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.

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.

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.