Monday, April 21, 2008

Palawan Diaries Part Two

04 April 2008
Day 2

First day of academic tutorials and I am assigned to the brightest kids of the group; I do not have enough training (and patience, perhaps) to be able to deal with the ones whose needs are greatest.  Technically, they're on their high school years already, but they were brought back to lower levels when the volunteers found out that the dormers really had a tough time with the basics.  It will take some heroics for us in the next few days to be able to fully help these kids.  There is just so much to do and teach in such a short time that we're having a hard time prioritizing what lessons to teach.  But the hardest part is keeping the kids riveted on the lessons, with their short attention spans and distracted minds.  My fellow volunteer decides that we do games with the group to help them focus and learn the most important things that they need to understand.

Also, it's Sister Clara's birthday today.  This explains the appearance of spaghetti on the dinner table.  Most times, the Dorm relies on rice, noodles, and vegetables to keep the kids's stomach's full; animal protein (including fish and other seafood so readily available) is a rare treat.  I learn that the Dorm is trying to stretch their own meager funds to make sure the kids eat three meals a day; morning or afternoon snacks are a rarity and are seen as special treats.  It's depressing to think that these kids might have some protein malnutrition as a result, and even more depressing to learn that the kids only have a chance to eat full meals while they're in the dorm; some kids have confided that they would literally starve in their homes because food was truly hard to come by, even if they worked the land or fished the sea.  This explained the hyperacidity that the kids would complain of right before mealtimes-I suspect that majority of them already have ulcers from the hunger they experienced before.  At this I feel a bit guilty as I realize that I never went hungry at any point of my life and I am thankful for such blessing.

I noticed pans and bowls and plates of flowers decorating the tables.  The kids have raided the premises and came up with the beautiful decor for Sr. Clara's birthday.  These kids are so creative!

Before tucking in, we encounter unwanted guests in the hut.  Geckos have managed to scare us into quivering mardees; I am afraid because when the gecko sticks to you, it's quite hard to remove unless you burn it or scrape it off your skin and it usually bites when it feels threatened.  (Tuko bites cause much bleeding and are notoriously hard to control, usually entailing some medical assistance, and medical assistance was two hours away.)  Initially an eye-to-eye encounter left my knees weak as I proceeded to whisper to my housemates that there was a tuko in residence that was crawling near our sleeping places.  Another tuko made its appearance a little later and we all huddled downstairs anxiously waiting for the reptiles to go about their business and leave us alone.  Thankfully, the dorm 'father' from the Boys' Dorm and one of the kids were able to catch the creatures that were preventing us from getting any sleep.

05 April 2008
Day 3

I thought I had it rough, but the kids have a much harder time.  It's a Saturday, but we are holding classes because they want to maximize the time that volunteers are here to help.  I learned that the sisters who ran the place had great difficulty without the help of academic volunteers and this was most of the year; volunteers would usually stay a month maximum (they had jobs, too, you know) and then the kids would lack teachers until new volunteers came.  The sisters were actually asking me if I could stay for a year and teach Science, Math, and English, given my strong academic background, even if I never had any formal training as teacher--I wish I could give them such time, but I am in med school.  Anyway, I see the kids eat breakfast, rush off to chores delegated amongst themselves, attend academic tutorials, rush off to another round of chores around the dorm, eat lunch, do another set of chores, attend a second round of academic tutorials, do their personal chores, do Dorm chores, eat dinner, do chores again, and finally tuck in exhausted at around 9 in the evening.  The kids almost never have any time to themselves and I worry for their own well-being; it might be that the busy schedule keeps their minds away from thinking about problems back at home or about academics, but I am truly bothered by the wear-and-tear of the daily routine on their young bodies.  They are much stronger physically than I could ever be.

06 April 2008
Day 4

It's my first Sunday in Macarascas and I wake up early so I could prepare for the Mass given by Fr. Chris.  I am surprised when he calls all April celebrants to be blessed at the end of the Mass and before long, I am fielding questions from curious kids about my upcoming birthday.  I see them a bit hopeful that I might be celebrating it during my stay in the place, and I truly wish I could celebrate my birthday in this tiny piece of heaven with the kids, but I have to be back in the capital by the 18th and so cannot indulge the kids.  Our academic tutorials continue today, as we all try to bring the kids' English skills up to par with what's expected from their age.

07 April 2008
Day 5

Early morning signaled the start of the trip to Snake Island in Honda Bay.  Hallelujah for a mobile signal, as I am finally able to talk to family and friends since arriving here; Macarascas (where the dorm is) is nestled within the mountains and only the Globe network reaches that; ironic that as we move to the sea, the Smart network is the one with the signal instead.  Anyway, we take a quick brunch, then I proceed to dive into the water for some snorkeling and feeding the fish with monay (small buns of bread).  I have no sunblock with me and before long, I am the color of almost-burnt toast, but I don't care because I am having the time of my life.  The fact that the corals were a bit damaged and bleached was a sad fact to contend with, but my spirits were revived by the amazing variety of marine life that was present.  A quick lunch in one of the huts interrupted my water activities but not long and I was back in the water, encouraging the other volunteers to go in.  My inner water baby literally came out, and I enjoyed swimming around, feeding more fish with bread, avoiding sea urchins, and trying to catch the bigger fish.  When I finally get out of the water, my skin is painful and I congratulate myself on my first ever sunburn.

Later in the afternoon, we go to Sabang Beach, some three hours' drive into the forest from Honda Bay.  The afternoon light was fast fading, and most of us were a bit damp from the experience of Snake Island, so we began to get chilled by the airconditioning unit of the van.  Out came our sarongs, and we tried to catch some sleep, to no avail.  Everywhere around us rose mountain cliffs and thick forests and endless fields; we were too busy trying to take photos to rest.  Eventually the sun dipped and we found ourselves in the forest path in the dark.  The van was starting to get strangely quiet as my fellow volunteers started taking their naps or just conserving energy. 

Around that time, one volunteer asked me to close the sunroof, because apparently elementals were already frightening our co-volunteer who had a third eye.  A glance at her confirmed that she was indeed already seeing the creatures I couldn't see; I couldn't see if she was already crying from fear.  Apparently too, some elementals hitched a ride on the van, for the van's bottom was scraping the rough road underneath-something that we never experienced before.  When we arrived at the resort later, my co-volunteers were talking about the unusual number of people who were walking in the forest at that time of the day, when it was so dark already.  "Many people?" I asked.  Apparently they saw more people or rather, human-like creatures along the road, when I could see none.  I was quite disturbed by my co-volunteer's recollection that these creatures' feet did not quite touch the ground, and that we also passed some doppelgangers along the way, who took the form of the actual people we had passed minutes before.  Well, moving on...

We stayed in a resort oddly named 'Green Verde.'  For dinner we had tinolang manok (err. chicken in stock with green papayas and sili leaves) and sinigang na baboy (pork in tamarind broth with vegetables) and heaping servings of rice.  It was so pleasant eating our dinner in a hut on the sandy beach, with the sound of the crashing waves breaking the monotony of the cries of  nocturnal creatures.  I wanted to take a dip in the beach, but there were no lights to guide me in, and I was warned that the electricity (the generator, actually) was always turned off at 10 PM.  Our driver/tourist guide, sensing my disappointment, told me to look up to the skies--and there, the skies of Palawan held me in awe.  In Manila, I could never see the starts anymore because of the pollution, but on this island, the entire firmament was mine.  I could probably never aptly describe the tremendous beauty of the black skies punctuated with the diamonds that were the stars.  For one blessed hour, I stood and stared at the sky, with the moving satellites and airplanes interrupting my view at times.  I was surrounded by the looming mountains, the crashing sea and the starry sky, and I was truly and irrevocably at peace.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Palawan Diaries Part One

03 April 2008
Day 1

Waking very early to get to the Centennial Airport for an 0800H flight today had the words "WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!" stamped all over it.  Rising on an ungodly hour of a weekday after an hour of sleep brought back memories conveniently stowed away for two weeks already; yours truly was supposed to be hibernating the summer away, after a very colorful year of med school, after all.  The realization that Palawan was waiting, coupled with the threat of expensive rebooking fees banished all thoughts of procrastination, and before long, yours truly was on a flight to a remote area nestled in the forests that needed so much help.  Friends and extended family members thought that yours truly was on a "burn-out" holiday, replete with sandy beaches, shopping, sightseeing, and stamped passports.  If only they knew.

The window seat afforded a view of the billowing clouds, the shimmering sea in all its azure beauty, the uninhabited (by humans, of course) islands still lush and green, numerous sand bars that would disappear in the tide, and the raging morning sun.  The sight of the Taal volcano waiting in stillness brought a smile to my face and memories of Geo 11 flooding from my mind, and I promised myself I would go back there someday to again reach its inner cauldron.  Trying to make sense of the shapes of clouds took away most of the time and the boredom on the hour long flight; I imagined cherubs playing among the plains of clouds at 30000 feet and pantheons of long forgotten gods of mythology chasing each other amidst screams, laughter, and bliss.  Otherwise, I was bored silly trying to imagine myself in the pilot's seat as the plane banked left and right on its flight path, observing the flight attendants' manners and appearances, or trying to sneak a peek at other passengers as we all bounced to the mild turbulence some minutes before approaching the island.

The army band playing tunes amidst the light rain to welcome tourists

As we descended from the aircraft, we were greeted by the sight and sound of an army band playing some sort of music.  I tried to look for any possible dignitary or self-styled rich brat/diva who was flying with us, as I thought that would be the only reason for such a welcome to be staged at the dingy airport; apparently the army band would play such tunes to welcome visitors of each flight to Palawan.  (I don't know if the situation in Palawan is so peaceful that the armed forces would have nothing much to do, except for making some token patrols around the area and entertaining tourists as such.)  All my worries were almost washed away by such a welcome, except that I couldn't find my luggage in the carousel.  My bad, because I forgot to put luggage tags on the all-black sack; next time, I promised to bring luggage in the loudest neon colors with swirls of glitter or a barrage of prints so that I'd find it easier to locate my stuff.

After an hour's wait for another member of the volunteer group who arrived an hour later on another flight (Air Philippines apparently does not serve merienda, as she reported to us PAL passengers who cackled on the sight of peanuts, biscuits and juice), we made our way to the nearest Jollibee to eat lunch.  All the while I was expecting to be fed kalabasa (squash), ampalaya (bitter gourd), or sitao (yard long beans) with plenty of rice, but apparently our hosts wanted us to 'enjoy' ourselves in our first day, hence the fast food lunch.  It was interesting to note that Jollibee reigned in the city, as I observed couples in their tweens sharing sundaes, families with babies  screaming for Chickenjoy (rice + fried chicken + gravy) and sweet spaghetti, senior citizens nibbling on pancit palabok, and adults wolfing down burger steaks with extra rice.

After a dash to the supermarket to buy last minute groceries, we proceeded to the Crocodile Farm.  After a short tour and lecture on crocodiles and crocodiles in Palawan in general, we went to see the wildlife inside the preserve.  I saw the crocodile hatchlings vegging out mouths open, eyes open (?) and motionless in the pens permeating with the awful smell of rotting fish; crocodiles, I learned as we walked on, were nocturnal creatures and ate a lot of raw fish.  The guide cheerfully informed us to keep our cameras outside the pens, as baby crocodiles were known to jump for cameras and mobile phones held over their pens, mistaking the gadgets for food.  We emerged from the crocodile pens to see the thick forest around us.  The preserve had all sorts of wildlife within; bear cats, cuckatoos, ostriches, etcetera.  Reminded of the dangers of malaria, I proceeded to apply insect repellant and went around the foot paths to see the other animals who were apparently asleep or in hiding.  After wandering around, I went to the hut where visitors could hold a baby crocodile for photos.

We arrived late afternoon in the dormitory, where we were warmly welcomed and given a short tour of the place.  I could see the kids looking at us shyly or greeting the volunteers who had previously gone in the place.  We were introduced to the volunteers, the parish priest, the kids, and the sisters.  Bags in tow, we went to what was fondly known as Bahay Ganda (House of the Beautiful) located outside the main area, within the lot that likewise housed the Boys' Dorm.  We (ten volunteers) were to spend the next several nights in the nipa and bamboo hut, armed with mosquito nets, cotton blankets, and our makeshift pillows. 

After some time, a bell signalled the start of dinner, simple yet delicious and oh-so-fresh.  The welcome program by the kids was started right after, and then we spent almost an hour discussing our plans for academic tutorials, interest groups and other activities.  I receive the shocking news that instead of science and mathematics, I am to teach English; apparently the kids' really needed help on the basics of English comprehension.  The entire volunteering experience would entail us teaching the dormers the very basics of the English language.  I am uneasy, disappointed and bummed; I'm not exactly the best person to go to for grammar, elocution, or whatnot.  I came here with the expectations of teaching Science and nothing else; it seems that there is a huge communication gap between the people who invited me to volunteer and the actual volunteers who ran the place.  I contemplate catching the first plane home the very next day, but what the hell, I couldn't waste money on rebooking fees just yet, and I've never backed down from being slapped with the subtle hint that I might not be needed after all.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


Not content with our semi-bucolic village hamlet in the suburbs of Manila, yours truly has decided to take a vacation take a trip to a very rural/pastoral/rustic/arcadian place where only one network has any semblance of a mobile signal, where you actually pump water out of a well to take a bath or a dump under the stars, where you cross some rice paddies or jump islands to get from home to home, and where you ride on the roof of a jeepney (picking up the pigs and furniture and produce that go inside the jeepney) to get to the main city.

Adiós! Au revoir! Slàn leat!

P.S. Let's see if I get LJ withdrawal symptoms. :P