So what exactly am I doing here?

It has been a little over a month now since I lifted off the tarmac at Heathrow Airport feeling a combination of excitement and trepidation for what was to come. In that time I have begun to begin to learn a new way of life and settle into a routine here in the Philippines.

My tasks here are twofold, put simply: I teach maths and I play the keyboard.

Planning my lessons... or playing on Sporcle?

Planning my lessons… or playing on Sporcle?

The work of the Salesian community here in Borongan is huge and it is difficult to describe the entirety of their work and ministry in just one blog. One of their major tasks is providing vocational education for a number of trainees (aged from around 16 and up) who are looking to take courses in welding and small engine technology. Throughout the afternoon, the trainees will labour in the workshop learning and working on things that I have no clue about at all. But before all of that, the day begins when everybody arrives to the Don Bosco Training Center at 7:30am. There is a morning assembly and prayer time, followed by a spot of cleaning (the building gets dusty, fast!) and a 2-hour teaching period to follow – the students take additional lessons in English, Christian values, computing and of course, mathematics, which is where I come in!

When I arrived, I was daunted by teaching a class of 60 students. I was concerned that I wouldn’t know whether everybody was understanding the maths or that I wouldn’t be able to learn everybody’s names quickly enough. I was also worried that because of my north-eastern accent that my English wouldn’t even be understood. But, with a bit of patience we have somewhat settled into a rhythm and my initial worries are beginning to subside, especially as I get to know the students more.

I hope that my time in the training centre can be fruitful. I hope that I can at least offer a glimpse of why mathematics is a useful skill to have. Many in my class (and beyond!) see the subject in black and white. Maths is boring and difficult. I’m not quite sure how to convince them otherwise just yet – but in time, hopefully everybody will see the relevance of what we’re doing and how they can use their skills to benefit their own lives whether it be for future college courses or in their future careers as business people, engineers or part-time Su Doku champs!

Singing class with the Trainees!

Singing class with the Trainees!

Another big part of the Salesian’s presence here is the Youth Center which is based on the same site as the house I am staying. At present there is a small group of young people of varying ages who gather throughout the week, including students from the local high school and children from the surrounding area. On a Saturday morning we have music lessons where the young people can learn violin, guitar, Filipino bandurria and keyboard – last weekend I was teaching six students how to play chords! Eventually we hope to form a strong group of instrumentalists (including singers) so that we can lead the music every other weekend during the Sunday Mass as well as perform for other occasions throughout the year. I am very much looking forward to going carolling when Christmas time comes! It’s great to see so many young people become interested in playing instruments and they are picking it up fast. I even managed to have a violin lesson myself a fortnight ago; I can play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, the standard song of anyone’s first experience on an instrument.

The construction of the new training centre!

The construction of the new training centre!

I have more activities lined up for the coming weeks, and I’m really excited to be here especially as I am now feeling like I have begun to settle and adjust to life in Eastern Samar. What’s perhaps most exciting is that currently there are builders and construction workers all over the site working on a brand new youth and training centre which means that everything will be contained in one place. I am told that in years gone by there were often between 50 and 100 young people attending the youth centre joining together for a monthly programme, to use the games room and to pray the nightly 6pm Rosary. I hope that by the time all the building work is complete in January there will be more youth flocking to use these exciting new facilities in order that they can begin to grow in fellowship with one another.

I have only been here a short time, and have already been welcomed as a member of the DBYC family. I can’t wait for the months to come and see more people join, or return, so that we can create lifelong memories and share together in the richness of life here in this tiny corner of Southeast Asia.

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Maupay nga Patron!

“At the first house, just take a little. Then, at the second, take a little bit more. Repeat, repeat, repeat!” This was the advice given to me by Fr. Julius in preparation for the forthcoming fiesta, a 2 day celebration across the whole city to mark the feast day of the patron saint of Borongan. In this case, we were celebrating the birth of Mary which is observed on September 8th every year.

Maupay nga patron! Happy Feast Day!

Maupay nga patron! Happy Feast Day!

Arriving into Borongan a little over 10 days ago, there were already signs that the fiesta was approaching. Colourful bunting zigzagged up and down each street, banners of local councillors beamed down over roads wishing ‘Happy Fiesta’ to all those who passed under, and I’m told that the city was starting to get busier and busier with each day in the lead up to the weekend. Singing contests and other such events were also held nightly at the city plaza; all of which were being broadcast live to the homes across the city on the local cable TV station Borongan Catholic TV.

When Sunday morning approached, I was energetic and excited for the festivities which all kicked off with the annual parade of the city’s groups, companies and collectives. Our trainees were represented wearing green and grey Don Bosco Training Centre t-shirts, the staff were all wearing pale blue and we all wore straw hats emblazoned with DON BOSCO across the front just so that the crowds we passed could tell who we were (if the two huge tarpaulins with the Don Bosco Training Centre logo didn’t give it away). After waiting over an hour for the groups ahead of us in the proceedings to pass, we joined the back of the parade a little after 8:00am and began walking the route through the streets of the city.

The packed Cathedral during Mass on Monday. It was hot!

The packed Cathedral during Mass on Monday. It was hot!

The sun was blazing in the sky, and everyone was feeling a bit parched. Hoards of onlookers lined the streets, and I was confronted with many stares, giggles and calls of “Hey, man!” due to my white skin making people assume I am American. I think most people were probably wondering who this foreigner was, and were confused how he had even found himself marching in their annual fiesta parade. Throughout many of the experiences I am having out here, I have to sometimes pinch myself; even I wonder how I had found myself marching in their annual fiesta parade.

Following the parade, there was a dancing contest in the plaza with many groups from Borongan and afar taking part. The sun was baking hot, and I have no idea how they managed to dance for so long. The eventual winners came from Cebu and accepted the ₱150,000 (roughly £2,000) prize money, although I am told that this probably would only have just covered the cost of their transport, costumes, training, etc.

The sticky rice!

The sticky rice!

By the afternoon and into the following day, the real spirit of the fiesta became clear. It is traditional for every household in the city to open up its doors and provide a veritable feast for all those who enter. Families will invite friends and colleagues to stop by and dine on all sorts of different national dishes and delicacies. Over the course of the two days, I entered eight different households and ate fresh fish, seafood, meats and more. There were plates of rice, noodles and vegetables, as well as plates full of cake and Filipino desserts. My favourite was the “sticky rice” which was compressed rice held together in a palm leaf which had lashings of a sweet, sticky coconut jam poured over. Delicious!

Fr Al (left) and Br Alex (right) in the home of a Don Bosco co-operator

Fr Al (left) and Br Alex (right) in the home of a Don Bosco co-operator

I was taken aback by the effort each and every household put into the fiesta celebrations. It was clear going from one house to the next that the families we were visiting had different household incomes. Yet, in spite of these financial differences, each put just as much effort into providing delicious food for their guests. The fiesta clearly brings people together, and I was able to take advantage of this as I was soon engrossed in great conversation about Filipino culture, politics, and education, to name but a few of the topics we touched upon with people from all different kinds of backgrounds. From feeling very self-conscious walking in the parade the previous morning, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the welcome and kindness of these strangers. Perhaps all it takes is for one invitation to dispel stereotypes or preconceived notions about the way in which we live, or how we spend our time.

I think our world could take a lesson from this type of welcoming and maybe we should all be challenged to strike up a conversation with the strangers who have moved into our area or offer a helping hand in the street to somebody who looks like they don’t belong. Believe me, from my perspective here in this foreign land, it is appreciated.

I finished the evening of September 8th participating in what can only be described as a national pastime… karaoke! Or, videoke as they like to call it here. As I finished singing what felt like my hundredth song (they kept passing me the songbook and mic, honest!) I began to feel tired and sleepy. It had been a long weekend and I truly felt like I could never eat again. As Tuesday rolled around, I quickly began to realise why exactly it is that the day after the fiesta is also regarded as a day off… I spent the day catching up on sleep and reading my book. What a weekend!

The First Days

It’s been a week since I crash landed in the Philippines, and an awful lot has happened. I left England to weather reports of overnight freezing, and arrived about 2 days later in the tropical paradise of the Philippines. The journey was long, tiring and nerve-wracking.

I hadn’t anticipated that I would be jetlagged at all, but it took me a long while to come to terms with being 7 hours ahead of the UK – as I awake, you lot are all turning in for the night. Luckily, for my first few days I was stationed in the Provincial House of the Salesians of Don Bosco in Cebu City. It was a comfortable, air conditioned, internet-ready house with friendly, warm residents and workers. I was instantly submerged into Filipino big city culture – somewhat of a nice transition on my journey to Borongan. I drank iced tea at Bo’s Coffee (a place that, in my head, could only be pronounced as Bosco Ffee), ate Cebu’s famous lechon (pulled pork) at CnT and visited many of the huge malls that Asia is famous for.

I was toured around most of the Salesian houses on the island: training centres, youth centres, a seminary, a boys’ home and a retreat house. I met a lot of the Salesian Priests of the South Province, especially as most were in town to celebrate the priestly ordination of Fr. Rooney John Gustilo Undar, SDB last Thursday – which was an experience that could be reserved for a blog post of its own! For all of my friends at YMT, a highlight was hearing ‘Days of Elijah’ play on the sound system as we tucked into tasty Filipino food at the reception afterwards.

And so on Friday, I took the journey by plane alongside Fr. Al (one of the Salesians assigned to Borongan) to Tacloban City, the area ravaged by last year’s Typhoon Haiyan. I was taken aback by how much destruction the super typhoon had caused. As we drove downtown in a jeepney, we passed families living in U.N. stamped tents on the side of the road as well as huge swathes of tree trunks uprooted and discarded. It was devastating. One girl I spoke to, a native of Borongan but studying in Tacloban, lost contact with her parents during the storms. Both thought the others hadn’t survived, and they were none the wiser for many days until the parents travelled to Tacloban after Haiyan to see if they were alive. Thankfully, they were, but thousands of others weren’t so lucky and lost their lives; bodies were said to lie unclaimed on the streets when the flood water began to subside.

Following our brief few hours in Tacloban, we took a van to Borongan – a journey supposed to only take 4 hours, ended up being 5 and a half because of the poor road conditions as a result of the storms. Huge slabs of tarmac, easily 6 feet by 6 feet, were scattered on the roadside and if we slowed to avoid potholes once, we did it a further fifty times. We arrived at around midnight Saturday, alongside the 5 other passengers in the van and the many, many sacks of lemons that were taking up half of the seats in the van being transported for merchants in Borongan.

I have experienced culture shock on many levels since being here. It is very hot, and the city is probably a city by name only. People speak the local dialect, Waray-Waray, rather than Tagalog or English (the official languages here in the Philippines) so it has been challenging being the person always sat on the side never knowing what people are talking about. The Salesian house is very inviting, and feels like a family home with people always dropping by, and although it is not how I am used to, I am having to learn to sleep, eat and wash in a different environment to what is familiar to me!

On the other hand, I have met so many kind and friendly people embodying a rich spirit of Filipino hospitality which I have come to appreciate. There are many youth leaders here, former students and members of the youth centre, who are always around and either have jobs in the training centre or they facilitate activities for the young people at weekends. I hope over time we will begin to communicate more freely, and that we no longer have to talk at half our usual speeds.

All in all, I have faced personal challenges since arriving one week ago into the Philippines. I am reminded to take one day at a time, and not expect that I can do everything I hope to achieve in just one day. I take huge comfort in knowing that the people here are supportive, even if it takes a little while for us to understand each other’s cultures and idiosyncrasies. And hey, I am getting a chance to play the piano in Mass this week, so for those moments we can be sure to be united in an international language where no Waray, Tagalog or English is needed (oh, well.. except for the lyrics!).

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 I have begun teaching at the Training Centre, a 2 hour mathematics class for 60 students of varying abilites on a Tuesday morning – a subject, I’m sure, for many future blogs. And apologies for the lack of photos, the internet connection here in Borongan is really not up to uploading photos! Hopefully it will improve over the coming months.