giving back


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i’ve been traveling the world now for over 450 days.  in that time i have visited some amazing places and met many wonderful people, but i have not as of yet had any meaningful impact on the world around me…. until now.

i recently spent eight days on the tiny secluded Filipino island of Panitugan volunteering for a private initiative called HIP that stands for “Helping Islets in the Philippines” (yes, “islet” is a word meaning small island).  when Typhoon Yolanda (aka “Typhoon Haiyan” if you don’t live in the Philippines) hit seven months ago, it devastated many communities in the Visayas region of the Philippines and beyond.  since then, the world has responded.  NGOs and travelers alike have flocked to these areas to provide aid and people from all over have donated money, fresh water, clothing and building materials to their cause.  while most of this attention has been directed to the worst hit island of Leyte, many more island communities have had to fend with little to no outside help.  the Bantayan Island Group is one such community and the primary focus of the HIP effort.  in the village of Sulangan on the southwest peninsula of the biggest island in this group is where our story begins.

where is this place?

where is this place?

from Palawan, a plane then a bus then a ferry brought me to Bantayan Island (a few kilometers west off the northern tip of Cebu Island).  there i was met by a very kind woman named Taling who escorted me to the Sulangan Barangay Hall – the local district office and safe house of the islets.  in addition to keeping the hall immaculately clean, Taling’s role is to store and distribute the building materials for HIP’s rebuilding projects.  boxes and supplies were piled high in the shed attached to the hall which doubles as a kitchen.  i slept soundly that night on the office floor and woke the next morning to a hearty breakfast of spam and eggs.  Taling explained to me that i was to be sent to the islet of Panitugan to aid in the reconstruction of a daycare center.  i didn’t know it at the time but i was about to be the first foreigner ever to have stayed on this islet.

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meet Taling

meet Taling

later that day i was invited to be an honored guest at a special event organized by Oxfam – a British based NGO that came to Bantayan to help the fisherman by rebuilding the many banca boats that were destroyed by the typhoon.  they were celebrating the completion of their newly refurbished fleet.  this involved a ceremony where a priest blessed every new boat followed by an extravagant pig feast and then a boat race.  i was of course elected to partake in the race where my assigned partner and i rowed with all our might out to sea and back.  we finished 3rd of 6 and were awarded 100 pesos.

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for the next order of business, i was to be transported to my new home on Panitugan Islet and introduced to my host family.

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Panitugan is roughly 1km in diameter and home to 200+ people.  even from afar i could tell that the typhoon was not kind to this place and after my investigatory walk around the islet the full scope of the havoc became evident.  devastated concrete structures stood roofless and the remains of fishing boats were overturned onto piles of debris.  most functional dwellings consisted of either woven bamboo and scraps of metal or tents that had been donated.

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at the far west end of the island where the brunt of the storm hit, a concrete facade of a church stands tall and proud while the rest of it lay in ruin.  several children have adopted this as their playground.  what i expected to be the usual kid-chaos actually turned out to be a highly organized effort upon closer inspection.

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my new host father was named Jesus Alolor though the people called him JC.  apart from being a well respected Burangay counselor, he was an enthusiastic man and continuous bundle of joy.  he and his wife took very good care of me.  they put me up on a bamboo bed in their kitchen hut.  mom would cook over a raised fireplace while dad worked on rusty boat engines.

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they also had the most adorable grandchildren that at any moment could be found at the end of a rainbow.

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when i arrived on location the following day for my first day of work i was greeted by the carpenters: Caloy, Armand and another man named Jesus.  they were already well underway installing the ceiling of the in-progress daycare center.

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forget hard hats and steel-toed boots.  this construction site was flip-flops and shirtless and i was lucky to have showed up appropriately dressed.

considering the fact that i had zero carpentry experience and spoke no Cebuano, my initial time with these gentlemen was mostly spent trying to stay out of their way.  they already had such elegant working synergy between them that my best hope in helping them was to stand back, watch and learn.  sometimes they would throw me a bone by pointing to a handsaw and then to a block of wood with a line drawn in it, or by miming to me that they desired something heavy be carried from one place to another.  i took on these tasks with pleasure and felt useful doing so and then went right back to my observing.  i had never before stopped to consider what actually goes into the making of a ceiling but as i sat and watched them take their careful measurements and make their calculations, their plan slowly began to make sense.  by the second day i understood enough of their routine to be able to anticipate their needs.  i could hand them their tools before they need ask and i could handle various setup/teardown tasks in advance to make their workflows and transitions go a little smoother.  i was quickly on my way to becoming a carpenter helper ninja.

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i established a live/work routine here pretty quickly.  each morning i would wake early to the sounds of the village, then eat breakfast while i watched the fisherman come by with the morning’s catch to divvy up among the villagers.  if you could imagine, fish was on the menu for almost every meal.  mom liked to prepare it either salted and deep fried, stewed in a rich vinegar broth or simply raw in spiced vinegar.  fresh, technical and delicious!

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at the end of each work day i would often submerge myself in the ocean at low tide to a setting sun.

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then it was onto the night’s entertainment.  in addition to being the first foreigner to stay on the island, i also seemed to have brought the only guitar.  the combination of these two things brought me quite a bit of curious attention.   on an almost nightly basis a crowd of people would gather around my kitchen hut and listen to my songs.  i threw everything i had at them, be it originals, covers, or their favorite – improvised gibberish.

i adjusted to islet life pretty quickly.  the more i walked the main drag to work in the morning waving to the familiar faces while sipping my coffee, the more i felt apart of the place and less like a visitor.  they all knew where i was last night and accepted my odd ways.  there were no secrets on Panitugan.

though i was at ease, not being able to converse with anyone was beginning to take it’s toll.  it was then i decided to try and befriend a partially domesticated heron.  despite my best efforts to give him a good first impression, our friendship in the end was just not meant to be.

 

finally, my host father introduced me to his niece Florida who lives on Moamboc – the next islet over.  she spoke wonderful English and pretty much immediately assumed the role of translator.  suddenly being able to communicate with my fellow villagers was quite the game changer.  one evening at low tide we walked to her islet and dined with her family.

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the work days were long but rewarding.  a couple of times i got to accompany Jesus on supply run missions to the big island to replenish our stockade of plywood, paint and fresh water.  Taling always awaited us at the main hall with a smile.

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Jesus secures the plywood

the tools and materials we used were in very short supply and often the carpenters would create the things they didn’t have out of the various leftover scraps.  they made due with what they had and applied an assortment of creative workarounds without complaint.  they are the true MacGuvers and they lead by example – everyone of which i cherished with my entire heart.

one evening after the painting phase had begun i managed to break the only paint roller handle we had among us.  i must have thought i was about to be so clever as i went for my trusty kit of surgical tape and super glue until Caloy saw what i was about to attempt.  he snatched the roller out of my hands and proceeded to carve his own handle out of a tree branch using his machete, then fastened it to the roller with a strip of rebar and some rusty wire, then handed it back to me and exclaimed “It’s okay?” (a rhetorical question).  and just like that, i was out-MacGuvered by the king of MacGuvers.

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one ceiling and several coats of paint later, the daycare center looked a little more inhabitable and my work on the Islet had come to an end.

before

before

after

after

before

before

after

after

leaving this place was not easy. after only eight short days on Panitugan i had developed a unique bond with my new family, friends and coworkers. i had become a useful member of their small community and my hard work had earned me their respect.  i made a small yet noticeable impact on their lives and in the process felt like i belonged to something.  something larger than myself. something good.

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Jesus, Roark, Caloy, Armand

how could i possibly go back to being a regular old traveler after an experience like this?… lets go find out…

 

  1. #1 by Karen on June 11, 2014 - 1:37 pm

    Great story!

  2. #2 by Kakay on June 13, 2014 - 2:40 am

    Greetings from the people of Panitugan!

  3. #3 by dj on June 17, 2014 - 10:47 pm

    quite the bird whisperer, roarkalicious. you look so freaking happy :)

  4. #4 by Ana on June 18, 2014 - 12:07 am

    <3

  5. #5 by happiez on June 23, 2014 - 2:31 pm

    It’s good to see you in action, a little video clip and I can almost imagine hanging out with you. Nice job with the bird, yeah you probably did deserve it.

  6. #6 by Brad on June 24, 2014 - 6:22 pm

    Damn dude, that looks like a wonderful place to spend some time.

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