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.

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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.