Typhoon, lahar slide, and the white people

Trip Start Sep 05, 2006
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Flag of Philippines  ,
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

To those of you who are familiar with the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in particular "100 years of solitude", I can say that my time in the Philippines was incredibly reminiscent of his tales of magical realism following the tragic, bizarre, yet beautiful life of a rural community. Much in the same way that his characters fatalistically suffered natural, political, and social disasters, so too have the residents of San Isidro, Philippines, where I spent 6 weeks volunteering, learning, working, and living more intensely than ever before...

The story....

On November 30th 2006, a level 5 typhoon (the strongest type of typhoon that there is)known internationally as typhoon Durian and known to Filipinos as typhoon Reming, hit ground in South East Luzon. Typhoons are not uncommon to Filipinos and particularly those who live in Catanduanes and the Bicol region which is known as the typhoon gateway to the Philippines. Yet even with plenty of typhoon experience and warning, the 140 mile per hour winds ripping roofs off of homes and uprooting coconut trees from the earth coupled with intense waves and flooding was too much of a match for the poor and rural inhabitants of the Philippines largest island, Luzon. On top of the wreck wrought by the typhoon itself, the tropical storm additionally disturbed the local and most active volcano in the Philippines, Mt. Mayon. Down her sides, boulders and volcanic ash cascaded, redirecting rivers, obliterating roads, destroying rice fields,and generally burying homes, churches and schools in tens of feet of volcanic debris.

While this all happened, John and I were battling the traffic of Hanoi and sipping Bia Hoi on street corners. The typhoon was no more than a blip on my radar. More than 300,000 homes destroyed, over 1,200 lives lost, and I was oblivious...or maybe just more concerned with the minor tropical storm that was about to hit southern Vietnam.

Two and a half months later, I found myself alone in Malaysia. John and I had parted for the second and definitive time. He was off, taking a leap across the Pacific Ocean to return to work in the western world. In the lonesome wake of his departure, I found the perfect opening to check out volunteer opportunities. After five and a half months of travelling, I was ready to ditch the tourist photo clicking lifestyle in exchange for some dirty hands and for the feeling that I was doing something "worthwhile" while being abroad. A couple internet searches later, I had discovered the American based non-profit volunteer organization hands on, www.hodr.org, and their disaster relief work in the Philippines. That's all the prompting I needed, and I took my small hop across the Sulu sea, unsure of but open to whatever volunteer work in a develeoping country would be like.

By the time I arrived in the Barangay of San Isidro, which is part of the Santo Domingo municipality found in the Albay province in the Bicol region of Southern Luzon (the area most severely damaged by the typhoon), Hands On and it's volunteers had already established themselves as a significant presence in the community. Within days of the typhoon hitting, Marc Young, the operations director, was on the scene surveying the damage and assessing what Hands On could do to help. Hands On is a fairly young and small volunteer organization, having started only after the 2004 boxing day tsunami and having only worked on 4 disaster response projects thus far. The organization gives short term relief to communities affected by natural disasters and decides on the level of involvement based on the number of homes destroyed and the community's ability or lack of ability to rebuild itself. In the case of Santo Domingo, where over 40% of the population is under the poverty line, generally making less than 2 US dollars a day, and unlikely to receive too much assistance from the government, the people and their livelihoods were clearly in need of help.

When early on the morning of February 19th, I was dropped off at the base of Mt. Mayon by my overnight bus from Manila, I was confronted by what is San Isidro. To the west lay the waste of fields and fields of untouched boulders and Lahar, leading to the source of the destruction, Mt. Mayon. (To an extent, it is ironic that Mt. Mayon is responsible for the wreckage. Across the Philippines, Mt. Mayon is known as the perfect cone volcano, it's name Mayon comes from the word Magayon, beautiful, and generally inhabitants of the Albay province are proud of their massive landmark.)To the east, the direction that I headed, is the ocean and the Hands On house. Kites float in the air, water buffalos (Carriboa saunter down the road, women carry colorful umbrellas to protect themselves from the intense 8 am sun, and so many children chirp "buh bye" even though I hadn't yet said hello, I hadn't yet even arrived. As a white person looking very lost, it didn't take long before an entourage was happily escorting me to my destination, the Hands On house. From the very first moments I knew that San Isidro is one of those places where every hike across a rice paddy, every meander down a dirt path, and every trip to a local school presents a chance to make new friends and to trust another human being.

The Hands On house itself is an average sized western house. Smaller than the houses that I've lived in in Berkeley and Nashville, but instead of housing 4 or 5 people, houses between 23 and 28 people! The house has one bathroon, one kitchen, one communal living area, 2 sleeping areas (one indoors and one outdoors), one outdoor sitting and fraternizing area, geckos climbing all over the walls, two house cats (shutup and buggeroff), one dog (Bravo)and is home to one of the local water pumps...which means lots of neighbors and neighbors' children around just about all of the time. As you may suspect, the house was a bit of a circus, but somehow noone fought, noone yelled, and it was even possible to find little bits of personal space when needed, and certainly there were times when it was.

Everything that happened in San Isidro and in the house happened in Superlatives. I woke up earlier than I've ever woken up every single day (between the sunrises, the roosters, the smell of fresh baked bread rising from the street below, and the bouts of torrential morning rain, it was quite impossible to sleep past 5:50 am) , I shovelled more lahar than I've ever shovelled before, I denailed more than I've ever denailed before, I hammered the most, heard the school kids call Ate Kristina the most, painted the most, sweated the most, mixed cement the most, mixed cement with 10 small children staring at me the most, watched sun rises on Mt. Mayon the most, ate pig fat surprise the most (Marissa, our Filipina cook loved to prepare pork dishes, unfortunately, especially for the horrified vegiarians, 80% of the pork was infact pig fat was the rest being a mystery, smiled the most, swam in the ocean the most, drank Tanduay rum with locals at 9:30 am the most, worked atop roofs the most, said "Salamat" (thank you)"Maraina aga" (good morning) and "maraina hapon" the most, trudged through fields in the rain planting coconut seedlings the most, sang terrible videoke without a trace of embarassement the most, drank perfectly brewed english tea the most, waited in line to use the bathroom the most, and sang the DANGER! STAY AWAY FROM THE WORK SITE CHILDREN song the most. I suppose that's what happens when you're new to volunteer work in another country. Tarping, ceilinging, building ceiling frames, enjoying the local Bicol delicacies(bicol express made with chillies and coconut milk and sisig, pig's face), denailing, and speaking basic Bicol are all things that need to be learned. I'm glad that the learning process was as fun as it was...

Out of all of the components that made my time in San Isidro valuable, the ease and ability of forming meaningful relationships with members of the local community is certainly one of the most significant. Extraordinarily, considering the high poverty and unemployment rates, the Philippines have a 93% english literacy rate. This means that it's possible to engage anyone- trike drivers, biofuel entrepreneurs, coconut farmers, 8 year olds, and even the village drunk- in coherent conversations. Through the project we formed working relationships with local mayors, barangay captains, school principals, local volunteers, and even our jeepney and trike drivers. What was wonderful is that these relationships have no professional limitations and consequently often transformed into genuine friendships. One Filipina friend of mine, Emily de la Cruz Botiquin, is what Marianne is to France...she's what I consider to be the face of the Philippines: beautiful, talented, fatalistic, tragic, yet hopeful.

I met Emily on my first trip to the coastal village of Alimsog. Nestled between hills dotted by coconut trees and fields of rice paddies, with Mt. Mayon on the western horizon, Alimsog which has never had power, even before the typhoon, to us westerners is a world of basic beauty. Children flood the streets calling your name, Ate Kristina or Ate Suzi, for attention and demanding high fives. Women gather at one of the village water pumps to do the laundry. The men either sit in groups in the shade or are busy lifting bags of sand or cement heavier than themselves. Life here takes place out of doors- everyone knows and cares about everyone else, making Alimsog a proper community. Emily is 27, speaks english perfectly, had had plans to become a nurse, but like many women in Catholic countries (80% of the Filipino population is catholic), married early, had children, and forwent the career. Employment is hard to come by in the Philippines; the country has very little industry or employment infrastructure, and this hard reality is nowhere more evident than in this small coastal village where even most of the fishing boats have been destroyed. Emily, her husband, and their two little boys (her third died from complications after the typhoon) hope that someday they will be able to find well paying work, hope that they'll someday live in a house larger than their one room residence, and hope that the children will grow up happy and healthy. It's a hard tradeoff- natural beauty and strong family and community, but scarce job opportunities, no health or medical services, and very very little means of bettering themselves. And then here I am- a fortunate westerner priviledged enough to fly to the Philippines to give my time for free. The idea of traveling outside of the Philippines, let alone volunteering somewhere else, is lightyears away from their reality and lightyears from being a possibility. Somehow though, even while witnessing their hardship, I still can't help being awed by how strong the human bonds of Alimsog are while in the West, sure we have cell phones, tv's, and 40 k a year jobs, but that's not happiness. What about all of the people who are lonely or aliented from others because everyone is in pursuit of their individual personal happiness and success instead of communal happiness and friendship? Of course I recognize that I am only able to ask that question because of where I was lucky to be born, but still.....

The issue surrounding the school children of Alimsog is even tougher to confront. Never before have I seen so many smiling and energetic children. After 2 months of working in the village, rebuilding their schools, rebuilding their barangay hall, and becoming incredibly familiar faces to them, we loved Alimsog and Alimsog loved us. As a thankyou for our time and work, the teachers and children organized a tribute to Hands On. The kids choreographed dances, sang songs, composed poems, and gave speeches....all in english which is their third language!! These kids are so talented and so creative and don't have the moon to shoot for....infact they have just about no place to go...

In that sense, the time in San Isidro could be bitersweet. Of course the questions: Is foreign aid good? Are we really making a positive difference? Are we making them dependant on others? were bound to come up. The consideration of these questions is certainly needed and there were times when I had my own doubts about whether our work would be sustainable and if it would have lasting effects. But, there are two sides to every coin, and in the end I know that our involvement was worthwhile and meaningful to the community. Personally, I was able to disprove to one woman that she could never be friends with a westerner. The children of Santa Misericordia, Sweepstakes, and Alimsog schools now have a better sense of the size of the world and maybe will believe that they can have a more active presence within it. And I did overhear Rosario, the principal of our local school, Sweepstakes, say that the assistance and funds donated by Hands On to the school and community, for them is an opportunity of a lifetime.

If our presence was an opportunity of a lifetime for them, then imagine what living in a rural town in the Philippines was like for me. Priceless. And if you haven't read Gabriel Garcia Marquez...now's a good time. Stacey that includes you.

P.S. Check out Hands On at www.hodr.org and donate...if you want
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