Kat Cousins is one half of the ‘Kat and Kat’ dream team volunteering in the Philippines.
First impressions (January 2009)
So, here I am in a place I never thought I’d be. Got to be honest, Asia has never appealed to me as somewhere I particularly want to go. Not sure why – just guess we’re drawn to certain places are we not? Anyway, when it was recommended to me the only thing I knew about the Philippines was that when The Beatles had gone on tour there they had a frightful time, due to Imelda Marcos going mad at them for not turning up to dinner they didn’t even realise they had been invited to, and had to leave the country early swearing they would “only return to drop a bomb on it” (Harrison).
But I followed the advice from dear James, quite liking the idea that it is a path someone else has pointed out to me as opposed to choosing the route myself, and 4 days in I am 100% happy with the decision.
What a place! I can already say that I strongly advocate the idea of anybody embarking on work in a different culture because we miss SO much just sticking to what we know. I lived in Canada but Canada is less of a culture shock than Asia. I have visited Spain, France, Germany, Turkey, Greece – all possessing their own unique cultures, yet I feel my experiences in these places only differ slightly from my own norm. Perhaps this is because I have only holidayed there, or perhaps because they are not so vastly contrasting to England. Here, there is the added element that I am immersed in the culture because I am living here – spending my time with locals, and not being with friends on holiday; just outsiders doing “touristy” things.
So what am I doing here? ….Sent by BOVA – Bosco Volunteer Action – I am living in a Salesian community. Don Bosco was a priest in the 1800s Italy who didn’t want to simply sit in church and pray, he wanted to look outwards. He had great faith in a loving God and was inspired by his faith to dedicate his life to youth. He did lots of good for street children and prisoners. Knowing that he would soon pass on, he founded an organisation of priests and brothers called Salesians who dedicate their life to serving disadvantaged youth. There are Salesian communities all over the world with projects aimed at supporting and helping the young. BOVA is an English organisation who send volunteers out to these communities to support the work of the Salesians. There is a religious ethos to all that I am doing here, and I am no saint and at times in my life am even uncertain of any existence of a God, so have at times felt uneasy about the religious element of BOVA. However, I think the Salesians are fab and the projects that they have going on out here alone are just admirable, and priests are actually pretty fun to be around. As a child I attended church, so I am not altogether alien to religious practices. The prayer time here I find to be a time of peace and a time for reflection. Most importantly, I believe wholeheartedly in what the Salesians try to do. I am so impressed with BOVA as an organisation too – the education and training I have received regarding issues of poverty, culture, travelling, religion and life in general, has been priceless. So what have I been up to? I have visited some of the Don Bosco projects. So far, I was most struck by “Operation Second Chance” – a young offenders prison, where I met murderers down to thieves; boys all under 18. Pretty crazy. They were all really nice. It’s poverty which has forced them into crime really. Don Bosco have lots of programmes going on inside so the boys get skills, for example a woodwork program, where they sell what they make and the money then goes back into the programme to buy resources. Like a cycle. Salesians believe that the youth need to be loved and know that they are loved, but if they are ever to escape poverty they need to be educated and trained in areas that they could find work in.
Pasil – the slum in which I am staying is the most astoundingly eye-opening place I have been. The atmosphere is indescribable, and different at morning, noon and night. The fact that the place is a dire, dirty, rat-infested, cramped slum is totally overshadowed by the sheer life that bursts from every avenue and corner, and from the smiles of every person. This is poverty; yet everyone SEEMS so happy. Pasil is absolutely crowded; music blaring; families all sat on the side of a road watching one TV; oh watch out for the horse drawn carriages (slum-style) and the tricicads transporting too many people; the sizzling of the bbqs; old men sleeping outside their shacks; and children. Everywhere. No curfew here – they’re up all night, playing with nothing but each other and the land they were born into.
The first time I walked through Pasil at night I experienced the most immense high; a sense of awe and of energy. Yet, that makes me uncomfortable because am I not taking pleasure from what is at essence a shocking situation? Contradictions such as this are ripe in life – the older I get the more I find. However, that is the way I felt. But perhaps the high was an admiration because being the only white person I have seen since arrival, I felt like a very privileged guest in a wonderful place and I felt humbled by these people, and honoured that I had the opportunity to be in their home. I took some photos and it felt almost wrong – look at the white tourist snapping away at the children playing in trailer back, but I was reassured by the Filipinos that it was FINE and I think perhaps that the people of Pasil are glad to see outsiders come to their home too.
I just wanted to talk to everybody and get stuck in. I am so excited to be here for 3 months and try and get to know the people as well as I can.