Splash. The moment when you first dive into the icy waters of an Arctic ocean can be shocking. On a mission to explore a gigantic, strangely shaped iceberg far away from the calm waters of the safe shores we call home, you jump into a bright and clear surface reflecting the sky, hiding everything beneath it in misty darkness. Equipped with barely a thing, only few tools by your side, you set out for an adventure into unknown waters, unable to predict what you will discover. But the excitement flooding your veins drives you; nothing can hold you back. You jump. And you are most curios what is waiting for you.
The iceberg described is indeed the ideal metaphorical figure for this volunteer service on the islands of the Philippines. On August 10th my companion Mareike and I jumped right into the unknown waters of an entirely foreign culture and society. From Frankfurt, Germany, via Abu Dhabi, we travelled to Manila, the Filipino capital, and arrived at midnight on August 11th. As we entered the airport building, we quickly realized that the well-known order and organization of things in Germany we were used to will no longer guide us. Instead of clear lines we found ourselves in the midst of one enormous bundle of domestic and international travelers waiting to have our passports checked in the middle of the night. After more than one exhausting hour of waiting, we failed to spot out the driver from the hotel that was booked for us. Neither airport staff nor a police officer could help us, which forced us to continue our search outside. In the regular meeting area then, again, nobody awaited us. Hence we made an expensive call. The hotel receptionist repeatedly asked for the precise description of our current position before he assured to have a driver fetch us “in about five minutes”. Nearly 20 minutes later, a young man held a sign out of a white van which had our slightly misspelled names written on it. After wiggling through “calm” 2 a.m. Manila traffic, we were greeted by two receptionists (and a cockroach) at our hotel. At this point we realized everything is different here. Two hours and two showers later, we left to catch our early flight to our final destination: Naga city.
Landing in the midst of volcanoes and rainforests was a feeling that words could barely capture. It compared to a mixture of awe, curiosity, a hint of intimidation, joy, excitement and pure adrenalin. The joyful Swiss butcher Roland Lehmann, a good friend and supporter of our organization, arrived two minutes after us to pick us up and bring us to our future home. In his multi-purpose van we drove down the roads of Naga city for the first time of our lives and all we were missing was the popcorn to watch the scenery as in a movie theatre. Incredible impressions hit us straight in the face: solid tall hotel buildings and schools and stores aligned with tiny wooden and metal shacks and shops; Mitsubishi, Isuzu and Toyota cars were passing each other left and right; motorcycles with tiny rusty metal wagons on their sides were racing lengthy, colorful jeeps in a constant stop-and-go race with no apparent rules; the scent of car exhaust mixed with the smell of frying foods and incoming rain; and the skin color of every person we saw can be best described as the hue of milk chocolate.
This amazing chaos I could not grasp. After arriving at our new home, a small apartment in a little compound downtown, and after removing few cobwebs and finishing the construction of our new bunk beds, I laid down on the little couch. I felt entirely overwhelmed, although nothing bad had happened at all. This feeling, right before I fell asleep, was the closest to a culture shock I got up to this point. Fortunately, our Filipino partner, host and boss Rey Hernandez began a little culture-country-orientation with us the following two days. Within this time Mareike and I were taught the essentials, the basic steps and guidelines to survive in the Philippines. Numerous tips should help us to accomplish just that, such as: Always carry a backpack with disinfecting alcohol, Off Lotion against mosquitos and (interestingly) toilet paper. When riding a tricycle (the mentioned motorcycles with a little wagon on one side) aim for well-known destinations or the driver will just leave you there. Say “Para po” when you want a jeepney to stop and do NOT pay more than eight Filipino Pesos (16 Eurocents) for a regular ride. Avoid raw street foods. Be aware that you look foreign and will therefore be treated differently (sometimes more polite, sometimes as if you have more money). And most importantly: Many dangerous situations can be avoided if you move around consciously and rationally.
On the following Monday morning Rey brought Mareike to the Fatima Center School in Iriga, one hour south of Naga. On the same day he drove me to my new workplace: the Missionaries of the Poor (MoP). MoP can be best described as a Catholic monastery run by roughly 60 religious Brothers with one major goal: to serve the poorest people. Sick, abandoned and disabled men, women and children find refuge in the large apostolate. There the Brothers, social workers, nurses and cooks provide physical and medical treatment, food and a place to sleep, basically a home for about 90 residents at the moment. This is the place where I work every weekday since that Monday.
My time and experience there could never be put into words properly, even these short three weeks. But this much shall be said: Within the eight hours of time between my jeepney and tricycle rides there and back home, I help the Brothers as much as I can to maintain the facility, sweep and mop the floors, serve food and drinks to the residents, even feed some of them, clean dishes, arrange bedsheets and do whatever work there is at the moment. Sometimes it simply requires carrying children’s beds, clean mattresses, painting a fence, helping fetch children from school, cleaning up urine, cutting an Indian mango tree with a machete or helping to sort out a truckload of food donations. However, the equally important part of my work there is to simply spend time with the residents. So far I worked in the children’s section and men’s section. Before and after lunch usually offers much free time to spend with a group or individuals. During these hours I try to spend a good time with them, talk, play games, sing or dance, just be with them. Having someone to spend time with, being given attention especially by someone so unusual generates lots of joy among many of these remarkable people. It was and still is difficult sometimes to find an activity but over the course of time, I feel more confident and comfortable doing so. For the children I picked stuffed animals from the MoP supplies, cuddled, played and told stories to them; drawing or even writing is one of the favorite activities for everyone there; I already built (and helped building) countless paper planes, ships, hats and “himmel oder hölle”-items; as far as there is equipment, we can play badminton or volleyball in the courtyard; wheelchair rides and races are always fun; one day I tried (quite successful even) to teach a few boys the “Pitch Perfect” cup song; and today I was showing some residents spontaneously how to knit wristbands out of palm tree leaves. There is too much to mention.
After all, I can say that I whole-heartedly enjoy the connections I can create with the people here. Above all, the fellowship of the MoP Brothers, their family, in which they had accepted me instantly, means very inexplicably much to me! They are astounding, wonderful people. I try to reflect my appreciation for them through my full support in their community. Next to the developing connections to some residents in the men section, I adore the joyful children, who come up to me, hug or simply smile at me every single time. I became friends with two social work students, interning at MoP, who then introduced me to some iconic Filipino food places (like Jollibee, a fast food chain) along with their college friends. Coincidentally, I got connected to a Tai Ji Juan (Chinese self-defense art) teacher, whose class I attended twice already. Many people show kindness towards me here at first and even beyond that first impression politeness, some even truly want to get to know me, I feel. It is such an incredibly amazing experience so far, although I only know what is going on half the time.
The Philippines are challenging me in many ways but I can say very honestly that I try to appreciate all these difficulties as the life lessons they exemplify. The only reason why I wish that it is October already is because Mareike will most likely not only temporarily return to Naga.
Due to the strict prohibiton of photography at MoP, I was unable to take more than one picture with two boys who explicitly asked for a picture with me. Instead, I added an image of a few Brothers and I after building a tiny hut out of bamboo and plastic covers for the image of Penafrancia in a village during a three day outing close to Caramoan.