James was a volunteer in Pasil in the Philippines. Read an email from him below.
I’ve been here for two weeks now. In some ways it feels like much more than that. It seems like months since I slept in my bed at home or ate a meal that did not include rice. On the other hand, the time has flown by because of all the incredible experiences I’ve been so privileged to have had.
My flight arrived in the city of Cebu in the south of the Philippines after a long flight via Doha and Singapore, and I was met at the airport by Peter, the volunteer coordinator. From the plane I’d looked down upon beautiful islands with sandy beaches, blue waters and gently bobbing fishing boats and couldn’t wait to leave the air-conditioning behind me. As soon as we left the airport I realized my mistake. 32 degrees! Hot hot hot. To help the process of acclimatization, volunteers are not taken directly to the project in which they’ll be working. Instead they spend a week living at the Salesian Provincial house, where I learned to love the funny smell and constant whirring of the air-con in my room.
The drive to the house was a good introduction to the Filipino road system. Taxis, cycle-rickshaws known as sidecars, small horse drawn carriages called tartanillas, motorbike-tricycles and private cars do battle to edge forward through the traffic, but the undisputed kings of the road are the brightly coloured jeepneys. These converted US army jeeps are the main form of public transport and seem to exist beyond any highway code, stopping whenever someone wants to get on or off. There are few official jeepney stops – and nobody seems too surprised when one just slams on its brakes in the middle of the road. Often they have girls’ names or religious phrases on the front. I suppose it is some comfort to see that the jeepney which runs you down has ‘Jesus saves’ painted above the windscreen. Filipino drivers, including J.R. who drove us back from the airport, make good use of their vehicles’ horns. A single ‘beep’ can mean anything – a greeting, a signal of anger or frustration, a sign of ‘respect’ to a beautiful girl or, most commonly, ‘I am here’ given when overtaking – most jeepney drivers don’t appear to see much point in wing-mirrors.
My time at the Provincial house was filled by Peter and Fr Julius introducing me to the Salesian projects in and around Cebu and giving me a crash course in all things Filipino. Although I’m sure we only scratched the surface, it was a fascinating time. I was taken to Ayala Mall, a huge shopping complex that would not look out of place in the UK, frequented here mainly by the rich. In stark contrast was our visit to a fragile-looking roadside shack to buy some lechon (an extremely popular local dish, fatty roast pork with added spices). To my amazement there was an armed policeman singing videoke (video karaoke) love songs. He dedicated a ballad to me – one man, fighting against crimes to music! Videoke and karaoke seem to be something of a national craze. On the street there are small stalls at which people can sing or listen to musicians of varying quality. From my office, where I am writing this report, I can sometimes hear the locals performing – which is usually very enjoyable.
After a week I was taken to visit Pasil, the community in which I will be working. It is a relatively small slum area with a huge population and high unemployment rates. The streets are narrow, with stalls, children and basketball games making them very difficult to negotiate in a car. The most common vehicles here are the sidecars, pedal-powered by men and boys who weave skilfully around cats, dogs, bikes, pigs, hens, cockerels (for cock fighting), loose basketballs and innumerable children. The powerful smell of fish and pollution and the constant drone of a power-station are impossible to miss. In the middle of the chaos are the gates of Don Bosco-Pasil. By day it is an oasis of calm as a vocational training centre for local out-of-school youth. At 6pm each day it becomes a busy youth centre at which 100s of young people play basketball.
All my years of obsessively playing basketball and following the American NBA have certainly paid off. There are courts everywhere. In Pasil they range from a large, professional looking gym to homemade contraptions hanging over the road. One of the highlights of my time here so far was playing a game of 2 on 2 in the road with 3 young people. Around 100 people gathered to watch, including one man who shouted “time out” or “commercial break” each we had to hold the ball while a sidecar passed by. Just for the record my team won.
For the first couple of day I commuted to Pasil from the Provincial House, along with Bernhard, a German volunteer who will also be staying here. Each day we seemed to find a slightly different way to get lost, but there was always a friendly Filipino around to help us on our way! The journey required taking two jeepneys and enabled us to see them as public transport, not just interesting novelties. It also gave us access to parts of the Philippines that an average tourist may not see, such as the city waking up, markets and people in Pasil washing in the street.
On our third day in Pasil we were invited to join a group of staff on a day trip to a beach. What a day! The people were so friendly and welcoming, the water was warm and the food was never-ending. As well as managing to get a very burnt back I conquered some of my dislike of sea food, tasting eel and some tiny (baby?) fish that looked like grains of rice with eyes, eaten raw. I am eating very well here; lots of rice, pansit noodles, fish, meat and an incredible variety of fruits. For some reason my fingernails are growing much faster than at home – perhaps the result of rice three times a day?
I finally moved to Pasil two days ago, into a room with views of the sea and the rooftops of the slum. I’m missing the air-con but gradually getting used to the smell and the noise. The trainees are on vacation, leaving me with time during the day so I have been visiting a local orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity to play with the children and hopefully pick up some of the local dialect. In the evening I play basketball and music at the youth centre.
At the moment I have a sneaking suspicion that I smell of fish. My shower doesn’t work so I have bucket-baths. My bucket had a hole in it so I asked the cook for another one. I think its last use may have been holding fish. In fact a mouse just ran into my office, wrinkled its nose at me and ran out again.
All the best