Days off make way for incredible journeys: Tacloban, Philippines

Work hard, play hard 

Tacloban city

I was quite lucky that the week I started volunteering with All Hands was the week they enforced the twice monthly Saturday off, plus my stay coincided with a public holiday which meant that I ended up only working five days a week. I was a little disappointed to learn this as I wanted to make the most out of my time there, but each day off brought incredible opportunities I wasn’t expecting.

Weekend jeepney rides!

My first day off was a stressful one as I booked new flights out of Philippines after deciding to extend my time volunteering for an extra two weeks. Unfortunately this meant I lost out on two flights, a night train, a ferry and a swanky hotel I had treated myself to in Manila but it was well worth it. To offset my annoyance I had a hazelnut Illy iced latte at XYZ Hotel which was a true home comfort. After spending Saturday night in Na Ning Mobile Bar, a campervan-turned-bar in downtown Tacloban which has become the local hangout for NGO workers, I joined around 20 other volunteers on a trip to the beach.

Devastation left by super typhoon Yolanda

On the way, we decided to stop off at Robinson’s Mall for food which was a huge mistake as the queue was two hours long. Never did I visit Robinson’s again after that! As we rode on the roof of the jeepney to the beach I caught my first glimpse of some of the areas most affected by Yolanda. The scale of devastation was more than I had previously seen and I was stunned to see “please help us”, “we need food and water” written on roofs of people’s homes.

Not quite the paradise beach I was expecting

The beach was pretty bad too with lots of debris and houses washed up on shore, not really the tranquil sunbathing spot I had imagined. On our next day off we decided to visit a second beach which had a waterfall nearby. This beach was packed full of local families enjoying picnics and singing karaoke.

Jaw dropping sunset from a beach in Leyte

The view from shore was breathtaking and I witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets over the mountains in neighbouring island Samar. As we were singing karaoke with the locals, a woman approached us to ask if we were volunteers as we all looked of different ages and nationalities. When we told her we were from All Hands she invited us to join her family when they next visit their island as a thank you for our work.

Singing karaoke at the beach with locals

On the way home our jeepney driver Alan invited us to a local fiesta where he lives in Santa Niño, which happens to be the same Barangay we have been working in. I was a little reluctant to go as I had a cracking hangover from a World Cup party at base the night before and had just sliced the bottom of my foot open on coral, but I went along anyway as I didn’t want to miss out.

Santa Niño Fiesta

Santa Niño looked totally different than I am used to seeing it in the day, as bright lights and a DJ filled the basket ball court, which we took great pleasure in dancing to with local children who certainly had some moves! Filippino children, many as young as five, have the most hilarious dance moves, some quite impressive and many a little suggestive and certainly wouldn’t go down well back in England.

A Filipino favourite, juicy suckling pig!

After the mayor of the barangay had made his official speech in which he thanked All Hands, we were invited into his home for the most wonderful buffet of never-ending pork dishes including a juicy suckling pig. Not only did he make sure our bellies were full but our glasses continuously topped up with local beer and coca cola! I couldn’t believe the generosity of everyone we met that night.

Carrot cupcake from K Patisserie in Tacloban

The next weekend a big group of us headed downtown for breakfast at K Patisserie where I enjoyed another home comfort, this time a carrot cupcake. It was truly divine and I even featured on their Facebook page! As it was my last weekend, I decided to visit the ships along the shore as I had heard so much about them.

Ships washed ashore by Yolanda

Sure enough, the ships were massive cargo ships and passenger ferries washed ashore during the typhoon. It was so surreal to see these huge structures sat in the middle of people’s houses and shows the real strength of Yolanda.

Yolanda Village

As we walked through the neighbourhood along the shore, I tried to imagine what the place was like before Yolanda. Everyone now lived in makeshift houses made from wood, fabric and a number of different objects found in the rubble. I was pushing my luck walking through an area so badly devastated with an open cut on the bottom of my foot wearing nothing but flip flops, but thankfully it didn’t get infected.

Children belonging to the cockerel owner

We got talking to a number of local families, one who bred cockerels. The man offered to direct us to the local cockerel fight which was taking place so we went along as they are a big part of Filipino culture and I was intrigued to find out what it involved. What I witnessed at this fight was probably the most horrific thing I had ever seen in my life. I won’t go into details but the first fight ended in two deaths and by the second I walked out and went home. However, it was interesting to see all the men (we were the only westerners and the only women) gambling but I felt sick at supporting something so cruel.

The atmosphere at a cockerel fight

The following morning I was woken at 6am to be told that the jeepney was waiting outside with the brother of the woman who had invited us to an island the previous week at the beach – remember her? I was astonished to learn that the woman had stuck to her word and we were now riding on the roof of the jeepney, on our way to catch a boat to her grandmothers own private island off the coast of Samar.

Paradise island

As we arrived in paradise we were greeted by members of her family who immediately started cooking lunch while we lazed on the beach and swam in the sea (I did help chop the veg!) Using coconut shells as firewood, the family dished up the most spectacular buffet of chicken, fresh spring rolls, pork, fish, seafood and vegetables, all grown on the island. Apart from a knife and one pot, everything was sourced from the island including our plates which were the bark of a banana tree.

What a meal!

It was no doubt the best meal I have had in my whole five months away. After we had finished, one of the brothers appeared from the water with a giant clam which he had free dived six metres to pick up. I’d never seen one of these before and watched in awe as they cut it open and shared it out to eat. I’m not a lover of seafood but I enjoyed everything that day, especially the cake they had brought over for dessert!

Gigantic clam plucked from the sea bed

In true Filipino fashion the food just kept coming, each time with the brothers saying “eat like a Filipino”. The first thing a Filipino will ask you when you meet up with them is “have you eaten yet?” which is probably why I took a real liking to them. Filipinos have absolutely no worries about how much they eat or how healthy it is, just as long as it makes them happy and nothing is wasted, an outlook we should try to to adopt more back at home.

Local children waving us off in our Jeepney

It was the perfect way to spend my last day in Tacloban, a memory that will be with me forever. My time with All Hands allowed me to stay in a place long enough for it to feel like home and to get to know so many people well enough for them to feel like old friends. I can’t recommend volunteering enough, it’s a truly rewarding experience but not to be taken lightly. If you are interested in helping some of those most at need then check out All Hands website or South East Asia Backpacker which has a list of other opportunities. 

Living life, loving travel,

H x

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