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January 2015

January 2015

Eventually January came to it's end and so did my time in the Philippines. After one year in this beautiful country it was time to pack my bags.
The last three months in Aklan had a profound impact on me. Especially January. I felt more and more at home in Aklan, my friendship to the people grew deeper and deeper and slowly developing since November there is now a very special girl in the Philippines. We already met in November as workmates in a community education campaign. She is working for a local NGO. Me and the Provincial Disaster Office cooperating with this NGO on a program to empower communities in their disaster planning. Over December we grew closer. Over January we grew very close. And the famous Ati Atihan Festival in Kalibo left us unseparable. But there was just so little time left...
After the Ati Atihan Festival most of my life, and there was only one and a half week left, was spinning around going home. Organising farewell events, buying farewell presents, arranging handover of data, handover of my beloved motorbike. Those were busy times. And it's not easy for me to comprehend what would happen when I am back in Australia.
The farewell activities officially started on Friday, 23rd of January. By that time it was clear that I would leave Kalibo the following Wednesday, 28th January, for Manila and the debrief there. Since the whole week of my leaving was booked out in training courses, we decided that Friday would be the last time everyone is being together in our office. So we had a lot of good lunch to eat, I arranged for a spit roast pork, some grilled chicken and a big bowl of 'Pansit' (noodles with seafood). We also had little farewell presents for everyone in the PDRRMO Office - a coffee mug with a kangaroo and a thank you message for all. And for Sir Galo as my supervisor and Jayfree as my counterpart a T-Shirt with a kangaroo and a message as well.
Saturday I started seriously packing my bags, it was the last day I would have to myself.
Sunday would be my last fiesta attendance, the Ati-Atihan Festival in the town of Ibajay.
Monday would be my farewell evening with the rescue volunteers of the Seals. I will never forget that event. It was again a lot of food for dinner. And everyone came. Really everyone. All the Seals volunteers, my main group of friends in Kalibo, also Ma'am Nemia, my lovely Aklanon teacher. Volunteers came here from the other provinces of Iloilo and Antique. And everyone, really everyone held a short speech about our time together. In English. You can imagine these speeches went on for a long time with so many people. And they brought back so many good memories. The fun we had in our trainings. Our movie nights. The times when we had meals together. Drinks together. Times when we had to rely on each other and help each other out. Times of travelling, of riding our motorbikes, beach barbeques, times of so much laughter. But most of all times of growing friendship. This friendship creeped up on us over the one year. Almost unnoticed. But now that we had to part it started weighing down on us how big this friendship had grown. During these little speeches I was sitting in front of everyone. And as everyone did their best to talk in English in front of everyone else I had a really hard time fighting back my tears. A very intense year would come to it's end soon...
Tuesday I just finished packing. Went to the market in Kalibo for the last time to say good bye to all the people who, over the last year, supported me as a volunteer, giving me bananas for free, always had time to chat with me. It was again very intense and we all were so close to tears. The rest of Tuesday I would spend in Sampaguita Gardens where the Seals were running a weeklong  training course for the town of Batan. It was there where I would spend my last night in Aklan, together with most of my best friends there.
Wednesday at last was the day to leave Kalibo behind. Just after breakfast I had to say good bye to so many people until I was escorted to the airport in our brand new rescue truck together with seven people to send me off.
Oh man, was I feeling sad that moment. Especially saying good bye to my yearlong counterpart Jayfree was pretty hard. We worked together almost every day over the past year, and much more than that, we became pretty good friends.
Arriving in Manila still had a touch of uncertainty to it. Because by that time I still had no flight booked to come back to Australia. And was hoping to fly out the next day. And as Thursday came, my flight was still not booked. Instead I enjoyed a wonderful final meeting with the country manager of the Australian Volunteer Program in the Philippines, with Myles. It was a very positive debrief and we parted both hoping that one day I'll be back on another assignment. And it was only after her call to the booking office that finally my flight booking came through. It was a booking for a surprisingly early flight. So we had to literally leave straight away to make it to the airport in time, through Manila traffic.
And we did. And that was when I left the Philippines, my home country for exactly one year of my life.

Flying to my other home country of 10 years of my life. On a far away continent on the other side of the equator.

My sometimes-housemate Brunox, the little dog in the compound where I lived. Whenever I got home he would follow me upstairs to my room and sit on the sofa of my veranda, waiting for me to play with him.

The three angels...

During our office's parade at Ati Atihan in Kalibo

Happy days with my girlfriend in Kalibo

The plaza of Kalibo is the focal point of the Ati Atihan festival. All the parades will terminate here and it is the loudest and happiest place you can imagine.

Pope Francis was there too...

...there was fireworks...


...and more costumes...

...and more colourful costumes.

We had a weeklong celebration of drums, lyres, dancing, eating and just lots and lots of fun.

And we had lots of companions to celebrate with, the town of Kalibo was packed with happy people.

Just before our next small parade - at the house of one of the Seals rescue volunteers

The entire team of my Host Organisation - the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office in Kalibo. For one year this was the team I worked together with.

At Kalibo's bowling alley

One week after the festival in Kalibo, the town of Ibajay celebrates their own Ati Atihan festival.

Again a celebration of drums, lyres and amazing costumes

Another good friend over the past year, volunteering for the US Peacecorp

The two counterparts - Jayfree and me at Jawili Falls

Lots of food and lots of good friends during the farewell dinner with the Seals volunteers.

Captain Pet, the founder of the Seals as an organisation, was there to say good bye too.

After lots of eating there was of course lots of drinking.

My last day just before I was taken to the airport - again lots of people I had worked with over the year, now conducting a search and rescue training at the Sampaguita Gardens Resort.

Friends and workmates

At Manila Airport - the last dinner date for a while...

Ready to fly to Sydney!

February 2015
As I am writing this I am back in Sydney. Back in my old home. After a long stay overseas like this, 'home' always needs some time to feel 'home' again. And only when you travel away from home you will see your home more objectively. Because only then have you got something to compare it too. Right now Sydney feels more like a DejaVu than home. But I know that will change soon. But whatever Sydney will feel like for me, the Philippines certainly left a big mark in my life, a mark that can not be ignored and can not ever be forgotten.

Being back in Sydney I realised that nothing here has changed. All the shops around my home are still the same. The shopkeepers still remembering me from over a year ago. No one believing that it's been over a year already. Everything felt instantly familiar. My friends are still living in their same homes, still working in their same jobs, only their kids have grown up a bit.
But saying that, there is no doubt that one thing has changed dramatically - that's me. Again, not surprisingly, I feel a bit out of place in Sydney. And when I'm saying that I don't mean it in a negative way. But instantly I felt a certain distance to the the people in Australia, a certain friendliness that seems to stop somewhere at a red line still in a secure distance from you. It has always been like this and I always felt comfortable that way. But the closeness, the instant friendship, the caring attitude and the overwhelming hospitality of the Philippino people is something I loved to have. And now I find myself longing for it.

I experienced the Philippines as the by far friendliest country I have ever been too. It's been one year but I feel like I am having so many friends there to be amongst my best friends. If you compare the Philippines to Australia you will find the differences quite stunning. The Philippines are extremely social, people are very connected and always together sharing their time, their food, their resources. No one is ever alone. Philippinos are very welcoming, particularly to strangers like me. I can't count the number of times that strangers invited me to share their food, to visit their home or they gave me little presents. The society is also very appreciative to each other, sharing time and resources is being done with pleasure and received with sincere gratitude. Personal contact is often very touchy and personal space is often unknown. You get hugged and tapped on your shoulder and shaken your hands so many times every day.  I lived in a big house in a tropical paradise. I have the loveliest girlfriend there. I really enjoyed my job. I had a big social group of awesome friends, being surrounded by friends every day. Even the good life in the Philippines does not set you back more than $300-400 a month, there is no need to spend crazy hours on boring jobs to earn a living.

Being back in Australia, it feels like people are more distant from each other, spend more time alone, are more busy than social. But that's not surprising.

My comeback happened in three steps.

Seven good friends farewelled me in Kalibo Airport on Wednesday
My lovely girlfriend farewelled me in Manila Airport on Thursday
When I arrived at Sydney Airport on Friday Morning, I was alone.

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(c) 2014    marco hoffmann