I stayed in Bliss, Tacloban City, with a family for one unforgettable month, no where near long enough, wish I was still there now! The first four days were really difficult, party because I was tired from the 30 hour journey, but mainly because I found it so difficult to get used to the noises at night; coming from a quiet village in Cheshire, England, to a busy community where all the houses are joined and there are so many animals (roosters, dogs, cats, pigs etc)! This made it hard for me to sleep, and by the fourth night I was going mad - so I had a stern word with myself 'seriously – GET IT TOGETHER HOLLY!!' - I realised that I just needed to let the fears fade and accept it was different, but try to embrace it rather than worry about it. The next morning I woke up after an amazing sleep and my anxieties never returned. I think it was normal for every volunteer to be overwhelmed at first, and important to just enjoy the challenge, accepting it may be a little hard a first but that’s normal.
The community were so welcoming, especially the children who whenever they saw me walking, would always say 'Hello, what is your name?', and wave and me and smile! My home-stay family made me feel so at home, and although the children were a little shy at first, we soon made friends and played games and had so much fun every night; such as making treasure maps to find the hidden treasure around the house, and paper airplanes, and card games, never a quiet moment. We went out to the beach together for the day and hired a karaoke machine; this was one of my favourite days! We also went for a meal together on my last night, which was so lovely. I would really recommend volunteers to spend quality time with their home-stay families and get to know them as this is one of the greatest things about the trip – living with local people and experiencing their culture, I much prefer this to staying in a closeted hotel or resort and not really knowing anything about the outside community! The local people were always smiling, helping eachother on and off the jeepneys, moving in their seats to fit each other on, the jeepney’s even reversed for passengers if they had driven past – things you would NEVER see in England! I felt extremely safe at all times in my trip, regardless of their not appearing to be much consideration for health and safety in general – especially road safety LOL.
My placement was the Nutrition project, which was a feeding programme in a nearby community. Every weekday, I would travel with another volunteer to the next town, Tanauen, go to the market with the 400 Peso a day budget, and buy enough fresh food to cook for 20-30 children. We then went to the Barangay Hall (like a village hall), to make the food and awaited the arrival of the local children, and their mothers at around 10:30am. When we had time before the meal, we would sing songs with the children, such as 'I'm a little teapot' / 'Head shoulders knees and toes', we sometimes drew pictures with them which they all enjoyed. Once the children had said a prayer, they could come and collect their portion of food; often we had enough for seconds, depending on how many we had attending. Aside from the budget, we liked to buy them extra fruit for after, such as bananas, pineapple (they have the most amazing tasting pineapple they have in The Philippines), and raisins. We weighed the children, took their height and mid upper arm circumference, every two weeks, and created detailed profiles of them so we could follow their progress. As part of the feeding program, we conducted a nutrition seminar at a local elementary school, and another seminar at our feeding program. I really enjoyed giving these seminars, as the people listening always seemed very interested and welcoming of any nutrition advice; a lot different to my experience back home! At our feeding program seminar, we talked to the mothers about things they could do themselves such as growing their own vegetables, and possibly setting up a mother’s food co-op. A member of staff from VFV kindly translated a booklet we had made, and another member of staff attended our seminar to translate it as we went along, a huge help! The responsibility given to us on the project was great; the main thing I would say for future volunteers is how important it is to get to know the clients from the program, and then take initiative on organising activities with them; building up a relationship with the mothers helped us to find a theme for our seminar. VFV leave the project down to you and put a lot of trust in to you, which is a really great experience.
The VFV staff were wonderful, always so friendly and even though the office was often hectic with volunteers hanging around, children up and down the stairs and playing in the centre after school, music blaring from the outside where people were practising their dance routines (Filipino people love to sing and dance); the staff didn’t seem to stress out or even notice the madness going on around them! I loved the atmosphere at the centre and whenever any volunteers had a query, staff were happy to help every time. Taking part in tutorials was something each volunteer could get involved with; I tutored a ten year old girl and we got along really well, made great friends and had a giggle together, as well as maths, spelling and geography of course! Teaching was something I had never done, but really enjoyed making activity sheets and having to think on my feet. One thing I realised though is how bad I am at Geography and how handy ‘Google’ is when you can’t remember a capital city, or even how many continents there are – oh dear, haha.
I could literally go on for hours about how much I enjoyed staying in Tacloban City. Once I had overcome the jetlag and sleep issue, it went swimmingly from there; I no longer heard the noises at night, I loved the food, I loved the heat, I made some great friends with volunteers who I know I will keep in touch with, I went on some great excursions with VFV, and trips away at weekends; I feel privileged to have been involved with this organisation and to have stayed in such a beautiful place, The Philippines is absolutely stunning. I will openly admit, I had extreme worries before I came about travelling alone (which I had never done before), earthquakes, tsunami’s, kidnappings, not making friends, not having enough knowledge to make an impact on the project, getting bitten by mosquito’s etc - the very morbid list goes on. But once I arrived and settled in, these worries seemed a million miles away. I think it is very easy to pay too much attention to stories in the paper or on TV and think you know a place you haven’t even been to, but I have learned that this is so wrong and your main fears and preconceptions will undoubtedly disappear when you settle in and experience The Philippines for what it really is, amazing! If you are debating whether or not to go, don’t even think about it, just book a flight and get gone!