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February 2014

23/02/14 First Days in Kalibo

It's only been two weeks since my arrival in Kalibo, my new home town.Two weeks that feel so much longer. For so much has happened. It is a memorable time to arrive in a new country for the first time. You know you will be here in this town, seemingly random, for many months to come. All is new, the people, the food, the language. The town itself and the way it operates. And yet you're supposed to feel home here. Indeed it is your home. And probably more than anything the first few weeks will decide how succesfully you can feel home. My tally so far is not too bad.

Sunday two weeks ago I landed at the small Kalibo International Airport on a local plane from Manila. Having completed the long training and orientation sessions in the capital I was full of excitement and happy expectations to finally get here. The landing approach of the short local flight was already impressive. There was this endless blue sea. Bordered on one side buy this big green landmass. The Philippine island of Panay with it's dark green forest cover and the inland mountains from above looked like a tropical paradise. The final approach lead us straight alongside the small tourist island of Boracay with it's long white beach. And then touchdown on the main island, in Kalibo.
We were actually four Australians on that plane. Three of us volunteers for AVID, the 'Australian Volunteers for International Development' program.And there is one accompanying partner of a volunteer. As far as we know there are two more volunteers already in town. Of the US Peace Corp. And that is the current expat population of Kalibo, the capital of Aklan.
Each of us will work for a different host organisation doing different things. My new workplace is with the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office, a department of the Provincial Government of Aklan. The assignment description for me just says Disaster Management Officer. I'm still not sure what exactly that entails at the time of the touch down in Kalibo. But this understanding will soon develop.
All of us are picked up from the Airport by our new workmates, people of our host organisations who we will be working together with for many months to come. For me there is Jayfree patiently waiting in the small terminal. Jayfree is my local 'counterpart'. In the AVID program the main objective is the training and coaching of a 'counterpart', a person filling a similar role to our own back home. Someone on the same level of a similar organisation who we will team up with over the coming months, who we will exchange skills and knowledge with. Much like a work related temporary brother. And Jayfree and me, we are the counterparts on my assignment, he will be my 10 years younger 'brother'.
The first week really went superfast. Not so much in terms of work but in terms of getting my life here organised. At the time I was really looking forward to be coming to some sort of a stable 'home' after spending 11 weeks living out of a backpack in India, after another 10 days living out of a different backpack in Manila. And even in Kalibo I started living out of a backpack in a small 'Pensionne', a bed and breakfast place just across the road from the office. I coundn't have asked for a friendlier place to stay. The owners are the kind of people who do everything for you, who will sit with you and talk all night if you have time. Also the location was just perfect, literally across the road from the office. The perfect temporary place. But also just that. Temporary. I was so keen to find something more 'permanent'. To finally unpack the backpack. And start living. In order to do so Jen, one of the other other volunteers, and me we teamed up. And with a tremendous support from both our host organisations went house hunting as a priority project during our first few days. And it did prove rather difficult but one week later on Sunday we moved into our own two bedroom townhouse. First thing I did was unpacking my backpack.
The town of Kalibo is the capital city of the province of Aklan. It is a town of around 75000 people, not feeling like a big town at all. Most of the traffic consists of tricycles, the local form of public transport. For just 8 Pesos (=AU$0.20) these motorbikes with sidecars take you anywhere in town. Incredibly there is room for 9 people. The tricycles themselves are selfmade, using mostly old two-stroke motorcycles and a welded sidecar with three small benches to sit on. They also proudly feature a Philippino design exhaust system which makes a 125ccm motorcycle sound like a Harley. As a form of public transport they are incredibly efficient. You literally never have to wait. Just turn to the street and wave with your hand and a tricycle will stop right in front of you, ready for you to squeeze in. The motto here is: 'There is always room for one more'. You could compare the tricycle system to a massive conveyor belt slowly but constantly moving along the streets with little tricycles shooting out towards the sides every now and then to exchange passengers. These little vehicles are responsible for probably 90% of the smog and noise in town. But don't get me wrong, the smog is not that bad. Because Kalibo is small. Our townhouse is near the main market, a busy block of stalls and sheds selling all things food. Fresh fish, meat, eggs, bread, fruit, veggies, cans and sweets. Perfect place to live near. From here I walk 20min to the office, past more street market stalls, small restaurants and motorcycle repair shops. Walking to the neverending soundtrack of slowly moving tricycles. Sometimes I actually catch a tricycle to work. But I love walking, so mostly that's what I do. The office is just a small room within a basketball stadium, just under the concrete steps of the stands. Consequently our ceiling has a 45deg angle. There are 5 small timber desks for the 5 staff members. One of them is for me now and it still somehow works out because hardly ever are all 5 staff in the office at the same time. There is also one computer.
When we weren't busy hunting for apartments, we spent most of the time at work not working but meeting people. Everything was new, everyone got excited. We met the Police Chief, the Mayor, people in the Governors Office (the Governor was in Manila at the time so we will meet him later) and of course lots of people we will work together with in the future. So many new faces and names to remember, it's impossible. But the general vibe I got was incredibly friendly. People in the Philippines are very happy people, consequently they are constantly smiling. You just can't help but be happy too.
My work will have two parts to it. Part one will be working with Jayfree in his function as an employee for the Provincial Government (PDRRMO). The PDRRMO only has five staff members, responsible for the provincewide overview and coordination of all things 'disaster'. Not to actually do hands on work in disasters. But coordinating the many small agencies of local municipalities and 'barangays' (villages) in their efforts. Those are the ones responding hands on. The PDRRMO however is establishing a flood early warning system along the major rivers in the province. Not just the sensors but also the monitoring of the sensors, warning protocolls, definition of warning levels, response actions, community education about the new procedures etc. And that will be my field of focus with the PDRRMO. Part two of my work will be working with Jayfree in his function as the president of the SEALS. The SEALS are the 'Society of Enthusiastic Aklanons for Life Saving Services'. They are a group of all volunteers, trained in rescue and first aid skills and they are one of the agencies responding hands-on in disasters. There are SEALS teams all over the province to be locally responsible for any emergency in a certain locality. There is a group of 7 SEALS permanently residing in SEALS HQ in Kalibo, an office in the same compound (=Basketball Stadium) as the PDRRMO. A group of 7 young guys in their twenties, well trained and ready for action. Similar to the SES in Australia the SEALS volunteers respond to flood and storm emergencies. But also to road crashes and all other potential natural and man made disasters that frequently trouble the Philippines. Their skills are amazing, the equipment though is the the part that often limits their ability to effectively respond. And also the fact that there are basically no protocols in the Philippines about Emergency Management Scenarios. There are no defined combat agencies, no emergency call numbers, no funding arrangements. There is no standardised training for many fields of rescue work or any best practice or standard operating procedures. And here is the small point that Jayfree and me will focus on in our work with the SEALS. Organisation and some training. And some fundraising for equipment.
During my first week I did spend most nights hanging out with the 7 resident SEALS in their HQ. And they are amazing people. The way I met them in my first week in Kalibo was as a group of energetic kids, a great team and very inclusive and super welcoming towards me. There are some language difficulties which hinder our communications somewhat. But there is a plan that I will take language training from the SEALS which is quite exciting for all of us.
The SEALS being volunteers, money is an issue. But somehow also is not a problem to lose sleep over. For they can stay in the HQ for free. And get a small amount whenever they conduct training for other agencies. During these times food will also be provided free of charge. But generally money is non existent. And that somehow is not a bad thing. Because it certainly bonds the team. And I've hardly ever seen such a closely knit team as the happy seven Kalibo HQ SEALS.
The end of my second week was already a highlight of my stay in the Philippines. Our team facilitated a big bushwalk in one of the municipalities of Aklan and set up two activities along the way as well. One abseiling down a rockface into a creek. And one Flying Fox across a small river. With most of the 80 or so hikers actively participating. Around 80 people of all walks of life screaming down the rockface and flying across the river. Including myself, the first time ever that I 'flew' across a Flying Fox. Having such a friendly group of people to spend a weekend together was good fun. And also doing something outdoors in the beautiful rainforest of Panay with it's clear rivers and misty mountains. What I enjoyed most though was that we spent the two and a half days together as a team. For when I arrived in Kalibo, two weeks ago, I was pretty much alone. Two weeks later a team started to form with me. And that more than anything, doesn't just make me feel extremely welcome here. But also it makes me feel just that a little bit more 'at home'.

Manila, the capital of the Philippines during our In Country Orientation Training

The Provincial Capitol - the building of Aklan's Provincial Government here in Kalibo

The concrete seawall near New Washington - destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda

Me being the casualty in a First Aid scenario

Choice of snack food: chicken feet, hot dogs and chicken intestine

Some of our Seals volunteers on the boat to Boracay Island

On Boracay Island - one of the Philippines famous paradise island tourist destinations


Another week has passed and it went as quickly as the first few. As I am slowly getting familiar with the new surroundings people also get familiar with me. Mostly the local shop keepers near my home. Like the shopkeeper of the bamboo furniture stall who does not let me pass without sitting down and having a short chat. Since I bought some furniture items off him. Also when I enter the market now, my name is already called and food items are being prepared without me saying anything. There is the one lady who I buy my bananas from every second day. There is the other guy who sells my favourite pancakes. And the third lady who I buy lots of other fruit from and who proposes to marry me every time. There is also the bakery who greets me in the morning with a friendly 'Ahh, BANANA BREAD!'. Well, you guess what I am having for breakfast...
Food is indeed one of the biggest adaptions required of expats here in the Philippines. When back home my breakfast pretty much always consisted of a bowl of muesli with fresh milk the same dish is incredibly complicated here in Kalibo. Muesli is hardly available and the one that is comes from South Africa, costs a fortune and is full of sugar. Fresh milk is frankly impossible to come buy. So there is only longlife milk which is heaps expensive again. Or milk powder. So a typical bowl of muesli with longlife mild here would cost around 120 Pesos (around AU$3.00). That is a massive amount for philippino standards. Considering you can go to the bakery and get a thick slice of freshly baked banana bread for 10 Pesos. Or at the market you get some sort of a big rice pudding dish for 5 pesos. So not surprisingly my breakfast routine has changed to 'Lets go to the market and see what we feel like today' - take away breakfast for 20 Pesos combined with a cup of green tea and some fresh fruit.
Usually then when arriving at work at 8am a big bag of sweet breadrolls is already waiting to be shared amongst the office staff. Soon after 40 Pesos are collected for our lunch program. One of my workmates will take that money, go to the market, buy fresh food such as fish or meet or veggies and then cook for all of us. The end product of his cooking is what we share for lunch. Everyone sitting together and eating together. Lunch meals range from the awesome (fresh tuna and veggies and rice) to the good (pork belly and veggies and rice) to the unfamiliar (pig intestines cooked in pig blood with veggies and rice). Whatever it is, the food is great, homecooked and amazing considering it is all miracoloulsy done on one little gas stove only.
Quite often there is also an afternoon snack which usually consists of something sweet from the bakery and a coffee. So yeah, for someone who loves food but doesn't know how to cook the Philippines are paradise, nothing short of it. And as long as food expectations can be shiftet towards local food it is an awesome and cheap place to gain a few kilos.
We were very lucky to have Jen's workmates donating us some used furniture for our new house. So we now have a kitchen table and 4 chairs, we have a couch, a coffee table and a small plastic table. We have a microwave too. And added to it another beautiful bamboo couch (guess who we bought it from?). Also the house is connected to the world now with an internet connection. It makes a big difference to be able to comfortably sit down and check Facebook!
Having some furtniture to sit on also means that we can invite people over. And we did for the first time last Wednesday, having the SEALS volunteers and the other Australian Volunteers over for dinner. It was a really fun night, somehow a home only feels like home if you have friends around. And it was also a good opportunity to introduce everyone to each other.
Another big result out of this week is that I decided to indulge in formal language training in the local Aklanon language. On Thursday I met with my future language trainer Erleen. She also trains some volunteers of the US Peace Corp which opens another opportunity to meet new interesting people. I believe learning the local language will open much more opportunites to engage with people here. Because English language, as common as it is, is not covering all of my area of activities. Particularly in rural areas English skills are not sufficient for a meaningful conversation. My hope is that even a rudimentary knowledge of Aklanon will be a big help. So language training starts from next week.
Today I had the honour to be invited to a Christening celebration for the son of Lesther, one of our SEALS volunteers. Lots of the other SEALS participated and I was surprised by the community focus the Baptising ceremony encouraged. All of us sitting together to listen to the priest preaching in Aklanon. The baptising of the child is not done as I would have expected with pouring water of his little head. No, there was no water whatsoever involved in the ceremony. But all the present guests got to hold the baby for a few seconds, being the witnesses of the initiation of the newest member of their christian community. So the kid went around to everyone including me. The priest afterwards congratulated every single guest with a handshake for now being part of the kid's family. And then of course there was lots of fantastic food, more than even a crowd of people could finish. And it was there that I had my own initiation - to eat chicken feet. Days before we were joking about it many times but I was always able to wiggle my way out of having to eat any. This time, in front of the entire crowd of people, chickenfeet were placed on my plate with a big smile on many people's face. No way out. So I ate them. Not too bad actually. Just skin really. Anyway. Another good week has gone by very fast. And as hopefully routine will soon creep in life may go just a bit more slowly next week.

Panay Island's interior is cobered in lush tropical rain forest

The peak of our hiking trek in Malay. In the distance under the rain cloud you can see Boracay Island, the white beach visible even at this distance

Our Hiking Team, participants from various emergency agencies

Flying across the river - Flying Fox Traning

Very often we would use this Tricycle to transport people and equipment to training locations. It is simply a motorbike with sidecar. But thoroughly fitted it provides room for 9 persons plus equipment.

Housewarming of our new home in Kalibo

One of the many dinners we cooked together, featuring three of our Seals volunteers and experts in Philippino cooking style

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(c) 2014    marco hoffmann