Sunday, 29 November 2009

Philippines diary: In the line of fire

With Marge and Baby at Sabang’s underground river

I spent most of my sixth week in the Philippines on the island of Palawan, at a UNICEF-supported training session for journalists from the troubled region of Mindanao, where a civil war between government forces and Islamic separatists has been raging with greater or lesser intensity since the late 1960s.

Parts of Mindanao are notorious for the kidnapping and murder of Westerners but the province is equally dangerous for journalists. In recent years, there has been an increase in murders of journalists throughout the Philippines, most of which go unsolved. This had already earned the Philippines the dubious distinction of being the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists after Iraq.

We arrived in Palawan a few days early to do a bit of sightseeing, in particular to visit the famous underground river at Sabang, a UNESCO world heritage site. From the outside, the river looks unremarkable, just a low cave mouth at the edge of a sandy blue-green pool. Once you pass under the rocky archway, however, you are transported into another world. Within a few minutes the cave is pitch black, with the distinctive clicking sound of swifts and bats echolocating all around you in the dark.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Philippines diary: Iron man

A detail from the promotional flyer for the Timex 'Iron Man' race
© Timex/RunRio
Sunday 15 November began early, as I met Gina at 4:45am to get a taxi to Fort Bonifacio, the starting point of Manila’s Timex ‘Iron Man’ race. Part of the proceeds of the race were donated to a UNICEF school project.We started at 5:30am, just as the sky was starting to lighten. The first half of the race was easy enough, despite climbing a flyover with sweeping views across the slums and skyscrapers of the city. Things got trickier on the way back though, as the sun brought with it a noticeable increase in heat and humidity, but I finally sprinted across the finish line in 58 minutes.

After a quick change of clothes, the sporting theme continued with the world welterweight title boxing match between Filipino Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto, the reigning champion. I’m not normally a huge boxing fan but it was impossible not to get caught up in the enthusiasm for the event.

The importance of this match for Filipinos cannot be underestimated: Pacquiao is a national hero with an amazing life story. He started off as a street child, similar to those I met in Binondo, skipping school to help his single mother sell vegetables on the roadside in General Santos City, Mindanao. Even with his help, his mother still wasn’t earning enough to feed six children, so Manny left home at 14 to go to Manila, where he worked as a laborer and became an amateur boxer.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Philippines diary: On the road

  The author with schoolchildren at Paaralang Elementary School
© UNICEF Philippines/2009
My fourth week in the Philippines was dominated by a three day trip to Camarines Norte, a province south of Manila. It’s one of the poorer parts of the Philippines and where Typhoon Santi made landfall last week. For both reasons, it’s a prime target for UNICEF’s work. My manager, Angela, has been given responsibility for this province, so she was on a fact finding mission, while my role was to report on projects we’ve funded there.

As we left Manila, our flight passed over the flood plain by Laguna de Bay, southeast of the city. We were in a small plane, and flying low, so this time I could clearly see the flooded fields, with hedges, trees and the occasional rooftop rising above the waterline. I watched small speedboats navigate their way across the flooded fields and past the rooftops. I realised that nature had resculpted the landscape, creating a new shoreline. In one place, a village had been cleft in two, with one side now on the coast and the other on a new island in the expanded lake.

After landing at 7am, we had a two-hour drive to our final destination, so I took the opportunity to catch up on my sleep. I woke up just as we arrived at the Provincial Government building, which was decorated with a banner reading ‘Welcome to Camerinas Norte, Ms Angela Travis and Party’, then had the slightly disconcerting experience of meeting and greeting the Vice Governor while still half asleep.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Philippines diary: In the path of the storm

Arries Tejo, 15, at an evacuation centre in Cubao
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
At the end of last week’s diary, I was heading home on Friday night with the tops of the tower blocks disappearing beneath a shroud of rain and cloud, the wind starting to whip up and a distinct sense of trepidation as Typhoon Santi stormed directly towards Manila.

I’d witnessed a hurricane before, in Cuba in 2005. That time, I remember spending half the night in a hotel bar in Havana, drinking rum and playing cards while the wind beat on the boarded up doors and windows. It was like something out of John Huston’s 1948 film noir classic, Key Largo. The next day, the street outside was flooded waist deep and you could see waves crashing over the sea wall and against the lighthouse in Havana bay.

This time, the storm was due to pass directly overhead in the early hours of the morning. As a precaution, I moved my bed from under the window to behind a wardrobe in the lounge area. I slept through most of the night but woke up at 6am, with the wind rattling the windows and the electricity out. I took a quick look out of the window to see trees bent almost double but still rooted to the ground. There was, thankfully, no sign of further flooding.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Philippines diary: Learning the hard way

Children wave at a morning assembly on their first day back after the floods
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
If my first week in the Philippines could be described as relatively uneventful, the same certainly can’t be said for the second. I saw a school reopening for the first time since the floods, I met street children in Chinatown, watched the government being held to account over child rights and ended the week barricaded in my flat in the path of an oncoming typhoon.

My week started at 5:30am on Monday. I was up, not necessarily bright but certainly early, to go to Pinagbuhatan Elementary School, which was opening for the first time following the devastation caused by Typhoon Ketsana. For children who had been through the stress of losing their homes and in some cases loved ones to the floodwaters, it was to be a welcome return to normality.

It took us a while to find the school and by the time we arrived the assembly had already started. Hundreds of children in clean and pressed uniforms thronged a large courtyard in the middle of the school. I was summoned to the stage and made my way through a press of small bodies to the front.