The Philippines in shorthand…

As I have struggled to write coherent blog posts in any semblance of order, and so much is happening it’s all starting to sound a bit disjointed and confusing. Have just looked back through some facebook posts and realised it’s easier to be funny in short random posts.

So, here is a taster of my first few weeks in the Philippines, as seen through my facebook status updates:

20th November:

Another long, hectic, but fascinating day… Off to bed now, but getting up again in 4 1/2 hours to go to a distribution… My current checklist of things not to forget at 3.30am includes “Big truck, little truck, van full of cardboard boxes…”   🙂

27th November:

In general I’m extremely happy and reassured that the Philippines has such an open and inclusive culture towards transsexual and transgender people. It’s truly a joy to see.
But when attempting to assess 4 evacuation centres in less than 3 hours, I do find it a tad frustrating that my colleague’s ridiculously high-heeled/platform wedges force him/her to walk at snail’s pace, and then when they inevitably broke, we were forced to stop and go shoe shopping.
There’s a time and a place for high heels and fabulous nail polish, and a humanitarian crisis is not one of them. The rest of us might look hot, sweaty, tired, unattractive and dishevelled, but at least we can get things done at a reasonable pace….

29th November:

Was struggling to wake up this morning, but then I suddenly remembered the massive cockroach I had to deal with in my room last night and was very much awake. Also for some reason I woke up with Billy Joel’s “Always a woman to me” stuck in my head….

29th November:

Suffered from a really epic fit of the giggles earlier today. I felt like I might be having a stroke – literally could not stop laughing. Almost choked on my lunch, and gave myself indigestion from laughing so hard while eating. The combination of tiredness and sugar seems to be exponentially increasing the silliness quotient around the office.
I think I may have to have a sugar and caffiene-free day tomorrow for the sake of my colleagues (there have already been discussions about sending me to the corner for a time-out).

2nd December:

Amazing things that happened today:
1) Turns out the bloke I have to meet tomorrow has his office in the same hotel as our office – so the commute to my early-morning meeting is up the lift to the 8th floor…..
2) Less than 1 month after Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, we have already reached an incredible 224,000 beneficiaries with access to food, water, sanitation, hygiene kits, and shelter materials. Not too shabby for less than 4 week’s work. Not too shabby at all.
3) Found out our drivers are called King, Boy, Bambi, and Jimboy….

3rd December:

Phew! Looong day today!
I now have spreadsheet face (so many tiny boxes!!!) but have managed to fill in an EXTREMELY comprehensive 4W sheet (Who, What, Where, When) for the Food Security Cluster, and after a nail-biting afternoon of waiting finally got confirmation of my UN flight to Tacloban tomorrow morning – so might have limited comms for a week….
The team there have asked me to bring some food for them, so am off shopping to bulk-buy pot noodles and things….

5th December:

Wow. For literally the first time ever, I have been accused of under-stating the size of a spider.
I told my colleague in passing that the one lounging on the wall around 10 feet from my head destroying my concentration, was bigger than my palm but smaller than my whole hand. She gave me a sceptical look, but then later on saw it and announced it was DEFINITELY bigger than a hand.

Then it moved to the floor, squatted dangerously close to my un-zipped rucksack, and next time I looked over it had disappeared.

Was forced to bribe a colleague with cigarettes to shake out my bag for me and check for enormous spiders.

9th December:

Bloody hell, my GCSE maths teacher would have been so proud of me today! Here’s today’s fun challenge – felt a lot like the kind of maths exam I used to dread, but Mr H would be pleased to know I am finally putting all that practice to good use:
I have a 10-wheeler truck, loaded with 500 sacks of rice seed, each sack weighing 40kgs each. The truck therefore weights 20 tonnes. I have to deliver the rice seeds to farmers in a specific village by the 15th of December so that they can plant it before the end of the rainy season.

BUT the bridge to their village can only support a weight of up to 10 tonnes max.
So, ASSUMING that the weight of the truck is distributed evenly across both axles, AND the width of the bridge is shorter than the length between the two axles, then I can safely get my truck across the bridge without ever placing more than 10 tonnes on the bridge at one time.

Of course if I miscalculate, then the bridge will collapse under the weight of my truck, we’ll loose all our seeds, as well as a truck, and will leave an entire community cut off from access to town, medical services and food supplies….

13th December:

Ah Friday the 13th – how could I have somehow forgotten about you all day?
I should have suspected it was you when the rock flew up from the road and cracked our windshield on the way to the distribution this morning.
I ought to have registered what day it was when I discovered, an hour before the distribution started, that our trucks were still somewhere in Samar, more than 14 hours drive away.
I definitely should have had a clue when we arrived at the distribution point, and before we’d barely got out of the car, a woman went into labour and had to be whisked off to hospital.
And despite the fact that the entire day was captured by a film crew, and there was nothing but vouchers to distribute, I still didn’t think about your evil superstitious Friday-the-13th ploys.

However, I am pleased to report that due to the downright awesomeness of the Filipino people, the 1100 farmers who had gathered to collect their rice seeds all waited patiently in lines to get registered and none complained that the actual rice wasn’t there. They all got vouchers and we’ll go back another day once we have some trucks and re-distribute.

17th December:

Have discovered that sadly “aid-worker” is not my best look.

1) I have now got an unfortunate t-shirt tan/stripey flip-flop tan, which goes very suddenly from a nice deep brown to pale and pasty halfway up my arms.
2) The humidity is causing my hair to get bigger and crazier on a daily basis. Been a running joke between me and CeeCee that my head is slowly turning into a giant frizzy triangle, and then yesterday another colleague commented that my hair really does seem to be getting bigger every day!
3) “hot and sweaty”, combined with “my deodorant ran out a week ago” is not exactly sexy.

Good thing I’ve been so busy out sweating next to my trucks, I haven’t yet stumbled across all the gorgeous UN & RC bods I’ve been told are lurking somewhere in Tacloban….

steph 3

19th December:

The only word that could possibly describe the day I’ve had today is Omnishambles.
Complete and utter omnishambles.

23rd December:

Laters Tacloban, I’m heading back to Cebu! Looking forward to having clothes that aren’t damp and musty, an actual selection of food and drink choices, and the ability to get my hair back under control….. CeeCee informs me I now mostly look like Grug….


27th December:

I adore the fact that this hotel keeps the pancakes in the “low-calorie breakfast” section of the menu. Allows me to have pancakes for breakfast while maintaining a wafer-thin illusion of health….

2nd January 2014:

Damn – I knew I shouldn’t have left the poolside. 1st day back in the office after my R&R break, and I’m locked out of all the systems I urgently need to use today, and can’t even request IT support to reset my passwords, as I appear to be locked out of the “self-service portal” too!
Can’t even get my per diems and expenses signed, as there’s no-one in the office who can approve it for me.
Supposed to fly back to Tacloban tomorrow, but the woman who’s booking the flights isn’t here either, so no idea if I have a flight booked, or what time it is.

So basically, in a nutshell, the entire universe is telling me I should have just stayed by the pool. Maybe I’ll just leave all the technology to sort itself out and go have a wee nap….

4th January:



So there we are, that pretty much brings us up to date. I am also drafting several longer posts with slight more detail, but that’s the last 2 months in one hilarious nutshell…..


March 2014

And here’s a few more from the next couple of months….

8th January:

Right, today’s challenge – distributing rice seed in 4 municipalities in one day…. Better bring my A-game

11th January:

A very well deserved staff New Year’s party today, which means all sorts of organised fun and games. Far too much giggling and excitement happening around the office. Apparently I’m featuring in a dance number later, but no-one has told me what the steps are yet….
Also they’ve just put our loggie into a tutu.

15th January:

Another classic moment. Walked in the door and a colleague said
“Oh Steph I like your hair!….. Is it windy outside?”
No it’s not.

My hair is just choosing to defy gravity right now.

18th January:

So last night we were introduced to some UNFPA folks who were dominating the karaoke stage. There were FOUR of us sat round a table, getting introduced to a guy called Mario, when he suddenly points at me (and me only) and says to his colleague:
“Hey! She should come to our training on STI’s!”

I blame my hair. It’s making me look like a dirty stop-out.

21st January:

Today I will mostly be learning about coconut farming.

Did you know that the Philippines is the largest producer of copra (coconut flesh used to extract coconut oil) in the world? Or that the coconut tree is incredibly versatile.

It can produce copra, which in turn can be turned into coconut oil, and the leftovers converted into high-protein animal feed. The oil itself can be converted into edible cooking oil or coco biodiesel used in the cosmetics industry, or converted into diesel fuel.

The coconut shell can be turned into charcoal and used as fuel, while the fibres from the outside of the shell, or coir, can be used as material for upholstery padding, floor mats, mattresses and handicrafts, and as a soil erosion control tool.

The coconut water can be used as a drink, as well as to make vinegar, wines and coco sap brown sugar.

And of course there’s always the lumber you can get from the tree trunk after it stops producing fruit.

Unfortunately a massive amount of coconut trees (approx 33 million) were blown over in the typhoon and they take about 8-10 years to grow to maturity. Interesting debate on how to help those farmers while they wait for the new trees to grow.

29th January:

Sitting out on a tiny penninsula with not much between me and the entire Pacific ocean. It’s a bit windy. (in Guiuan, Eastern Samar)

30th January:

When your Filipina colleagues announce how jealous they are that you’re getting on the UNHAS flight (United Nations Humanitarian Air Service), cos apparently the pilots are “soooo dreamy”, and they insist that you take photographic evidence to compensate for the fact that they don’t get to experience all the hotness first-hand, who am I to say no?

They were very obliging. And also a little bit dreamy….


4th February:

Well, it’s been fun, but I have clearly chosen the wrong technical specialty. Will be forced to re-train immediately as a shelter expert, as apparently CeeCee has been hiding ALL of the very very hot men in the Shelter Cluster.

Rocked up to the cluster meeting in Tacloban today to present the EMMA findings, expecting half a dozen scruffy bored people twiddling their thumbs. Instead walked into a den of hotness (and me with no make-up on! For shame!). Thank god I at least managed to wedge my hair under a bandana before I left the office this morning….

You couldn’t swing a cat in there without hitting some carefully-dishevelled designer stubble draped over a chiselled jawline.

Of course, me being me, I realised 5 mins into my presentation, when all eyes were on me, that the underwire in my bra had worked itself loose and was somehow simultaneously jabbing me in the sternum and poking out from under my t-shirt like a third nipple. Cue awkward public boob-groping in an attempt to re-adjust the offending piece of wire while simultaneously trying to sound knowledgeable on market systems.

God I hate being foiled by my own underwear.

12th February:

Well yesterday was a crappy crappy shitty rubbish horrible day. REALLY did not want to get out of bed this morning at all.
However, gotta suck it up and dive back into the fray, so today I will mostly be listening to Ani DiFranco, as I find nothing fires you up ready for the day’s battles quite like a very angry, outraged lesbian.

16th February:

I am now officially cream-crackered.

Been here for 3 months now and still mostly working 12-hour days, 6 days a week. I haven’t slept through the night once since I got back to Guiuan 10 days ago (stifling heat, dogfights, mosquitos, cockerels, rain, and bad karaoke have all played a part in keeping me awake at 3am night after night). So I am becoming increasingly tired and grumpy.
You can imagine how disgruntled I might feel therefore when on the one day off I get to lie-in and attempt to catch up on sleep, my colleague calls me at 7fucking20am because she forgot it was a Sunday and thought I’d be up.
Could I get back to sleep after that?
Could I bollocks.

Of course she’s also a close friend whom I love dearly, so I’m confident that I’ll forgive her eventually….


21st February:

This time next week I will be somewhere in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, being entertained by my lovely nephews, catching up with my awesome brother and his equally awesome wife, and will have some form of cold alcoholic beverage in one hand, and some form of cheese in the other.

18th March:

Well my first impression of Manila is mainly smog and incompetence.

20th March:

When the message goes out that your colleagues in Tacloban can’t find tonic water for love nor money, you go shopping.

When you step into the lift at work at the end of a long day and notice something dripping onto your leg, you investigate.

When you discover that a can of tonic water has exploded inside your backpack, you rescue the laptop.

When you find yourself smiling awkwardly at other people getting on and off the lift, juggling your laptop in one arm, while tonic water literally pours out of the bottom of your bag onto the lift floor, you have to laugh.

When you finally make it outside the building, trailing a puddle of perfectly good tonic in your wake, dump the entire contents of your bag onto the pavement and find your camera swimming in the bottom of the bag, you have to laugh harder, and then call CeeCee so she can laugh with you.

23rd April:

Things I learnt today:

1) Residents of village A are uncomfortable going to a distribution in village B because apparently village B “has some witches. You don’t know who they are, but if they touch you then you’ll get sick.” 
(but apparently if you catch them touching you, you can reverse the spell by touching them straight back. Am now picturing our upcoming distribution swiftly descending into some of confused, poking, prodding, slap-fest)

2) Said residents of village A don’t feel comfortable going to village B on their own, so will wait for us to show up and then follow behind us on the walk over to the distribution point. So we may end up walking over the hills towing 125 people in our wake, feeling a lot like the pied piper…

3) The stretch of bright red earth road going down the mountain was in fact clay. And after 2 minutes of rain, the narrow bendy bit stops being a road and turns into a water slide. We basically took a 4×4 down a rather muddy flume.

4) Our driver turned out to be an off-road race driver and he particularly enjoyed all the high-speed fishtailing as we slid down the mountain. My white knuckles enjoyed it slightly less.

5) I’ve now been to the same remote villages often enough that apparently everyone knows who I am. My arrival today was heralded by kids further up the road yelling “Maya’s coming!” in Visayas.

6) Apparently I’m “guapa” (beautiful), even when red-faced, covered in mud and dripping with sweat. So thanks dudes hanging out under the bamboo hut, you officially made my day!

2 thoughts on “The Philippines in shorthand…

  1. Bigods this is like Bridget Jones except good! Amazing darling. Please let me be your editor and together we will conquer the world. Xxx

    • Hahaha! Glad you’re enjoying it my dear! Read away – there’s plenty of good stuff – I recommend you read my 4-part Vipassana meditation experience, that one still makes me laugh….
      Also, once you’ve edited me into a book, do be a love and post me the royalties…

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