Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Blessed With Smiles in Tacloban - Discovering the Philippines

Sunset View from Our All Hands Volunteer Base in Tacloban
Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Blessed are the patient; they shall inherit the land. Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for holiness; they shall have their fill. Blessed are the merciful; they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the clean of heart; they shall see God.
Matthew 5: 3-8

I won't pretend to be your travel guide to a small city you've never heard of in the Philippines. You're not going to go there. Truthfully, I may not have ever made it to the country if I hadn't been called upon to work there. This is not meant as a discourtesy, it simply had not been on my agenda. That being said, Tacloban, for me, was ultimately a profoundly charming residence for more than two months of my life.

Downtown Tacloban by the Water
Situated in the northeast of the island of Leyte in the Eastern Visayas of central Philippines, Tacloban is neither terribly small nor relatively remote, having a population of about 200,000 and its own regional airport - comparable to my hometown, except you can actually use their airport (another story for another day). Tragically, in November of 2013, the powerful Typhoon Haiyan raged through Leyte and neighboring Samar. Violent wind and rain were followed by massive flooding, and deaths were in the thousands - official toll was 6,201, but estimates insist it was much worse.

A "Trike" can sometimes transport up to six passengers
Eighteen months later, I arrived to contribute to
the rebuilding efforts already long underway by All Hands Volunteers. At first glance, this was a dusty seaside town bustling with small roadside shops, jeepneys and modified motorcycle taxis, and people of all ages walking to and fro. Bake shops, pineapple vendors, and mechanics were at work. Mothers were busy scrubbing the laundry in the dirt paths between modest homes of scrap metal and wood. The scent of coconut charcoal grilling pork and various chicken innards was everywhere. The city was certainly back on its feet to the extent that it was apparently no longer
a disaster zone. However, one should not make the mistake to think - as is so easily the conclusion after news of a disaster is lost in the long shadow of time - that all was back to normal.


But what is normal for these people? It was something to which I gave much thought while there. What did homes look like before the storm? Did people have different jobs that are no longer available? How many family members and neighbors exist now only in the memories of those remaining, leaving a void I will never feel? These are the questions I did not want to ask. Some volunteered information, but I imagined many had things they just didn't want to revisit. I can only tell you that life goes on despite the storm, but as evidenced in their stories, and even still referenced at church services, there is still great loss and a reality that cannot forget.

I was lucky to have met some fine people in the barangay (district) where I did most of my work as well as in other parts of the city. In getting to know them, I was made some great discoveries without asking the invasive questions. One phenomenon I noticed during my stay was the magnificent smiles - from the kids walking to school, from the neighbors as I passed through from site to site, from the girls in the bake shop. Coming from a country and a life with so much, you realize just how silly "first world problems" really are in their proper perspective. However, still I considered - how is it that a people who have suffered through such a tragic event, many of whom seem to have very little, live with such delight and strength?

"God" has entered the discussion on more than one occasion. While many in my country seem to be trying their darndest to banish Him, I believe He may have sought refuge in the Philippines. Many Filipinos appear to be strengthened by their faith, and as a result, they feel blessed.

When Iries' eyes are smiling

Next, a word "content" appears to be quite relevant. My friend Iries explained to me that she is happy because she is content. The words appear similar, but they can be quite different. Her claim got me to thinking, because in my world back home, being content can be equated with lack of ambition. In the American model, one who is content will never break down barriers or accomplish the greatest heights. Content means letting grass grow under your feet. However, in the Philippine model, being content is the satisfaction of being grateful for what you have in life, rather than what you don't. Iries finds joy and contentment from being a mother. You can see it in her eyes, and it is the kind of happiness we should all be so lucky to have.

Susie (made me sisig!) with husband and daughter Jamie

Finally, back to the issue of "normal," I was fortunate to be invited into several homes during my stay - with a friend and her family, with people from the community in which we worked, and even in the home of strangers, just because I commented on hearing karaoke emanating from inside the house. In each instance, I was offered food and drink and was treated as a guest of honor. I think that must be normal for these people, and I like it! In my own experience inviting people into my home - even when I don't have much to offer - treating people to that level of esteem and offering a bit of yourself provides a special kind of dignity not easily found elsewhere.

The most difficult part of world travel is that you inevitably have to say goodbye to the people who help enchant your stay. Working in Tacloban is not your average construction site. Locals work alongside you, family members watch your work and sometimes bring you pancit noodles, baked goods, fruit, or cold soft drinks, and small children play all around where you are trying to carry heavy lumber and sacks of cement. We were a part of their world. They were what made ours bearable, and at times joyous. Thanks for opening your hearts and homes to us, friends of Tacloban. I wish you all the grace and happiness you deserve, that future storms pass you by, and that you always keep those magnificent smiles.

Allan! Jeepney driver and friend

Two of our lovely three bake shop girls

Hey, what's your name?!

Nancy and family hosted some great break-time meals

Kids from the barangay belting out the tunes

Gladiator Team attending the official hand-over of an All Hands home

Monaliza's voice was always music to my ears

Melvin - one of our jeepney drivers and friend

Josh's birthday, complete with videoke - I didn't know anyone there, but was ushered in to join the fun

To find out about All Hands Volunteers projects around the world, please visit:

What I planned to say... - Goodbye Message from Project Leyte, Philippines

It was a long day. Indeed, it was a long stay in Tacloban and the Philippines - longer than anywhere I had stayed outside of the United States. It was the end of the meeting where departing volunteers share some sort of farewell with the crew. I had some wisdom planned to impart, but all I could muster was a thank you. Short and to the point? Yes, but here is what I wanted to say, more or less, to my friends of All Hands Volunteers - Project Leyte:
My first day here, I arrived and was put on the Gladiator team for work. As I rode off with the volunteers in the jeepney the next morning, I assumed I got the work nobody else wanted since I was the new guy - probably the hardest. It wasn't my first rodeo. It turns out I was right. Carl, Andre, and Bill seemed to be long term Gladiators who fed off of each other's competitive vibes, carrying heavier and heavier loads of sacks of gravel and sand, cement bags, and multiple pieces of lumber. Meanwhile, I was sweating profusely and probably suffering heat exhaustion. I had to stop and sit out for a bit - find the shade for a while to cool off. At the end of the day, I calculated at five weeks, six days a week, I was 1/30 of the way finished with my obligation - 29 more days of this. Maybe I should have gone on a food tour of Italy instead. Ha. The next morning was Bill's last day. One of the other volunteers, Izzy, decided to raise money for the project, she would cart Bill to work about five kilometers in a wheel barrel... and back at the end of the day! That night, I signed up to do dishes and consequently got first pick of next day's work. I said, "Gladiators."
Two and a half months later, people still ask me why in the world I chose to do it for almost my whole time on project. Most people get out their first chance and don't look back. Few of us stayed on as Gladiators to do the heavy lifting as suppliers for the rest of the teams. I suppose everyone comes to volunteer for their own reasons. Some want to bulk up their resumes with experience in line with their architecture or international development degrees. Others, perhaps, had just finished undergrad or high school and thought this would be a great experience to go and do good, maybe even meet some other cool young people, drink some beers, and just have a great time. Still others, no doubt, are world travelers trying to stay out away from home for as long as possible, and this serves well to accomplish that goal. I can relate to all of those motives, but there is something else.
Time and time again, the people of typhoon-ravaged Philippines have been referred to as "victims" and that we were here to help them. They are not victims; the victims are in Heaven. The victims needed the first responders and doctors. The people of Tacloban and surrounding areas don't need help being victims. When you show up to work everyday, do you see people who cannot function without us? No. You see smiles and waves; business goes on and kids are going to school; people have food - even enough to share with us. No one is starving or asking for money. I see survivors. I see people, undeterred by destruction and misfortune, living their lives content with what they have and moving forward. We are not here to save them; we are here to offer a service.
 I worked for twenty years in restaurants and hotels. My job title for much of this time was "Server," so you'd think I'd have mastered the idea. However, learning about service - true service to others - is often elusive even to those in the business. The first key to service is that IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU. Even in the service industry, this is easily forgotten, and we quickly revert to thinking about ourselves. The second key to service is that we are doing something exactly because it is NECESSARY AND GOOD. We are here to fulfill a need and because it is the right thing to do. Furthermore, we do no harm. Lastly, we recognize the need for SACRIFICE. True service to others is not using a hashtag for the cause of the moment or making a video of yourself pouring ice water on your head. Service requires something difficult from yourself. Service is hard.
Instinctively, we all know this to be true, and we all have proven to be service-minded or we wouldn't be here. However, like I said, even working in the business we need to have that focus, because it is very easy to stray. So, why do I choose to be a Gladiator? Well, because it needs to be done. It's hard, and that's fine.
 I will leave you with a quote from one of our favorite American actors - Tom Hanks, in A League of Their Own, responding to his player's reason for quitting is that "it just got too hard."
"It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."
 Thank you all for your service.

Volunteers in blue shirts posing with Filipinos near wooden homes

Friday, July 24, 2015

Island of Samar - Building Boats in the Philippines

Sunset in Pinabacdao
I was fortunate to be able to join the crew of my fellow All Hands Volunteers in Pinabacdao, on the island of Samar for four days. While I didn't do much to help build the boats for our beneficiary fishermen, I was on photography assignment, and this is some of what I was able to capture.

Find out more about what we do at:

Fisherman Walking to his Boat

Our Local Welcome Team in Calampong

All Hands Friends and Me on the Pier to Watch the Sunset

The Pier at Sunset in Pinabacdao


Hand Stamp Signature as Finishing Touch

Many Hands Waterproofing the Hull
Proud Fisherman and His Boat