Saturday, January 13, 2007

Buhay Pa Tayo

One of the most familiar phrases people say here when you ask them how they are is "Eto" (here) or "Buhay pa" (still alive). Never has it had more meaning than in recent weeks here as we recover from one of the worst typhoons to hit the Philippines in decades.

I have written much in my blog lately - mostly because I've been busy, sometimes because I just don't know what to say anymore. When Typhoon Reming struck us on Nov. 30, 2006, hitting Legaspi (my new home) dead center, we all experienced a brush with serious injury, if not death. For a few minutes there, as the flood waters rushed inside my little apartment on Marquez Street, I wondered, 'Is this the way it's going to be?' I'll drown right here inside my tiny apartment far away from my family and friends? Thankfully the water stopped rising at my waist and the pressure was off.

But there were others here who were not so lucky. In a freak of nature, Typhoon Reming dumped what some say was 40 years of rain in one day. Heavy winds helped send torrents of water from the top of Mount Mayon crashing down on Legaspi below. So many times I've looked at Mayon and thought, 'How beautiful.' But now I look at her and think, what will she do next? As many of you know from news accounts, Mayon sent tons of volcanic mud, rocks and water barrelling down on homes below, killing hundreds in the path. Though I live much farther from the base of the volcano, the water and mud came tearing through my little neighborhood too, in a flashflood, carrying cars, refridgerators and rooftops before our eyes. But we, of course, were the lucky ones.

Just today, I went to visit the people of Padang. They have been relocated to a safer place now, but are living in a tent city with few latrines and no good potable water. The walls of their temporary shelters are made of tarp and their floors are mud. This, after surviving a massive lahar that wiped out their village and took with it more than 200 of their family members. In the days after the storm, myself and other Peace Corps volunteers went to Padang to help the people there. We met some new friends and became celebrities to the hundreds of kids there. After a short break, I returned to teaching at my local college but decided to visit the evacuees at their relocation site this morning. "I thought you had forgotten us," said one woman, as many came to say hello. I don't think I could ever forget them.

But it is hard to visit people you know are suffering and yet there is little you can do to help. Peace Corps as many of you know is not a relief organization and does not necessarily involve itself in relief work. For those of us affected by the typhoon, we are trying to do what we can to help. Thanks to those of you who contributed in December, we were able to give them a little cheer at Christmastime. With your generous donations, we gave each child a pair of flip-flops (tsinellas) and at T-shirt, plus some give-away toys. We also bought hundreds of household gifts and held a family Christmas raffle. One of our volunteers, Alvin, who is big and jolly, played Santa. We all had a lot of fun and it was good to see the kids laugh again.

I'm trying to think of a way to help, even if it's just to visit the kids and say hello and lend support. There is a great little new American relief group here now, Hands On, based out of Boston. It's a funky little group that just gives people a chance to volunteer all over the world when there is a disaster. They will be here for three months at least and I'm hoping I can work with them on helping out those in need here. Come join us! Or donate, if you can...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

From the Province to the Big City

So, for those of you who are wondering out there, I'm still here. It's not that I haven't thought a zillion times a day about leaving, but I'm still here. It's been two months since my last posting and I must confess that it's been a rough too months.

Just when you think you've adjusted, things start happening. I was forced to leave my nipa hut after my host uncle was accused of a crime. He wasn't punished for the unmentionable crime, but Peace Corps moved me temporarily to a local resort for safe keeping. While there, I got to bond with Ate Sylvia Amor and her wonderful family, including the sweetest little Yuri, 3, at the Amor Beach Resort. I lived in Cottage A for several weeks, ate delicious food and tried to weather the gossip and myriad of questions back in Punta, my old neighborhood.

As the neighborhood continued to fight over the alleged crimes of my host uncle, I hid out at Amor. While there, I braved one of the biggest typhoons to hit the Philippines in years. Typhoon Milenyo was strong. Talagang malakas! I ended up huddled alone under an umbrella while the walls shook and rain poured inside my hut. The hut and I survived to tell the story many times over. Thank God I'd remembered to buy a bottle of red wine the week before in Legaspi, the nearest city.

During my stay at Amor, I learned that Peace Corps was transferring me altogether to Legaspi, about an hour away from Donsol. I am now assigned as an English teacher at a local college and will begin classes in early November. While I did not have a choice in the transfer, it will offer some new opportunities in my last few months in the Philippines. My regrets are that I leave behind a really great project -- the marine ecology center -- and good friends and counterparts I've made in Donsol. It wasn't easy to say good-bye -- there were a few tears shed -- but maybe it will be all that easier to say those good-byes when I really leave for good next June. And I am leaving, knowing that Linell, the librarian at my school, will carry on the library project. And that Tess, my counterpart at the eco center, will do the same. They are both so capable, they hardly needed me in the first place.

Last week, I left for good and moved to Legaspi. Actually, I am living in a small studio apartment in Old Albay in a quiet, clean neighborhood. I rent from a very sweet lola (grandmother) who worries about me. She giggles when I speak to her in Tagalog because she thinks it's so amusing. I can already tell city life will be different. For one thing, there are new volunteers nearby, including Page, a volunteer in Legaspi. I will have access to Internet, malls and the movies! Who could ask for more? It's almost like being home in the good old USA. Sort of. One thing for sure is that I can get wine and cheese (real cheese!) and that will make me happy for a little while.

I am working now on planning to teach the college students at a small Catholic college within walking distance to my apartment. I will be teaching research and writing, speech, American and British literature, job skills, journalism as well as doing some training in English for the professors. So, it's a new challenge and will definitely keep me busy for the next seven months. Seven months!

It's hard to believe that I have only a seven months to go. It's been a rough road and I am hoping to finish but I would be lying if I did not say that everyday is a struggle. I miss home and my old life. I miss being there for the things that happen in the lives of people I care about. But seven months is just seven months, diba? Time will hopefully fly quickly.

To get me through the last hurdle, I hope to spend a week in Hawaii for my 40th birthday. Yes, magfoforty ako! Yikes, where as the all the time gone? How did I get to be this old and why do I still feel like I'm 20?! A big thanks those of you who have stood by me all these years. I love you all! :)

I'm signing off for now and hope to update you all a little more frequently.