REEFer’s diary of Philippines trip : Part 3

DSC_3201DSC_3200We surveyed many fishermen families. If the families resided near to the town, entire neighborhood was very congested. If the families were far away from the town then the landscape was sparse houses spread over large open space. In a household we saw the head of the family had respiratory disease and was paralyzed. We informed them about PhilHealth and free treatments at Candelaria hospital. The family cooked in open pit fire in the same room. This family got a Prakti stove from REEF and we did not see them using the stove. The owners kept the stove nicely packed. A stove surface burner was missing and hence the stove was lying unused. We had to take care of getting them a burner.

DSC_3198 DSC_3199One of the fishermen’s household is particularly noteworthy.  Two brothers with their families lived jointly. Besides fighting constant poverty they managed to keep a hobby. They had a drum and an old guitar. During Christmas they played carol on the street and raised fund for local church. Isn’t it amazing that a person in need is indeed donating to the more unfortunates? At our request, they got their musical instruments out and sang a Christmas carol in Tagalog.

In the last but one house in our list lived an old woman aged 80+ who still carried heavy loads of woods for miles. She had an adult son aged 50+ and an infant grandson. The son was unemployed and did not do anything for living. His wife ran away. The family relied on a meager Government aid what the old woman received.

The last house we visited was of an old man who was living with his wife and two college going daughters. The daughters stood against all odds, aspired to be teachers. The family made bamboo tables & chairs in front of the shaky house. I couldn’t stop thinking about Western influence to Philippines.  An old empty bottle of rum was used as plant vase – seaside pastoral ambience. Standing and talking there I sensed the ocean breeze, then bade goodbye to the family in the light of setting sun.

We took a halt at Candelaria district hospital situated over a small hillock. Ocean wind hits the hospital straight. We were accompanied by associates of an energy company in the day’s trip and wanted to explore feasibility of installing a wind turbine on that plot. Hospital can save on electricity bill and build a power backup via renewable energy sources. Grace is a nurse at this hospital and a key figure in promoting PhilHealth insurance awareness among poor through REEF.

In the evening we came back to the pavilion Candelaria. Dodo boarded the local auto rickshaw (a motor bike is attached to a 2 or 4 wheeled vehicle and it’s a popular means of transportation) and went to a beach during the day. We visited the local open market, picked flowers for his Lola there (Grandmother in Tagalog) and afterwards packed for the return trip. Next morning we said ‘Salamat’ (aka Thanks in Tagalog) to Ralph and family, then started for Manila.  We grabbed a ‘halo halo’ on our way.  Vast greenery, ocean side roads and bucolic landscape accompanied us in the journey from countryside to Manila. It took us more than an hour to cross Manila city from one side to other in a busy weekday. Running we barely caught the flight. Though left behind – underprivileged communities, their lifestyle, solar lantern hanging from a tree facing the direct sunshine, a new culture and a distinct developing country – stood in my mind’s frame.

By Manimala Kumar

REEFer’s diary of Philippines trip : Part 2

At night we reviewed the list of distressed households at which REEF distributed either solar lantern or environment friendly cook stove a year ago (2012).  REEF has started its field operation in villages surrounding Candelaria. The goal of my trip for REEF is to visit the households, survey the residents, inspect the conditions of the distributed products, and measure the impact since REEF has provided aid.  We also reviewed survey questionnaire – a customized form of Grameen (aka village in Bengali) Foundation’s survey form – that makes sense for REEF and to be used to interview people.  We sat with a local barangay senior who could help plotting the addresses and sketch an itinery as the remote addresses are not available in Google map. Barangay is the smallest administrative division in the Philippines.

Following days we started day long visits to indigent families. If the families had school age children and they were able to send the children to school (many of these people are not in a position to do so), we could not greet those children as we were visiting during daytime. For same reason we would also not be able to meet father or male household head or primary bread earner. Exceptions were seasonal workers. In most households female head was housewife.

The houses had a pattern – hard soiled floor, combination of bricks/soil/bamboo/plywood for wall, straw or asbestos or light corrugated material or blend of all these materials for roof.  Few slightly well-off households had cement or concrete floor and/or wall. None of the houses had toilets. Some of the houses had a small covered area used as bathrooms. Fishermen who lived next to the sea regularly threw solid body waste to the water. Most homes had one big room partitioned to two dens. Open pit cooking took place at one corner of the room. House conditions ranged from extremely shabby to moderate. I wondered how many of these houses would stand the next tropical storm. Many of the home owners could not afford, hence did not have electricity; I bet few stole electricity. The families likely could not afford full meal in a day and liquor consumption in empty stomach was commonplace. Education level of household heads varied from non-graduated primary to high school graduates. Median income of the households was below $10/month.

Walking on the unpaved dusty road we reached the first household where a young couple lived with 2 kids, father did agricultural work to earn livelihood. The mother was not expecting us, greeted us with a smile. We spoke with her and filled the survey form. Always straight questions would not result into assertive answers; observation, framing question differently and digging deeper would. Imagine a labor who does not have a steady income tracking basic accounting such as household income, duration of seasonal work, work hours, amount spent in electricity, time spent in collecting woods etc. She answered in mixed Tagalog and English.  She was able spell her name, to check whether I inscribed correct; if I was wrong she wrote herself. I expected to observer extreme necessitousness.  But at this level of society, I was astounded by the quality of basic primary education in the nation. Clearly this is a footprint of 450 years of Spanish and American colonies in Philippines. During Feb’13 inter island Sailing Regatta Hobie Challenge, REEF has distributed 400 solar lanterns to schools to be given to children in need. It was pleasant to see that one of the school kids in the household has received the lantern (d.light s2) from the school. The solar lanterns were set outside facing the sun. D.light s20 enlightened the evening and nights for ~10 hours daily while the mother cooked and children studied. After thanking her for her time we moved on.

Next household in the list was next door, a blind old woman stayed alone. She was away. So we left this Purok 1 (Philippines term for ward, identified via unique numbering scheme or distinct phrase) and headed to next Purok.  The next house was of a single woman who had a cashew tree. In dry season (typically March to October) the cashew trees bear fruits without fail. She went to sell cashews in the market. We told her neighbor that we would come back next day.  I could not stop appreciating her taste. She had a cheap flowery curtain to separate her bedroom from kitchen and rest of the open area, a small plant what she decorated with empty egg shells.  No garbage was piled up or thrown in the vicinity. The scanty shelter appeared to be clean and bore a look of a cottage.  In spite of poverty, she depicted a taste.

We knocked at the door of the next family. The grandmother gave birth to ~11 children. Grandfather was aged and had hard time quantifying the number of children and recalling the name of the children. Grandparents are now financially dependent on their children. DSC_3189 DSC_3191 DSC_3195This is the only family who did not take care of the solar lantern, the lantern was dropped over cooking stove and the solar panel was melted. We took the lantern back to send for possible repair.

We went to snatch a quick lunch from a store run by a middle aged woman. The woman runs a small shop adjacent to her house where she raises foster children. Her cousin sister was abandoned by her husband. With many kids, no shelter and no income the cousin landed in water. The woman was kind enough to accommodate the cousin at her home while the cousin helped her with household work. We pleasantly found that the cousin found next partner and would move with him with all her kids soon. She warmly welcomed us with homemade hot rice, fried chicken, pork curry, ‘halo halo’ (a traditional Philippine dessert) and home grown bananas.

BY Manimala Kumar

REEFer’s diary of Philippines trip : Part 1

March, 2013: I just landed at Manila airport. The beauty pigeon’s airport itself did not seem glamorous to me.  After passing the immigration counter, we found ourselves standing outside the airport in the capital city of Philippines surrounded by friendly taxi drivers and literally felt the warmth (an early spring day in Philippines is so hot that a fish can be fried without oven).

The cab in Manila made its zigzag way through the road amidst cars, buses, rickshaws and people coming from all direction leading to mini traffic jam in each lane, provided there was a notion of lane. Dodo, my toddler, although tired from past ~ 24 hours journey from USA to Manila, sat straight and exclaimed “crazy, damn crazy”!  I watched the city’s skyline, roadside brick buildings breathing close to each other. Ah, what a homely feeling! Nothing is different from what I have seen in India.

Our cab passed the Roxas Boulevard running along scenic Manila Bay. Roxas was formerly known as Dewey Boulevard named after the American Admiral under whose command the Spanish navy was defeated in the Battle of Manila Bay more than a century ago. It derives present name in the honor of President Manuel Roxas, the fifth president of Philippines. Accustomed to frequent street renaming in Calcutta, I kept feeling at home.

Next, check into the hotel and get ready for the day. Shortly I got a call from REEF.  And I remembered the unforgettable forgetting. Back in January there was a change in initial plan; we were supposed to be picked up directly from airport and to head towards the province of Zambales. The fact complete slipped of mind while juggling with office priorities.  Ralph (REEF’s founder) and Grace (REEF’s Philippines Operations head) were about to report to police that a family went missing in Philippines! We packed and were on the way to Candelaria, Zambales.

Manila to Candelaria of the province of Zambales is ~4 hours drive. After crossing the city of Manila landscape is tree lined, sometimes curvy mountain road ragged over the sea.  We stopped at Subic city in the evening. It was one of the largest US military facilities outside of mainland USA during American colonial period in Philippines.  MV Logos Hope, the largest among the floating libraries anchored in Subic Bay same time of last year to bring knowledge, help and hope to local folks, especially children. We walked around and had dinner. Filipino people consume k, vegetables and herbs.  Curries are neither spicy nor oily. Tropical country offers variety of fruits. A green mango shake complemented our dinner.

It was night when we arrived at the town of Candelaria.  Provincials believe that the name means a place of many candles as once the place used to have many candles. Jet lagged, we soon felt asleep.

Next morning I would wake up in a two storied wooden house to discover a splendid architecture. Philippine islands have two seasons – dry and wet. To stay cool during prolonged warm months the rustic house has wall to wall ventilation, big windows, large balconies shaded to shelter from the rain and sun. Near the windows the locals put a small coffee table and a pair of chairs – ‘Merienda’ (late morning/afternoon snacks) place. People here go to bed late and start day late. They grab four meals in a day breakfast, late morning snacks, lunch, afternoon snacks and dinner. After breakfast we went to a fishermen’s neighborhood, boarded a raw yacht and toured the Patipur island, which welcomed us with little bamboo huts, shades and lukewarm water of South China Sea.

By Manimala KumarDSC_3148 DSC_3182