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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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!

sinulog5

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.

sinulog3

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!

Roads

It’s been quite a few weeks since I updated the internet about my experiences here in the Philippines. If it weren’t for my Twitter addiction or my Facebook updates, one would be forgiven for thinking I had slipped off the side of the Pacific Ocean.

Since I last posted, I have settled into somewhat of a routine. Each morning I wake up at 05:50, have breakfast at 06:30 and leave for the training centre at 07:15. We travel in our truck passing over bumpy, pot-holed roads (ironically we pass the headquarters of the Land Transportation Office as well as the Department for Public Works and Highways along the way). We bump up and down before reaching our destination at around 07:30. I will spend my mornings (and usually my afternoons) teaching, thinking about my lessons, or scrolling through my Twitter feed. And so it has been, certainly for the weeks that made up September and October.

We come to now, mid-November, and I have recently begun to think about just why I have maintained such radio silence for the last six weeks. The fortnight that surrounded Halloween was particularly tough – I’m not sure for what reason, or why then exactly – but the word that sums up how I felt was malaise, a “general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify.” Why was I feeling like this? And why were things as small as having to change my t-shirt midway through the day really getting to me?

Many travel writers and psychologists have written about culture shock in various articles and blogs. After an initial period of meeting new and interesting people, tasting delicious food and having intense cultural experiences, the honeymoon – as they say – will become well and truly over. And it was. I somehow felt like I had hit the potholes in the road after the smooth surfaces and interesting sights of my first six weeks. I had become to feel frustrated at the culture.

As each day passed, I was finding it impossible to stay energised enough to converse with people speaking in my simplified English and, of course, I was agitated that my language learning was not going so well. I was struggling being the alien whose instinct is to use a knife at dinnertime instead of a spoon or being the stranger in a strange land who can’t fathom what a whole population of 100 million people sees in white rice. My homesickness peaked and I became a little spiritually lost in this wilderness of palm trees and vast ocean.

It’s important for me that I write all of this down. It’s important that I remember how I felt, so I can look back on this and see the road that I have walked; the road that trails behind me as I continue to move forward and walk this path of the unknown. Culture shock is a fairly commonplace problem, and perhaps you have experienced this yourself. I’m not at all sure how I began to overcome it, and I can be confident in saying that I have not fully overcome it: only this morning I found myself a bit shaky after I saw a video with someone talking about hot chocolates from Costa whilst wearing a big winter coat and a bobble hat. (Sometimes the triggers are the most minuscule of cultural reminders.)

But what I have really found useful is to reflect and focus on everything I have conquered in the last three months. I can clearly see the moments of pride and joy paved down behind me like a golden bricked road of achievement; a road which is firmly solid in the ground not at all like the potholed roads of Provincial Jail Road (I’m not sure if this is its recognised name, but that’s what Google Maps calls it). The golden bricks of achievement lay behind me and, for sure, more potholes lie ahead.

And my achievements aren’t great, heroic acts of altruism. Put simply, I have taken real joy and hope from acts as simple as walking into the city to buy crisps or not being (too) bothered when a cockroach crawls along my wall just as I’m about to go to bed. My golden bricks are small milestones in my journey here which may sound silly or somehow mundane to an average Filipino: but they are neither of those things, I am trying to cherish all of my achievements whether great or small. There is a real joy in accomplishing something which is an everyday Filipino practice or custom; a beacon of hope signalling that one day I may begin to feel more confident and somewhat independent in living my life in a new (and let’s face it, still exciting) culture.

RoadsFinally, when thinking about how to overcome culture shock, there is one last thing that I think is important to bear in mind when attempting to live life more authentically in the place that you are. Try to not see your experiences abroad as a stopover in your life. The road that I am walking did not begin in August, nor will it end next summer. My journey started 24 years ago and, God willing, stretches on a long way into my future. I think my advice to anybody living abroad for a temporary, albeit long-term, stay is to not consider this adventure as a trip with a defined beginning and an end.

Viewing the experience in this way puts up barriers. The time becomes a self-contained experience that is somehow seen to “interrupt” whatever path you were taking before you arrived, and upon return home there may be a tendency to not have the experience affect your life and not be wholly transformative as you “pick up where you left off” when returning home.

It is in no way easy.

As I count up the weeks that I have spent here and the months that I have left, I am constantly aware of time. I just hope that eventually, as I overcome more of my fears and begin to fill the potholes in my journey, I can advance to the next stage of culture shock, the assimilation stage where all of these strange, alien concepts (because whilst I firmly remain an alien in this culture, the culture is still entirely alien to me) will begin to make sense. Who knows, perhaps I will begin to crave left-over pork and rice at 06:30, or even use the time we have no electricity to be productive and not for twiddling my thumbs and thinking about home.

Some top tips: Do not be afraid, remember to be gentle, and enjoy yourself. I’m spending most of my energies right now trying hard to do all three.

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.