Bryan: Neighbors, Oroquieta, Philippines

Based on a number of our visits in Africa two years ago, I’ve described the effect on the villages we visit as being like the circus coming to town. Half the village knows we’re coming and the other half knows as soon as we get out of the truck. The crowd descends. Interestingly, we hadn’t faced this in the previous three visits in the Philippines. Visiting Alnasher’s family, it may very well be because the family is considered outcasts since they are assumed to be Muslim. Don’t know about the others. But few people from the neighborhood had showed up.

All that changed in Oroquieta.

The neighborhood descended on us when we arrived in Oroquieta. Many with chairs set up to observe. In this situation, it is difficult for Ginger to really have a decent conversation with the child or the family due to the commotion. To alleviate this, in this instance, I took a bag of candy and toys, plus my camera, out into the street. The candy and toys disappeared. In a number of the pictures that follow, you see people with lollipops in their mouths or holding little toys. Those all came from us.

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This is a desperately poor neighborhood. People have no space, no privacy, no running water, questionable shelter, electricity is rare. But there is life! There is dignity. There is joy, at times. And evidence of sorrow in the faces. But they tell a story we can all learn from. I only wish these pictures could express a small fraction of what it really felt like to be there with these people.

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Ginger: Visit 4, Oroquieta, Philippines

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As Bryan mentioned, we experienced enormous differences between the regions we visited in the Philippines. The Manila and Baguio visits both took place on Luzon, the most populated island in the country. The Manila area is pushing 13 million people (a place where you and your car will never be lonely) and Baguio’s population is 319,000. Our guide kept referring to the Mindanao leg of the trip as “the provincial area,” which is incidentally where he grew up. He spoke of his boyhood home with a lot of fondness and nostalgia (and a few funny/naughty stories thrown in), but he doesn’t live there anymore. He lives in another major metro area, where there are jobs.

Our hotel was in Ozamis City, pop. 142,000, and Kurt lives in Oroquieta, a town of about 70,000. Being separated from the capital city by not only size but distance and water means that much less money has been spent in the provincial areas over the years. Mindanao has also had various problems with violence over the years, which tends to dampen tourist enthusiasm and infrastructure development.

We thought long and hard about whether to travel to an area that multiple countries’ state departments advised us strongly not to. We had the option of flying Kurt and one or two accompanying adults to Manila. But we knew it wouldn’t be anything near the same as going to his home. I’m happy we made the decision to arrange all the precautions and went.

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It all felt like much ado about nothing while we were there. We weren’t in the area where the terrorist activity and kidnappings have happened, and a few hundred miles makes a big difference in the provincial areas. But there was one moment…one man in our hotel lobby who stared at us with an intense, hostile gaze for quite some time…and in that moment I was happy we had our entourage hedged around us.

More about Kurt: I’ve sponsored Kurt through Compassion for 4 years, since he was 9. His first letter let me know that he lived with his grandparents. His parents either couldn’t take care of him or didn’t want to. Of the many children I sponsor, he is hands down the best artist. He likes basketball (the most popular boys’ sport in the Philippines, compared to soccer in Africa). He calls me ma’am Ginger in his letters, which I found out is a very common form of respectful address among adults and children alike. I was ma’am’ed about 1000 times on our trip. Maybe more.

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I was pleasantly surprised and impressed that Kurt could speak English decently well. Of course we both spent a fair amount of time trying to think of something to say, trying to be at ease in a completely pressure-filled and unnatural situation, and doing what other people told us to do. Child visits are not easy, for the child or for (this) sponsor. It’s kind of like having the president drop in for a visit. Sounds fun, but what do you actually do together? Especially with all those extra people hanging around?

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But we did OK. The project director told me Kurt has one of the best attitudes of all the boys at the center. He was loving and gentle with his younger siblings (one brother and one sister, as far as I know, around 4 and 5). He’s intelligent and faith-filled, curious and thoughtful in his letters and in person too. I have high hopes for him.

In the photos below you can get a sense of the barely contained chaos going on. I brought a photo album for each child, which everyone is eager to see. I thought it was nice of him to let Little Sister in on the action.

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Yes, that is a lei made of real flowers that I’m wearing. Kurt made them for us.

And yes, Kurt did change shirts in the course of the day. The gray one is one of the gift items I brought. I think it will fit him for at least the next 10 minutes.

A few really good men:

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Bryan: Visit 4, Oroquieta, Philippines

We made the trip in late July to the southern island of Mindanao to visit Kurt. He’s a very sweet 13 year old. He lives with his grandparents and two siblings in what is probably a three-room home. The living/dining room is far from weather-tight. It is pretty much open air – more like a sheltered porch. No running water. There is electricity in the neighborhood, but I didn’t see any in the home.

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On the electricity topic, we’ve found that if the family or a neighbor has TV, they will turn it on for what I believe is our benefit. It’s a status thing. Even though they are completely engrossed with us, they will make sure we see that they have a working TV.

Kurt presented us with leis when we arrived. The street was well-populated when we got there. Many of them, as it turns out, were there to see us. Word often travels fast when visitors show up in the neighborhood. Especially visitors from so far away as the US. The entire time we were on the island, we saw two other whites – one of those at the airport. So we do attract attention.

We were ushered into the home, where we sat and talked a bit. I went out to the van to get the large rolling duffel bag of gifts for the family. As soon as the bag came out and I started carrying it in, a collective gasp and increase in the street conversation level erupted.

Below are Kurt’s grandparents. We presented the grandfather with a watch. He was beaming! He actually kissed it! I had to help him set the time. I doubt he’d ever had a watch before.

Kurt described him to Ginger: “He’s a very good man.” High praise from a 13-year-old.

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As soon as we went in the home, the neighbors filled the doorway. They insisted on seeing what was going on. We were in the living room. On one shared wall, there was only a net between the top of the wall and the roof – a space of a couple feet at the roof peak. Faces were typically seen through the net, checking out the goings-on. On the other side, the neighboring home has a wall of woven mats. Kurt’s home only has a sheet hung up. So the upstairs neighbors, who have both a window and a hole in the mats, were also checking us out the whole time. Plus the constant crowd in the door, as seen in the picture below.

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Below is a picture of the home. The hinged screen door belongs to the home on the right of Kurt’s. The picket fence-type walls are Kurt’s. The woven mat walls in the background are the neighbors on the left. Very simple.

The people crowded around Kurt’s grandfather are neighbors and other well-wishers. It kind of emphasized that when visitors (like us) come to the home, not only are we a novelty but the family we’re visiting are celebrities.

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Below is the street where Kurt lives. You can see one of the tricycle taxis in the foreground. The gold van that looks out of place is our ride. The clotheslines appear to be communal. We saw women washing clothes by hand in washtubs.

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We took the family to lunch. It was a group of 14. Two from the US, Kurt, his grandparents, his two siblings, our guide, two people from the center, the church bus driver (who also is a relative of the family), our driver and our two bodyguards. We had more food than we could possibly eat, for $55, including a generous tip. We typically will over-order on purpose for these meals, then send the leftovers home with the family.

Language is typically a barrier at meals like this, but you can speak and hear volumes through eye contact and gestures.

The Philippines has something like 111 different dialects. Finding a common ground among the locals can be difficult. This area of Mindanao has its own dialect. One bodyguard was fluent in it. The other guard and our guide were conversant. And English was often spoken for our benefit. But everyone would switch to other languages when they felt like it.

These trips tend to reinforce for me the very provincial views prevalent in the US regarding language. I find it somewhat embarrassing that I travel to these places with “inferior” education systems and people speak multiple languages. While I speak only one.

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The two guys who look like cops are our bodyguards. They were great. Bob (Ginger’s guard) is on the left. Gerald (mine) is on the right. They very much got into what we were doing and expressed their appreciation for what Ginger is doing for the children of the Philippines. We get this reaction pretty regularly, that the people we hire to accompany us become part of the event. It is very true of our guides, as I’ve mentioned. What starts as a relationship between the child and Ginger, evolves into a community relationship and the visits turn into quite the event.

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Ginger: Visit 1, Philippines

I’ll add a few comments to Bryan’s account of our visit with Abby in metro Manila, mid-July 2016.

Abby started attending her center at age 8 and I started sponsoring her when she was 15, about 5 years ago. She had only one previous sponsor before me, but had never received a letter.

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The Compassion student centers are all affiliated with a local church. The activities include Christian teaching, training and info on practical life skills, health checkups and education, tutoring, school fee payment, uniforms and supplies, and a meal while they’re there. They also have sports teams and competitions and teach cultural arts like music and dance.

I’ve noticed that during child visits my general state of mind is basically overwhelmed. Some sponsors have a very parental attitude toward their kids, and feel comfortable advising them on life issues, expressing lots of (possessive) affection, and conversing freely. I can’t really do any of those things. I do love these kids, but I don’t feel they’re mine. Most of them have loving parent(s) or guardians, and other supportive people in their daily lives. I don’t feel comfortable popping up out of another universe, in effect, and taking charge.

So I usually do ask for a hug, but not until we’re leaving. I rely heavily on the other people around us to make it easier to talk. I rely on actions speaking louder than words. They realize that we’ve traveled a long way to see them and bring them and their family gifts, and that says more than anything I could express verbally.

I also try to avoid putting more pressure on them than the visit is already producing (which is considerable, usually). I try to be as gentle as possible, and let them do and be what they want to. I also don’t expect them to remember a lot of details about me from the letters. It’s pretty common to get questions like how many kids I have, what do I do, etc. (obviously, things I’ve written about repeatedly). I figure they have enough on their plate with just surviving from day to day.

Abby is probably my easiest sponsored child to communicate with. She writes in English very well, and I have shared the most about my life with her. But I think both of us were feeling nervous. A correspondence is one thing, and seeing and talking with each other is something else.

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But it was good. I think we both wished it could be a longer time. Toward the end of the visit, she said, “This is the most memorable day of my life.”

Some of our conversation was pretty funny. At one point during lunch she said, “I can’t stop looking at your nose, it’s so pointed.” Great self-esteem moment but I laughed. She’s right, compared to everyone around her, it is. And I feel like a giant!! I’m about 5’8″ but that’s well above average for a woman in the Philippines.

 It was hard to say goodbye. She thanked me repeatedly for our help, and then said, you never forget to write me a letter. And I told her that she is the child whose letters have been the biggest encouragement to me, which I have definitely needed in this calling.

Abby is a success story. She has her BS in Psychology now, and is working in her chosen field. She is a leader at the Compassion center and in her church. I’m extremely proud to have been a part of the network of people helping to launch this extraordinary young woman.

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