Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Calauit Island, Palawan, Philippines

Feb 2-4, 2008

What ever HE wants done for the long-neglected school children of Calauit Island Primary School in Coron, Palawan, HE has shown FtH the way to do it. There are just too many people and events converging to affect this mission, it is hard to imagine that it is just by coincidence.

In 1976, the indigenous tribe of Tagbanuas was forced out of Calauit Island to provide a place for the wild life animals from Africa as sponsored by the government. In 1986, with the success of People Power EDSA1, the natives started trickling back to their island but were turned back by the military assigned in the area. With the help of Bishop Ed Juanich of the Diocese of Palawan and UP Los Banos Staff, the natives won a court decision to co-exist with the wild life but still waiting for their right to own a piece of the island where their ancestors have farmed all their life. In 2006; a school was authorized to be built in Calauit Island to spare the students the danger and inconvenience of crossing the channel to go to the school in the main island.

This FtH Story all started from the time Olive (a volunteer teacher in Calauit Primary School ) while in UP Los Banos Ugnayan Ng Pahinungod Office (UPLB) sent out an appeal in the internet to her friend Jennie for books and school supplies for the school children. It was an appeal heard around the world and people responded. It was relayed to Fr. Bustamante, a Cebu Tech alumni, a parish priest in Zamboanga. Fr. Bu relayed the request to his fellow Cebu Tech alumni all over the world; picked up by Tita, the wife of Cebu Tech alumni in Herndon, Virginia, USA, Tita inquired from Tess of Feed the Hungry, Inc. in Leesburg, Va., asking if FtH can help. Tess transferred the request to Pablito who is in charge of the Education Program of FtH. About the same time, Gloria of FtH inquired about any FtH mission in Palawan that her sister Cayan can join. Remembering the children’s books that Tess saved from the FtH Book Drive last September 20007 and stored by Carol and Bong in their house ever since, Pablito merged the three events together and the FtH mission in Calauit was borne.

I have traveled to many places in the Philippines but I do not have any idea where Calauit Island in Palawan is. We were in Puerto Princesa about 2 years ago on the request of George and some FtH volunteers were also in Palawan during the time some tourists were kidnapped in Dos Palmas Resort. With the help of Mr. Google, I found out that Calauit Island is one of the approximately 1,700 island forming the province of Palawan; is part of Coron town, in the northern tip of Palawan, about 12 hours travel from Puerto Princesa. Coron is about 12 hours ferry ride from Manila, once a week. There are 2 airlines that service Coron with one flight a day.

Cayan said that she is very much interested to go to Palawan and will bring her friend along. I tried to book our flight with Asian Spirit last December 2007 for a Feb 1, 2008 to Coron. The flight for Feb 1 was already full. I had to move our schedule to Feb 2, 2008 but I was unsuccessful in booking the flight in the internet, I requested Cayan to do it and she was successful and was able to charge the fee to her credit card. Not knowing that Cayan was able to book our flight, I kept playing in the internet to book myself and Tess and finally got through and was immediately charge. I requested Victor in Manila to follow up my request for refund but he was told I had to do it personally. We were booked for Feb 2-4, 2008 as we had to return to Manila for our Bicol trip on Feb 5-8, 2008 and then a Feb 9, 2008 mission to Padre Garcia, Batangas.

With the flight booked, I checked with our friend Menchu if they can ship the books to Calauit Island. Her local contact in Manila can only deliver the books to Puerto Princesa and forward the boxes to Coron at additional cost. We decided to ship 14 boxes of books to the residence of Martin, the FtH chairperson based in Manila. Martin said he can handle the shipping to Coron. As of Feb 10, after our trip to Palawan, the boxes have not yet arrived in Manila.
When we arrived in Manila on January 25, 2008, we were able to secure 3 boxes of children’s books from previous shipment that was stored with our partner, the Commission on Filipino s Overseas (CFO). Martin had the books picked up at CFO and with 3 other boxes of school supplies, it was shipped to Coron on January 30 on a rush order and arrived in Coron on Feb 1, the night before we arrive last Feb 2, 2008.

On Sunday, January 27, 2008, Martin accompanied Pablito and Tess shopping for school supplies at the Mall 168 in Divisoria. We also bought the gifts that we will provide to the children in Sucat on January 28 and in Sucat on February 16. Tess tried to bargain with each store owner. The back packs that Tess can get for P95, Martin will talk to the owners and explained that it is a charity mission and they will let us have them for P65 only.
Monday, January 28, 2008, we went to the ticket office of Asian Spirit in Festival Mall to inquire about my ticket refund and picked up our ticket to Coron. I tried to talk to the staff about our situation with 3 boxes of book to carry but only 10 kilos baggage allowance. I was given the name of the Mr. Rodriguez to present our request for additional baggage allowance. I wrote an email letter to Mr. Rodriguez about the FtH mission in Calauit and Mr. Rodriguez immediately replied doubling our allowance to 20 kgs per passengers, subject to space availability, on a 50-seater, 4-engine/propeller aircraft.

Also on January 28, six (6) boxes of school supplies arrived from Phoenix Publishing House in QC. Cayan, thru a friend, ordered 1000 balls pens, 500 sharpeners, 250 ruler, 250 crayons, 500 pieces of pad paper, 250 towels and 1000 pencils. We mixed some of the supplies for 150 students and with the other supplies we bought in Divisoria to carry on the plane and Martin again picked up 2 boxes from Sucat for shipping to Coron.
Saturday, Feb 2, 2008, still groggy with the jet lag, we woke up at 3:00 AM, one hour ahead of our alarm at 4:00 AM for the 5AM taxi pick-up for the 7AM flight to Coron. Our taxi came at 4:30 AM and we were at the Domestic Airport by 5AM. With 3 boxes of books weighing in at 70 kilos and 2 back packs for our 3-day trip, we presented our E-ticket to not-yet opened airline ticket counter and presented the email letter of Mr. Rodriguez allowing the extra weight. The ticket clerk asked for a formal approval letter on their letter head and having none, she had to check with her supervisor. After some time of consultation with her supervisor, asking the names of the other FtH volunteers, we were allowed to check in the 3 boxes and 2 back packs.

Next to arrive at the check in counter was Cayan, who arrived from Seattle the day before, with her heavy luggage with more dictionaries; then Ethel, Mario, Joe and Pinggay. Their entire luggage was checked in with no more questions. Last to arrive was Carl and Jeanette who were temporarily stopped by security for some documental reason. All FtH volunteers were present and accounted for.

Asian Spirit Flight 545 departed on time with FtH volunteers Cayan T. from Seattle, Washington; Arlene “Pinggay” Lara from New Jersey, a high school classmate of Cayan, attending a high school reunion in Manila; Mario, Ethel, Joe, Pablito and Tess from Virginia and Carl with Jeanette from Maryland. As we were about to get comfortable aboard the plane, Joe looked pale and complained that his seat do not have a seat belt. We advised Joe to demand a discount from the airline. Joe breathes a sight of relief when the steward found the seat belt under the cushion. Tess was assigned a window seat but had to exchange with my aisle seat when she was trying to close the window but there were no shades.

Before the flight, I asked the steward at what speed and altitude we will be cruising. She later came back with the answer and then later, the Captain announced it in the PA. As soon as we reached cruising altitude, juice or water was served to the passengers and then it was already time to descend to the Busuanga Airport, in the outskirt of Coron. The airport is about 30 minutes drive from the town of Coron, very close to some hills. Our pilot is very good, maybe with some experience as a bush pilot. We made a complete stop at the end of the concrete runway and made a turn around on the dirt road. The rest of the runway is still being extended and concreted.

Our welcome committee was already waiting for us at the airport. They slept in the Office of the Saragpunta Foundation in Barangay Sangumay, Coron, where Martin shipped the six (6) boxes of books and school supplies last Wednesday, January 30, 2008. Martin was telling me that the shipping normally takes seven (7) days to get to Coron but this time the boxes arrived the night before we arrived and it was already loaded in the top of the jeep to accompany us to Calauit. Three of the boxes we carried were loaded on top of the jeep together with the six (6) boxes from Martin and our back packs and carry-on were loaded inside. Nine of the FTH volunteers rode inside the jeep with our guide who is a Barangay official in Calauit Island. Two aides were assigned to the top of the jeep to watch out for our boxes.

Before we left the airport, our driver wraps his head with a towel and put on his sunglass, as if ready to rob a bank. We found out why when, as soon as we left the airport, the jeep started stirring the dust in the road and we were completely engulf with the dust. The approximately 70 kilometers of road ahead of us is a one lane dirt and gravel road, with grass growing in the middle. In the almost 3 hours ride before we reached Busuanga, we only met one gravel truck going our opposite direction, we followed one van and one motorcycle overtook us. After crossing 3 streams with no bridge, almost 3 hours of bumpy ride, we arrived in Busuanga where we had a rest stop on somebody’s rest rooms. It turns out to be the house of the Mayor of Busuanga, who have jurisdiction over Calauit Island. The Lady Mayor is in Coron or Puerto Princesa for a meeting and was not able to meet us. We bought some bottled water for our drinking supply and rode about another 30 minutes to New Quezon where we have to ride a boat to cross the channel to Calauit Island. Some guys were fixing the elevated walkway so we had to wade in water to get into the boat.

After a short boat ride of about 15 minutes over clear waters, we crossed the channel and finally landed on the gravelly shores of Calauit Island. It was like the landing of MacArthur in Leyte. All the towns’ dignitaries were there. Dr Rene Medina, the UPLB head of the mission in Calauit; Romel, our internet contact for Calauit Primary School; Olive, the teacher who requested the books and supplies for Calauit; other teachers and aides, students, Bishop Ed of Palawan who goes to Calauit to say mass for the natives, barangay officials, parents and a string band were on hand to welcome us. A short walk from the beach is the classroom where the classes are held. The classrooms had 4 walls and roof made of native materials. A new library building will be inaugurated to coincide with our visit with the books.

Calauit Island is a paradise waiting to be discovered. This is the place to be if you want a place for rest and relaxation. The water around the island is crystal clear. There is no hard wired electricity except a couple of generators. There is no TV in every house but there is a TV disc in one home where everybody watches some special news or programs. There are no cars, motorbikes, bikes, tricycles; people had to walk to where they want to go. There is plenty of fresh water from a spring, piped down from the mountain.

Dr. Medina encouraged each family to have a backyard garden. Even the houses near the beach have elevated pig pens and hanging plants to protect them from high water. On display in the common gardens are their harvested crops they grow in the island. Different kinds of bananas, Ube, Camote, Camoteng kahoy, tomatoes, okra, string beans, mustard, upo, patola, papaya, cashew, coconut, sugar cane; just like in the song ‘bahay kubo’. What I thought I will teach the natives about the miracle garden box being sold in US for $120 each, the natives are already using empty, big soft drink bottles, with the same results, thanks to Dr. Medina, a forestry graduate.

What the Tagbanuas lack in materials things, they have plenty of hospitality and sea food. Our lunch was a feast. The dining table was covered with woven coconut leaves. Lots of spiny lobster, grouper, another big fish (maybe talakitok), taclobo (giant clam), tamilok (a worm like thing that eats the decaying mangrove branches, kibao ( sea shells meat), papaet (goat meat), a meat dish and wild red rice they grow in the mountains. Dr Medina had a cow slaughtered for us which the natives preferred better than the lobsters. According to Dr. Medina, he only paid Ph4, 000 for each cow (in Batangas the cost is P20, 000 per head). The whole PTA community was divided into groups and has assignments as to who will cook, who will serve, who will shoo the flies away, etc. Plenty of coconut water from fresh coconut just taken from the tree. Carl, Jeanette and Joe were very brave and tried the fresh tamilok with a squeeze of lime. The tamilok was featured in TV in Exotic foods around the world by Zimmer. They said the tamilok tasted like oyster and wood. The natives preferred the meat but most of the FtH volunteers attacked the lobster. I completely forgot to taste the fish.

Bishop Ed held a high mass after the hearty lunch. Ethel spoke about FtH and Cayan explained the FtH Calauit Mission, the efforts to bring the books and school supplies to Calauit. Following the mass is the inauguration of the library with the cutting of the ribbons by Carl and Ethel, where the books from FtH were featured. Joe did a hand demonstration on astronomy to the students on the position of the earth, the sun and the moon. After the library’s opening, the students made some presentation with dance numbers, a show of calisthenics. Two ladies did an original rendition of Tagbanuas tunes. In the tune of a waltz. Pablito danced with Ethel and the rest of the natives started getting their partners, including dancing with Bishop Ed. We started the distribution of the school supplies and chocolates to the students.

Later, we had another full course dinner and retired for the night. The boys, Mario, Joe, Carl, and Pablito joined Bishop Ed and shared a bedroom in one of the host family. The girls, Cayan, Pinggay, Ethel, Jeanette and Tessie stayed at the guest house next door. Our contact advised us of lots of mosquitoes but no incident of malaria yet and told us to bring our own mosquito nets and just leave them to our hosts. Carl bought five (5) mosquito nets in Divisoria and we set it up for the night. Carl and Pablito shared one net and Mario and Joe shared the other net. We took turns taking a cold shower using a 'tabo' in the neighbor’s bathroom, which doubles as the Health Center. Ethel cut in the line after hearing about the shower from Jeanette. Before going to bed, Carl asks our host where the bathroom is, just in case he needs to use it later. Mama point to the back bamboo stairs, leading to the back yard. I had to use a jingle bottle when I felt the need to use the rest room but afraid to venture into the dark.

February 3, 2008: Four o’clock in the morning, our natural alarm clock, the rooster in the kitchen, next to our bedroom, started waking everybody. Yesterday, we had a rough day traveling more than 3 hours on dirt and gravel road, from Busuanga Airport to Calauit Island, a blast of activities in Calauit, a lot of good food the whole day, but the rooster did not know it. We had an early morning walk along the beach and admired the cleanliness of the natives. The houses were neatly arranged around a central community area were the classrooms are. Pig pen were elevated to keep the pigs from high tide. There are vegetable gardens in all backyards. Dr Rene woke up early and started joking the families to rise and shine.

We had our very healthy breakfast of boiled yam, boiled yucca, boiled ube, boiled banana, fresh banana, fresh coconut and strong coffee with brown sugar. It comes with some music from the string band and their crooner. After chanting a Tagbanuas melody ( like a passion during lent), the singers switched to the latest song hits in town, like ‘The Tennessee Waltz”, something I haven’t heard since I was in high school days back in the 50’s.

After breakfast, Dr Rene invited the FtH volunteers to plant some trees and they will call the area the Feed the Hungry Park. Carl ‘bribed' some kids to take care of the newly planted trees especially his tree. We had to wait for about 11:00 AM for the tide to rise so that we can cross the channel using the boats or else we had to wade in shallow waters for 30 minutes. Carl noticed a lot of kids milling around him and he started organizing a relay racing game. Boys and girls were mixed in two lines and they had to run around Pablito and Joe and pass on the baton to the next runner. The first group to finish wins the race. The kids had a very good time playing. Normally, we give prizes to these participating students in a parlor game. But we already distributed all our gifts the day before, so we just said thank you to the happy kids. We had an early lunch before we leave and bade good bye to all the kids and the community with all the happy memories of our visit to Calauit Island.

At the end of the boat ride, we rode the jeep waiting for us in New Quezon. Instead of the boxes of books and supplies we brought for the kids, we now have Dr. Rene, Romel and Olive and other natives that need to go to Coron. Instead of boxes, we now have bodies on top of the jeep. Olive need to have her aching tooth examined in Coron, suffering for about a week until she can get to town; Dr. Medina and Romel are taking the ferry back to Manila that night.

We had to wait until we can get our rooms at the Seadive Resort, a very nice hotel with no frontage on the road, built on concrete stilts, right on the water, with a long, narrow concrete bridge, between houses, connecting the hotel to the road. Unless you have plenty of money and the right connection, I cannot imagine how it was built. Joe had to share the room with Ethel and Mario; we invited Olive to stay with Cayan and Pinggay. Some FtH volunteers had their first hot bath in 2 days. However, the water heater in our room is not plug, the plug have only one pin, the outlet shows some signs of burnt problem. Still, it was heaven to have running water, doing your thing in a flushing toilet, being able to sleep in a real bed with a soft surface, having an electric fan running, and having a massage in the comfort of your room for less than $8.00 an hour plus tip.

We invited the Calauit school staff to a pizza dinner in the best pizza place in town, about a block from our hotel. The Italian owner was introduced to us by Dr. Medina and for about $50, we were able to feed about 15 people with 3 big boxes of home made combination pizza and drinks. It was a working dinner as we talked about the garden supplies in the wish list of the Calauit students. For about $70.00 we were able to provide for 2 sets of garden tools for the students to be bought in the local market, to be brought back to the students by the barangay official.

After dinner, we walked to the office of the Asian Spirit to arrange a shuttle from our hotel to the airport; but the airline office was already closed. We were told that the airline provide shuttle from town to the airport at P100 per passenger. When we got back to the hotel, we asked for shuttle service from the hotel management and we were told that they can have an air conditioned van to take us to the airport for about P2500 for the trip. With nine people, we agreed for a 6:30 AM pick up and went to sleep.

We had breakfast at the hotel with free coffee provided by management and some pan-de-sal bought by Carl from the corner bakery store; the hotel cafeteria does not open until 7:00 AM. Cayan and Pinggay decided to stay 2 more days in another island before going back to Manila but they joined us for breakfast and to say good bye. We boarded our shuttle service at 630AM for the 30 minutes ride to the airport for the 840 AM flight to Manila. We overtook the airline shuttle service and it was loaded full with boxes and some personnel. It was a right decision to engage the hotel van as we were spared the dusty ride back to the airport.

After checking in at the airport, Carl, Jeanette, Ethel went out to buy some souvenirs from the outside shops near the terminal. Carl tried to hurry up the shop owner so as not to miss the plane. The shop owner said ‘don’t worry, the plane has not arrived yet, we can hear them”. I noticed the plane arriving when the fire brigade came out of the airport to meet the plane. It was a lone guy with the fire extinguisher on wheel on his left hand, the signal flag on his right hand and the wheel chock for the airplane hanging around his neck. Busuanga is a very busy airport. Another chartered flight arrived a few minutes later. And that’s all the action for the day.

We arrived safely in Manila about 9:40 AM, all glad that we made the trip to Calauit Island and helped the students with books, school supplies and garden tools; interact with them in our own little way. We would not have seen the beauty of Calauit Island and the goodness of the people if HE had not shown Feed the Hungry the way. From the time Olive sent out the cry for help for the kids, Cayan wanting to go to Palawan, Tess saving the books, Cayan booking the flight from Seattle, buying the supplies in Divisoria, National Bookstore and Makro; finding 3 boxes of children's book at CFO, Martin shipping the books on time for our arrival in Coron, Asian Spirit allowing additional carry on baggage, all FtH volunteers appearing at the airport for the trip and getting back safely. It is just too good to be true, but it happened! Is it just a coincidence or SOMEBODY showed the way?

NOTES. The following contributed to the success of the Feed the Hungry Mission in Calauit Island: Olivia “Olive” L. Ranido, Jennifer “Jenny” Lee-Bonto, Fr. Francisco Bustamante, Tita Dumagsa, Romel Daya, Dr. Rene Medina, Bishop Ed Juanich, Martin Gaw, Menchu Castro, Gloria Caoile, Carol and Bong So, Carl Abella, Jeanette Calahong, Joe Clavecillas, Mario and Ethel Sanidad, Cayan Topacio, Arlene Lara, Tess Alarcon, Pablito Alarcon., Butch Rodriguez, etc., etc..Please reply if you do not wish to received any more FtH Mission stories. THANKS. Pablito Feb 27, 2008.