I returned Sunday from yet another adventure, seeing more of the work being done by CCT’s Nehemiah Project! After my last adventure, I thought perhaps I knew a bit of what to expect for the next trip I was embarking on. I even packed differently, switching out my beat up Toms for my nicer ones, and packing a pair of heals to wear to the dedications, as I was the only one in flats at the previous ceremonies (athough, for the first time in my life I am considered tall, and in my flats am the same height or still taller than many of the women in their heals!) I was heading to the provinces of Capiz (as in the Capiz shell, one of the sources of income) and Iloilo in Central Visayas – the seafood capital of the Philippines! Project Manager Anna Mae who accompanied me on my last trip was supposed to be meeting me in Roxas City, Capiz, but last minute she was needed at the office in Manila to prepare for meetings with sponsors, so she sent me off alone. After some persistence/near insistence (after the last trip I wasn’t taking any chances), she assured me that the local Nehemiah team would meet me at the airport and take great care of me during my stay.
The flight to Roxas City, Capiz was beautiful – I flew over larger islands with rolling mountain ranges, small islands surrounded by turquoise water, and one island composed of a crater with a lake in the center, and a smoking volcano at the end of a peninsula. As we approached Roxas City, I noticed that the landscape changed to a series of man-made ponds, which I later learned are where the indigenous Filipino “milkfish” are raised. The airport was again small and sparse, and this time I was greeted by a mariachi-esque band of men and women playing instruments and singing. Ates Connie and Sheila, part of the local CCT team, were waiting for me and recognized me by my “barbie-like” appearance. They whisked me away to where we would eat our lunch – at the home of one of the community partners (since CCT operates as a coop, their “clients” are instead referred to as “community partners”). We went to the home of a woman whose husband owns a boat and catches seafood for a living. She is active in the community and holds fellowship meetings at her home. She had prepared a seafood feast for us! Steamed crab legs, crab bodies with a potato & carrot stuffing, milk fish soup, stuffed baby squid, fried baby squid, fried lumpia (Filipino egg rolls), and of course rice. I used my few Tagalog words to try and express my thanks…”masarap” meaning delicious, and “salamat, po” – a formal thank you, and they were delighted by this!
Next we went to a dedication ceremony for the houses that had been rebuilt with funds from the Nehemiah Project. We were right next to the ocean, with a view of the fishing boats that had also been newly rebuilt thanks to CCT’s ministry there. I was introduced to all the Nene’s (mothers); community partners, many of whom were also recipients of the building materials. Like the graduations I had attended in my previous trip, this dedication ceremony brought together the community, local officials, and CCT staff. I was again introduced as a guest of honor, except this time Ate Sheila put me on the spot and asked me to get up and say a few words! I didn’t know what to say (and don’t really know what I said!) About 10 community partners at this location had been given P15,000 worth of building materials to restore their homes, and they all got up and shared their stories and expressed their thanks, often through tears of joy and triumph. After the ceremony, we set out to see each one of these homes, ask God’s blessing on the home and the family, and the CCT staff insisted they take my picture with teach of the proud recipients. And so started the “Barbie Goes to the Philippines 2014” photoshoot!
So in comes my shoe choice…thank God at the last minute I opted for my Toms (albeit my nice pair) over my wedge sandals, thinking I’d be walking a lot in the airport. To visit these homes we wove our way through villages or “barangays” on narrow dirt paths lined with curious locals, as we dodged stray cats and dogs, stepped over “free-range” chickens and roosters, and tiptoed through pig pens! All the while trying not to step on any of the droppings of the aforementioned animals, as well as trying to avoid the small streams of sewage/water tricking down from pipes. All the houses we visited were made of different combinations of materials, and all the partners mentioned that their houses were now sturdier than they ever had been before the typhoon. Some were concrete with tin roofs, some brick, and some plywood. Those were the tame ones. Since the sea is the source of livelihood for most of these residents, the sea is where they live! One house we visited was set right over the water on stilts – and we walked a zigzag bamboo plank for about 20 feet to reach this haven! The bamboo creaked under foot, and the water was a murky brownish-green. I prayed so hard not to fall in! And can you imagine if I had been wearing heals?! The house was made completely out of bamboo, which grows in the mangroves around the sea and is used in abundance. Thin bamboo strips were nailed together to form the exterior, while even thiner strips were woven together to form the walls and floors. Even the furniture was bamboo! The fishing boats also use long pieces of bamboo as added balance on either side of the boat. After safely descending from this house and kissing the solid ground…well maybe I would have if it wasn’t covered in who knows what… we trekked up a small rocky mountain to reach the next house. This one made of bamboo, wood, and a tin roof, and to descend the hill we climbed down a steep bamboo ladder.
The next day there was another dedication ceremony in another barungay, this time on a mountain, followed by trekking up the mountain through tall grasses and again through chicken coups to reach the houses. By the third dedication ceremony on my third day there I was a pro! I had come to expect being asked to get up and say a few words, but at each dedication I could never anticipate the different testimonies I would hear from the grateful recipients and others who were touched by God’s work through CCT. One town official said that in her 19 years of working for the municipality, she had never encountered an organization purely giving anything away to the residents without asking for anything in return. She was so touched. And I can’t get over the generosity of the people we met. From the little they have, we were given snacks of rice cakes, candies, cookies, spaghetti, coconut custard, and a huge bag of prawns from our very last stop! It was worth all the trekking through soiled streets and over murky water to meet these joyful Filipinos who finally have a secure shelter to call home, can get a good night’s rest to face a long day of work, and are part of this community that is working together by the grace of God to become whole again.
On my second day in Capiz, we went to an early morning fellowship meeting – a weekly gathering of community partners that’s part Bible study and part savings collection/loan payment. To get here I road on a small motorcycle, sandwiched between our driver, a young CCT team member named Milquy, and Sheila. Some of the neighborhood kids were home from school with “Friday sickness,” and 2 neighborhood men decided to let down the roosters they had been carrying through the streets to engage in the first cock fight I’ve ever witnessed! Later that morning we went to another savings circle/loan collection and this time to get there we drove in a tricycle – a small motorcycle with a sidecar attached to it. The sidecar is about two and a half feet wide by three feet deep by three feet high. At any time, these tricycles can contain the driver, 2 passengers sitting on his motorcycle seat behind him, 5 passengers inside the sidecar (2-3 on the seat, 1-2 facing them on the floor), a passenger sitting on a small rod on the side of the sidecar, 2 passengers perched on the metal protruding from the back of the sidecar, and 2-3 passengers sitting on the roof of the side car! It’s like a clown car, only there’s no mystery to how many people are going to stumble out of it!
My third day, Saturday, we set out in the morning for the province of Iloilo. We drove through field after field of sugarcane and corn, often with rolling mountains in the background. In the town of Gogo we saw the houses that a CCT partner, the Union Church of Manila, had donated – 130 in total! When we arrived in Eastancia, Iloilo, we met up with the local CCT staff there and set out for the small island of Loguingot. We climbed down a rocky jetty to board a narrow boat, flanked by the steadying bamboo poles. Our captain used an oar to get us out of the port, then a small motor took over for the 15 minute ride. We reached the shores of the island and hit ground while we were still about 100 feet from shore; our captain brought another boat over to ours and half the crew transferred to that boat to lighten our load. He walked us in as far as he could, and when we again hit the sand, we hiked our pants up to our knees, took off our shoes, and walked into shore. One of CCT’s partners donated school supplies and backpacks to the children on this island, and we were bringing the second installment of these gifts. The kids and families were so excited! The kids signed their name as they were called to receive their new backpacks and supplies. As we sat on the beach, one of the kids climbed up into a coconut tree and shook down coconuts for us! One of the men got a machete-like knife out and cut a square into the top of the coconuts. We poured the juice into a pitcher, and were given cups for the juice and spoons to scoop out the tender flesh. It was so amazing! The pulp that surrounds the inner shell I’ve learned is called “copra” and is the source of coconut oil. I’ve seen this being dried on large tarps, and when I asked about it found out that after the pulp is dried in the sun it’s then sent to a processing plant where it’s pressed to extract the oil. I’ve also seen lots of rice being dried in this way before it’s sent to be milled, and the husks are then fed to the pigs or turned into fuel pelts.
So speaking of food, the seafood here did not disappoint! Thursday dinner and Friday lunch (so that I could see it by day and by night) we ate at a restaurant on the water where you walk up to a case of fish and seafood, choose what you want to order and how you want it prepared, and then it arrives on your table ready to eat! We sampled prawn soup in a flavorful broth with water spinach. Scallops the size of a dime served in the shell with garlic butter – so tender and sweet. Grilled squid stuffed with chills and tomatoes, whole-grilled catfish and another local round fish, steamed oysters, and shell soup made simply of tiny clams in their own broth. Almost always, food here is served with tiny lime-like citrus called calamansi, chills, sweet vinegar, and fish sauce or soy sauce. In a small bowl you mix up a combination of those ingredients to suit your taste, then use it to season whatever you’re eating. I’m obsessed! The small calamansi, only the size of a large marble, add just the right amount of acidity to so many dishes! I’m going to have to look into buying a calamansi tree when I get back to the states… Friday night we tried to go to a restaurant down on the bay but it was closed, so we ended up at sleepy resort in town. We were seated out near the pool, under an overhang, where a few families were swimming. We ordered garlic shrimp, native chicken soup, and fresh lumpia which are a type of crepe stuffed with shredded vegetables, and topped with peanut sauce. Delicious! While we waited for our dinner (which took about an hour – I guess they weren’t expecting many guests!) I looked up, and the ceiling was covered in lizards! They range from 6 inches to over a foot long, and make a chirping noise, but they eat the bugs so I wasn’t complaining! For lunch on Saturday we went to a gorgeous resort in Iloilo overlooking several islands. We had milkfish soup, and fried chicken, calamari, and prawns. The prawns were battered and fried whole – head, tail, and shell-on. At first I attempted to remove the shell, but it was difficult because it was encased by the batter, and I ended up getting so little flesh. I covertly looked around to see what everyone else was doing, and in the mix of calamari and fried chicken couldn’t quite tell. So I tried a bite with the shell from the center portion, and it was good! Crunchy and flavorful. I know that the most flavorful part of the prawns are the heads, so my next piece I got a little more adventurous and tried a bite where the body meats the head. This was also delicious, so my next bite a tried the whole head! It was so good! By the end of the meal, I was eating the entire thing…tail and all! I should mention that food here is so inexpensive – a typical meal out costs about P200 per person, about $4.50! Saturday night we returned to the CCT office with the bag of prawns we had been given, and a few of the team members hung around for dinner. Genesis, a recent graduate and new recruit, cooked the prawns in the rice cooker since it was the only cooking element there. He flavored the prawns with sprite (which I’ve learned is the secret ingredient to many dishes!) and a magical flavoring packet called “sarap”, which I was informed by Sheila , “makes everything taste so good without even adding salt or anything else.” That’s because the ingredients includes iodized salt, MSG, and chicken flavoring! There are whole isles in the grocery stores devoted to this type of seasoning! We rounded up all of the food we had been given and had quite a feast. During these meals and during my trip, I got the chance to talk with a lot of the CCT staff, hear their backgrounds, the joys and struggles of working in this field, and their prayer requests. And above all I noticed how joyful they are! They love to laugh, are constantly teasing each other (much of it had to do with me because the boys kept secretly snapping candid photos of me!) And almost everywhere I went, the first question I was asked was if I am single! Filipinos are obsessed with this fact, and not only directed at me, but to anyone new they meet! (Don’t worry mom and dad, it’s not making me want to start dating here!) It was quite a trip to say the least! And now I have an even better understanding of the work being done there, which will help me in reporting back to all the donors and sponsor organizations.