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The sky has just turned a dark shade of grey and there are rumbles of thunder in the distance – time to write a quick update before the power goes off!

We’ve been in the Philippines now for just over 11 weeks – one fifth of our total time here. My work with the Philippines Muslim Welfare Society has all but stopped completely. After the bomb attack on my boss in Marawi city (the night before I was due to start) in early May, I have been forced to stay in Iligan city waiting for news of who carried out the attack so that I have a clear idea of what the risks are. I was due to spend my time in the Iligan office whilst waiting for the organisation to find some Islamic leaders for me to work with in Iligan – and I’m still waiting! Apart from working on education with the Islamic leaders, the other half of my job was to work on Organisational Development – keeping the PMWS on track with their training, HR, knowledge management and resource mobilisation. It turned out that having only just employed the project staff in the last week or two, they were having training this week and next week – great news as their funders, CORDAID, are giving the training and will be following up over the 3 years of the project, but there goes the other half of my job! I haven’t even been into the office this week or last week as there is literally nothing to do and no staff there to work with.

I have been lucky to find out that Mindanao State University’s Iligan Institute of Technology has an Institute of Peace and Development in Mindanao (that’s MSU IIT IPDM for those who like initialism!). At the IPDM, they are trying to mainstream and integrate Peace Education into the state secondary curriculum at all levels. Really interesting stuff and much more up my street than just teaching grammar, so I’ve spent the last week and a bit working with them on developing training modules and curriculum guides. The IPDM want me to move more permanently to them, but seeing as PMWS are still getting their act together, I’m hoping that I can work with both.

Iligan is still great and we’ve been learning about new places to visit all the time. We’ve been getting a bit frustrated with how remote Iligan is from everywhere else though. There are ferries from the city to other parts of the Philippines but there are very few and times are too random to be able to use over a weekend for a trip. We wanted to go to a neighbouring island the last 2 weekends but one of us was feeling grotty each time – the lack of meaningful work makes feet feel even itchier too! The roads to the south and west are no-go areas for security so we are left with the 2 hour trip to the nearest city, Cagayan, as our only option – to be honest, Iligan is a nicer city than Cagayan anyway! We’re hoping to get off Mindanao and see a neighbouring island next weekend though – but anything is possible before then! Seeing as I’m doing so little with PMWS, I feel really bad asking for time off..!

The lack of work and leisure options leaves a lot of spare time for uni work though, so my masters is coming on pretty well – time well spent! We’re trying to save some cash to travel with later too – hoping that we won’t be evacuated before we get time to use it! The elections next May are creeping up, and we both have half an eye on what’s gearing up there – fingers crossed people play by the rules.

More soon, and lets hope things get busier soon. Not very good at waiting for things to happen!

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Last week, we were invited to the local pool by Rogier, one of the other volunteers. A sweltering day of 35ºc, we would be fools to say no! We nipped out for a quick bite to eat before Rogier, Mabel and her 2 kids arrived to collect us. The pools to the south of Iligan are fed by natural spring water and are about as far south as we can safely go in Mindanao without fear of the militants – originally the kids had wanted to go to the beach a few kms further, but that is over the line.

To us beach-focussed foreigners, it seemed a bit strange to park on the coast and then walk away from it. The coastline is a bit polluted near Iligan due to all the industry, so we crossed the road swamped with smoky stalls selling snacks, barbequed chicken and fish and rice from huge steaming vats. We were glad we got a veggie bite for Lucy before we came.

As soon as we paid our 50 pesos and got inside, we changed our minds about the food. We met Lucy’s employer, Ding, his wife and 6 children who had brought a picnic lunch that was big enough to feed half of Mindanao. The pool turned out to be pools – the whole area is a complex of concreted walkways connecting hundreds of tiled pools of various sizes from Olympic to Toddler. The area is set into the hillside so the pools are all fed by the natural fresh water, keeping it all nice and cold. In the gaps between the pools, the area has been covered over with a multi-storey-car-park-style roof to shade all the swimmers. Not that they need it though; the clientele, numbering in their millions thanks to the school holidays, have already prepared themselves to the max. The minority had brought swimwear. The vast majority had brought the most elaborate range of clothing from a spare basketball vest and underpants to jeans and a hoodie.

We greeted Ding and the kids as they vanished in different directions into the crowds to all swim in different pools. We left our bags with Mabel who wasn’t swimming, and headed to a relatively quiet pool. As the only westerners in the complex, there was a certain sore-thumb element to the peace, but the feeling of slipping into cold, fresh water after the sweaty lunchtime heat was just the best – it make’s me smile even now when I think about it! Quickly forgetting the stares, we bobbed around for a bit admiring the peeling but still colourful friezes painted onto the cement walls separating our set of pools from the neighbouring one.

Ding and his wife had taken vegetarianism on board with a passion and had prepared an extra feast for Lucy alone. They had thoughtfully brought about 10kgs of salad, a huge bowl of plain pasta as an alternative to the family-sized meaty version. Extra food was bought fresh from the vendors on the street to supplement the tupperwares brought from home to complete the banquet. We were told that Filipinos love their food, and it’s certainly true so far. Ding and his family’s generosity and hospitality was overwhelming and we tucked into to as much of the spread as we were able to.

The rest of the afternoon was consumed with the most engrossing people-watching of the year so far. We sat on the edge of the main pool, slipping in every now and then to keep cool, watching the parade of people from the excellent vantage point in the middle of the action. A teenage girl in a knee-length skirt pushed her friends in the pool before leaping gleefully in herself. A sneaky man crept up to his friend who was lying asleep on the side of the pool to tip water in his ear before rolling him in. A group of teenage lads were staging a bombing contest from the concrete diving board – no easy feat when wearing soaked jeans. Near the entrance to the pool, the videoke machine was in full swing and various visitors screamed their favourite song through the mic for all to judge. Men in damp t-shirts conducted business meetings under the cemented roof. Kids leapt from the sides on top of each other and came spluttering to the surface to do it all again with a grin. And in the middle of it all, everyone was keeping a curious eye on the two pasty-white ‘Americans’ who were smiling and enjoying the refreshing water on one of the hottest days of the summer.

I used to believe that the best, most exciting part of arriving in a place was the voyage. After our first week in the Philippines though, I think I can fairly categorically replace that old belief with a new one.

Receiving your tickets, passports and visas just 12 hours before you fly is never great for your blood pressure, but a tangible gap in the information provided led us to call the London office to see if something was missing. We were apologised to, and emailed the missing cover letter which stated an emergency contact number in case someone wasn’t there to meet us with a VSO t-shirt or name signs at Manila. Happy with this, we headed to Heathrow. Lucy managed to sweet-talk the woman in the aisle-seat next to her to swap with me (8 rows back) so we managed to sit together with a bit of space until Hong Kong. A couple of bottles of Cabernet Savignon got a few hours sleep for me, but Lucy would frankly need a general anaesthetic to sleep on a plane. I had been a bit congested the few days before, so the descent was a killer for my ears – I went totally deaf in my left. 5 hours in Hong Kong was just long enough to be bored silly but not quite long enough to leave the airport to do anything meaningful, so Lucy got some shut-eye while I forced a walk around the terminal, enjoying only noises to my right. The 2 hour skip to Manila saw us arriving at about midnight, and really looking forward to bed.

How long should you wait for a VSO t-shirt or name signs at the airport arrivals area before you get suspicious? After about an hour of investigating and waiting, we tried the emergency contact numbers given to us. Calling the ‘in-country contact number’ only woke up an angry stranger. The British out-of-hours number was ‘not yet in service’. By now, the airport was totally empty of passengers, and our requests over the tanoy were useless. Exhausted and with very little money (VSO were to give us a cash allowance on arrival), we were running out of options, but found the number of a hotel in old training materials on the laptop. We got a taxi there and even though we weren’t expected, managed to get a room.

The next day was Sunday so there was still no-one in the office, but a long sleep was enough to help bring volume back to my left ear. We felt a bit lost in Manila on that first day, but the area we were in was close to where we needed to be and was a pretty nice neighbourhood. We were both relieved though after finally getting through to the office on Monday morning – our training had begun.

We had Monday to Wednesday in the office covering topics from admin to security and finance to friendships. We also got to see a little of Manila in all it’s over-populated and polluted wonder. The office staff in Manila were really enthusiastic and friendly, although a lot is changing for them soon as the end of March 09 sees a dramatic scaling down of VSO Philippines in preparation for withdrawing in March 2010. It turns out that we are the last 2 long term volunteers to arrive in VSO’s 40 year history here. The positive side is that the Philippines is really developing it’s national volunteering programme and will continue sending Filipino volunteers overseas through VSO instead of receiving them. We also discovered that the error in our pick-up was, unsurprisingly, the fault of the UK travel unit – the same unit who forgot a few other bits of paper along the way…

Thursday saw us fly to our island – Mindanao. A black-listed area for the Foreign Office, you hear a lot about the ongoing war and lawlessness of the area. The flight was stunning with views over the central Visaya islands with coral reefs, volcanoes and tropical rainforests. Unfortunately, Lucy had developed the same congestion issue as me, so managed to lose her right ear for the next few days – what with only a few hours of sleep a night thanks to the jet-lag, that isn’t a lucky turn of events. After we were collected by Victor, another volunteer, we drove the 2 hours from the airport at Cagayan de Oro to our city – Iligan. I had the biggest smile on my face as we drove past beautiful banana plantations and cassava groves, punctuated by huge coconut trees and the acid-green of rice fields. We stopped for lunch on the coast at a restaurant on a covered jetty in one of the bays. For the first time after the stinking, still air of Manila, we actually had a cool sea-breeze, and were loving it! Such a beautiful and peaceful place, and not a tourist to be seen. We arrived at our new hotel and home for the next few days while we find ourselves a house in Iligan. The hotel is so peaceful with nothing more than the sound of crickets, birds and the occasional turkey. We are surrounded by tall mango and coconut trees.

We spent the evening (yesterday) with our fellow volunteers at a lovely local bar and restaurant in our neighbourhood here. It was wonderful to be able to relax outside with a beer with new friends, warm weather, relaxed street scenes around us and a really surprising feeling of peace. Of course, there will be security issues and a lot of work to do here, but it’s so good to finally be here and feel so instantly at home.

So the journey, with all its broken ears, missed pick-ups, 5-hour lay-overs, excess baggage charges and greaseless peanuts, really was no substitute for finally arriving and looking forward to the adventure of just being here in Iligan with all the challenges and friendships that will come along the way. I managed to sleep through the night last night (the beer could have been a factor there) and Lucy is still asleep as I type, so hopefully she did too. Next step for today – exploring and house hunting! (After waking up Lucy, or course!)

Even though we STILL have no passports, we fly to the Philippines tomorrow! It’s been a long time in the making, but after 6 snowy months in the UK, we head via Hong Kong to Manila for a week-long training programme for our new lives as volunteers with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). The 24 contract was first shortened to 18 months as VSO plan to stop sending volunteers to the Philippines next year, then it was shortened again to a 12 month trip as the pull-out is now planned for March 2010. We got a call last night to say that VSO has the paperwork in order and is sending it to us to arrive on Friday morning – the same day as we fly! Not ideal, but looks like I’ll have to snatch and grab the parcel with tickets and loads of other details from the postman while Lucy has the getaway-taxi revving the engine…

Mindanao, the big southern island of the Philippines is a bit off the beaten tourist track. There is an autonomous Muslim region in the centre of it and it has a bit of a history of conflict. We’re going to be splitting our time (we are told…) between Iligan City, a Catholic coastal town with a huge industry and export market, and Marawi City, a very conservative Muslim city and the religious heart of the Islamic region. It seems that Islamic Marawi isn’t the most energetic or lively of towns, so VSO wants us to set up a residence in Iligan as well so that we have a bit more freedom and safety. It’s probably best not to read the news reports from Iligan though – doesn’t seem like the safer of the two if you believe everything you read!

Lucy is to become a natural resource management advisor (ooOOoo!) for an organisation called Kalimudan and I am going to teach English and work on the organisational development of the Philippines Muslim Welfare Society (PMWS). Both of them are Islamic organisations and we think both are based in Marawi but it sounds like we’ll be working for part of the week in the VSO office in Iligan. We have the chance to go Filipino house-hunting when we first arrive, so should be able to find ourselves something reasonable with the VSO allowance. Speaking of which, we’re both pretty chuffed that the volunteer ‘allowance’ from VSO is more than we got ‘paid’ for working in Kenya!

So today is the giant day of cleaning-up, packing, freezer-defrosting, waiting for passports, waiting for a module of my masters to arrive, enjoying the sunshine, backing up computers and eating all of the food we have left in the house and writing updates for you. An exciting time! I’ll put more on soon after we arrive and settle in. More soon, and here’s to a good flight!

Singapore

Singapore today – Vietnam was awesome with great food and a really sweet town. We left the port town of Da Nang by getting a couple of taxis to Hoi An, a much more pleasant and historical town about 40 minutes away. Lots of temples, markets and rivers and did I mention the food?! The beers at the port on the way back to Peace Boat were 3 for US$1, so you can imagine the state in which we boarded!

Back on the boat, after spending a few hours putting students into classes by their interview scores and by learning goals, motivations and other measures, we sat down as a group to rearrange all the students into final classes. Or at least, as final as possible at this stage! It all involved a bit ‘open house’ event where we set activities for everyone to see how well the groups worked together and how the teams interacted. We have a welcome party to celebrate the start of the courses with a drink after Singapore, and we have an introductions event where all the teachers give a little bit of info about themselves to the passengers. Impressively, there is a team of 12 Communication Coordinators who interpret all the lectures in proper UN style through ear-pieces or microphones.

The classrooms are starting to take shape –some of the 8 were being used as a mini-hotel whilst the dodgy rooms were being fixed at the start, but are almost ready to use. I made some signs for the doors yesterday, and we have a big cleanup the day after Singapore.

Singapore to Oman is the longest stretch at 8 full days at sea. We’ve got a fruit party, costume night, welcome party and plenty of lessons to occupy ourselves. I’ve put in a request to give a cetacean lecture sometime on the way and a beginner’s guide to Islam when we get near Oman. Some of the teachers are organising a Indian night to raise money for the Red Cross for victims of the Chinese earthquake earlier in May. Might go get some Indian sweets in Singapore today!

Well, the Kenyan political environment has resulted in one more casualty you didnt see on the news – our expedition is cancelled for the foreseeable future until recruitment will be good enough to justify unpacking all the dried beans and GPSs and starting up again. My contract was due to finish today (!), but I’ll be staying in Kenya until the end of the month. Lucy, the now-ex-marine officer and I have been together for about 3 months and will hopefully be flying from Nairobi to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia at the end of the month. I say hopefully: if the situation gets much worse in Kenya, we’ll be heading south to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and we’ll skip over Kenya to get to Ethiopia.

So, where in the world will Alex be in 2008? Could be anywhere – i’ll be applying for jobs and the like soon (as soon as time, internet, phone availablity etc will be in my favour!), so will be in touch more as the months go by.

More from on the road soon!

So after the first expedition ended on the 21st March, (and after a couple of days of getting things sorted and organised on base), Jake, the forest researcher on base and I headed up to Mombasa and started the long bus ride through Nairobi to Kampala in Uganda. Catching some air as we bounced our way along rough Kenyan roads, we listened to Sketchy FM’s 80’s classics from the back seat of the bus. Kampala is a very cool city built on a set of hills with lots of trees. Maribou storks and black kites fill the air and the whole city is veyr relaxed. Ater a day or so to take in the sights, we met up with some old volunteers and headed for the Rwanda border.

We stopped in Kigali to visit the Rwanda Genocide Memorial – the most gripping and moving memorial/museum I’ve ever visited with the most harrowing details about the 1994 genocide in the country. I’ve read a fair bit about it before, but seeing the videos, testimonies and pictures next to the skulls and graves of victims was very disturbing. Beautiful city though. We bought our (US$375!) permits for gorilla trekking for the next day, and headed out to the Congolese border. After a night in a hotel up in the volcanoes, we woke early to head into the NAtional Park to find some gorillas!

We trekked for an hour to find our family. Hiking through thick misty equatorial rainforest, we could here the grunts and squeals of the family long before we could see them. We put all our bags down and headed for their clearing. At first, I couldnt see any but could hear them all around. Looking deeper around, I realised that we were in the middle of the family – they were all sitting up in the trees eating bamboo shoots all around us! We found one female on the ground and walked over to her. She got up to move, and gave us a dummy charge – a pretty scary sight to see a toothy gorilla charging you! She came literally within 2 foot of me as she was moving past. The silverback came down for a look – a huge fella – and the babies all wanted to come to us to play – really curious. We could only stay for an hour, but it was a pretty amazing 60 mins! Would happily do it again and again (if only I could afford it!)

After our Rwanda and gorilla excursion, we got the bus down into Burundi. The country is pretty fresh out of civil war so there were security checkpoints all around and it was a bit unnerving to be pretty much the only traffic on the road. We arrived in Bujumbura, the capital, and headed straight to the beach! The northern shores of Lake Tanganyika are just beautiful – I was sitting on the most beautiful beach looking down the lake to the south with the towering mountains of Burundi on the left and the even more mighty Congolese mountains to the right. The UN base was behind me with a view of Tanganyika stretching out to the horizon in front. I watched the most amazing sunsets and sunrises, and people-watched the rich kids of Burundi play on the beach before partying all night – great fun! Maybe Burundi’s not all that bad after all!

On the way back, we stopped at Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda for a day’s rest on an island in the middle of the crater lake (needed a rest after all that hard work!) before catching the mammoth bus ride of about 40 hours back to the coast. Back at base now – ready to start getting ready for the next expo starting on the 11th April. Bring on the new volunteers!