One week in The Pearl of the Orient

Arriving in Manila is always overwhelming.  It’s sensory overload…not sure whether I’m nervous, exhillerated, or exhausted.  Look up, because electric cables may be hanging down low enough to run into; look ahead, because there are a million people coming toward you at a constant rate, like standing in the ocean when the waves are decent, bobbing and weaving, trying to find a rhythm; look down, because there are gaps, rather than cracks, in the pavement, which is forever going up-a-step-down-a-step, and upon which one can find any number of things:  sleeping dogs, begging children, slimy messes of rained on dog shit, left-over street food.  Crossing busy streets is a veritable rush for me…should be an extreme sport.  At the moment the tail end of rainy season is in full force, as tropical storm Ramon is heading in our direction, thankfully downgraded from typhoon for now. We get decent afternoon rain and showers in the evening, but so far that’s as exciting as it’s gotten.

After realizing we wouldn’t be able to travel here, Chris and I decided to see if we could volunteer in the relief efforts in Manila following the two typhoons that were responsible for our change in circumstances.  We checked in with the Red Cross, but the response we had wasn’t particularly clear, so I contacted a few people in the country, and the consensus was that we should contact the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).  DSWD is the equivalent of Social Services in the UK, supporting vulnerable people, education, family law, etc.  We decided we’d contact them when we arrived, and if it seemed like they could put us to work we’d stay.  If they couldn’t, we’d push our tickets forward and head back to Paris super early.   They could.

The day we arrived, we checked back into the dump I had chosen on the basis of a. cheapness; b. proximity to the airport; and c. availability of storage facilities while we were in the U.S.  I had an email response informing me that it would be no problem for us to arrive on the date at the time we needed (we flew in after 10 pm).  However, much like the last time we stayed there – on our way to the U.S. – they had no record of my reservation.  They did, however, have a closet of a room with a top bunk that couldn’t be slept in because it might be wet from rain, or a bottom bunk, which Chris and I shared in the end.  However, we beat fate by staying awake on the whole flight in (or mostly…the end was hard), so we slept in spite of it all.

Next morning we contacted DSWD, went back to a tried and true hostel not too far away, and then made our way to the relief center to meet with the contact there.  He led us to the packing facilities, which are comprised of four or five massive warehouses.  We were based in one, and there were about 100 people there, packing food in assembly lines, with two circles of women sat upon rice sacks, a mountain of rice at their feet and a few women scattered behind them, sealing the bags they packed with 3 kilos apiece.  We made our way to a table with 6 or 7 old ladies and made bags containing 4 each: cans sardines, instant noodles, and 3-in-1 sachets of coffee; 5 cans corned beef; and 1 sack of rice.  We kept having to wait on the rice, so I decided to give more hands to the rice mountain, which was (wo)manned now by a lone manang, or old woman.  Ate Fina, who is 65, is a force with whom to be reckoned.  She has powered through this back-breaking work from 8am to 5pm for the past 3 or 4 weeks.  There were a large number of volunteers from Pasay City, where the facilities are located, as well as a bunch of students from a local technical institute.

Tuesday saw more or less all the same people.  Chris and I were planted in spots that suited us, and were into a bit of a rhythm, ready for Wednesday.  But next day, approaching the warehouse, it occurred to us that no one was inside.  Apparently the cans got stuck due to the road issues caused by the storms.  There was, however, a rice circle tucked deep in the warehouse we’d missed, although this time it was comprised of men.  We joined, and for the last two days, as we’ve awaited more cans, we’ve packed rice.  A lot of rice.  In fact, over the last two days, 6000 3 kilo bags have been packed into three hundred 50 kilo burlap sacks in groups of 20 by a team of about 10, whose only machines are plastic sealers.  To me, that seems ridiculously impressive.  But when one considers the fact that some 30-40 million people have been affected by the storm, and the relief packs are only intended for one family, for one day, it becomes daunting indeed.

We’ll keep this up until we go, which will be Monday…assuming our bodies hold out.  These guys are a force – they’re mostly agency workers, paid P426 (US$10)/day.  That wouldn’t be terrible (although it’s nothing spectacular), but during emergencies, they’re expected to work from 8:00 am to 12 midnight, every day.  That is, for the record, 112 hours a week.  I have never, in my life, worked that many hours in one job…But spirits have not been low (are they ever here?), and work is getting done.  Also, let it be said that Chris and I are working nowhere near the same amount.  We’re there from about 10-11 am until 4-5 pm.  And we’re pretty stinking knackered.

Next stop, Paris…and my dear M, and a delicious girlie city break, complete with vegan Parisian food, so expect to hear something about that…

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One thought on “One week in The Pearl of the Orient

  1. […] arrived with a sense of purpose, but it was trying.  Somehow when I’m in Manila, I feel exhilarated weaving in and out of the crowd.  Here, it’s just…different.  […]

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