Tag Archives: Philippines

When Words Fail

5 Jul

Sometimes words aren’t enough. Sometimes, they are too much. Lately I’ve been finding it hard to get the balance right. So. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.

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Memories and Hard Lessons

3 Jun

Sitting out here in the tree house, with the sounds of the creek below me and the laughter of the boys washing over me, I can convince myself that I am in paradise. I am surrounded by palm trees, coconut trees and the greenest grass I have seen in a long time. The tree house is rickety. Some of the other volunteers and I entertain thoughts of sleeping out here one night but decide against it as we would be overrun by mosquitoes.

R__ climbs one of the coconut trees; hugging it, he scoots his way up faster than is humanly possible. He disappears for a while, hidden amongst the dense foliage of the tree top. Then, coconuts begin to fall and the other boys scurry around, gathering them up and bringing them to us. They aren’t supposed to do this, the trees are off limits to them, but there is nothing we can do to stop them. I never fear for them. They know what they are doing.

G__ cracks the coconuts open with a big knife and jokingly threatens me with it when I take a photo. The “old” coconuts are filled with a fizzy milk and hard, dry flesh. The “young” coconuts are liquid free but the flesh is moist and slimy. Us volunteers like the “old” coconuts; the boys, the “young” ones. They are divided amongst us and we all eat our fill.

M__ holds a spider in his hand. I ask him if it’s poisonous and he says yes. He tells me that he’s ripped off most of its legs so it won’t bite and offers me the chance to hold it. I don’t believe him about it being safe but I hold it all the same. It scurries across my hand. It tickles. I feel oddly brave.

Inevitably, the UNO cards come out. They always do. Cheating is a necessity. D__ is here. He appears to be getting along well with the other boys now. This makes me happier than I could ever say. He’ll be just fine, I know. I think. I hope.

I sit back and laugh when I am teased for having the same coloured eyes as my blue t-shirt. I can’t really argue with them because it’s true.

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My memory falters. What happened next? I cannot recall. It’s like this now. Memories that I thought would stick with me forever are beginning to fade. I wish they wouldn’t. It’s these intimate little moments that I want to remember for the rest of my life. I can still recall the tingling on my tongue after downing the coconut milk. But. Where did we go after those lazy hours in the tree house? What happened to the spider?

And what has happened to the boys since we left? I’m not sure about R__ and M__. But they were capable, mature. I’m sure they’re fine. G__ is in rehab for his glue-sniffing addiction. D__ is back in Manila with his unstable family; one of his older sisters was killed in a hit and run incident about a year ago.

I tried to convince myself that I was in paradise. I never was. None of the boys were at the Bahay Tuluyan centre because they wanted to be. They were there because they had no other option. They came from places stricken by poverty. They came from families who abused them or simply did not have the means to care for them properly. Paradise does not exist for these boys.

This was a hard lesson to learn. But necessary. Despite this, any memory that I have of my time with the BT boys is cherished. And every time something fades, I feel the loss. Deeply.

We See Trash, They See Potential

1 Jun

I found that I was consistently amazed when I was in the Philippines. Whether it was by the strength and fortitude of the people I met or by the awful living conditions which I saw; every day my mind would be blown in some form or another.

This, right here, is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my life. It’s a Sprite bottle that has been painstakingly melted and bent into this gorgeous tree. I’m sure the symbolism is not lost on anyone here.

In the Western world, such trash is thrown away without a second of thought. In the slums of Manila, this trash can be the difference between getting to eat or going hungry. Women and children rummage through rubbish piles to get at these discarded bits and pieces. Then they sell them on the street. If they are particularly lucky, they will be given the assistance of an NGO which will provide the materials for them and allow them to work in a safe and clean environment. The NGO may also set up a shop or have the items shipped across the world to stores like Oxfam

I visited one of these NGO’s and was, once again, amazed by how beautiful and functional these items of trash were; by how ingenious the women were. The bag above was made from juice pouches. They also used these packets to make purses and covers for couches.

The girls at the Bahay Tuluyan centre made jewellery out of magazines. Really. Magazines.

I think of all of the stuff which I throw away … and I wonder. What could be made out of this trash? How many people could benefit from it? And I cannot even begin to answer that.

To Pray or Not to Pray

18 May

I was handed an interesting dilemma when I volunteered in the Philippines. It was one that was seemingly minor and I did not discuss it with my fellow volunteers nor anyone else during the trip. But certainly it played on my mind. The part of the Philippines I was stationed in held deeply Christian believes. I, on the other hand, am deeply non-religious. The only times I have set foot in a church I was there for weddings or funerals and, even then, a lot of the religious rhetoric went completely over my head.

This lack of knowledge in regards to Christianity was not so much of a problem at the Bahay Tuluyan (BT) boys’ centre where I spent the majority of my time, as we ate our meals separately from the boys and, thus, I was not obliged to take part in before-meal praying. When I visited the girls’ centre, however, I was faced with a new situation. We ate together and before each meal, everyone stood and chanted out a prayer, followed by the Sign of the Cross (I think that’s what it’s called?). At first I decided it would be tactful for me to pretend to pray and to stumble my way through the Sign – at times I think I touched my nose instead of my forehead and belly instead of my chest. (By now you should really have the idea of how truly clueless I am when it comes to Christian ritual.)

After a couple of days, it started to rankle on me that I was putting forward this deception. Was it more offensive for me to pretend to pray than it was for me to simply do nothing? By hiding my own non-religious identity was I completely contradicting the human rights (which included the right to freedom of religious beliefs) that my group were helping to teach?

In the end I decided that I would no longer pretend to pray nor continue to decimate the Sign of the Cross. Instead, I simply stood when the girls stood and did nothing when the girls prayed. No-one called me out on this so I think it was the right decision. But what does everyone else think? Should I have continued to pretend for the sake of tact? Also, I want to know, has anyone else been in a similar position where your beliefs did not match those of your host country? What did you do?

“Did I make a difference? SHOULD I have made a difference?”

16 May

In regards to my time volunteering in the Philippines I’ve often asked myself the question “did I make a difference?” At times the answer has been “yes” at others “no” and, more recently (and perhaps realistically), “sorta”. I cannot deny that on a small-scale level, my group certainly made a difference in the lives of those we interacted with on a regular basis. Whether it was teaching computer skills, helping with homework or just hanging out, our time with the children at the Bahay Tuluyan (BT) centres was important. In my diary I wrote “I don’t think I’m going to have any lasting effect on any of these boys but that’s fine. I guess teaching C__ and J__ how to do a bird call using their hands is a big enough achievement.”

Recently I’ve been asking myself a similar but, ultimately, very different question: “should I have made a difference?” The answer that I’ve come up with is, once again, “sorta” – but I’ll be able to better rationalise that answer to you after this story.

The main project that my group of volunteers was involved in was organising two identical two-day children’s congresses to be held on two different occasions. Basically, we had to come up with a program that enabled Filipino youth leaders (who we called “the facilitators”) to teach children’s rights to high schoolers. Our core group was divided into 5-6 smaller teams who would then take on one facet of children’s rights to work with (for example, me and my team-mate Amy worked with “Special Protection Measures”).

Some of my volunteer group with the sign for the first congress: photo supplied by Amy Fell

The first of the congresses was held at the BT centre in Victoria. In many ways, it was a frustrating process, though certainly very fun. Amy and I did not have time beforehand to properly familiarise our facilitators with the program and a lot of the congress time was spent explaining activities and discussions and then having that translated to the high schoolers by the facilitators or by senior members of the BT staff. At times, I was unsure whether or not we were making any sense. In the end we (and the other teams) got through it and the event was deemed a success. Everyone of my 10-strong volunteer group was certainly feeling emotional (in a good way) after the first congress and there were smiles (or tears, but in a good way!) all around. I remember feeling pleased and perhaps even a little bit proud, but I cannot deny that I felt that there was something missing…

The second congress was held a week later at the San Antonio BT centre. I will admit that, in a very selfish way, I found this congress slightly less enjoyable than the first one. Amy’s and my role was minimised and that meant that we didn’t get to interact with the high schoolers as much as we did at the first congress. Our facilitators were now fully familiar with the program; they took control and we were designated roles that were focussed around running errands and organising materials for the activities. The facilitators excelled. At times, I felt almost useless. But this was the best feeling in the world! Instead of us trying to put forward a message, it was the facilitators who presented the message. It was Filipino youths teaching Filipino youths: sustainable teaching and learning in its most basic form.

And this is the reason that I answered “sorta” to the question of whether or not I should make a difference. Teaching and informing in a “Third-world” environment should not come from privileged Westerners. Change must come from within. Certainly we played a role in this but, in my opinion, all we did was give the young Filipino facilitators the framework with which they could teach other youths about their rights. The facilitators already had the skills, the potential and, most importantly, the drive. They just needed us for the “menial labour”.

And once again, I’ll say that this was the best feeling in the world.


Disclaimer: whilst I have been using inclusive terms such as “us” and “we” I have to stress that this is entirely my own opinion and I could not (and should not) put forward the idea that I am representing the viewpoints of all of the 10 members of my volunteer group nor even the aforementioned Amy whom I worked very closely with.

Cramped Quarters & Community Spirit

29 Apr

I find myself doing a strange thing ever since coming back from my volunteer expedition to the Philippines during January and February of 2010. Every time I enter a new house, I silently evaluate how many Filipino families could squeeze themselves into the space.

It’s bizarre. But every time I calculate a realistic number, it really hits home how lucky I (and almost every person from a developed country) am.

It started with my family home. It’s a two-storey country home complete with 3 regular bedrooms, a large kitchen with an attached dining room, a living room, a bathroom, a laundry and a large space downstairs which is inhabited by my brother. At one time, my entire family of 6 members lived there. Now, it only has 2 people living in it year round; with me making appearances in the uni holidays. I’ve come to the conclusion that 6 Filipino families (consisting of 3-8 members) could comfortably live in my family home.

From there it has spiralled to the point that I’m making these rough calculations all the time. My semester share-house could fit 7 Filipino families; my oldest brother’s home, 4; my dad’s home, also 4; my good friend’s home, 6; another friend’s home, 7. I could go on. And on. And on.

All of this came from my brief home-stay with a small family in Manila’s slums. I counted myself lucky as the place where I stayed only had 3 adults and 2 small children living in it. For some of my fellow volunteers this number was higher. The home I stayed in consisted of 2 clearly defined spaces: one was a small shop, dining room and kitchen (including a cupboard where one of the adults, who I don’t think was related to the other inhabitants, seemingly slept); the other was a lounge room and bedroom for the mother, father and two sons to sleep and rest in. (Both of these areas added together were probably not much bigger than my entire bedroom.) Their bathroom was outside and was a small shed with the bowl of a toilet and a large tub for showering.

my home-stay, a building which did not extend much farther than the parameters of this photo

There was no privacy to speak of. The lights were left on all night, apparently to scare off rats and other rodents. Three fans were on constantly but the house still sweltered in the heat. I learned one night when the power went out that these fans served a purpose other than cooling: cutting out the noises of the slums; the walls were so thin that I could clearly hear (though I couldn’t understand) the conversations of the next door neighbours.

But it’s funny. Even though these facts are always in my mind and are constantly making me re-evaluate my surroundings: I don’t mention these whenever I am asked about my home-stay experience. Whenever I speak of my experiences I always make a point of saying that the slum I stayed in had a stronger community spirit than any other place I’ve encountered. It was only recently that someone asked me why I thought that. After a moment of thinking I answered, “They have nothing. So they share everything.” It’s an oversimplification of the situation but I think it’s one of the best explanations that I’ve ever come up with.

So every time I enter a house, two opposing thoughts battle it out inside my head. On the one hand, I am infinitely grateful for the space, privacy and general quality of the homes that I reside in. On the other, I cannot help but feel that – somewhere along the way – we Australians have lost the intimate sense of community that still exists in the slums of the Filipino capital.

Travel + Illness (an almost inevitable occurrence)

20 Apr

So, I should probably introduce myself before I get started. My name is Sandra and I happen to be enrolled in the degree which has the longest name of any at Macquarie University: Bachelor of Science with a Bachelor of Arts in Natural and Cultural Heritage and Museums. Quite the mouthful. Yet, of more interest, is the fact that my degree has very little to do with Development. I guess this information is neither here nor there, yet it gives a context to where I’m coming from.

Anyway, what I wanted to talk about in this post is my experiences with being sick while volunteering in the Philippines. During my 7 week stint there, I was not sick for approximately 2 weeks. The rest of my time was divided between catching a flu, then a cold and then a flu again. While this was, to put it lightly, annoying, I find myself being eternally thankful that I wasn’t plagued by internal parasites like some other volunteers I have spoken to.

The thing about being sick in a developing country is that – while you know you should go to see a doctor – it’s such an inconvenience to do so, that you put it off; constantly saying to yourself “it’s okay, it’s just a flu, it’ll go away, it’ll go away”. This is a stupid thing to do. I cannot stress this enough, do not do what I did! I found out the hard way that, whilst travelling, my body was no longer capable of kicking out the sicknesses that it was usually so adept at doing. I learned this when, in the middle of the night, I awoke to the nastiest ear ache I have ever had in my adult life.

The next morning I was ushered into a  Jeepney (after a bumpy ride on a tric) with my group’s in-country team leader. After a switchover to another Jeepney and then yet another tric ride, we arrived at the hospital closest to our base of operations (which was at the Bahay Tuluyan centre in San Antonio, Quezon). My memory fails me here as I cannot remember exactly how long it took for us to get there, but it must have been well over an hour. (For my own ailment, this was not such a big deal; but I often wonder what the local San Antonians do in the case of an emergency: how do they make a speedy trip to the hospital and what happens when that isn’t possible? These are questions that I find painfully hard to dwell on as I know that, ultimately, it was my relative wealth which enabled me to travel to the hospital in the first place, let alone dish out the cash for the required medications.)

Of my actual experience in the hospital, there is not much to tell. It was a speedy visit and I was there for no longer than half an hour. The hospital was clean enough, although it was a little dilapidated and I was struck by the fact that the hand washing sink had no roof over it. (This relative cleanliness is in contrast to my experiences with an airport clinic in Jordan where cigarette butts littered the floor.) The doctor who saw me took my temperature and my blood pressure but did not deem it necessary to look in my ears nor listen to my chest before declaring that I had both an ear and chest infection.

I have since come to the conclusion that my flu should not have had the chance to develop into two infections. Once I first started to have inklings that I was sick, I should have organised to see a doctor or at least taken the antibiotics that several team-mates offered me. I was stupid. But I was also lucky. Because my ailment was easy to get rid of and I was within relatively easy access of a doctor. Other travellers have surely not been so lucky.

So, fellow travellers, I want to hear your experiences with treating illnesses whilst abroad. What did you catch? How did you gain treatment? Did you have to be admitted to hospital? How long were you struck down for? Tell me all; my ears (or eyes) are wide open.

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