Jen-esis 1

Attending a Filipino wedding was always going to be an interesting experience for this little heathen. A disciple of Bill Hicks and a believer of Richard Dawkins, I was stranded on a tropical island with 100 churchy-types of my own free will.

Talking to one of the two pastors who presided over the wedding (yep, two priests) began well, we had a shared interest in Samar’s history and helping the poor. In fact I felt like we had more in common than not until he mentioned his new cause “curing and preventing” homosexuality.  His wife was virulently homophobic saying how they are lobbying against the anti-discrimination act and how it is “one of the greatest issues in the country” (corruption and poverty would have been my guess).

Did I step up and defend the rights of anyone to love who they damn well please? Pragmatic Jen kicked in and realised there was literally no escape from the island and I let the issue slide (cultural sensitivity 1: personal moral compass 0).

Later that evening I met a friend of my neighbour who invited me. As is the Filipino way, I answered a barrage of questions about my income, past relationships, religion, politics, but this time I decided not to self-edit so heavily. When explaining that I did not practice any religion she said, “You may not be a Christian but you follow Jesus’ teachings in your own way so I think you will go to heaven.”

My neighbour smiled and looked me in the eye; “No you will not, the only way to pass through the gates of heaven is through Jesus …” thus the great debate of my eternal salvation began. After watching my soul bounce back and forth like a tennis match, I decided to go for a walk by the sea.

Down by the water I found the real party, the groom’s camp brother and his fellow ‘ladies’ who loved my accent and taught me ‘gay language’. And here lies the paradox, the Philippines loves gays. They are popular performers on TV and are widely tolerated or accepted in this exceptionally religious society.

I have learnt a lot about the Philippines through my weekend with homophobic and homosexual Christians. Also, always take a good book to read, or you will be left to read The Good Book.

The learning and unlearning begins

Life here in Catarman is unfathomably different to Australia. Poverty is incomprehensible until you are submerged in it. Even then I will always be an outsider observing from a safe distance. 

I truly believe the average Australian has no idea how wealthy we are. Who I would consider poor in Australia can still drink water from the tap and often will own a fridge, television, a car or maybe all three.* Here you are considered wealthy if you own any of those items; my manager does not own a fridge or a car for example (but she has a TV, and people seem quite concerned that I do not want to own one).

This is forcing me to rethink and redefine poverty and what it is to be considered poor; not only the immediate physical implications of poverty (health, shelter, education) but the mental limitations, lack of self worth and the social stigma. Northern Samar has a large population of rural poor who earn P3000 per month for a family of five (just under AU$100) and only 48% of children finish Elementary School.

I am facing my own social boundaries with the colour of my skin (and my height boundaries getting in and out of tricycles and pedicabs). I met an academic yesterday who said I was the nicest white person he has ever talked to. “White people are arrogant, they think that they own us,” said Freddy who lectures in social studies at UEP. After the initial language barriers, I am also up against centuries of Western oppression and a bloody history of enslavement. In short, white people are pricks.  

 *I’m not including Indigenous Australians in this assertion. Poverty in Australia is as harsh and real as it is in developing countries. Whilst only 20% of Caucasian Australians die before 65, 70% of Indigenous people do.

A ‘brown-out’ to welcome me

Mabuhay! After an earth-shatteringly early start (woke up at 2.30am for my flight!) I am in Catarman, Northern Samar in the Visayas. Ate* Joelyn, my manager, met me at the airport and took me to JolliBee for a hearty breakfast of cheese burger and chips where I met her husband and two boys. I feel a natural chemistry between Ate Joe and I, she is a woman of character, strength and is a real free spirit. Very committed to community-based local economic development and not afraid to try a different approach.

Now that the electricity has kicked back in (in other words, the ‘brown out’ is over), I can recharge my cell – I think one of the hardest parts of this assignment will be learning American English, an oxymoron. And also working in web development with no electricity! 

*Ate means older sister. In the Philippines, terms of respect are reflected though family associations so it is common to call coworkers big bother, uncle etc.

Welcome to the urban jungle

It has been a somewhat overwhelming week of cultural induction, signing forms, videoke and sweets so sweet you can see through time. Not to mention the tanduay rum; a country with bottles of spirits for less than 2 dollars and endless opportunities to sing makes for a killer combo.

Once again I have been struck by how the program thinks about pretty much everything. Jonas, our in country manager (ICO) and his team are clearly dedicated and also entertained by the highly eclectic groups of Aussies that turn up three times a year.

The week at the resort in Antipolo City gave us the chance to form important networks of support with other volunteers. After living in comparative luxury, going down to the streets of Manila seeing children playing in filthy water in the slums was a reality check. This isn’t a holiday, no matter how rewarding the experience, there are going to be numerous challenges ahead. Reaffirming why I signed up in the first place.

Children swimming in Manila

Children swimming in Manila