I have a couple of journal entries from my travels in the Philippines that I hope you might enjoy. I'll try posting one here and hope it's not too long.
Today was one of those days that, when you’re new to life in the developing world, leave you wondering where you could possibly have gone wrong. With a little experience – and believe me, you do learn quickly – you are able to accept it for what it is: normal! The day started yesterday, if you see what I mean. Yesterday we had it all planned. Yes, that’s it. That’s where we got it wrong. We arranged to visit the new CFC Boys Programme centre in Castellejos, reportedly about 25 minutes drive from Olongapo. Travelling in one of the project mini-buses we were to pick up some lunch for delivery to the children and leave Olongapo at 11 o’clock in the morning. That would give us time to take a look around the new centre, interview a member of the staff there, talk with some of the boys and be home in time for tea, so to speak.
This morning our guide for the day told us that the trip would start just before 12 o’clock so we should go and ask in the kitchen if we could have an early lunch as there would not be an opportunity to eat once we got under way. She would not hear of us missing out on lunch so we dutifully asked in the kitchen for lunch at 11.30 and the cook happily agreed to the change of plan.
As we were about to leave our room to go for our lunch there was a knock at the door. It was our guide telling us that they were leaving immediately so we needed to be ready. OK, Plan C. Someone agreed to go and ask if we could have a snack to take with us instead of eating lunch at 11.30 and we gathered what we needed for the trip and made our way down to the driveway and the waiting mini-bus.
Well, the mini-bus had been waiting and had even been loaded with the children’s food that I mentioned. So far, so good. However, for some reason that we couldn’t quite follow, involving the driver being tired and being the only driver available, it had been decided that the mini-bus would not do. We must take the jeepney.
I should explain here that a jeepney is a uniquely Philippino mode of transport. It resembles a vintage US military jeep on steroids. Whilst no two are alike, they have in common a jeep front-end followed up by a stretched rear passenger compartment with a bench running the length of each side, the whole being covered by a roof so low that even the shortest must bend almost double to climb on board through the open rear end. The public transport system relies heavily on the jeepney which can be seen in great numbers at all times of the day and night, its strident engine drowning all but the noisiest truck and the horn sounding to clear the road, attract potential clients or indeed for no reason at all.
The project has its own private jeepney and, like the others, it is brightly coloured and festooned with chrome from radiator to tailpipe. With the food transferred from the mini-bus and several young passengers on board we took our place of honour in the cab with the driver – apparently now rejuvenated by this change of vehicle. As we were about to leave, an envoy arrived from the kitchen bearing a bag containing our snack, the full cooked lunch in pots and precariously held in a carrier bag! We placed the bag on the cab floor and with a crunch of gears and a growl from the motor we set off down the drive and onto the main road – in the opposite direction to Castellejos!
At the time it was hard for us to decide if this was Plan D or if in fact we had misunderstood all along and that ‘destination Castellejos’ had only been a fanciful notion of our own creation. On the principle that any progress was probably good, we waited to see what would happen next. The “Ahaa!” moment came as we pulled up outside a school and some of the young passengers alighted with some of the food which they took inside for the project’s children who attend there.
Deftly making use of a garage forecourt, the driver executed a u-turn in the busy main road and set off once more, this time in the direction of Castellejos, passing on the way the point from which we had set out half-an-hour before. We briefly entertained the foolish thought that maybe we could have eaten lunch and been picked up at the end of the driveway as the jeepney passed that way again? No, silly idea.
Any road journey in the Philippines evinces a mixture of emotions: mostly exhilaration with a dash of dread added as a flavour-enhancer. If the public jeepney is king of the road surely the project’s private one is, at the very least, a crown prince. A blast from the horn sends tricycles, hand-carts, pedestrians all scurrying respectfully to the side of the road as we pass on our way.
Our route today took us along the edge of Subic Bay, the road winding and dipping. Along the way we passed the entrances to numerous beach resorts. Once the proud indication of a hotel that occupied a carefully guarded stretch of beach but now showing signs of decay and dilapidation, they will still happily charge 100 pesos for a day-entry ticket.
After some distance on more open roads we then came to the community of Subic where the driver took a right turn off the main road into the back streets of the town. This, we then found out, was to deliver the last of the lunch food and some more passengers at the local school. Another U-turn and we returned to the main road and turned towards our final destination: Castellejos.
As we continued northwards the scenery began to change, the town streets giving way to open fields and in the distance the mountains. We saw small farmsteads, occasionally with one or two oxen in the fields. Quite suddenly we drove into Castellejos, a small town with a busy, bustling market and filled with tricycles, jeepneys, motorcycles and pedestrians all going about their business. The project’s new centre is located out of town so we drove for a further few kilometres once again emerging into open country as we travelled first on the main highway then turning onto an unmade road and finally leaving the road altogether to approach the centre over a rough dirt track between the fields. In all the journey had taken some one and a half hours!
The centre occupies a plot of level land about 2 hectares in area with a large, new concrete building still in the process of construction and a couple of small, wooden huts. We soon learned that the main building is to provide the accommodation for the residents of the centre. At the moment it consists of one very large space, completely open on one side, three smaller rooms leading off of that and a kitchen approached from the other side of the building. A hired contractor was painting the outside of the end wall and another was laying a floor screed in one of the smaller rooms. A further worker, in the shade of a tree, was sifting the stones out of the sand and cement mix in order to mix cement for the floor.
It was clear that the large open room, like a good-sized barn, was being used as sleeping accommodation for the boys who have already moved out to the unit from Olongapo. It also serves as a living area with a newly-acquired TV and at one end as parking space for the centre’s vehicles. On the land three men were marking out long beds ready for the boys to receive instruction in clearing the plots and planting vegetables. It was lunch-time when we arrived and most of the boys were eating in the shade at the rear of the building. We joined them with our ‘take-away’ and did battle with the flies that were intent on eating as much of our meal as we did!
Our intention was to interview one of the members of staff and then to talk with a few of the boys. I suppose 1 out of 2 is not a bad score. The boys were due to watch a film in the afternoon and it seemed churlish to deprive them of that pleasure so we contented ourselves with the staff interview and a chat with one of the land-workers.
The jeepney, being needed elsewhere, had departed some time earlier and we had agreed to take public transport from Castellejos town to return to Olongapo. To reach the town we accepted a ride in the centre’s tricycle, more recognisable to western eyes as a motorbike and sidecar. The driver and another passenger rode on the bike while Marion and I squeezed into the diminutive sidecar. I took heart from the seemingly robust welded construction of this part of the vehicle. The sidecars all seem to be of similar construction and I had seen the startling splash of the arc-welder’s fire-fountain in rough workshops and right alongside the road where they are put together.
After a little shopping in the market we boarded a jeepney bound for ‘home’ and passed a pleasant trip admiring the scenery and breathing the diesel fumes through the open back of the vehicle. The journey was uneventful by our normal standards being only slightly spoiled by over-shooting our stop back at Olongapo.
And the 25 minute drive? Well it’s a relative rather than an absolute measure, not to be taken too literally. A man might expect to embark on a 25 minute drive, there and back, in a morning – though he probably wouldn’t since some distraction would be sure to tempt him from his plan. Ah, there I go again. Using the “p” word. Have I learned nothing?