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June 2014


It's now already two weeks into June and  these two weeks have been very busy indeed. June started well with my friend Judith visiting me here in Kalibo. I remember her arrival in Kalibo Airport and the welcome committee to pick her up. At the time we were lucky enough to borrow a car for her airport transfer. And it was a good idea because Judith brought staggering 50kg of luggage to Kalibo! The majority of it being donations of rescue gear for our office. It felt like Christmas in June that afternoon, unpacking all these beautiful things in our office, people watching with big eyes. If you know rescue work you will understand what immense difference a few donations from Australia can make out here. It's the first time ever our province has seen double sheave pulleys. The first time ever our chainsaw operators can protect themselves with chaps. Combined with the other personal safety equipment that, while available here, remains largely beyond the budget. But now our rescuers can be safe by adding safety glasses, ear protection and dust masks to their equipment. Also we can refill the first aid kit with new supplies. Those and many other things almost doubled the inventory of our rescue office.
Judith stayed in the Philippines for only 10 days, so we had to take the opportunity to travel a bit. For me too, I never left my own island since arriving in Kalibo! So it was time, I took the week off from work and we flew to Bohol. Recently the island province of Bohol featured in the international news with the magnitude 7.2 earthquake which devastated the island in October 2013, just one month before the arrival of supertyphoon Yolanda. Still today it was shocking to witness the devastation. The force of the earthquake destroyed a large number of brick and concrete buildings. The Typhoon finished off the timber and palm thatched ones. Many sections of the road have shifted sideways or up or down and were temporarily patched. Bridges lay crumbled in the river, covered by new temporary iron bridges. Houses lay on their side. Other were in complete ruins. As were all churches, every single one was at least severely damaged, often completely destroyed. It's heartbreaking to see the old churches and cathedrals, historic monuments build by the Spanish colonialists centuries ago and now crumbled on the ground, starting to overgrow already in the tropical heat.
But going beyond the desaster, there are many cool things to do which make Bohol traditionally a favorite tourist destination in the Philippines. Such as the Tarsiers, the smallest primates in the world. They are smaller than your average fist. Their eyes are bigger than their brains. And they literally are the cutest things you can imagine. And yes, they live in Bohol. Or there are the Chocolate Hills, a big area covered in limestone domes. The grassy vegetation on those hills turns them into a chocolate brown during the dry season, hence the name. For our visit though, the Chocolate Hills presented themselves in a lush green. As we watched them appearing out of the mist from the visitor complex, still in ruins after the earthquake.
Or there are the small islands surrounding Bohol, like Balicasag or Panglao. With the most beautiful turquoise waters and coral reefs, white beaches lined with coconut trees. We went snorkelling there alongside massive sea turtles. Just jumping into the water and snorkel around for a bit and suddenly there are these huge turtles just floating beneath the surface, slowly moving their heavy body alongside the coral reef.
Our last day in Bohol was spent on the water once more, kayaking to meet the fireflies. Kayaking at night is quite special and we had a guide with us. He showed us the most amazing things - whole trees lit up like Christmas trees. A thousand small but bright lights blinking and moving around. A whole tree full of them. They were in fact fireflies who chose that tree to be there home. Like little aeroplanes some of them would fly past us, slowly but constantly blinking.
Being in Bohol also presented a great opportunity to catch up with the three Australian volunteers assigned in there. We have not seen each other since our In Country Orientation almost 4 months ago!

On the same day when Judith left back to Australia, we had another arrival to celebrate in Kalibo. Allister, my colleague from the SES in Sydney will be in Kalibo for 9 months from now on, assigned in our office. Which brings the number of Australian volunteers in Kalibo to now seven. Allisters arrival kept us busy for the last week to support him settling in. But successfully so, he now has a home in the same townhouse complex as us and most of his things are organised. Ready to start his new Philippino life seriously from next week.

Life here is still good. Not just good, it's awesome. I say that every day and it's not just me saying it. I remember returning from Bohol how happy it made me to be back in Kalibo. Kalibo really feels like home and that is mostly because of the people we have here. The people I have around me every day at work and at home, workmates, volunteers, neighbors, stall owners at the market make every minute a happy one. Philippino people must be the happiest ones in the world, they certainly appear that way and they let you participate in their happiness whenever you encounter them. I feel very lucky to have so many good Philippino friends after such a short time here. It makes me feel right now as if time is flying much too fast and the 10 month assignment that seemed so long from Sydney is now just like a happy movie rushing past. I hope and will try to stay on and extend my good times here, why would I not? So hopefully it works out.

Workwise we will have a few busy weeks ahead but also exciting weeks. There are Search and Rescue Trainings in quite remote municipalities, remote enough so we don't come home at the end of the day. Sleep overs are usually good fun though and although it's to a degree stressful to live out of backpacks again it's a good opportunity to dive in ever deeper into Philippine life and meet more people. The entire next week will be spent in Batan, a municipality at a beautiful ocean bay on the eastern boundary of our province. I'm already looking forward to it!

After almost four months in the Philippines I got my first visitor from home!

Judith brought with her a lot of really good rescue gear, it will make future operations so much safer for our rescuers.

Holidaying in Bohol, pristine waters and coral reefs - perfect stereotype for the Philippines


...with huge sea turtles near Balicasag Island.

Life is good in the Philippines!

The aftermath of the Bohol Earthquake in October 2013 - nearly every church on the island lies in ruins.

We meet friendly Philippinos wherever we go - here in Cebu City

The newest Australian Volunteer in Kalibo - welcome to Allister!

...and straight into a first field trip - Disaster Risk Reduction workshop in Altavas Hospital.

Altavas Hospital and their only Ambulance vehicle. Altavas is at the fringe of our province of Aklan, the hospital serving communities as far as across the border to Capiz. It's a challenge to do so with the limited funds provided but we met a very committed hospital manager and his team doing the best they can.

The team of Altavas Hospital after our workshop

Another day another orientation session with the community about flood evacuation. The venue being a small church in the Barangay of Aliputos.

The month of June is coming to an end. Workwise it has been my busiest month in the Philippines so far. It's due to training courses that are requested from our office. And even more so June was the month of flood drills. What makes it busy is that all those courses and drills are not conducted in our office but in various locations around Aklan. Training courses usually mean we are away overnight for a week or more. Flood drills are usually two days in a Barangay. Being outside usually also means we meet a lot of new people. It often feels like a genuine Philippine experience to go out into the villages and work together with locals for a day or two. Or five or six. After all these months in the Philippines I am still amazed how happy this work with the people makes me, busy or not, it is heaps enjoyable here. It's the way people accept strangers here, the way they worry for you if you're not happy. Philippinos always look after each other and their guests. One good example is that you always need a companion, a concept quite foreign to western civilisations where competition and self sufficiency seems more of a desirable lifestyle. Certainly not so here. There are numerous examples of how I experienced it. One is when we go on field work with the local Red Cross teams. The Red Cross usually picks us up in an air conditioned comfortable car. On many occasions though the flexibility of a motorbike is also of advantage so I go on site with my motorbike. Always, without fail, someone will hop on the back and keep me company while at the same time sacrificing their comfy ride in an airconditioned car. Whenever I go somewhere, whenever I do something, someone will come along. It's no good doing anything by yourself in the Philippines. And I love it, in retrospect it is one of the things I missed in Australia.
The social connections people form with each other and now also with me often surprise me but after considering things they make sense. For me, grown up in the western system of effectiveness and competition, it often appears strange. As that one day when we had a 5 day training course with sleep over some two hours away from Kalibo. Trainers were the Seals volunteers, the whole group. However, I had other things to do on day one and so had one of the Seals so we would join the training from day two. Right? No! After finishing our own business in Kalibo I seemed to ask the strangest question - when would we start on my bike the next morning to join the others? You probably can guess the answer. We had to go on that very day. Why? Why would we prefer to sleep here in Kalibo alone when we could sleep together with the others in the dorm at the training site? Of course being in company with the others was the only choice, no matter day or night.
And really - why would we not?
All this friendliness and connectedness is indeed addictive. Quite often I find myself thinking - 'What the hell just happened' - how can I take things as being so normal, in Australia many would be beyond exotic. But I guess it's just the time of exposure that changes a person. I love being around the locals and whatever we do - it's so much fun. Even though here in Kalibo we are now seven international volunteers I still find myself instinctively preferring to hang out with Philippino people. And can't really be grateful enough to have found so many cool people to hang out with.
Having a good time also means that time is flying past, I am now past the half way mark of my assignment time here in Kalibo. The thought of that dreads me a bit. Just a few days ago I got an email from my old job agency offering me positions in Sydney. With a sudden shock I realised that there is less than 5 months left in the Philippines! And that again makes me thinking. I mean, what would you do if you are somewhere where you absolutely enjoy your time? There are options for me, one is to extend my assignment by two months. The other one is to write another assignment and take it up myself. It would mean staying in Kalibo for another 10 months in the next year!?!? I know it would be some awesome 10 months but also, the longer I stay here the more difficult will my return to Australia be. Jobwise for one thing because I am not really working on my career here. But also generally, the longer you are away from your friends the harder it will be to reconnect. Maybe? The longer you live in a country of happiness and huge 24/7 social circles the harder it will be to return to a competitive society. As for now I just applied for a two months extension. There is a 50/50 chance it will be granted. Giving me more time to consider wether or not a new assignment is a good idea...
As for the next few weeks - I will be gone again, 6 days in Madalag, 6 days in Malay, 3 days in Malinao - all the beautiful spots in Aklan Province...

Search and Rescue training in Batan - the final day. The new rescue volunteers had to find and rescue the boy underneath the debris...

...just one of the twenty casualties that had to be 'rescued' during the final day of the training.

Also part of the training in Batan was a fitness exercise of running along the beach and...


One highlight of social activities are the 'Boodle Feasts', food is served on a long long table on banana leafs, everyone is sharing everything.

Still part of the Search and Rescue training was an abseiling exercise.

Another week another training - the new Seals volunteers of Kalibo getting familiar with the Aklan River.

The 'Aklan River Cruise' involves floating in the river and walking across shallow parts for around 4 hours, from the town of Banga all the way back to Kalibo.

And of course more abseiling, this time from Mobo Bridge in Kalibo.

Another week another activity. The holiday of St John the Baptist attracts big crowds on Aklan's beaches. So all available volunteers had to be on duty for any just-in-case emergencies. We were transported to our locations by the truck load. Literally.

The Seals are a great team to be part of.

On patrol on the beaches during St John the Baptist day.

People all over the province had fun in the water.

A Seals Rescue volunteer keeping a watchful eye on those swimmers.

Sometimes work doesn't feel like work and at the end of the day when the sun sets over the still hot and humid beachside I understand that life is good in the Philippines.

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(c) 2014    marco hoffmann