Life on yet another tropical island.....

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Asia » Philippines » Legaspi
January 17th 2007
Published: August 1st 2008
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Good day!

I keep forgetting how involved and time-consuming it is to do disaster relief work. It's physically and mentally tiring, but highly addicting at the same time! I just got to the Philippines four days ago after a glorious week in Chiang Mai. In northern Thailand, the weather was ideally cool, and quite refreshing coming from the more hot and humid days on the southern Thai islands as well as Borneo, where I spent a little over a month staying with some local friends. Sure I filled my days doing STUFF and THINGS, but to elaborate on them at this point just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. Besides, I have a feeling there will be little time to access emails in the next few months, and not to forget that just getting on line here is quite a bear!

Internet is spotty at best, and requires a 20-minute jeepney excursion into town just to get there. When the kids are out of school for the day, we can pretty much forget about jumping on line, as the cafes are filled with game players and school children doing research. At this point we are working on getting some sort of on-line system in place at the house in which we are staying, instead of having to go through the GPRS phone. All in time, I suppose, all in time.

Ok, where to begin. I am staying in the Hands On Disaster Response "HQ" in a rather nice, concrete home owned by German man who only comes into town once a year or so. We have employed his wife's sister to wash, cook and clean for us, as she lives conveniently right behind us! This house suffered little or no damage from the typhoon nor the lahar flow, and is one of the more structurally sound homes in the neighborhood.

Lahar is a mixture of sand and volcanic ash that comes from the cone of the volcano, having been "spewed out" at one point during a past eruption. There was a terrible lahar flow right on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, which is a little town next to Legaspi City in Southern Luzon. The violent winds and the torrential rains loosened the ground on the sides of the volcano, causing the massive flow of lahar, which literally wiped out homes, buildings and people in it's path.

The beautiful and majestic volcano, Mayon, is only located six miles away. Though it has been cloudy and quite cool the past few days that I have been here, I can often see the base of the volcano, though not since the grueling bus ride from Manila have I actually seen the volcano in its entirety! I'm beginning to wonder if it really does exist! 

Ok, so I know you all are going to have a thousand questions and I know I can't fully grasp the experience I am about to embark on and transfer it all to email, but I'll do the best I can to paint an overall picture so everyone can know what is really going on over here. Please be patient, as, once again, internet is slow and unpredictable. I don't know how often I'll be able to send emails and certainly it'll be difficult to respond to individual comments, though I promise you this much: I will (and always have!) read all of them. Please don't stop writing cause you think I have better things to do or read, cause I really enjoy hearing from each and every one of you!

We have no electricity in our little town so we run a generator every night for a few hours and sometimes for a bit in the morning. Right now we are having some difficulties and are powering it up through our one motorbike! Yeah, primitive, I know, but after all, we are living in one of the most poverty-stricken areas in all of the Philippines. Who are we to complain? It is what it is and we make do with what we have.

Thus far I have met some of the most friendly and appreciate people who are enjoying our organization being here and are willing to work with us to get their neighborhoods cleaned up and back to some working order once again.

So as not to overload you with rambling, but so you can have some general idea as to what it is we are doing here, I'll give you a list of a few of the jobs we have lined up thus far. We mucked out and put up some new corrugated roofing on a school down the street, finishing last weekend so the kids could start school this past Monday. What a glorious sight to see all the local kids in their uniforms trudging off to the school that had been under FEET of lahar and mud for the past 5 weeks! They were all so happy to be "hitting the books" again after this long unfortunate break.

We are also starting to tarp some roofs, though comparing the roofs here with those in Biloxi after Katrina is like comparing apples and oranges! There are various roof types, pitches and roofing materials(more often than not, some sort of "thatch" is used), and with the relatively sparse roofing materials available to us, means we are basically going to be jerry rigging whatever to whatever! Each roof will be treated on an individual basis. One of the locals yesterday tied a thin metal wire to the ends of the tarp, poked the wire ends through holes in the corrugated roofing (called GI, galvanized iron) and then wrapped it around the end of the GI. The bottom part of the tarp hung slightly over the end of the roof, so he just tied the bottom corners with the wire, and the other end of the wire he wrapped around large stones (yes, stones from the volcano! Did I mention they are very resourceful around here!? ;-)) to "weight" down the tarp and threw them over the side of the house. Unless there is a massive wind that blows through, this should keep the tarp from blowing away. Again, it's whatever works around here!

Fishing is the livelihood of so many in this area so we are going to start a boat-building project in a barangay about 20 minutes from here. There are 20 boats that received full damage and need to be replaced at roughly $50 per boat. We as an organization have agreed to purchase the materials if the local fishermen provide the labor. There were four of us from Hands On in attendance at a very informal, outdoor meeting with the local fishermen yesterday. They sat on little plastic chairs arranged in a sort of semi-circle on the compact mud of a front yard while we four from Hands On sat on the covered porch facing them. After much discussion and many head nods later, we all came to some working agreement that we as an organization will help them out. I want to learn how to build these fishing boats, or bancas as they are called (they are very simple by Western standards), so I will be alongside the fishermen as "we" assemble the boats right on the beach!! It'll be a challenge in so many ways, first cause I have never built a boat in my life, and also because there is this little thing called a language barrier. Who knows, perhaps my nautical terminology will prosper in the local Bicol dialect!? HA! This project will be a "test run" as we have another barangay with more boats that also need replacing or repairing. All in time.

We'll have other projects as time goes on, but when we are bored with nothing to do, there is always lahar shoveling! For those of you that spent time in Thailand, Katrina Land or Indo after the last disasters, it's a bit like debris clearing or brick throwing! Monotonous at best, but damn, it works the arm muscles! No complaints here!

Ok, this blast went on longer than I had intended. I'll fill all y'all in with whatever new info I have, when I get some time. In the meantime, I thought this was a good introduction for all those wondering "WHERE IS SUZI NOW???"

Please take a few minutes to peruse through the website at If there are any of you out there with some extra non-spent Christmas money burning a hole in your pocket, or, if you are just willing to donate a few extra bucks towards the Typhoon Reming (otherwise known as Typhoon Durian in the rest of the world. Don't ask…) Relief Project it would be much appreciated. Remember, talk to those around you, as well. You never know who might be able to help out the organization and this Filipino community. Fund raisers ( I never did well with those myself, but maybe someone out there, perhaps with a school or church affiliation, can think of ways to make a little money on a local level) may be able to raise awareness and raise something so these folks can start to get back on to their feet again.

Our boat project is just one way of helping this little community back on to its feet again, but since we are an organization solely relying on donations, it's all we can do to ask for some help… whatever way possible. Donations are easy to do on line directly through the website. Please mention my name so we can keep track of where the money came from.

Holiday season may be over, but if the spirit of giving is still with you or if there is still that "special gift" you wanted to give to someone, you might want to think about this part of the world, the part of the world that often gets forgotten. The more I travel in impoverished lands, the more I see how we get so stuck in our western ways of thinking, the "me me me" attitude, and we tend to forget (or perhaps we never really knew??) about some of the most wonderful people on this earth, just too poor or "invisible" to get noticed.

Thanks for listening. And a big thank you for those who have already contributed. You know who you are. :-)

I'm going out and shoveling some lahar now.


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