Our spirit of power

Nine months after leaving Whitley Bay, I am readying myself to return to a land that is so familiar to me: the salty sea air, the changing seasons and the organised bus schedules. If you’d excuse the cliché, it’s been quite the journey since I first stepped on the tarmac at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila last August. I’ve worked with some incredibly inspiring young people, had the pleasure of seeing lots of interesting, historical, beautiful, and breathtaking parts of the Philippines, and eaten some tasty as well as wacky foods.

There's more to the story of a paradise island beach shot than just the photo!

There’s more to the story of a paradise island beach shot than just the photo!

It’s incredibly difficult to put into words exactly how I’m feeling now, after all of these months. And even if I meet you face-to-face, it wouldn’t be much easier. I’m not looking forward to having to be concise with my response to the question, “So, how was it?” when I return home, and I will try my hardest not to be offended when people get bored of my thousands of photos. What I can express, however, is that I have sincerely been changed by the process. Changed in ways I’m not sure I know yet, and changed in ways that will only be recognisable as I move forward with the next stage in my life.

I’m just sorry I can’t be more specific.

Quite often when we read travel blogs, or Facebook statuses, we see only a distorted view of a person’s experience. We see the beautiful mountains, and the stunning landscapes, the laughter with friends, and of course, the aftermath of triumph. It’s rare to read about how terrifying it is to be in the middle of a bustling market unsure where to go, or trying to catch public transport alone with no idea how it works. For me, it wasn’t even the typhoon that was the most difficult experience: it was the everyday things, the cultural changes. So many times I adopted that “cool as a cucumber” look so that the locals wouldn’t pick up on the fact that I was screaming inside.

Travelling by jeepney was fun - once I got the hang of it! All you need are two expressions:

Travelling by jeepney was fun – once I got the hang of it! All you need are two expressions: “Biyat po” (My money’s coming your way…) and “Para po” (Stop here please!)

My experience in the Philippines has been all about dealing with adversity. Throwing myself into the deep end, or up the creek without the paddle, seems to be my plat du année. And whilst my triumphs have been sweet, I have learned a lot more from the events that preceded them. There have been times in this last year that I have been at the lowest of my low, and thought that travelling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Everybody else seems to be travel alone fine, but that just can’t be true. Other people must feel the same way that I have, I am not the first person in the world to have left his home country. But now, after emerging on the other side, I can honestly say that it was all worth it. I have conquered fears, I feel victorious and I owe it all to Typhoon Ruby.

Without her blustering her way into my life, I would never have been able to live the different experiences that I have. She forced me to put myself out there, to travel alone, to meet new people, and to recognise that we are not built with a spirit of timidity but in fact, an overwhelming ‘spirit of power‘. I feel strong, and happy. I did it!

Once I cracked how to travel alone (and believe me, it was one of my biggest fears), I felt confident enough to travel around. I visited Borongan again, and said goodbye to all my wonderful friends there. After getting a bit lost (but that’s okay now!), I also spent a morning in Tacloban City seeing the historical sites where I met the friendliest tricycle driver in the whole of the Philippines! I have travelled to and from Tagaytay to say goodbye to my friends there, and navigated my way around Manila in spite of the raging heats and exhausting traffic.

Tacloban's finest tricycle driver! Thanks for showing me around!

Tacloban’s finest tricycle driver! Thanks for showing me around!

And so I say to whoever is reading this… take a moment to reflect on your own fears. Think about the times when you have felt paralysed and what it was that helped you overcome it. You don’t need to force yourself out of your comfort zone by going abroad to conquer fear, that just happened to be what I needed. Maybe all you need is a gentle reminder that you can conquer your fears too, anyone can! We all have a spirit of power. We are all capable of being a warrior. We can all do great things.

Thank you to every single person who has helped me along this long process which started more than nine months ago. To everybody who has supported me through words, prayer, food, accommodation, Skype calls, everything, thank you. I absolutely couldn’t have done it without you. To my dear friends in Borongan, Cebu, Olongapo and Manila, I will never forget the times we have shared and the memories we have created. I will be back to visit one day, so please have the orange mangos and the pork tocino ready and waiting.

My wonderful community in Borongan City, Eastern Samar when I visited them one final time, last week.

My wonderful community in Borongan City, Eastern Samar when I visited them one final time, last week.

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A City on a Hill That Can’t Be Hidden

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Overlooking the shimmering waters of Subic Bay stands an ordinary building with an extraordinary history. Sitting atop one of the many hills here in the mountainous region of Zambales, the Preda centre is the headquarters for the organisation I have been lucky enough to volunteer with for the last four weeks. It actively works with 58 professional Filipinos and volunteers to protect and defend the rights and dignity of women and children who have been victims of forced prostitution, sexual abuse or inhumane jail conditions.

The PREDA team are working tirelessly to rescue children and teenagers from the sex trade and defending them by offering legal assistance to convict their perpetrators. Staff also offer education seminars for local elementary and high schools where they teach students, staff and parents about issues of sexual abuse and the urgent need to protect children and take action against abuse and exploitation.

Aside from the inspiring work they do with the victims of sex crimes, PREDA also take in boys who have been in conflict with the law or have been abandoned by their families. More often than not, these boys are put into government care (which is usually oversubscribed) and forced to live in the squalid conditions of detention centres. If they are over 15 years old, they may be forced to stay there as they await their trial or if they are under 15, until they are transferred into the hands of other child care organisations.

The children in conflict with the law (CICL) are victims themselves of broken homes, parental abandonment and will often turn to petty stealing to survive. Some of the children in the home are caught up in overlong legal trials where they have been involved in petty theft. On Wednesday, I was able to join the Home for Boys team with PREDA social worker Joan on a visit to Manila to attend the trial of one of the boys, visit the homes of some others and pick up new children due to move to the Boys’ Home here in Zambales.

We started our day at 4 am and headed towards the big, bustling city of Manila. If you’ve ever referred to London as ‘The Smoke’ you’d never use the term again after spending just a few hours in Manila. The air is thick with smog and pollution as a result of thousands of diesel powered cars, jeepneys, buses and tricycles which spend most of their driving time waiting in traffic. The sweet smell of garbage, fumes and the ‘biologically dead’ Pasig river lingers in the air and the sticky heat causes a layer of sweat to stay with you the whole day.

We arrived to the government buildings at 8:30 am and made our way to the corridor where the courts are located. People were coming and going in all directions: social workers, lawyers, prisoners and their guards, families of the accused headed with purpose to all corners of the building.  We entered the courtroom and I was reminded of all the trials I had seen in TV soaps over the years, although the judge wore a simple black robe rather than the pretentious wigs I’m so used to seeing at home.

Looking out over Mandaluyong City, towards Makati City where we spent our day in Manila

Looking out over Mandaluyong City, towards Makati City where we spent our day in Manila

The boy we were with was charged with being caught up in a petty theft. The incident happened almost two years ago and has been delayed and delayed because the complainant and witnesses have never shown up to court. This boy’s life for the last two years has consisted of him waiting and waiting and he has not been able to move on, re-integrate himself into his community (which has all but shunned him) and get back into education to finish his studies. Thankfully, the PREDA Foundation was able to transfer him from the government facilities (where waiting for two years would be a genuine nightmare) and provide legal support, a positive and friendly environment to live, and counselling to help him when he moves on once the seemingly never ending trial is over. He has shown impeccable behaviour since moving to the Boys’ Home.

In the afternoon, we visited the homes of four of the boys currently staying at the Boys’ Home; or at least that was the plan! One of the parents was supposed to be at the local basketball court, but he didn’t show up. A mother of one of the other children was at work, so we had to go to her street food cart and talk to her there. In the third boy’s home, we were greeted by two barking shih tzus but no parents. After some questions, it turned out he lived there with is brother, auntie and three cousins; I was left unsure as to what happened to his parents.

Finally, we visited the home of the fourth boy. When we arrived, his mother was sat on a deckchair with his seven-month-old brother down a side alley of a house. His grandfather, who the three also lived with, went to fetch a bench for us to sit on. When he returned, we asked him where the home was, to which he simply replied, “it’s here” pointing towards the narrow area that we were all standing in. Their home consisted of an area no larger than a metre wide and 3 metres long, opposite bags of garbage and cardboard. The grandfather had to fold up the deckchair in order for us to sit on the bench in the 3 square metres that this family called their home.

They had previously rented an apartment, but they couldn’t afford to pay the rent so they moved onto the streets. Each day they are forced to pay for some food elsewhere, as there is no space to cook for themselves. The area was hardly a shelter either, as it started to rain very heavily and the tarpaulin covering the alley leaked water onto our shoulders as we sat below and talked to each other. Many of the local children enjoyed stripping off their clothes and dancing in the rain; some even had soap with them and took the opportunity to shower. A joyful moment for the children living in such offensively cramped conditions.

After chatting to this family, who welcomed us so warmly, we visited a government home for boys to collect four new children who had been abandoned by their families and are accused of petty theft to survive on the streets; an all too common case in the stories of these young people who are jaded with life because of their family circumstances. A vicious cycle of behavioural problems because of a lack of love in life, which causes further behavioural problems causing the attitude and outlook of the young people to sink further and further into chasms of darkness. It is this cycle that PREDA social workers are trying to break by taking in the young people who can hopefully turn their lives around after experiencing the holistic approach of the Boys’ Home which is appropriately nicknamed, “Childhood for Children”.

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We arrived back in Olongapo after 11 pm. A long, 20-hour day which helped me to understand in more detail some of the problems that are facing the people of the Philippines as well as the issues facing PREDA. I returned to my room here at the Preda centre, and couldn’t help but think about how many lives the operations from within these walls have helped save. It could be said that PREDA is fighting a losing battle in a country that is gripped by corruption, nepotism and poverty. There will always be street children as long as there’s poverty and there will always be sex tourism as long as foreigners are coming and spending money in bars. However, in spite of this, if it weren’t for the activity here at PREDA, hundreds  maybe thousands  of children wouldn’t have the lives they are living now: empowered, motivated and loved.

The centre is not just a building, and not just the headquarters for the work of this organisation, but is a sheer beacon of light looking out over a city and country that is filled with so much darkness and depravity. We are all called to be salt for the earth, to cleanse and purify, to restore justice and dignity to people who are deprived of theirs. It would be pointless to sit quietly  like flavourless salt  and do nothing.

The PREDA Foundation has an important mission, and it burns brightly aloft this hill. The exposing light is here for everybody to see; anybody who is involved in crime and corruption can see this crucial place from all over the city. It is not hidden, it is in plain sight. All the staff (some of whom were rescued victims and successful PREDA boys and girls themselves) are committed and working tirelessly to ensure that the flame will never go out, ensuring that there will always be a place in this world for the vulnerable and marginalised who are given such a terrible start in life. The urgency never ends.

What’s Fair is Fair

Growing up as an opinionated teenager in the 2000s, I always felt passionate about engaging with issues of social justice. Amidst the buzz of the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005 and dreaming of joining the marches in Edinburgh during the British-hosted G8 summit (only the sixth formers got away with skipping school to attend!) I knew that I wanted to do something to make a difference in a world that seemed crippled by poverty, famine and greedy corporations. I remember learning that around 20% of the world’s population lives on less than $1 a day (around 65p) which shocked me so much it pushed me towards wanting to get involved in the work of development organisations like CAFOD.

Attending a Fair Trade conference, aged 13, at Ushaw College in September 2004.

Attending a Fair Trade conference, aged 13, at Ushaw College in September 2004.

To add to this, in our high school geography lessons we had classes on how huge global corporations rip off farmers in the developing world, paying them a pittance for the cocoa, coffee and fruit that they may produce. I wanted to find out what organisations were doing to pay farmers a fair price for their goods and so I became obsessed with looking for the Fairtrade mark in supermarkets and ate more Fairtrade chocolate than I care to remember. That year I bought all my Christmas presents from the Traidcraft catalogue and I became actively involved in setting up a Fairtrade stall in school which sold chocolate and fruit juice to the student body every Friday break time.

And then the reality of leaving school happened and my bubble burst. I became a volunteer for a year before I headed to university and ever since then, the words “budgeting”, “sale” and “Tesco Everyday Value” have rested eternally on my lips. I no longer was conscious about where my clothes were made (I boycotted Gap no longer out of anger for the sweatshops but because I didn’t want to spend a fortune on a pair of jeans) and I only managed a small smile when I noticed one day that Cadbury Dairy Milk, arguably the biggest chocolate brand in the UK, had become a Fairtrade Certified product. The only economic development issue I was concerned about was the economic situation of my own wallet.

So, imagine my surprise when last week I found myself high in the mountains of the Zambales province, Philippines tagging mango trees to aid the work of the Fair Trade Project here at the PREDA Foundation.

PREDA (People’s Recovery, Empowerment and Development Assistance) have been working in Fairtrade now for over 40 years, originally by helping older youth gain skilled training and getting them into job placements. Many of these youth had been unjustly jailed and rescued by PREDA social workers because of their inhumane living conditions on the streets and in jails. Since then, PREDA Fair Trade has fully evolved into a fully certified Fair Trade Organisation which has helped set up livelihood projects in far-flung communities giving opportunities to indigenous Filipino people by providing a fair price for their mangos and other fruits.

Arriving at the Aeta community. The small orange objects everybody holds are the solar-panel lights which are saving the community a lot each year!

Sheltering under the mango tree: the small orange objects everybody holds are the solar-panel lights which are saving the community a lot each year due to the fact they don’t have to buy kerosene for their lamps (there’s no electricity!)

Last week, I was lucky enough to visit one of these indigenous villages and meet the Aeta people as it coincided with a visit PREDA were making to take some solar-powered lights for their community (which would save them almost 4,000 pesos a year – around £55; a huge saving!). The houses, which weren’t so big, were made exclusively of bamboo and had pointed thatched roofs. Plants adorned the areas surrounding the homes and there was a real warm feeling to the community which had houses dotted, almost randomly, around the area. And unlike the slum areas in Manila, there was a lot of space for the kids (and chickens) to run around. In what seemed to be the centre of the village, a large mango tree rose from the ground: a landmark and a perfect sanctuary out of the sun to discuss just how much the support of PREDA is helping in their lives.

They told us that the commercial buyers would charge as low as 5 pesos (around 7 pence) per kilogram of Pico mango, whereas PREDA pays between 10-12 pesos (15-18 pence) per kilogram of Pico and around 17 pesos (25 pence) per kilogram of Carabao mangos. Unlike the commercial buyers who would select the best looking fruit and reject half the crop, PREDA Fair Trade buy all the mangos produced (provided they aren’t unusable or damaged), giving love to all the weird shapes and sizes that might fall from the trees each harvesting season. Even the skins and stones have a useful purpose: the skin is eaten by the animals and the stones are replanted. Everything is used, and nothing is lost!

The foundation also pay all of the money immediately upon delivery of the mangos and a bonus or profit-share is given back to the farmers for every kilogram of mangos sold. All of these fair, ethical business practices completely help to empower the farmers, providing employment and the vital funds to help send their children to school and buy food; things which I know I sometimes take for granted.

With the PREDA Fair Trade Team and the members of the indigenous communities. The mango farmer stands on the far left.

With the PREDA Fair Trade Team and the members of the indigenous communities. The mango farmers stand on either side.

Following the visit to the community, I went with the Fair Trade team to tag some trees which is a requirement to receive ‘organic status’. This had me up in the mountains, jumping and diving over wild crops to get to the trees in order to put a small number plate on each one. There are 8,000 trees to be tagged, so every volunteer who comes through the doors of PREDA is recommended to spend some time getting involved! It was a highly enjoyable day of beautiful scenery and seeing the actual trees which bear the fruit that will be eventually exported to Europe and beyond was something I never thought I’d see. I couldn’t believe that I was right at the beginning of the chain and it made me see Fairtrade in a new and updated light.

Seeing how Fairtrade can affect people so directly has helped me to appreciate just how important it is. It is so easy to forget about the producers and farmers when purchasing goods at home; an invisible workforce who won’t know that the coffee I’m drinking wasn’t fairly paid for. Meeting real people who harvest real trees makes Fairtrade real. It’s real because I have seen it; it makes a difference because the farmers themselves told me it makes a difference, not because The Fairtrade Foundation or Cadbury tells me it makes a difference. It is completely, utterly and without a doubt restoring the dignity of these human beings, like you or I, who have been struggling for decades against companies ripping them off. It is empowering them and it is helping them live their lives to the full.

PrintFrom an overzealous teenager, to a penny-pinching student, I am happy to have had the flame lit once more inside of me. I am thankful to PREDA for letting me experience the wonderful work they are doing, and I can only hope that I can return home with a renewed consciousness of Fairtrade and slowly begin to phase out purchasing from the less-than-savoury companies seeking to make a quick buck from their “desperate” producers.

This next two weeks is known as Fairtrade Fortnight which is an annual, international campaign aiming to raise awareness of Fairtrade and encourage people to buy their goods. Perhaps over the coming days, look out for PREDA products (branded as Forest Feast) in stores. I am told they are stocked in Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and in other shops nationwide. If you decide to purchase them, or indeed any Fair Trade product, simply take a moment to think about the man, woman or child living in a remote village thousands of miles away who would thank you over and over again for helping them to proudly support themselves in dignity and for making that one, simple but life-changing choice.

Typhoon Ruby: The morning after and the weeks ahead (Part 3)

This blog is the third and final part of the story I have to share about Typhoon Ruby, the storm which hit the Philippines at the end of 2014. Click to catch up with part one and part two.

As the winds subsided and the rains began to calm, it was now possible to leave the safe haven of the dark, cramped office. As the power had been out for 36 hours and there was no phone signal we found ourselves not knowing the effects of the typhoon. It’s a strange feeling knowing my family and friends would have found out about the damage caused and the path of the typhoon well before I did, and I was living it!

Trees criss-crossed across all the roads and had to be moved quickly to make way for the Borongan traffic.

Trees criss-crossed across all the roads and had to be moved quickly to make way for the Borongan traffic.

That morning, at around 7 am, I ventured with the Salesian community to drive around the city and see what had happened. It was devastating. Parts of the city were unrecognisable — trees uprooted, buildings destroyed, crops flattened — and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. As we drove along the coast, the beach-side barbecue huts that I had previously spent time eating pork kebabs and grilled chicken intestine (really!) had been flipped upside down and we had to swerve to avoid huge puddles and piles of debris that blocked the road. The whole of the visible Pacific Ocean, from shore to horizon, was chocolate brown following landslides washing into rivers and mud coming from the mountains. I felt like I was in a twisted version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Electricity posts were lying flat on the roads and the road which we had previously walked a torch-lit procession was blocked off by rubble and trees.

I had spent over 3 months falling in love with the rural, faraway city of Borongan and I was cut deep seeing what had happened to it. But, what got to me the most, was that if I felt that upset by what I was seeing, I have no idea how people who called Borongan City their home were feeling. I could only imagine the pain I would feel if I saw my home town ravaged quite like the one I was seeing that morning.

The driveway to Don Bosco after it had been cleared. After the storm, there were 2 trees and a blown over wall blocking entry.

The driveway to Don Bosco after it had been cleared. After the storm, there were 2 trees and a blown over wall blocking entry.

Yet, people were resilient. People didn’t seem to show the same dramatic, over-emotionality that I was showing. The Filipino people just stood up, brushed the sand from their flip-flops and got back to life. I’m not sure whether those I encountered in Borongan were just good at saving face, borrowing the famous British ‘stiff upper lip’, or if their attitude was as a result of resignation but it seemed to me like whatever it was they were feeling, they were showing they were capable of bouncing back. Only a few hours after the storm left Samar, people were laughing and joking, thankful for their lives and one more day to live.

As a foreigner from a different culture, I found this attitude of laughing in the face of adversity very difficult to comprehend. How can you make jokes at a time like this? How can you eat breakfast at a time like this? How can you stop yourself from just breaking down and crying? After chatting to people who lost their homes, had their homes partially destroyed, lost their crops, their livelihoods: I witnessed not one tear roll down a single cheek. As I write this, Pope Francis’s recent words reverberate in my mind —  “please don’t be frightened of crying”. For me, I’m a sensitive soul whose friends are used to seeing me get emotional, perhaps for me it would be more courageous to try and control my emotions sometimes. But, for the people of Eastern Samar, it is a sign of courageousness and bravery, I think, to not be seen as so sensitive or emotional and it’s this that is driving people forward for the sake of each other.

The destroyed "kubo" (small cottage) where we said the rosary each night at 6 pm.

The destroyed “kubo” (small cottage) where we said the rosary each night at 6 pm.

As for our place: living on the riverbank left our house vulnerable to flooding and unluckily the typhoon hit when the river was at high tide. As a result, the house was submerged under over 5 feet of water. Luckily, most of our items were moved up to the first floor of the building, but it meant that all of the big furniture was either destroyed or severely water damaged. At one time, even the refrigerator was floating in the water! The furniture in my bedroom had overturned and blocked entry to my room, and the clothes I had left there were sodden. As the water subsided, it left a thick mulch of mud and rubbish across the whole of the ground floor of the house which took days to clean. We lacked electricity and the only food we had to eat was a pig that had floated into our compound, which we slaughtered and lived off for three days — fine when we ate pork adobo and crackling on the first day, not so fine when by day three we were eating pig skin (which still had surviving hairs) and as for the other parts we ate? I’m not sure I want to remember. Not so tasty.

The remnants of the mud after much cleaning had taken place. The fridge was back on its feet.

The remnants of the mud after much cleaning had taken place. The fridge was back on its feet.

It was decided, after consultation with the Salesians, my organisation back home and my own feelings, that I would leave Borongan. Of course, I was feeling tired, uncomfortable, irritable, helpless, vulnerable, sensitive and a whole concoction of other feelings and I was happy to leave the situation initially, but there was a part of me that was deeply sad about leaving. I felt like I had somehow played the “I’m A Foreigner! Get Me Out Of Here” card as everybody else had had no choice but to continue the clear-up and live without power, food, water and whatever else it was that we lacked in that time. I also felt like I wasn’t “seeing it through” — like I couldn’t tell my story without having a conclusion. Everything that I was working towards with my volunteering was only 3 months in out of 12, and I unexpectedly had to stop. One minute I was teaching a lesson on the area of a trapezium, the next I was in a car with all my luggage leaving for good. It was a challenge.

But having reflected on it over the last 2 months, the right decision was really made for me. Of course, my work at the training centre would have been on hold, and after my bedroom was pretty much destroyed, it wouldn’t be the first on the list of priorities to fix. With nowhere to stay, and no work to do, it is obvious that it was untenable for me to stay there. And that’s okay. I just hope my friends there aren’t too disappointed that I wasn’t able to stay longer; I know that I am.

Saying goodbye to our pet Rora was one of the most difficult goodbyes. I heard recently that she's about to give birth to puppies!

Saying goodbye to our pet Rora was one of the most difficult goodbyes. I heard recently that she’s about to give birth to puppies!

And so with a heavy, heavy heart my time in Borongan, and in fact my time with the Salesians, has come to an end. It has come to an end in a way that I could never have possibly imagined. I first thought about volunteering with the Salesians in the Philippines way back in 2011, so for a long time I had in my head the picture of how my time would go. And it was different. But I have learned a lot. I’ve learned how to be brave in the face of danger, how to be hopeful in the darkest of situations, how to find joy in the simplest of things, how to communicate without talking, how to cheer and clap a group of children doing the same dance routine for a fifteenth time like it was the first time I saw it and I learnt how to speak a language that very few people in the world could understand.

I can not thank the community of Salesians, all my friends and Filipino families there enough for welcoming me into their homes, inviting me to their parties and going out of their way to be super friendly to the foreigner who quite often sat quietly in the corner eating his Pinoy spaghetti or buko pandan. I will cherish every memory, and I will forever be sharing stories of my wonderful time in Borongan. It has changed me in unimaginable ways.

My final moments in Borongan - leaving behind many friends. Sad times!

My final moments in Borongan – leaving behind many friends. I hope we can see each other again one day!

After a Christmas spent with good friends in Manila, I have spent my last weeks in Cebu at the Provincial House whilst I arranged for alternative opportunities. On Wednesday, I will be moving to Olongapo in the north of country where I will be working with the Preda Foundation, a social and humanitarian organisation which works closely with abused women and children. I will stay there for two months, before I will arrive back to the UK a little earlier than planned at the end of May.

Viva Pit Señor!

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As I stood in the baking sunshine with only a small circular fan to block out the rays of the sun and as sweat dripped uncomfortably out of every pore of my body, I felt completely unfazed as I stood transfixed at the colourful, exuberant sights of the marching bands and traditional dancers that paraded down the street. People of all ages, from many different islands of the Philippines, had turned up to show off their well choreographed, well costumed routines to the beat of the drum and the striking of the glockenspiel all in honour of an image of Jesus as an infant.

This is, of course, Cebu’s famous Sinulog festival: the annual celebration which marks the commemoration of Ferdinand Magellan bringing Christianity to the shores of the Philippines and the devotion to the image of the Child Jesus which was brought along with him 450 years ago. Filipino Catholics believe firmly in the miraculous nature of the image of the Santo Niño and will pray to it with their own personal intentions. Cries of “Viva Señor Santo Niño!” and “Pit Señor!” (a cry of help to the Sto Niño) can be heard on every street during the fiesta and it is unusual if you don’t carry a little (or sometimes big!) statue of the Child Jesus around with you for the duration of the feast.

Sailing at dawn.

Sailing at dawn: so many came out to see the Fluvial Procession; you can just make out the silhouettes of the crowds on the bridge.

A highlight of the weekend was the Fluvial Procession which took place the day before the Sinulog. Waking up at 3am (it hurt!) we took ourselves down to Pasil, one of the main communities Don Bosco work in, and joined the rest of the Salesian contingent for the boarding of one of three Don Bosco boats. Hundreds of boats in total, both big and small, took their place in the procession as they took sail along the coast of Cebu. Flags of red and yellow adorned the decks and musicians took to their drums to craft the unique beat of the festival soundtrack. We were led by the image of the Santo Niño (although a replica as the original is too fragile) for over three hours, finally returning to the port in Pasil at 8:30am.

During the boat ride, I truly saw the joy of the festival. People stood on the front-sections of their boat holding their Santo Niño high, dancing to the music as on-lookers from the shore watched on as the boats passed them. Crowds gathered along every bridge we passed and whole villages turned out to watch from the riverbank, where their homes stand precariously on the water’s edge. Having this Holy statue, which means so much to the people of Cebu, pass your home by boat must feel like a dream come true as there is no tall person, concrete pillar or obnoxious umbrella to block your view.

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Carrying a statue of the Santo Niño is a must throughout the whole of the Sinulog celebrations.

After alighting our boat, we joined the community in their gymnasium to watch the many groups from Pasil in their musical interpretations of the Sinulog story. The acts were being judged on their costumes, their choreography and their uniqueness. Joining the community for the Fluvial Procession and their dance competition, was a very special moment, as this authentic experience of Sinulog is not how I would experience it if I just arrived to Cebu as a regular tourist. Of course the performances were not as polished as those on the grand stage — I’m sure the budgets were far less, and the monetary prizes definitely were — however, the insight into a smaller version of the grander festival showed just how devoted the Cebuano citizens in the poorest barangays (a Filipino word for a village or local community) are to their faith and love of Jesus. In spite of the fact their performances were slightly rough-around-the-edges, there was great enthusiasm and devotion poured into their routines; real moments of jubilation and celebration!

Although the Papal Mass in Manila netted a crowd of 6 million, some 2.5 million still turned out to watch the street dancing on the streets of Cebu.

Although the Papal Mass in Manila netted a crowd of 6 million, some 2.5 million still turned out to watch the street dancing on the streets of Cebu.

The next day, the official day of the Sinulog, a truly captivating carnival atmosphere gripped the city. Everywhere you looked there were crowds: market vendors selling all-sorts of street food, festival-goers standing still whilst a henna tattoo is painted onto their body, children smiling as they received a helium balloon… all the while the official music of the festival was blasting out of every shop window, restaurant and home. We then joined the grand parade for an afternoon of street dancing where groups from all over the Philippines came to showcase their dancing and musical interpretations of the classic Sinulog routines.

Children dressed in colourful gowns and exotic headdresses danced their way down the 4-mile long parade route in the blazing sunshine. I found it difficult to stay standing at some points, so I have no idea how they felt under so many layers of make-up and sequins. Some wore more traditionally Filipino outfits: pretty dresses or formal Filipino shirts. One group decided to make all their outfits out of rice sacks and another decided simply to wear grey and yellow onesies. It was a feast for the eyes, and if it weren’t for the stifling heat and the busy crowds, I could have stayed there all day.

sinulog2

The theme of this year’s festival was “Santo Niño: Hope of the People” and this hope for answered prayers and miracles, for Catholics in the Philippines, is the cornerstone of this celebration. Although I have to admit, even as a Catholic myself, this kind of worship left me feeling confused at times. In Europe, we are not so used to chanting Christ’s name in a way that sounds almost like we’re at a rally, nor are we in the habit of waving hello to statues. Yet, in a lot of ways, the diversity of the Catholic faith is what makes it so beautiful to me.

As I have learnt over the last five months, the culture and customs of this place are so radically different to what I am so used to and getting under the skin of the culture, and trying to discover the meaning and history behind practices, is so important in my own learning and personal growth. I can’t simply say, “This is stupid.” and walk away; I need to know more.

So, I guess, for Filipinos this representation of Christ has brought so much hope to the citizens of the Philippines for centuries. Whether you are rich or poor, there really is something for everyone and everybody has a chance to celebrate, party and be merry. It’s clear to see how happy this festival makes people, and infectious enthusiasm rubs off on all. And it is within this enthusiasm, I think, that people find their hope. A hope that once a year, in spite of tragedy after tragedy, there will always be an opportunity to praise God in a lively, dramatic and highly fabulous way. Perhaps this festival is just what people need after a year of typhoons, earthquakes and other such depressing matters. Sinulog gives a chance for people to celebrate the gift of life and offers people a hope, through Jesus (infant or otherwise), that all will be well.

Have you ever experienced a festival or carnival that still carries its religious history and significance into modern day? I’d love to hear about others’ experiences.

Typhoon Ruby: Raging winds and an overnight community (Part 2)

Typhoon Ruby

As the winds swept in and the darkness somehow darkened, there were many thoughts that were flowing through my head that night. How were the people outside of the evacuation centre? What were my family back in the UK feeling? Was everything going to be okay? The stories of those who had been affected by Typhoon Haiyan were etched on my brain like dark scratchings and it left me wondering if we would be victims or survivors.

By around 10 pm on the night of Saturday, December 6th, 2014, the winds of Typhoon Ruby blustered their way into our communities, finally making landfall in Eastern Samar, the place I had called home for the three months prior to this monumental moment. We had been worried for the whole week what was going to happen, and where the storm would land and a town named Delores, some 70 km away from Borongan City, eventually revealed itself to be the target of Ruby.

The storm was made worse by the fact that it happened overnight. Having no electricity, and only one emergency light bulb to light up our small office room in the evacuation centre, it was easy to build up exaggerated pictures of what was happening outside. I remember re-assuring a friend that the sounds we were hearing weren’t waves or floods, but the sound of the heavy rain hitting the walls of the building sounding worse only because of the extreme winds. Every so often there would be a deafening bang: the sound of a tree being uprooted or a roof blown off a house, but what was going through the minds of all of us was (hopefully) far worse than the reality.

Sustained winds of up to 130 mph and gusts of up to 180 mph thrashed the land that I had come to love and the heavy rain and rising tide threatened the coastal places (such as the house in which we lived) with a serious risk of flooding. There was so much to think about, so many people to pray for, and so much to hope. Yet, for what turned out to be around six hours of extreme winds, what happened inside the room turned out to be far more powerful than what was happening outside.

The room where around 50 of us lay overnight. My "spot" was by the pillow just below the plywood.

The room where around 50 of us lay overnight. My “spot” was by the pillow just below the plywood.

At the start of the evening, our room began with only around ten of us inside. We had pillows for the ground, and torches to see each other with; before the winds it was like we were camping – we told jokes, shared biscuits and chatted about Taylor Swift. However, once the storm took hold, we soon discovered that our spot was prime real estate because the winds of Typhoon Ruby were approaching from the west and our room had no westerly facing windows. So whilst the other classrooms and offices were becoming wet and hazardous as window panes were blowing in, our room (sheltered by a toilet on the other side of our westerly facing wall) stayed relatively dry and safe.

As the hours slowly and painfully passed, people began to gravitate towards our room. When the storm was at its worst, there were probably around 50 of us tightly squished together like the tinned sardines I had been so used to eating in the mornings. After several decades of the rosary, the noise and the bustle of the inside of the room began to quieten. Of course it was impossible to sleep because of the noise outside, but somehow a peace descended on the room and whilst we all were carried away with our own thoughts, there was a silent connection, a silent support, between all of us together.

For those hours, we became a community. It no longer mattered where we were from, or what our culture was, how old we were or what our first language was. We spent the night shifting our bodies so that the next person could take their turn to be comfortable, moving like our own complex weather system spread out on the floor of the middle office. There was an old lady of a considerable age, and a young baby who was barely 18 months old. Faces I recognised, those of my friends, and faces I didn’t.

And in the deepest moments of Typhoon Hagupit I felt strong. Strong, not just because of the optimism and prayer of those around me, but strong because we shared in that moment together. If I witnessed before the typhoon a raw emotion seen in the eyes of families for their children, I now experienced a different kind of emotion that oozed out of all of us, an emotion that expressed itself, definitely in fear and vulnerability, but also in confidence and solidarity. A feeling that we wouldn’t just get through this because we were with our individual families, friends and colleagues, but that we would get through this because all of us were family together.

As the winds began to subside, many began to drift off to catch a moment’s sleep before sunrise. I probably managed an hour or two. When I woke up, people had begun to move back outside to see the damage that had been caused and although the winds were still howling through the gaps in the building, it was no longer dangerous to go outside. As expected, most of the landscape and agriculture of the village surrounding us had been flattened. I saw buildings that I had never seen before because they were previously obscured by trees.

The office which was destroyed after winds blew unexpectedly from the west. The door of the office, which blew off its hinges, lies on the ground.

The office which was destroyed after winds blew unexpectedly from the west. The door of the office, which blew off its hinges, lies on the ground.

None of us were sure what had happened farther than what our eyes could see and in a lot of ways, I could never have been prepared for what I was to see in the following hours and days. But one thing that was not destroyed throughout the destructive typhoon, was the spirit and faith of the people I had shared one of the most memorable nights of my life with. We bonded in ways I had never expected, and whilst it’s probably true I will never see or meet 95% of the people I shared that room with again in my life, I won’t ever forget what they did for me and for each other. It was truly a moving and special experience amidst the terror and anxiety of what could have been a night a lot more terrifying if we had been alone.

This is the second part of my Typhoon Ruby story. You can catch up with part one by clicking here and you can find out what happened next by following this link.

Typhoon Ruby: A week of waiting (Part 1)

“Is this your first experience of a typhoon?” was a common question I was asked in the first week of December at the end of last year. Living in the United Kingdom affords us an amnesty when in comes to extreme weather systems and people were shocked when I explained that there are no typhoons, no tsunamis nor any major earthquakes within the British Isles.

News of an approaching typhoon heading towards Eastern Samar had begun filtering out in the media from Monday, December 1st and in spite of the fact that most people living in Samar have experienced many, many typhoons in the past people were a little anxious about Typhoon Ruby (internationally known as ‘Hagupit’) heading our way.

Following the national news the morning we evacuated - headline reads, "Borongan Residents Brace For Ruby"

Following the national news the morning we evacuated – headline reads, “Borongan Residents Brace For Ruby”

At first I was a little frustrated by this. The little I know about mathematical weather forecasting (not much, I used to snooze in my stochastic modelling classes) is enough to know that medium to long-term weather forecasts aren’t always reliable. We were speculating on a weather system that was almost a week away and the news was even reporting there was a possibility it could veer off entirely and head towards Japan. But the more I spent reflecting on this the more I began to understand that everywhere and everyone was still recovering after Typhoon Yolanda (‘Haiyan’) which completely devastated the country at the end of 2013.

And so I learnt my first lesson of the Typhoon. In order for me to appreciate the circumstances of the people I was surrounded by, I had to forget about what I had learnt at university, leave behind my own arrogance and walk together on the path of those around me. Although I never once felt I knew better than those who had faced storms before, I felt like people were overreacting. But after at least 6,000 were killed during Yolanda, could I really blame anybody for wanting to take this possible storm seriously?

Boarding up the windows at the Training Centre

Boarding up the windows at the Training Centre

As Tuesday turned into Wednesday, and Wednesday into Thursday the news reports began to become more concrete. It was now out of the question it would head towards Japan; Borongan City looked like a good shout to be the place the storm would first make landfall. I had begun to feel scared. It had already been decided after Yolanda that in the event of another typhoon, our training centre would be used as an evacuation base. So we went that afternoon to board up some windows, prune the trees and prepare the place where I normally teach maths to turn it into a place where who-knows-how-many people would take refuge and shelter.

On Friday morning the storm had become stronger, it was slowing down to a snail’s pace (only moving around 7 mph) and was heading straight for Eastern Samar. By that afternoon, I had packed up all my things, moved them upstairs in case of flooding, and we evacuated from our home. In the beginning there were around 300 people there: men, women, children, religious, and of course one volunteer from a small British seaside town named Whitley Bay. More and more people joined us and by the time the storm was due to hit there were around 500 people sheltering in the classrooms, offices and workshops of Don Bosco Training Centre. We even had some furry friends keep us company as some brought dogs, cats, chickens and even their piglets (protecting their livelihoods at all costs!) to shelter from the rain and winds that were approaching.

All packed - preparing to leave!

All packed – preparing to leave!

I was officially an evacuee along with so many others and over the course of the proceeding 24 hours, the same question kept coming up, “Is this your first experience of a typhoon?” Of course I answered with a firm “Yes” followed by an addendum of “…and I’m feeling a little nervous”. What took me most by surprise, however, was just how many were admitting to me that it was actually their first time to evacuate during a storm, explaining that normally everybody just sits at home waiting for the winds to pass. But once again, because of the previous mistakes of those who did not survive Typhoon Yolanda, people were keen not to commit the same ones themselves heeding all warnings to evacuate. I had to admire the humility of those who had been staying in less-than-secure homes during typhoons for decades and all of a sudden listening to advice to evacuate. Perhaps we had all learned a similar lesson throughout all of this.

As I looked around the centre on that Friday night (the night before the storm finally hit) all I could see was an increased sense of vulnerability in all who were there. I recognised a real raw emotion, a kind of survival instinct, that I had never witnessed in people before. All around me mothers were tending to their children and grandparents were sorting out the food for the family. Kids ran around playing, not appreciating what was coming, whilst onlooking parents smiled as the innocence of their children provided light relief for all those who were feeling a bit anxious (myself included).

ruby1d

Waiting.

It was a week of waiting. For six days nobody know how this storm would pan out. Would it be as strong as the news was reporting? Or were the media outlets also being overcautious about their interpretation of the forecasts? With each passing day, I became more worried especially when I was left alone at night with just my thoughts and dreams swirling inside my head. Yet, by the time we evacuated I received a gift that made a lot of this worry disappear.

In spite of the obvious restlessness that swept through the evacuation centre on that dark December evening, people were still very confident about what was to come, and I was massively inspired by that. People would have had every right to roll their eyes at my fear and trepidation; after all, my house, my family and friends, my livelihood weren’t the ones at risk. Everyone and everything I know and love is sitting firmly over 6,000 miles away. Yet people whose homes and livelihoods were in danger still took the time and effort to comfort and re-assure me that all will be well. And in those moments, in the moments that I felt so vulnerable and so sensitive, I felt cared for. It was a gift. And it made me feel strong.

My Typhoon Ruby story is made up of three parts: this one, part two and part three. Thanks for reading!