A HIP Christmas in the Typhoon Ravaged Islet of Silagon

1. Helping islets in the Philippines

When I first saw the event page on my Facebook I instantly knew it would be an interesting experience to spend Christmas in an islet ravaged by Yolanda (Haiyan). As what lead organizer Kakay says "We're gonna help them get their spirit back" and the planned Christmas eve celebrations is the first in the many phases of rebuilding efforts. I joined the project as a photographer and only to document it, much of the foot work and fund drive were done by the other organizers and volunteers, it went out clockwork for a month before I found myself on a scenic mini-bus ride from Silay to Sagay, Negros Occidental. I was running late and knowing the advance party was already sitting on a boat with all the supplies hauled on board already, I was jumpy at my seat. By the time I arrived at Old Sagay they have burned 3 hours waiting for me, but nevertheless the trip that will go down as one of the best I had in year 2013 was just about to start.

Practicing  "Star ng Pasko" for their Song Number
Our boat ride was a bit bipolar; it started under sunny skies over calm waters before a patch of gloomy clouds greeted us with a heavy downpour. It was the part of the trip you'd wish you're back home sitting on a couch and watching TV munching on Clover Chips, but your sense of adventure kicks in and you end up enjoying every splashes of waves hitting your face. The boat ride lasted for four hours and rendered my butt numb and had me holding to my bladder too long, and when I went to the back of the boat to take a leak It took me a couple of minutes to eject my overflowing urine into the ocean. We arrived at the port of Bantayan at around 5 o'clock in the afternoon and waited for two small boats to take us for a 20 minute trip to Silagon Islet. 

On our first night and these smiles welcomed us
It was low tide so it took a while for the boatman to navigate our boats, circling a bit further to avoid the shallow part until under pitch black darkness we cannot proceed anymore but to wade into the knee deep waters. From where we got off I could see a few lights flickering from the distance, the small community of Silagon is finally in sight already. I have doubts on how they would welcome us, I still feel like an outsider about to infiltrate their peaceful islet. That feeling changed when I saw smiles as I put down my backpack on our campsite adjacent to a small cemented house, but whose roof was torn apart by the typhoon. With only a solar powered light bulb turned on, it was all I could see of the aftermath of Yolanda's wrath.

My 2 person tent can fit 10 Silagon Kids :)
Our first night was spent on exchanging greetings and feasting on the food served to us by a local birthday celebrant. About a dozen of kids who are curious about the newly arrived visitors gathered at our camp and instantly exhibited their playfulness and desire to mingle. One of the German volunteers, Erik quickly formed a bond with the kids by teaching them a few games and soon, the musicians of the group Sam, Kevin and Paul brought out the guitar and started humming songs with the youngsters. We were not outsiders anymore. 

Dominik explaining a basketball drill to the young ballers of Silagon
Silagon is an ideal place to have a great childhood. The kids play all day, running wild with reckless abandon, swimming into the neighboring islet, flying kites, playing ball and most of all, growing up appreciative and perceptive on how to live a simple life. But beyond this seemingly perfections of simple existence, is a web of inconvenience that make it tough for them to grow up at the same time. There are no fresh water and electricity in the islet. These are solved through daily sea crossings to Bantayan island and a 300 peso a month 100 kw Solar panel installed on the houses. The one classroom nursery school was torn apart by the winds of Yolanda; all the other kids have to make the short boat journey to Bantayan Island just to attend school. 

Bennet, working on the Basketball court makeover
All of these coupled by bad fishing days can be quite tough to handle for a city slacker like me. However, what impresses me most is how the community strive and survive through all of it day in and day out. But when a force of nature such as Yolanda comes in and tore their community apart, it takes the daily struggles into a whole new level of suffering. This is how grateful I am that a few caring souls came up with the initiative to bring help to the islet and in the process paved the way for the creation of HiP (Helping Islets in the Philippines).

Sam and Paul were the School of Rock and Christmas Ballads teachers
When I woke up the next day I noticed aside from the roof of the house adjacent to our camp, the chapel and the kindergarten school were also hit hard badly. The small houses in the community have been gradually restored using light materials found around the islet. The day before the 24th, the kids under the guidance of the musicians of the group; Paul, Sam and Kevin, started practicing songs for their musical number. The kids' favorite tagalog songs "Pusong Bato" and "Star ng Pasko" were repeatedly sang until they perfected the harmony. You can see even in practice session, the kids' took the performance to heart and are eager to resume practicing after each breaks. 

While Erik was the dancing man from Deutschland 
On the other side of the island, the group also gathered the locals and helped with the basketball makeover. Bennet, a German based in Hanoi who went to the Philippines to volunteer for any post-Haiyan projects was tasked to paint the backboard with a yellow paint. Dominik led the markings of the court's sideline, freethrow line and the three point line with sea shells painted in different colors of blue, red and yellow. After Bennet finished the paint job, one of the locals wrote in fine lettering the words "Silagon Lakers" on the board. The day before we had a game of three-on-three with some locals and had me dog tired after the eighth point of the game. Anyway, at least I was able to play on the road and at the home court of Silagon Lakers no less.

Dominik and Kakay giving away the Christmas packs
Party preparations became busier the next day as it also coincided with the arrival of the Christmas gifts the group prepared for the more than 80 families on the island. One gift pack comprises of canned goods, 5 kilos of rice, sugar, detergent and bathing soaps, instant noodles, coffee, plastic cups, feminine napkins, sanitary kits, sleeping mats and mosquito nets. The kids also wrapped their own gifts for the night's Kris Kringle. The gift amount was set to 10 pesos, but as I saw their sheer enthusiasm wrapping their own gifts, the amount was of less significance, at a young age they already knew the sense of appreciating the thought more that any amount of a Christmas gift.

A young girl hands her Kris Kringle gift to Laura
Its party time 
A couple of hours before the Christmas Eve party, the sharing of the Christmas pack started and as the people assembled and waited for their family name to be called, you can see the smiles on their faces beams up the dusk skies. One by one, as a family representative receives their pack, an accompaniment of cheers and applause occurs. Even if I was witnessing the scene behind my camera lens I could feel their elation, somehow I could understand the kind of emotion they are feeling that moment. They now understand that they were never forgotten the same way their own community is teaching me something I will never forget. When one of the kids suffered an accident earlier in the day and hit his head on a piece of rock, as one of the volunteers, Fe - a registered nurse administers first aid to the child's open wound, I saw most of the neighbors with tears rolling down from their eyes. That is how they care for each other. Each one is treated as family and an important part of their community.

The HIP volunteers turn to sing "Star ng Pasko"
The kid was taken to a hospital in Bantayan accompanied by his mom, HIP volunteers Fe and Yuji and they all returned just in time for the party. The young boy with bandage plastered all over his head, you' think he'd sit out the party? nah, he joined the riotous fun with the other kids while setting the accident behind him. There's this kid who I'm particularly fond of, his name is Fredo and I would always give him a high five and he'd give me high five in return then a fist bump and a 'thumbs up' sign. He would flash his wide smile and would ask me questions in their local dialect. I would tell him I only understand tagalog, he'd look away and go into a deep thought for 10 seconds before facing me again and asking me a question in perfect tagalog

Fredo. the little kid with big world wonder
After two days of preparation since we arrived, the party was finally about to begin. A spot in the islet which the locals refer to as "Sentro" or "Gitna" (center) is where the celebration was held. It measures about four to five hundred square meters of vacant space surrounded by small houses, another lone slanted basketball court, a half finished stage and their wrecked tiny chapel. A generator from Bantayan was shipped to provide electricity to power the sound system speakers and the lighting. One of the locals manned the DJ station and soon just before sunset, music was blaring already and the kids are strutting to the beat, surrounding Erik, the dancing man from Deutschland. 

The program started with the kids' rendition of "Silent Night" which they pulled off by singing it with enough passion it could pass up as a church choir performance. The host, a resident of the island wearing a stylish attire and a dark shades gamely proceeded with the planned program throughout the night. It includes a few parlor games highlighted by a game of "Pinoy Henyo" , the exchange gifts, dance numbers and the song numbers from both the kids and the volunteers. 

Rike and Shane posing with Jamaica
During dinner while I was going the rounds and asking people to pose for portrait photographs, an elderly man shook my hand and thanked me before telling me how they never intended to celebrate this year's Christmas with much fanfare because of obvious reasons. It slowly filled my heart that the little thing the HIP group organized would mean so much to them and at the same time, while I'm unaware and clueless of it initially, the trip itself has morphed into something significant for myself. 

Kneeling: Joy and Sam. Standing (L to R): Sam, Me, Marcel, Kevin, Dominik, Fe,
Yuji, Kakay, Fabian, Rike, Laura, Ralph, Bennet and Erik
Right now as I am writing this, HIP has proceeded into the second phase with the reconstruction and repainting of the nursery classroom with the help of other volunteers who arrived after some of us left. The third phase involves livelihood seminars and houses rebuilding until the islet fully recovers from the onslaught left by Yolanda. Also, at this exact moment I can imagine the kids of Silagon are continuing to burst with laughter as they run around the island chasing each other until the last days of their childhood. Life goes on in the paradise-like Silagon Islet, with all its bare necessities the place is more than complimented by a community who knows how to count their blessings and treat simple living as grandeur, more importantly they know how live together in harmony. The trip afforded me to comprehend a few things that are too personal for me to write about and my only regret is not able to tell the old man who shook my hand, that it's the other way around, It was I who should express gratitude, to Silagon community for letting me get a grasp about how they perceive and live their life with so much appreciation even of the smallest things. :)

Thanks to Cebu Pacific Air for letting me join this Christmas celebration. Silagon Islet can be reached by going first to Bantayan Island coming either Cebu (Hagnaya Port) or Bacolod (via Sagay or Cadiz). Silagon is a few minutes boat ride away from Bantayan.