By Laura van Poucke

February 2016

On my tenth day in Manila, I felt like I could already write a book about all the things I’ve been going through or caught my eye. At my arrival, I was picked up by Don from PSET and brought me to my host family: a very kind woman called nanay (mother) Inday and her two teenage sons. They live in an urban poor community, and as many other young European tourists, I did not really know what to expect.

Before we went to the house, we first had to buy a bed since there was no bed for me at the house. That made me feel a little weird. At San Roque, the community, I felt really uncomfortable all the time. People were staring and it was hard to talk to my host family since I could not understand Tagalog and their English is a little… special. I must admit that the first hours I felt like: what am I actually doing here?

But by the morning, it became clear that nanay Inday is a woman with a golden heart that would do everything for me and her community. She showed me around and proudly presented me to all her friends. She is the community leader, so she knows everyone and everyone knows her.

During the day, PSET oriented me on Philippine history, culture and language. In the evening, I would go back to San Roque to sleep. Even though I did not feel really safe there, I had a good time. I didn’t have a hard time adjusting to anything. I didn’t have a jetlag either. But I guess you should know before you leave that there is no running water, electricity is scarce, no internet, there are rats and roaches in the house or in your bed, there’s no privacy, no bathroom or shower, and the living conditions are very unhealthy. But the people are so kind that I would certainly go there again!

Now these are the things that caught my eye most of all:

  • the language is very hard to learn or to understand, yet it is very important to master if you want to communicate
  • the weather is very, very, very hot. Being in the sun is like melting, seriously. And this is ‘winter’. I’m already afraid of what summer will bring! Besides that, I have to wear long trousers and t-shirts with sleeves, which make me feel uncomfortably warm and sweaty.
  • the traffic. Wow, what’s this? It’s chaotic, very polluted and dangerous. Traffic rules don’t seem to be followed at all. Main modes of transport in the city are cars, jeepneys, tricycles, buses and taxis. Certainly the jeepneys are a beautiful view, they colour the streets with their beautifully painted artworks. Taking them is something else. You have to crawl in from the back, shout your destination and pass your money, and you have to guess where to get off because it has no fixed stops. I didn’t dare to try biking yet.
  • the beauty ideal. Everyone wants to look white, so whitening creams are all over the ads. I seem to fit their beauty ideal, since everyone shamelessly stares at or even takes photos of me. Makes me feel really uncomfortable but I’ll get used to it.
  • Everything is too small here. I’m a local giant (1m75) and there wasn’t a day without me bumping onto a roof or a doorsill. Tricycles and jeepneys aren’t high enough for me, so I have to keep my head under an angle all the time.
  • The food: rice, rice, rice and rice! I barely ate vegetables and the meat is really fat. Also, they eat the weirdest things! Watermelon pits, duck embryos, testes soup, fish heads, fish eyes, dog meat, chicken feet… And everything is really salty or really sweet. The best thing of it all is that you can eat with your hands! I love it! And you have to share your food with everyone around you, because you don’t want to be impolite.
  • Filipino time: don’t plan anything, because plans will change every minute and meeting hours are just relative. When you will meet at 10, most of them will be there about 11:30.
  • Karaoke. They just adore it. And oh, there’s no way out: you’ll have to sing…whether you like it or not!

On the 11th of February, I moved to Santa Cruz, Zambales, north of Manila – completely different environment; a beautiful coastal town in Northern Luzon. I was impressed by its gorgeous nature. It leaves you silent for a while…

Of its 20 barangays, I’ve visited nine – all gorgeous with wonderful people, but all full of problems as well. Their land is still owned by landlords, which is very prehistoric, they still cultivate and harvest using nothing but a carabao.

Their biggest issue though is the mining company that has set foot on their mountainous area – have cut all the trees, ruined the roads and dump waste into the sea and land. This results in less mobility, a diminishing amount of fish, diseases on poultry and hogs, coughing due to the dust, soil unfit for growing vegetables, and floods that cover villages in red mud. It hurts to see how all these are destroyed, and that it’s legal as well.

Nonetheless, I had a very good time. I was welcomed in the house of Tita, who drove me around everyday and told me about their culture. I and Xiu, an Australian volunteer, listed the problems that we could observe and possible livelihood projects that communities can choose from.

Of course we had some recreation as well: we hiked to the ‘Sagrada Familia’, a cave formation in the mountains of Zambales; we took a boat to Balaki Island, we swam in a local river and visited a place called ‘100 islands’. Everything is worth visiting. The Philippines’ nature is unique and extraordinarily beautiful.

When I look back at my first month, I realize it passed by before I knew it. I didn’t even seem to have time to miss home. Manila is very busy, warm and polluted – not really my cup of tea. But the province, the way of life and the people are so wonderful, I’m already certain I’ll come back someday!

Laura van Poucke, Industrial Product Design student at Howest University shares her experiences and insights during her first of four months of internship in the Philippines.