It's been unusually difficult to write about my trip to the Philippines. I'm not sure why; normally I try to write within days of returning from the trip, sometimes the idea of what to write has already formed even as the trip is coming to a close... but not this time. Perhaps it was because Christmas was drawing near, perhaps because work returned with a vengeance... :)
So today, a week after arriving back from the Philippines, I'm trying to articulate the experience. Some background to the trip: it is a service project to build a library and set up some computers for an elementary school in a rural area (San Roque) of Tolosa, Leyte, a province of the Philippines.
The trip literally whipped up a storm :) On the day which we were supposed to leave for Cebu, there were no less than three alarming news about the place we were going to: first, a storm was coming to Cebu and Leyte; second, there was an undersea earthquake near Cebu; and third, there was a travel warning issued in response to the threat of terrorist activities reported in conjunction with the (canceled) ASEAN summit. My own family was dead set against me going; but we said a prayer and decided to trust God and go anyway. Six of us left that day, another two were to fly in the next day.
Arriving in the Philippines, it turned out that there was a storm; just not in Cebu, but in Leyte, where we were headed. In Cebu, while waiting for the storm to end, we spent the first day on a rosary pilgrimage with a group of children who live in the urban squatters and I ended the first day by falling asleep while attending a meditation and benediction. The next day we spent the whole day with the same group of children, who seem to have the energy of two people (each): visiting their humble and happy homes, followed by a craftsmaking session putting together a Christmas wreath and then a dance-along (who can forget "Boom tarat tarat"?), sing-along, play-along which exhausted us and showed us our true age :) What struck me was the devotion of these children who braved the chilly rain and storm warning to make the afternoon pilgrimage, the friendly trust they showed us at the end of the afternoon, and the happy countenance despite the stark poverty (which means sometimes they go hungry to school) and the humble fire-hazard homes they live in.
The storm delayed our journey by a day, but the next dawn we made our way by ferry to Ormoc (on the west coast of Leyte) and continued to cross the island to Tacloban, on its eastern coast.
In Cebu I was already impressed by the beauty of the Church buildings and altarpieces in what seem to be humble neighborhoods, and by the devotion of the Filipinos who filled up the pews attending early morning masses. In Leyte I was further impressed by the (comparative) beauty of the elaborate altar pieces in the Church where we attended another mass. If I seem a little too impressed, it's because the loving attention (and resources) paid to these altar pieces' construction (and maintenance) stood in stark contrast to the generally derelict state of other buildings in the city. In Tacloban, the Church (Sto. Nino parish) was even fuller than Cebu (if that were possible) for a weekday noon mass... don't you tell me you are not impressed!
After a pit-stop consisting of mass and then lunch hosted by the friendly Mrs Juliette Romualdez, some of us went to 'sight-see' on the way to pick up some materials for the project: paint, painting equipment, book processing and wrapping materials, computer monitors and voltage regulators (more on these later!). Everyone we met was friendly: the shop assistant where we bought these items entertained us for good half-hour while we waited for our ride, answering my mundane questions about the population size ("voting or non-voting? daytime or nighttime?") and were genuinely interested to hear about our service project, though they were slightly amused that a bunch of foreign girls chose to come to a tiny village in the Philippines to do a tiny bit of good...
We continued on to Tolosa, having stopped by a black-sand beach and dipped our feet in the Pacific Ocean :) We passed by the elementary school and dropped for a late visit (sunset, after all, marks the end of the day for most people there). Having said hello to the principal, Mrs Fe Ibanez, we left and settled into the house where we were to stay for the following one week. Mrs Mildred Cruz was our local 'co-ordinator' (but more like, our local angel) who helped us with everything from being our liaison to the neighbors, to our chief driver, to our chief translator.
The house was beautiful and accomodated us well; the sofas being the most comfortable sleeping surface :) It was also in this house that we experienced our first electrical "brownout" (a slightly misleading term because it strictly meant too-low current, versus "blackout" which means there is no voltage coming from the electrical source). The first few nights I personally enjoyed the electrical supply disruption as it gave brief respite from our loud and jovial neighbors singing their lungs out at the karaoke.
The next day started at 5, with mass starting earlier than 5:30AM, the official time for morning mass, in yet another beautiful church (St Michael). To our surprise, the mass was said in the local dialect (Waray), but sharing the Roman Missal helped us a lot. We took our first public transport journey to the school, on a long lorry with a covered cargo cart called a jeepney, met the principal on the way, and soon the real work began in the school. Some of us started painting the room that was to be the library, some of us started processing the books into a database, and some of us started setting up the computers.
I cleaned up the room that was to be the computer room, and started to hook up the electrical cables after the peripheral parts were all connected when I received an electrical shock when my elbow touched the CPU tower body. To my consternation, all the towers we brought were giving static shocks because the motherboards inside weren't insulated (these were brought from Singapore, where the electrical supply comes with Earth/Ground points, while it is not so in the Philippines). Thus began my daily electric shock experience :) Out of the three CPUs we shipped, two were working and one, unfortunately, required Windoze reinstallation! The sole monitor that we shipped from Singapore, inexplicably, refused to power up :( We said a prayer and decided that if it will not boot up, then we will leave it aside with the CPU that required installation...
After the CPUs and the laptops were set up, some teachers began wandering into the room and soon I started a short session on basic computer usage and how to use M$ Office applications: Word and Excel (yes, OSS advocates, I'm sorry :p). Some of the teachers really had not touched a computer before and I realized that for some groups, I had to show how the keyboard and the mouse are to be used. By the time the last batch arrived and went, the teachers were having fun attempting to make a poster and I was exhausted :P The first day we went home early for another meditation by a priest, followed by confessions. What struck me about the priests there was their reverend attitudes and substantial homilies!
The next few days were spent in similar way: showing the computers to the teachers and during the breaks, I plastic-wrapped of the books to be put in the library. I must have wrapped between thirty to fifty books in the course of those few days!
The next day, I and Girly (of Cebu) had to go back to Tacloban to pick up more materials because we were running out of wrapping plastics and groceries and some more parts for the computers. In this short trip, I learned a few more things about Mrs Cruz—Tita ("Aunty") Mildred: looking perhaps a few days above forty-five, she is actually closer to sixty-five and is a widow, a mother of five, and a grandmother of two! She runs a water-refilling business in Tacloban and supplied us hungry camels with water daily, and sells spiritual books cheaper than what we can get in Singapore! (My biggest expense in this trip was spent on books...)
I must admit there were afternoons with frequent blackouts when a sense of despair crept in: when I realized that the electrical supply would not be consistent and several voltage regulators we brought might not be sufficient to protect the computer hardware from current surges (there was already a burning smell in the little computer room!). There were days when some teachers did not seem to be interested in what the computers can do to assist the learning of their students, and then I began to question the relevance of our "mission." But I was reminded that God's ways are not mine, His thoughts are not mine to fathom, so I resolved to not lose hope and stay faithful to the project despite its possibly bleak outcome...
The evenings were spent mostly on dinner, dishwashing (for dinners were my turn to wash dishes :p) and quiet reading time before I fell asleep soon after 9PM. There was one memorable evening when we had picnic dinner by the beach, when everyone had a turn to sing at the karaoke magic mic and enjoyed the beautiful stars, more in numbers and clarity than what you can ever hope to see in an urban setting like Singapore!
After more days wrapping books (on my part), we finally came to the last days when we had to rush the processing of books (it is really no small feat inventorizing 700+ books: try accessioning, cataloguing, labeling and wrapping them!). Some of us spent this time teaching & discussing with the teachers and student librarians on the library policies and on how to best run a library of this scale. We also had to prepare a little number to entertain our friendly hosts: the principal, the teachers and the children. Soon "Charlie" (of the Chocolate Factory fame) was put to life on a humble stage next to the school compound and our objective was to entice the students to find out what happened to our little hero friend by borrowing the book from the library.
On Friday, we started the day very early, as Missa de Gallo (novena mass before Christmas) have begun at 4AM (actually, earlier than that, depending on the priest!). It was a solemn mass, again in Waray (in which Aunty Mildred and her English missal came to our rescue); more solemn than most masses I have participated in, and the choir of few singers sang beautifully! When we arrived at 3:30AM, the church building was already packed and some parishioners were seen carrying plastic chairs to the church!
The day of "handover", was unexpectedly moving for me. Apart from starting with the Missa de Gallo, we started the day putting finishing touches to the library: finding missing books, drawing & putting up a few more posters, and making sure the computer worked. A priest was invited to bless the computers and the library in a small solemn ceremony, and then a feast ensued :)
The short program that the school prepared for us and the handover ceremony was beautiful and sincere. Despite the fact that the invited village (barangay) chief did not come, a group of students proceeded to dance beautifully. When a blackout happened, a little boy continued with his turn to sing a beautiful and sincere rendition of a Christmas hymn. The principal touched me with her humble thanks, and then "Charlie" was performed on stage. Needless to say, the children enjoyed it immensely and then the feast continued :) This time the school bought for us Lechon, a roasted whole suckling pig to celebrate the occasion.
We met Mrs Romualdez and her husband again in the afternoon and her campaigning son, Martin. They threw a Christmas beach party at San Roque beach and to my surprise, nearly everyone (even college students!) 'hid' in the wooden huts away from the bright sun. Nearly everyone in our group wilted after just one hour in the beach. We spent the evening walking about Tacloban and its market, and again I marveled how crowded the Church and the Adoration Room always seemed to be, no matter what time of the day!
On Sunday, we spent the morning at the beach, followed by a sightseeing trip to the local seminary (ha!) during its Family Day, to the Palo Cathedral, to the General MacArthur Landing Site and then to the San Juanico bridge (connecting the islands of Leyte and Samar). It was heartening to see so many young boys and men studying and discerning a vocation to the priesthood! This day's trip was made more memorable because of the rickety lorry we took: it smelled as if the cart had been used to carry fish, and there were holes on its floor and ceiling (which leaked as it rained)... oh well, we had fun there!
We woke up at 2:30AM the next day to prepare our journey back to Tacloban, to Cebu and then to Singapore. It was amazing how we could wake up and managed to stay awake for another Missa de Gallo in Tacloban.. After saying good-bye (and God-speed) to Aunty Mildred, we took a bus to Ormoc—another eventful drive in which the driver was nearly constantly in the wrong lane, to overtake, and tried to honk and scare away everybody traveling in the other direction—and then the ferry ride took us back to Cebu. In Cebu, our friendly host Mirzi took us shopping for local Pasalubong and sightseeing to the Magellan Cross and the Basilica of Sto. Nino. It was a Monday, but it was very crowded with peddlers trying to sell us handicrafts, devout pilgrims praying in the Basilica and a score of pilgrims queueing to kiss the glass case that encased the Sto. Nino statue. I got a bit of history lesson from gazing at the paintings around the Basilica that showed the arrival of the Spaniards and the following evangelization of the Philippines islands. In the evening, we left for Singapore. Part of me wished I could stay there longer, or not have to return here... ;)
Well, that's about all I can remember about the journey... as for reflection, it will have to wait another day :)