Volunteering with All Hands: Tacloban, Philippines

Muscles I never knew existed 

Workers at GK site Divisoria

I spent just over three weeks volunteering in Tacloban with All Hands, an NGO set up to help those affected by natural disasters across the world. I have so many stories to tell you but not enough time to share (plus you will soon get bored reading I’m sure) so I am going to split my time in Tacloban between two posts: one about my time at work and the other about my time off. 

The people of tacloban are forever grateful

Now back to Tacloban…. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I had never been to a disaster zone before and on first impressions I was surprised to find the standard of living at base and by local people a lot higher than expected, especially in contrast to much of the other countries I’ve visited like Myanmar. It was only after I explored a little more that I was able to grasp what life was like before super typhoon Yolanda and realised that the amount lost as a result of  Yolanda and the contrast between before and after is unimaginable. 

Tacloban six months after super typhoon Yolanda

The first week was all a bit of a blur as I slowly got to grips with life at the All Hands base. My days started at half five when I would get up and make a huge breakfast of eggs, porridge, toast and peanut butter (and pancakes on a Monday!) which gave me vital energy for a hard days work. The Jeepney left for work at seven o’clock sharp, getting us to site around 7:30am. We would work right through to 4:30pm taking an hour or so for lunch. The great thing about All Hands is that I was able to choose which site I would be working at each day, so if I fancied a change of scenery or the type of work I was doing, I was able to get some variation. 

New homes at Santa Niño site

I started my week at Santa Niño where 60 new homes have just been completed by All Hands in partnership with Operation Blessing. My job was to ensure the site was safe enough for families to move in. The houses will home those currently living on the coast, who’s homes were destroyed by Yolanda’s storm surge. Unfortunately many of the families are reluctant to move as their livelihood is by the sea, so moving inland would make it difficult to get to work.

Petting a pig whilst taking a trip to the well

Following the success of this project, All Hands have just started work on building an additional 140 homes in the same traditional Filipino style, but in a stunning new location. I only worked at the new site for a day, where I helped dig a two metre deep hole for a septic tank. It was hot work but rewarding to see our progress by the end of the day.

Leaving my mark on the new site by digging septic tanks

The other two sites I worked at were managed by GK (Gawad Kalinga), a movement to eliminate poverty, starting in the Philippines and spreading throughout the world. GK workers receive a house for their family to live in after they have completed 1000 hours of labour and can then go on to gain full ownership if they increase the number of hours they work. This meant that many of the same people helping us build the houses will actually be living in them, while the others are contracted in from other areas of the Philippines.

Locals at Barangay Divisoria

Every day GK workers continued to work once we had left the site, working an additional three hours overtime with no pay as a goodwill to help the community. I stumbled across Kathy’s blog post about her time volunteering with GK which provides a good insight into the type of work I was doing.

Hanging out with locals kids

What I loved about these sites is that everyone in the village got stuck in and helped, with local women fetching water for the cement and children digging trenches for the foundations. It was hard work but with the help of the local community, progress was good.

GK representatives from Texas USA visiting to see how work was coming along

My favourite GK site was in a hillside Barangay (village) called Divisoria, as I got to know the children there who gave me a Filipino nickname “Jollibeth”. Each day I looked forward to the afternoon when they finished school so I could talk to them about their day. Along with the children, it was the food that led to my return, as the traditional Filipino lunch was cooked by a local family who grew organic vegetables, so you can imagine how delicious it tasted.

The day the electricity came back on after six months

I was there the day the electricity came back on six months since Yolanda. It was rather odd to see the whole village retreat inside and be glued to their TVs while blasting out music from their radios. A handful of local women also set up a small stall selling Halo Halo, a Filipino iced drink and grilled caramelised banana which I always made an excuse to have at least once a day.

Drinking Halo Halo with friends at GK Divisoria site

One afternoon when it was too stormy to work, I took great pleasure in going around the houses to learn more about the families living in the village. Everyone who spoke English was more than willing to speak to me about their family and about how they have been affected after the typhoon. One thing that really touched me was this one woman who, when I asked how old her four children were, she explained that only three were still alive but she has four because the other is very much still alive in her heart.

GK Palanog site in tacloban

The family who looked after our bags at the other GK site in Barangay Palanog had the most adorable baby called Lance and they had just celebrated his birthday by covering the wall with a huge banner. Family is a huge part of Filipino culture and we certainly wouldn’t go to that much effort for a one year old in England!

Birthday banners for baby Lance

I spent most of my time at the GK site where I learnt to dig trenches for foundations, lay hollow blocks which made up the walls and mix cement by hand to fill the hollow blocks. It was back-breaking work and every evening I felt exhausted but I still looked forward to doing it all again the following day.

Laying hollow blocks using cement mixed by hand

Communal dinner consisted of two simple Filipino dishes with rice and was eaten during the meeting which took place every evening. After the meeting and a couple of servings of dinner (seconds were always on the agenda!) most people chilled out at base while those who could muster up the energy would head into town. The majority of my evenings would be spent at base or at the local shake shack where I made it my mission to make my way through the whole shake menu during my stay. Although mango was a clear contender for the best flavoured shake, it was the super-duper sweet Ube shake that I enjoyed the most. It was only after my umpteenth shake that I realised that they contained four tablespoons of sugar and practically a whole can of condensed milk, so decided maybe it was time to lay off the shakes for a while!

Ube shake, the best kind!

The positivity and zest for life I felt by every Filipino I met made me fall in love with this country. Some evenings I would go for a wander around the streets of the Utap, the barangay in which we were based, just to see what was going on and to chat to locals. I got to know some of the shop owners there, especially the women selling bananas for 3 peso and the local baker who cooked up the most incredible hot cinnamon buns. Thankfully lights out on base was at 10pm allowing me to attempt to get enough sleep to get through the following day. Although there are fans to rent, our room decided not to, which in hindsight was a pretty rubbish decision as I spent most nights rolling around in a ball of sweat, sometimes having to get up in the early hours just to take a cold shower. Fans are a luxury and I thought if the victims of Yolanda can live with no roofs let alone fans, then there’s no reason why I needed one (adequate wifi on the other hand was a different matter ;)!) 

Huge afternoon storms often disrupted work

I thoroughly enjoyed my time working with All Hands Volunteers, so much so I extended my stay for another couple of weeks. This meant I missed out the Thai Islands but the prospect of staying in a place long enough to get to know it, whilst helping the community and living with a fantastic group of people seemed more worthwhile than getting pissed on a beach covered in fluorescent paint. It was hard work but the reward was fantastic! 

Living life, loving travel,

H x