame which he'd already built was held together with twine. Brian proved his worth by instantly getting busy with the hammer and helping to match the vertical support beams and put them in their places. The girls and I learnt how to make traditional thatched roofing from leaves and bamboo canes - although this was a pointless gesture, as Brian kindly paid for the roofing materials to be delivered the next day. We played with the kids and did all we could to help them for the day.
Christmas lunch was very simple  - although I'd stayed up late the night before making sure I cooked enough for everyone to eat, most of the pasta remained uneaten as the kids (we had a head count of 20 at lunch) didn't like it! (It was the first time most of them had eaten pasta - the sweetcorn in it was also something they were unsure about!). Although we were tired, hot, sunburnt and sweaty, this was one of the most satisfying Christmas lunches I've ever eaten. 

On the way back to Coron we stopped at a waterfall and enjoyed splashing around in the freezing waters, which was a perfect way to cool off after the build. 

Being in a Christian country for Christmas is pretty nice...last year the only stranger who wished me 'Merry Christmas' was a call centre worker - the 25th December is a normal day of business. I actually heard it on the radio too - 'Happy Merry Christmas!' which was pretty funny. This is unlike the Philippines, where if you walk down the street and meet anyone they will immediately say, 'Merry Christmas!'. Although they tend to celebrate more on the 24th rather than the 25th - everyone goes to Church (and there are many to chose from), has a late dinner with their family, stays up until after midnight and opens their presents then. 

For new years I left the boat to travel to Boracay and meet up with Petrina and Madara since they'd already left the boat. The travel in itself was pretty awesome. It started with a 4.30am blind underwear kayak ride (the boat was at Busuanga Bay, and I had to catch a ferry at 7am). I've never seen it so dark out - the electricity must have been off in the area as all three resorts were in total darkness. There was no moon and clouds covering what little light the stars would have given me. I met a prearranged motorbike taxi (after getting dressed) which got me to Coron in an hour! Waiting for the ferry, I met Luz, a beautiful spirited Filipino lady. She had a contagious laugh and energy - after offering me a cracker, by way of introduction, she told me that I was never going to be able to forget her. I think this is true: the first hour ride of the long ferry journey she gave me an amazing massage! Unfortunately the rough waves got to her (along with everyone else on the boat) and she spent the next 8 hours lying on her belly and puking her guts out. 

Mary-Jane's emergency, travel-friendly charger.
I think I must exude the right combination of stupidity and vulnerability which gives strangers the idea that unless they take care of me, I'll walk abruptly off the edge of the nearest cliff as soon as they lose sight of me. My new found ferry friends, Luz, Ninia and Mary-Jane ushered me into a tricycle as soon as we docked and took me to several bus stations until I got three seats on a minivan heading to Roxas. The van waited for Petrina and Madara to arrive, and got us all safely and speedily to the port town, just before the 10pm ferry. 

Which we missed.


As we'd all done some serious travelling that day, we'd decided to get a real meal, and a couple of hours sleep in a hotel as the ticket office PROMISED us there was a ferry leaving at 4am. Apparently having a ferry schedule is too much like organisation in the Philippines - the ferry left at 2am while we were sleeping soundly in our beds.

The whole of the next day (new year's eve) was spent hanging around waiting for news on when the next ferry would go. Finally, we boarded at around 6pm. The travel gods must have been with us because it was the best disaster that's ever happened. For a start, we met the twins Paul and Andy who hung out with us for the next 3/4 days, but way cooler than that (sorry guys) there was some music playing on speakers on the ferry:

 A couple of Pinoy guys were walking by, looking like they knew what was going on so I asked them: 'Where's the party at?'

 And it just so happened that they were having a NYE party on the boat! The top deck was cordoned off to passengers for the staff party. They had a massive sound system, disco lights, whisky, beer and food...and all they needed was a couple of whities to get things going! Of course, we were only too happy to oblige...

I think this may actually have been the best (and most unexpected) part of my NYE night. I danced for literally the entire ferry ride (around five hours). The best thing about the dancing was the waves were pretty rough - as the boat swayed with the motion the whole party slid a couple of metres to one side. Everyone would carry on, and slide back a couple of beats later. There was also an incident with setting off fireworks (on a moving boat, off course it was bound to be a disaster!) where it exploded on the deck (next to the lifeboats) but luckily no one was injured. The captain made a few appearances with an airhorn to compete with the music and to have his share of whisky...

When we arrived at Caticlan (not even our final destination!) the Captain tried to convince us to stay and party the rest of the night away with them, but we knew our next stop already. 
6 adults + baggage basically in the sidecar of a motorbike
ANOTHER boat ride got us to Boracay, where it was...raining. Fortunately the rain stopped some time after midnight (we watched the fireworks through the rain and joined with a street parade en route to our accommodation) and were ready to go out by around 2am.

Boracay is a great party place. With one of the most perfect white sand beaches I've ever seen (and I've seen a few!) it's also an incredibly beautiful place, if overrun with tourists. We stayed out every night until at least 7am. I am slightly ashamed that the only times I went swimming in the admittedly dirty water (lots of boats running around everywhere) was at the end of a night out. Likewise, the beach was most enjoyed during the night while we were dancing with sand between our toes. 

My break was over too quickly, but of course the way back was full of excitement too! Luckily the helpful friends I'd made kept me posted on the ferry delays (back to Coron from San Jose). Which meant I got to spend a whole extra bonus hours in Boracay. I made the most of them. 

Back on the boat I met Harpa, our first Icelandic crew member and Matilda, from Sweden. Both of them are fun and awesome girls who are more creative than me - arts and crafts until 2am quickly became an established tradition. Matilda is a gifted napper who has an uncanny ability to wake up as soon as the arts and crafts come out! As I'm writing a bit behind the times, Harpa has already left us (although I'm excited to meet with her again very soon in Thailand).

 I have so much to be grateful for this past year. The last ten months on the boat have been fantastic with adventures and explorations in five different countries with 30 crew members on the boat who have all become good friends. I can also report that I have done my 100th dive...naked*!

As the song goes, it truly has been 'the most magical time of the year'. I hope that you have had a similarly excellent holiday season and wishing you all the best for a fantastic 2014! 

If I were to have a new years' resolution, it would be this:

To make sure that I am always at the secret party on the top of the boat enjoying my last moments while the Captain-less ship steers into rocks and crashes.  

*although some very rare photos exist, none of them will ever be on this blog. 

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The cost of creating a home

After supertyphoon Haiyan devastated much of the Philippines, many areas were inaccessible to the support which tried to reach them. Trees were down everywhere, blocking the roads which hadn't been completely washed away by the tidal surge. The basic Filippino house was destroyed. Made of wood, bamboo and leaves the traditional design is practical for the everyday wear and tear of sunshine and monsoon rain, but completely unable to deal with winds of nearly 200mph. Aid poured into the country from many different areas to help out the Pinoy people. Relief seems to have focused on the Tacloban area, where thousands of people died. The remainder lost their possessions, homes, and everything they knew and loved in their area. 

Damage and death reduced to post-it notes
Other areas were also severely affected, although they haven't received as much international or even national coverage due to a lower mortality rate. We went to an aid distribution centre in Coron town, where the workers explained that they had three days warning and they evacuated the majority of shore settlements to higher ground. This simple fact prevented the death toll from being much higher. One official theorized that they had the same warning in the Tacloban area, but devastatingly, many of the evacuation centers in Tacloban were at or only slightly above sea level themselves. Another fact that helped to save the residents of Coron is the high mountain range which protects the town from the sea  - the waves couldn't build up as high as there was only a mile or two of open sea in front of the town. Most of this is shallow reef, so together these facts made a big difference in keeping the destruction to a minimum. Despite these facts, the officials in the distribution center still estimated that 10,000 families on this part of Busuanga Island have been badly affected by Haiyan, or Yolanda, as it's known to the locals. All of these families have suffered either partial or total demolition of their houses.

The Glorio's house was completely flattened by Haiyan
 Heading inland, we visited the Glorio family, who have suffered a horrible loss - the destruction of their home and the loss of all their belongings. The Glorio family has worked hard to survive since the disaster; Tomas works usually six or seven days a week (as a laborer earning 225 pesos/day) so he has little time and even less money to spend on rebuilding. Lucita is a very busy housewife - with 7 children to look after, her days are filled with cooking, cleaning and washing, as well as the care of the youngest three who do not yet attend school. To make her life even busier, she is expecting her 8th child at the end of March. 

 Finding this family and knowing that we couldn't have found a more destitute, yet deserving family to help out was a stroke of luck. Their house is a ten minute walk from the paved road. The residents of the barangay believe that they haven't received government aid as their houses are not obvious from the road - nobody drives by and sees the destruction. If that's true, it's sad. However the signs of Haiyan devastation are everywhere. Massive trees have been levelled - on the 20 minute ride from Coron to the village there are two bridges we bypass as they were weakened/destroyed in the winds. 

The frame held together with twine due to lack of nails

Building the house has provided it's own challenges - although 10,000 pesos (approx 227USD)  is around the total amount we've spent, the challenge here is working out some way for them to sustain themselves after we've gone. Although we can buy kids clothes, school books and necessary building tools/materials at the moment, how can they afford these items in the future? We wanted them to have some way to make money - 200 pesos bought a lot of seeds which they can plant in their land (luckily they have unlimited water from a spring in the hills above the valley). This will hopefully give them access to cheaper food and a supplementary income. 

Over the weeks since Christmas I've visited the project a couple more times, checking up with the family and seeing the improvements they continue to make on their house. Sometimes it can be a frustrating process - we bought them a tap and connector to help reduce the water they get from the spring. Although they don't have to pay for the water, it's important to us that the water isn't being wasted - pouring down the mountainside without being used as it is in most of their neighbors' houses. Unfortunately the next time we visited, the tap was nowhere to be seen. Tita translated Lucita's response on the whereabouts of the tap; she still had it, nice and safe...inside the house. Apparently the kids had taken it off to play with and she'd collected it for safe keeping. I can kind of understand this - to a kid that's never seen a tap before it must be pretty exciting with all its moving parts, plus the fact that they all fit together like Lego pieces. 

Hard at work in the garden...or not
 Other times things have gone exceptionally well - Tomas was very quick to fit the roof on the frame after we sent the aluminum sheets to him. Lucita also demonstrated a certain shrewdness - after realising there was a limited amount we could spend on the project, she requested that we buy her a couple of bags of cement and a toilet instead of the sawali, as she knew her husband could make that when he has free time. In the meantime, they have used old boards and mismatched wood peices plus tarpaulin to make a rudimentary wall around the house. Lucita is now the proud owner of a bathroom (cement costs 280 pesos a bag and the toilet itself was 550 which was completely unaffordable to the family).

How to find a project of your own:

I met the Glorio family through asking a total stranger (Minda) if she knew of any families that might need help repairing their house from Haiyan damage. This was originally intended as a Christmas gift to my boat family - the money to buy each other presents would go towards the family's house and we'd dedicate at least one day (Christmas day!) to hard manual labour in helping the rebuild. Minda told me to meet her the next day, meanwhile she spoke with her sister, Tita, who lives in the same barangay as the Glorio family. They took me to visit four houses whose occupants desperately needed help. Although all 32 families in the area are poor, Lucita and Tomas seemed to be the most hard up - with nearly 8 children to support and little income to do it they had a heartrendingly desperate need for aid.
Of course, this was only successful because Minda and her family are very honest people - they all came together to help us with the project. The three sisters (Minda, Tita and Aida) all spent Christmas day with us helping , as well as several of the other days since. They all work for the local government in some capacity, as health workers, aid distributors and Aida is actually the Coron town court judge! 

How you can help:

Find out how PJ is working with locals to help them create a livelihood project for their futures.

Also consider the use of financial support programs, such as Kiva loans, which help manage microcredit to small businesses or individuals in areas where they might have difficulty in getting a traditional loan.  

Have a look at this facebook page which is about sustainable tourism in Coron.They have promised us to start a project in Balolo to help the general population of the barangay.

Lucita (38) with three of her children (2, 3 and 5 years) plus an older niece visits for the day
 Although the literal cost of this building is minimal, to the family it is priceless. They were so desperate to be living under their own roof again that they moved into the new house on Christmas day (before the roof was up). Although we can't help all the displaced people in the Philippines (or even come close, as it amounts to some 4.4million people) it feels good knowing that at least 10 of them have a home once again, as well as a stronger roof, more likely to withstand the next typhoon.  

Many many heartfelt thanks to everyone that has had a helping hand with this project;
the beautiful and genuine sisters Minda,Tita and Aida, for all their time and hard work. We really appreciate your involvement with this project, as it would never have been so successful without good translation. And of course, the fact that you brought us there! Thanks to all the boat family that have helped with different stages of this project: Petrina, Madara, Brian, Harpa and Matilda, especially giving up Christmas gifts in exchange for a day of hard work. Thanks to the unknown generous backpackers who gave us a donation for the project. Also a shout out to the inspirational Filipinos PJ and L. Alinsangan, who have already done so much to help their communities and will probably do much more.