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July 2014


July started in the mountains of Panay Island, in the remote town of Madalag. It's as remote as you can go in our Province. Starting in Kalibo and following the mighty Aklan River through the coastal lowlands into the mountains where it carved a wide valley through a lush green landscape. Following the east side of the river will take you to Libacao, it's where the rough and dusty gravel road ends and if you want to go further, to the villages, you must walk. For many hours. Following the west side of the river as far as the other rough and dusty gravel road will take you, and you end up in Madalag. Our home for six days of training.
Madalags setting is stunning. From the river you would not think there is a town. There is actually a bridge across the Aklan River, coming across from the Kalibo side it appears like the bridge is ending in the river bed, nothing man-made can be seen on the Madalag banks. And in fact the bridge does end up in the river bed, the gravel lined bed of the Aklan is so wide that a bridge spanning the lot would exceed any budget. So the current bridge is only useful when the river is not flooded. Going up the steep river banks beyond the bridge and around a bend in the gravel path and you are in the town of Madalag. A small town built around a beautiful plaza with an old Spanish church on one side and the town hall building on the other and a school on the third. The hill underneath the church is lined with big capital letters 'Our Lady of Guadalupe - Pray for us'. The Plaza contains a beautiful children playground, a giraffe and an elephant greet you there in between the swings hiding places. There is a basketball court too. And a flag rotunda with 25 flag poles. On occasion they will fly the flags of the 25 Barangays that make Madalag Municipality. All around the few townhouses you can see the green mountains, covered by a thick white layer of clouds. It couldn't be a more peaceful setting, there are no tricycles, no trucks, only a few motorbikes. And literally the kids playing on the street.
There were 10 of us going to be the trainers for the 160 soon-to-be rescue volunteers. The Municipality of Madalag has 25 Barangays (villages), each one sent a future rescue team of up to seven people. Usually young guys who have never done anything in rescue or first aid before. Our training included first aid, rescue from heights and depths and one day of floating in the Aklan River, experiencing first hand it's hydraulic features. Followed by abseiling from Madalag Bridge. All in all a pretty cool training although 6 days is not nearly enough to become a full fledged rescuer, it will help setting up a rescue team, a team of people who have a good idea of rescue in every single village. And that is quite an achievement.
Of course there are no hotels, no guest houses in a town as remote as Madalag. So our home was the conference room in the town hall building. Just sleeping on the ground, BYO bed, all of us in one room. No running water. Just one bucket to be used for bathing, laundry, toilet flush. To be shared by the 10 of us. Not really much to do after work, the training usually finished around 4:30pm to give everyone the chance to get back to their villages. Sounds boring?
There is really nothing better for team building than being forced to hang out together without anything to do! That made me really enjoy Madalag for most of the time. Just hanging out watching movies on my laptop, walking around exploring the small town, sitting in front of the church chatting and watching life go past in the sleepy town. There was no traffic whatsoever and local people did the same as us. There were little groups of them everywhere, sitting on motorbikes or the little wall surrounding the Plaza. The ancient church's bell ringing every day at 5:30am and 6pm followed by a prayer over the loudspeakers. No one really seemed to pay any attention to it. But it certainly added to the serenity.
However, in all that serenity the Philippines had another close shave with disaster. Typhoon Floretta was heading towards the Philippines during our training week. Getting stronger every day. Finally developing into a huge Supertyphoon, by area larger than the Philippine archipelago and with wind speeds exceeding 250km/h. Fortunately it turned North just before it reached the Philippines and is now on the way to the southern islands of Japan. Lucky escape for us.
It was nice again to return to Kalibo which feels more and more like home. The road from Madalag is all dirt, turning into mud in the recent rain. Consequently I arrived in Kalibo like a mud man, both the bike and me just covered in brown substance. But in the few metres between my bike parking lot at home and my front door I had to have a chat with my neighbors, welcoming me back, asking about my whereabouts. The little dog from our other neighbor came along to play around my dirty legs. And as soon as I opened the front door the little cat that Jen and me kind of adopted walked in and made herself a home. Here in Kalibo we do have a much closer bond to the neighbors than back in the 'real' home in Sydney, even after only 5 months compared to the 5 years I lived in my current flat in Sydney. Of the ten townhouses in our compound, mostly whenever someone is home they leave the front door open. And then people and kids and pets just go in and out as if the townhouse complex is just like one big family home shared by everyone. Jen had a story just out of a horror movie recently, being home alone cooking dinner. And the front door was open. And suddenly, standing in the kitchen turning around, this little girl was standing right behind Jen, not moving, just watching Jen's every move with huge brown eyes. Sounds like a scene out of 'The Ring', hey? But no need to worry, it was just the little 7 year old girl from our neighbors.

Our home in Madalag for six days - the conference room of the Town Hall

Madalag is beautiful, in the background you see the beautiful old church. It was severely damaged in an earthquake in 1990 but nicely rebuilt. 

Snack time - choice between chicken feet and hot dog.

Scouting out the starting point for our exercise in floating down the river. This will become the new permanent outpost of the Libacao Rescue Team.

The Aklan River just South of Madalag

Back in the training room for the Rescue from Heights and Depths training

In between the training session we did some community work and established this manual water level gauge at the Madalag Bridge

We also came across a truckload of Red Cross relief goods, still targeting communities in Madalag devastated by Supertyphoon Yolanda last November. It's a basic tool kit with all tools you need to rebuild your damaged house.

Posing for the Photo, five of the Seals Rescuers and our only water rescue board

Our floating exercise - floating down the river for some 7km. Fortunately the water here is really warm and there is no problem spending half a day in it.

It was a good exercise and our 160 participants seemed to enjoy it too.

Some more relaxed than others, using some bamboo they found on the river bank

Me - Just loving it

The transport to the starting point for the next batch of rescuers was a bit overcrowded.

Once in the river people automatically turn happy - work is just more fun in the Philippines

The 3rd batch of participants arriving at Madalag Bridge

Ready for some abseiling

At the end of the training course there was a certificate of appreciation, given by the Mayor of Madalag and his Municipal Rescue Officer.


A typical training course... I am typing this on day 4 out of 5 of a Search and Rescue Training course. We are here in the Municipality of Malay, an almost 2 hour trip from Kalibo. Right now the 'Bureau of Fire Protection' is holding a presentation, it will be 2 hours. Held in Aklanon language it's me and Allister who have not much to do and not much of a distraction. Language remains by far the most challenging part of my time in Aklan.

But life is still good here in the Philippines. As every journey, every job, it has ups and downs, exciting bits and boring bits in it. And maybe one or two scary ones too.
One example that is both scary and funny happened just last Friday. It was a pure Hollywood moment. Our team of Seals just returning to the training area at the river after a big delicious lunch. For sunny days like these you need to protect yourself. So I learned in Australia. So sitting in the open back tray of the car with the others it seemed to be a good idea to put some sunscreen on. It usually is. However, it requires two hands. Which is bad. Bad when there is a rough road. Bad when there are no seat belts. Before I even knew it and with no hands free to hold on, I quickly found myself in mid air flying, flung from the car, rolling along the gravel shoulder and only being stopped by a gravel stockpile. A really cool picture, flying off a vehicle full of rescuers in uniform. Fortunately it was a funny event and as such it really was. I still had no idea what just happened when I found myself in the stockpile. But the look on the faces of the others was just as stunned as the one supposedly on my face. Apart from a few scratches to my knees and hands nothing happened. But hey, this will certainly be the stuff for stories long after my time in the Philippines!
In the great scale of things though this is laughable. And 'scary' can rise to a whole new level in Philippines. A good example happened just two days ago. When Typhoon Glenda (or by international name Typhoon Ramassun) struck the Philippines. Although the path of the Typhoon did not go over our island of Panay, we still had a stormy and rainy night. Extremely stormy and rainy. Being hundreds of km away from the danger zone I can only imagine what it would be like to be hit by a Typhoon head-on. Here in Aklan, apart from a few flooded roads and grounded flights and boats and lots of destroyed tarps and signs there was no major issue. Up north, in the path of the storm though - a different story. Australian Volunteers near the projected path had to evacuate into 'safe houses'. Safe House is the term for a public building, mostly a hotel, where all volunteers of the near area are assembled and required to stay for the duration of a calamity. In case an evacuation is necessary, it is then easy to round everyone up and fly them out.
Some of our fellow Australian volunteers in the corridor between Legazpi in the East and Manila in the West will now have to live without power for a month, had there home flooded and their town badly damaged. Typhoon Glenda caused killed 64 people in the Philippines, all Australian volunteers are safe.

We came to Malay after spending around half a week in Kalibo. There is just so many training courses out of Kalibo these months. However, this current one is in another beautiful location. Malay is the gateway to the famous island of Boracay, it is literally just there as if you could swim to it. And there is more. Boracay is a small island, developed to capacity with tourist resorts and hotels. Turqoise waters divide it from our Malay. From here, at night,  you see the lights of the parties, the outdoor restaurants and big concrete tower hotels across the black water of the Sibyan Sea. Compared to what you see on the horizon, Malay seems sleepy. And it is. But there is more sleepyness just behind Boracay. Just there you see the huge landmass of Tablas Island stretching to the north of Boracay. During the day a big grey shape at the end of the ocean. At night invisible, Tablas is one of the less developed parts of the country. But there is more still. As Tablas extends to the North of Boracay, the more mystical island of Sibuyan with it's huge central mountain massive reaches into the sky to the East of Boracay. The mountain is so big, it makes Sibuyan look very close to us. But still, no one I know or met here in the Philippines has ever been there. Lonely Planet says Sibuyan is a 'Philippino Galapagos', an island of rain forest and the richest and wild life. Sounds good. It's just there. One thing on the to-do-list.
It's interesting to live in a nation of islands. Back in Sydney, you go to the ocean and you will find waves and an open view all the way to the horizon. Here in the Philippines you find a flat ocean, no waves, and the horizon is always covered by the grey shapes of more islands. Multiple layers of islands sometimes in various shades of grey, dark for near, faint for distant.

The recent Typhoon provided a good opportunity for my work here. In all my months in the Philippines there was no significant rain event to check our Flood Early Warning System. And the system will not be ready until after a few flood events. It sounds strange but it is the case. We need some intelligence first, need to find out which water levels are causing flooding in which areas. If there was a proper survey model, digital terrain model or even topographical maps with contour lines we could predict the flood behavior. But there is none. There is also no survey gear to be used for measuring meaningful levels. So all we have now is the experience of local people. Whose memories may play tricks. Although they will show us on their houses how high the water was during Typhoons in years past. However, no one has a figure for the water level in the river. What we do protocol now though is the water level in the river. So the next flood will bring the two together. And even though Typhoon Glenda did not cause flooding here in Aklan, it created a significant 'flood wave' that we were able to follow down the river by the observations and measurements of our sensors. Giving us data of the speed of flood waters in the Aklan River and relations of water levels on one place and another. Certainly a lot of data for me to analyse next week.

Next week I will be back in Kalibo for the entire week. Although there are more out-of-town training courses I opted out this time. There is lots to do in Kalibo. Not just the analysing of the Typhoon data but also the final steps of preparation for the Rescuelympics, a rescue competition to be held in Kalibo and chaired by our office. It will happen on Thursday.

And also I really am looking forward to be back in Kalibo. In a way Kalibo is home, gives me more control of my own affairs. On training missions food and accommodation is provided. Food varies in my preferences. Accommodation varies too. The last training course accommodation was just the floor of the conference room in the town hall. This time it's a proper lodge. However, per design four people sleep in a room with two beds. Sometimes more. It is very social and a lot of fun. But certainly, my home in Kalibo is more comfortable... As always it's the people who make my day. Buying bananas at the market today I was welcomed back by the stalls owners and given free fruit to celebrate. The neighbors in our compound decided that I lost weight. 'Marco, why are you so thin?'. This one resulted in me being given a big plate full of beautifully cooked Chicken Adobo and another plate with Lumpia (Philippino style spring rolls), more food than the combined hungry effort of Allister and me could finish. It's nice to be back!

Our latest Search and Rescue Training course in the Municipality of Malay

Quite often the training is conducted by other agencies for a few hours so we have time to explore the area. Like here in the Pangihan caves.

The cave entry

The evening before Typhoon Glenda - a beautiful tropical sunset.

Our accommodation was in the Airport Lodge in Caticlan. Literally right next to the airport. This photo was taken just outside our room.

Various Layers of islands - Boracay in the foreground and Tablas island behind

Unusual advertising? Surprisingly common here!

The town of Malay - not much traffic. So people use the road for drying their sea weed instead.

A nice training location at the beach - and Boracay Island in the background

One assessment scenario for our new rescuers - a casualty struck down by coconuts

Always time to have fun - even in this drowning scenario. Let's have a photo first, the victim can wait.

Still on the training course in Malay - abseiling from the roof of the three storey town hall building.

The happy end of the 5 day training course - a big group of happy participants and trainers

With July another good months comes to its end here in Kalibo. And last week I actually did spend every day in Kalibo, everyday. It has been an interesting week, culminating in our office hosting the 1st ever 'Rescuelympics'. The Rescuelympics is a series of rescue scenarios for teams of each municipality to solve. Out of our 17 municipalities 12 participated. And it was a great success, given it was the first time something of this nature happened in our province. Allister and me, we were made judges in the panel of 5 judges for the competition. Apart from that the week was a normal average week of work here, some office work, some 'Meteorological Hazards' presentations. Lots of good food. And too little sleep.
The Philippines are now officially the country I spent the most time in. Ever. Apart from my home countries of Australia and Germany. And in a way, spending so much time in a country gets you quite accustomed to it's way of life. There are so many things 'normal' here which would start a rebellion of complaints in Australia. But here it's all good. And it works. For example?
Paying your utility bills! The way it works here is that someone from the utility company will knock on your door and hand over the bill. But you can't pay him. In fact, this visit always happened while we are at work anyway, so the bill is just stickytaped onto our door. In order to pay we need to take that paper bill, visit the utility company in their main office during office hours and pay them in cash. No other way. And no problem either to disappear from your office for w while in order to pay your bills.
Or paying rent? Our rent is due every 16th of the month. Which usually means around the 16th every month one of us gets a text message saying that the property manager is standing outside our door but no one is home. Which is not surprising because we are at work. So we then arrange a time when the property manager either visits one of us in the office or comes on the weekend. To collect the rent in cash and confirms the receipt with a handwritten invoice. Same again next month. An un-announced visit, much wonder where we are and then an appointment.
It's a cash economy. Even though I have a local bank account which offers internet banking, no one else has bank accounts to transfer money to. So cash is king.
Getting cash though is not that easy either. There are three locations of where my bank has an ATM in Kalibo. Quite often it takes a visit to all three of them in order to get cash. Because quite often the ATM, after typing in all your details, PIN, amounts etc, just responds with a message 'transaction unavailable'. Or the ATM has run out of money itself and only allows account checks. Which of course you don't know while waiting in the ATM queue.
But you know what? The Philippines has a way to keep you happy, even in all those occasions. Paying our electricity bill gets you in touch with three smiling people. The security guard outside who guards the motorcycle "Welcome Sir!". The other one opening the door for you and pointing you towards your counter. "Welcome Sir, counter three please Sir...". And of course the nice lady behind the counter receiving your money with a smile "Welcome Sir, paying your bill Sir?".
Same at the ATM where I had many a lovely conversation with others waiting. It is a very social society here. And a very patient one. And since everything is working a whole lot slower than at home in Sydney, it is at the same time also more relaxing. Efficiency is out the window anyway. So there is no point even trying. Instead enjoy and relax and make the most of it with your fellow friendly people. I have not yet had a stressful moment in the Philippines. But a lot of very happy ones!

During an earthquake drill in Batan Academy - raising awareness for the July Nutrition Month. Although we hardly ever see malnourished people, nutrition seems to be a wider than expected problem. Meals are usually a combination of mountains of rice and a little fish. Fruit and veggies , although readily available, are not commonly part of the local diet.

Greg enjoying his Merienda (snack) during the earthquake drill in Batan. It's a stew of pork intestines and pork blood. Very popular here. But not my favorite.

The evacuation phase during the earthquake drill.

I am still loving the freedom of riding my motorbike. Here in Buruanga, the furthest west you can go in our province. Buying a motorbike was certainly my best investment in the Philippines, it opens the door to so many possibilities. 

Even our non-touristy island of Panay is stunningly beautiful.

Exploring mangroves in Buruanga.

A typical scene outside towns. Lots of green and some small family homes.

Another great advantage for motorbike travelers in the Philippines is that even on major roads there is hardly any traffic.

July is the second month of the wet season. And a good month to start planting rice seedlings.

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(c) 2014    marco hoffmann