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September 2014

The month of September has been another interesting month in the Philippines. The rainy season of June and July has come to an end and the next rainy season of October/November has not yet started. So the weather is just beautiful right now. If you like hot and humid. I learned to love it. Most of all I like the mornings, getting up early is so much easier here than I remember it being in Australia. Usually 6:30am I am awake. The best place to have breakfast is on my little balcony out the back of the house. The air in the morning is warm but has not yet reached the high levels of humidity, it's the best time of the day. In the morning the clear fresh air usually affords a good view to Mt Madyaas, the highest peak on our island of Panay, towering in the distance. It seems like it's calling 'Come to me, come to me'. During the day it will disappear from view, disappear behind a haze of high humidity and smoke. Then, when the sky turns from it's fresh morning blue into it's bright glaring mid day grey.
Mornings are better than evenings. Because evenings are the times for mosquitoes. And even though this island is malaria free, there is the other big problem: Dengue Fever. Our province of Aklan tops the list of Dengue cases in the region. And we do know people who just recently were diagnosed with the disease. Some with very severe symptoms. Denge is a mean disease. Not when you get it for the first time. There are four strains of the disease. When you get it for the first time your body will react to it. Fight it. Within one week you should be fine again. And your body remembers. You will never get sick again of this one strain of Dengue. But years later, whenever, you may contract Dengue again, one of the other strains. And the mean thing is that it tricks your immune system. Your body will fight that first strain again, full power, not realising that your current disease is different. And therefore the immune reaction to it inefficient. And therefore the disease has a clear playing field to wreck havoc, almost unopposed by your bodies defenses. It's then when people die of Dengue, from internal bleeding, the intense muscle pain and joint pain.
So yeah, mosquitoes are bad here. And I'm glad I sleep with a mosquito net because every morning I find them in my room waiting for me to wake up.
As Mt Madyaas is calling me every morning with his huge grey silhouette towering above the horizon. Jayfree once mentioned to me that it was his dream to climb up Madyaas. To stand on top of our island and see the 4 seas in the 4 different directions. But getting to Madyaas is tough. There is no established route to the top. One way is to climb from the neighbouring province of Antique, from the town of Culassi. But it will be a five day expedition from there. Others try from Nabas, which again is a long long way through rough terrain. Lastly there seems to be a way from Madalag, the route includes a ride to the main settlement of Madalag town, a motorbike ride for an hour to the end of the trafficable path at the remote village of Mercedes. And then another one day to climb up, one day to climb down. Somehow we need to do it, much more than travelling around the Philippines I would love to take some of our rescue volunteers along and climb Madyaas. Things are not being made easier by rumours that hostile insurgents are still roaming the area around the mountains, hidden by the impenetrable interior of our green island. Others say that humans are not supposed to climb up to the summit for it disturbs the elements. For the group who try, often one team member will not survive, a calamity that can be prepared for and avoided by intensive praying before the start of the expedition.
My time in Kalibo has changed me to a degree that I somewhat lost interest in travelling around as a tourist. There are many things to do in the Philippines, on the other islands, there is diving, there are beautiful beaches. And most other Australian Volunteers from my intake have been travelling on a regular basis. I instead did a lot of local exploring together with my Philippino friends. And I like it because they can participate. None of my friends here would have the a budget allowing to fly to some tourist destination. But here in Aklan we can travel together, often as a big group on motorbikes, tricycles or on work arrangements after a training course. It is still on a budget, so there are no drinking nights, no restaurants, no hotels. But instead: frying fish on a fire on the beach, sleeping in schools, bringing your own rice. Or sometimes a live chicken. But when we go together like this, we all have a really good time. Both relaxing, stress free, and really enjoyable. Madyaas represents a goal we could all go to together, none of us has been there and it will be a great group vacation.
Work wise September has been a busy months again. It's been full of he usual training courses we run for schools and colleges, earthquake drills and rescue training. But what made September an awesome month for me was the fact that I was able to run my biggest ever training course, Map Reading and Navigation. And I run it a few times already with many other groups showing interest.
Both Map Reading and Navigation are not essential skills for rescuers here in Aklan. They require maps, GPS receiver and compasses. Most of it is not available. But some of it is. Our office has a state of the art handheld GPS. But it has not really ever been used even though we had it for over a year now. Also, no one knew, but there is a set of topographic maps available that covers some 60% of the province in a perfect scale 1:10000. I just stumbled across it by sheer coincidence, seing one sheet and asking for more where it came from. Which is the Provincial Governments Planning Department. And yep, there they were, 37 map sheets as pdf files. There is no printer here capable to print the 29x29 inches sheets to scale. But we can print parts of it as we need. And surprisingly enough so many people in the rescue units have never worked with maps. Never known what a scale is, what contour lines are. The sheer concept to have a flat sheet of paper representing all the features you see around you. It's interesting that people can explain to you the way to far away places and hard to find addresses. By pointing you towards your destination and describing the way to get there in detail with mostly correct instructions of distance or landmarks. But on a map – people have trouble finding their home, finding their village or comprehending the concept of a map in general. Which is not unusual given the fact that most Philippinos are never exposed to detailed maps when they grow up. Similarly it is hard for many to understand the relationship of maps and reality, the relationship of GPS and maps and how both can be used to our advantage. Or the sheer fact that you can measure a distance and angle on a map and then use a compass and count your steps and you find your real destination that you just chose before on a map.
When Philippinos grow up they are educated to different priorities than kids in Australia. It seems to me that Philippinos develop an incredibly creative thinking, a strong focus on relation ship building and social conciousness. And also a remarkable awareness for detail. Everything creative, dancing, music, celebrations are just amazing. And social interactions are naturally making everyone feeling very comfortable. There is always a subdued tone, relaxing, no one talking loud our shouting. I find interpersonal skills of people are on an incredibly high level. If something is wrong with you or something is new on you – it will be spotted right away.
The analytical way of thinking, logic, geometry, spatial awareness though is given less of a priority in the society. From a training perspective it often means to create step-by-step guides. And indeed it is the way many other trainings are conducted. Step 1 – Step 2 – Step 3 etc. without going into too much detail of background knowledge. I guess that explains why the Philippines are probably the friendliest and happiest people in the world. And at the same time have been left behind the technology boom that took hold of much of Asia in the last few decades.
The Philippines had another scare just last weekend when Typhoon Mario hit the countries North. Within a day it caused massive flooding. The worst of all in Metro Manila where the Philippino capital was literally under water for a day. Ans similarly the immense rainfalls of Typhoon Mario left most of the northern part of the Philippine main island of Luzon with wet feet. Again, here in Aklan we were lucky and we were spared the worst of the Typhoon. But again it is a strong reminder that at any one time we are only days away from potentially lethal disasters. And just as amazing that in my opinion the Philippino people seem to be the happiest people of anyone nation I ever visited.

Scouting out the location for our navigation training - my counterpart Jayfree and me in Malinao

The oportunities for navigation training are endless in an abundance of mountains, rain forest and rice fields

Remote swimming pools - we chose this location to train wilderness rescue from heights which will include abseiling of a rescuer and their casualty down a 20ft cliff

Explaining the compass during the navigation course. Compasses are hard to come by in the Philippines so I am very grateful that with the help of another Australian Volunteer in kalibo we were able to import some compasses and donate them to our office.

The navigation course included a day long exercise of finding targets in wilderness terrain. Just like the mountain from which this photo was taken. We hid 12 small flags within a 2sqkm radius and teams had to find them in order to graduate from this course.

I love the tropics, the green, the heat, the humidity, the fact that you're never cold. Just imagine taking this photo, standing on top of a hill, sweating small creeks from the climb, it's just around 2:30pm and still over 30 degrees hot with close to 100% humidity. There is no wind and the tropical swell of wet soil and fresh vegetation fills the air...

The Integrated School in the village of Kinalangay Viejo features the best tree house I've ever seen.

Coffee break after a long day of exercising

The other thing i love in the Philippines is the ease of life. There is always a creek. And you can always swim in it. It's always social but subdued-relaxed. Life in the Philippines is just designed to make everyone feeling comfortable.

Our office dog came along for the navigation exercise. And the swim in the creek.

Evenings are a great time of the day. When the air cools down and fills with the smoke of the many small fires on which rice and dinner is cooked. Sunsets are always spectacular in the tropics when the huge cloud formations are set alight by the red setting sun.

Typical picture of local life - Kinalangay Viejo

Teaching the basics in knot tieing to the future rescuers of the town of malinao

Abseiling training

How is that for a work place? The whole training exercise took three days and three nights in various locations. First night we stayed in an evacuation centre, the second night in the classrooms of a village school, the third night here at the small waterfall. I already know it will be hard to swap back to my old workplace in the office in Sydney...

Relaxing in the evening.

I still love the tropics even though it means that there is an incredible amount of rain. This picture shows our transport back from Kinalangay Viejo to Kalibo, a one hour trip on rough roads on the back of a dump truck. What you can not see is my personal transport - I was glad to have taken my motorcycle to the course.

A coastal cleanup event is a good way to start your Saturday morning

We were lucky to be able to use the brand new boat of the Philippine Coast Guard for our coastal cleanup activity

Another great example of my new workplace - the mighty Aklan River during a flood rescue training

Happy victim - during the flood rescue training

Working - It's more fun in the Philippines

Can you imagine these are your day-to-day workmates?

...or this is your workplace-with-colleagues picture?

More of some lovely tropical rain forest - near the Guadalupe village in the remote mountains of Libacao

Guadalupe village

The reason why we went to the remote village of Guadalupe was this one: a disaster awareness campaign in the local school, orienting the students and teachers about storm warning signals, flood warning signals, Typhoon warnings and earthquakes.

The school is beautifully located in the mountains. This picture was taken after the evacuation of the school during an earthquake drill

A good way to spend the weekend is fishing. This fish pond is almost overgrown by weeds but you can spot one of our rescue volunteers and his fishing rod

another way of fishing - in the warm waters of the Sibuyan Sea

Good location but still - incompetent fishermen

As the day goes by the clouds disappear into the cooler evening air and the mountain ranges of Sibuyan island appear at the horizon

After giving up on fishing we swapped entertainment to Red Horse Beer

During a church anniversary party.

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(c) 2014    marco hoffmann