A swarm of locusts

Trip Start Dec 30, 2010
Trip End Jul 18, 2011

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Flag of Philippines  , Mindanao,
Saturday, April 23, 2011

Don't take the heading of this entry literally - but, that is how I liken the feeling, as I sit here exhausted after having hosted Jay’s family here for 4 days. It feels like a swarm of locusts passed through the house, gobbling and munching everything in sight and leaving the dried out husks behind to shrivel in the heat of the sun. Now, I am flopped in the hammock with my laptop on my lap, after 2 intense weeks of people. I am enjoying doing nothing for the first time in ages – well not really nothing, since I am writing this blog – but it is as close to nothing as I can get.

Three months ago, during our last visit to Cagayan, we invited Jay’s mother to come visit us prior to her going on a pilgrimage with her church group to Jerusalem at the end of April. Little did we expect 18 guests to arrive on our doorstep on Wednesday night – and that we would be expected to provide all the food for them, pay for their sightseeing tours and entertainment whilst here. But that was what happened, so you can imagine it was a surprise, clash and lesson in surrender for us too. It also did not help that we are starting to feel the financial pinch, just when they arrived too. Whilst I am sorry to see the 10 kids (nieces and nephews) go, as I enjoyed their energy, I can not say the same about the adults, who came with a bunch of expectations from us, and requests.

We thought 13 people were coming on Wednesday evening (Jay’s mum, 3 of his brothers and their wives and kids), and that was already stressful enough, but then, there were an extra 2 cousins, a baby, another neice and someone’s mother-in-law who arrived as well. And that mother-in-law: my gosh – was she scary!! For me, it was a bit strange for her to be there, since that is taking extended family to quite an extension. Of course, she was polite to us, but she looked like a brooding bulldog. She was quite grumpy when dealing with the other family members, and I noticed that all her grandkids stayed clear of her. I can only say that I am glad that she is not my mother-in-law!

Jay’s mum has raised his youngest brother Yule’s 3 kids herself, with, I guess, help from family overseas, since the youngest brother has never managed to finish his education or get himself a job. The mother of the children apparently just disappeared one day and never returned, leaving the kids and husband without a goodbye. I don’t want to dig too deep in that can of worms to know the full story. But the kids obviously adore their grandmother, and she spends the vast majority of her time now engaged in church activities and supervising them. So those 3 kids came as well -  they are the ones I took photos of and posted in an earlier blog when we went to Cagayan.

Every morning at 4 am Jay’s Mum is up and singing hymns for an hour whilst the rest of the family sleeps. We are always very discrete about our meditation practices when she is around, since it was the source of a 20 year stand-off between Jay and his mother. One time his mum lent me a fiction book when I stayed at their house. I thought it was purely that. It was only halfway through the book that I realized that it was a book obviously written by a Born Again member of her church. In the book it talked about how a dark metaphysical cloud had swept over some town in California and everyone started taking up yoga and meditation – thus the devil was gaining control of their minds…. I burst out laughing when I realized the propaganda that I had been reading and held my peace…. But since then religion is one topic we all sidestep around.

The first night that everyone arrived, I showed the movie, "Because of Winn Dixie" on the big screen. It is one of the movies in the AVAILLL program. It is about a girl and her preacher father who move to a new town. She adopts a dog which she names Winn Dixie. Anyway, there are many good moral messages in the movie, as well as it telling the story of the dog. But what struck me now, as I was writing this blog, were the parallels with Yule’s family. He is the one whose kids are being raised by Jay’s Mum. Because, in the movie, the girl and the father are still mourning her mother’s abrupt departure; she left one day, and took everything except her baby daughter. I didn’t make the link until now. Jay’s mum really liked the movie of course – and if you have seen it, you would understand why, after what I have told you about her and the family.

Below this article are some more of the photos of pictures I took when we took the family to Samal Island for swimming.

A Domestic Helper (DH) in Singapore

I have been thinking a lot about the article I posted earlier about of the labour force of the Philippines being overseas, and thus making the economy here very fragile – dependent on the whims and fortunes of overseas economies to a huge extent. Unemployment is a huge problem here, and also the low spending power of Filipinos. Well, I was thinking about Jay’s family – and it is interesting – half of his immediate family are overseas, if you count us as well (4 out of 9 of his siblings… and another one of his brothers is planning on moving to Canada in the next few months).

Anyway, I had an interesting discussion with Tata, one of the cousins. Since 2003 she has been working overseas – first for 2 years in Saudi Arabia, then for 4 years in Singapore. She will start a job in Hong Kong this July. She left her own daughter (teenage pregnancy) to be raised by her younger sister, Mayette (who also came here). I asked her how much she earnt as a domestic help, and what her duties were. She said that in Saudi Arabia, she worked for a very wealthy family. There were 4 domestic helpers – one cook, one cleaner, a driver, and herself. Her job was purely to look after their new born infant. She said it was the most boring job ever, but they paid well and she did not have to pay an agency for finding her the job – they had paid the agency themselves.

Her second job in Singapore, she got through an agency and the deal was that for her first 6 months, she would only get $50 a month and the rest of her salary would go to the agency to pay their fee. She was signed into a 2 year contract, with a monthly salary of $450 Singapore dollars (roughly the equivalent in NZ$ - or about $300 USD). She sent all the money she earnt home to raise her daughter and pay for her sister’s living expenses. This was the equivalent of 16,000 pesos. A domestic help working in the Philippines would earn P1000 a month (NZ $30) , so this was 16x the amount she would earn here. It was a windfall as far as she was concerned! But I was still thinking, wow – it is not really much in the scheme of things – although, of course as a domestic help, all her food and accommodation is paid for, since it is live-in…. still…. If you compare it with the salary that a babysitter would be expected to pay in NZ, you would find that babysitters got a whole lot more than that.

It seems there is something wrong in this world, that someone should leave the raising of their own child to someone else, whilst they go and raise a wealthy person’s child…. When Leo was sick and in hospital with dengue fever, Jay contacted the Mum to inform her of the situation. She came and spent 10 minutes with Leo in hospital and then had to rush home to her employer to care for their 3 sick kids, who had colds. There seems something really weird and wrong with that situation.

Nalini’s sister graduates


 On a similar theme, about 2 weeks ago, Nalini invited me to come meet her family during her younger sister’s graduation for her teaching degree. We went to Holy Cross College for the graduation. I was struck by the number of graduates (about 1 in 8) who had completed a seaman’s course. I never heard of this type of course being offered in a University program before. It is only here in the Philippines. They will get postings overseas, presumably working initially as 3rd mate officers on cruise and commercial ships and then working their way up to captain. I remember going on the ships in Ghana to solicit donations (or beg!) for the children’s homes. About 40% of the seamen were Filipinos. Of course, most of them weren’t the officers, but we became very familiar with the heirarchy system and had some interesting conversations with the seamen about their lives.

Last year, when I visited one of the fastest growing private elementary schools in Davao (they had been operating 7 years and had over 1000 students) I asked the principal about the clientele at the school. She said that the vast majority of the students at her school had parents who were seamen. The mums are essentially solo – the fathers only being present for about 1-2 months every year.

It amazes me how here, noone blinks an eyelid when you talk about how for example I work in NZ whilst Jay is building our house here. It is such a common eventuality here – marriages are regularly split between nations – with one member of the family working overseas to send money to support the raising of the rest of the family. Of course, there are the casualties too that such arrangements can lead to – if it continues on too long – like Jay’s brother Denny. His wife worked as a nurse in Saudi Arabia, sending money back to support the raising of their child Princess together. After about 5 years, Denny got a good managerial job and asked her to return, as there was no need for her to stay there now. She refused and since then she has remained in Saudi. Princess has not seen her mother in several years, and the marriage is basically defunct. They have not applied for a divorce though, because in a Catholic state, they have made it beyond the financial means of most families.

I mentioned that the last 2 weeks have been filled with people. Two weeks ago, we celebrated Arjun’s 55th birthday party here and then we ran a one week summer holiday program with the kids at Ateneo too – and it completely wiped us out:

First there were thirty and…. then there were more…

One thing I am learning about Filipinos is that nothing is ever done with only a few people. If you expect a certain number of people to come to a free program you are hosting, then double it – for all the gatecrashers. If it is a paid program, and you expect a certain amount, be sure that actually less than that will come.

Two weeks ago, Arjun celebrated his birthday party. He arranged most of the things prior to the party and his children in Canada funded it for him, with the stipulation that some of the funds should be spent on poor and needy kids. So we invited Marianela to come with the kids from the hospital. Prior to the party, I asked Arjun – how many people do you expect? He just shrugged. I got clashed, because all the women were expected to be organizing the food – and if you don’t know the numbers, then how do you prepare accordingly? So – I guessed – maybe 30. I started preparing pizza in the new kitchen which has the oven for that amount, whilst the other Filipinas all congregated in the old kitchen with the big pots and starting cooking local dishes, which I still don’t have a good grasp of, and feel entirely inadequate about – especially since I am not really interested in cooking and culinary stuff. I try to avoid the kitchen if I can…. 

Anyway, after making the dough, and letting it rise, I realized that there were way more than 30 people outside and milling around in the house. I didn’t have enough time to make some more dough, and I didn’t have enough ingredients either for the toppings, so I just thought, OK – everyone will get extra small pieces. However, it did make me extra clashed. I put the first lot of pizza in the oven to cook and then went out to do a head count and ask the other women if they had any idea as to the number of people they were preparing food for. They all shrugged and started laughing at the expression on my face – I had told them, that in NZ to have even 10 guests around to your private home and to be hosting them without them bringing a contribution, was considered quite a lot. Now I had counted over 50 people in our house, and more were still arriving!

One of the sisters asked me, “Where is the rice? You can’t have a meal without rice in the Philppines.” I had no idea. I looked in our box on the kitchen floor and saw we had about 1 cup of rice. Where was Arjun? Why had he not bought some rice? We live out in the wop wops, and the nearest grocery store is a 10 minute drive away, not that it would be open on a Sunday evening. I went around looking for Arjun desperately, but he was nowhere to be seen. All these men were just sitting around having idle conversations, whilst most of the women were stressing out in the kitchen trying to find ways to make the food multiply, without rice! That also made me annoyed! Well, they didn’t have chairs to sit on, since we don’t have any…. So they were perched on concrete steps, leaning against verandah railings or sitting on tables…. But still, they were just leaning there lazily waiting to be served, without a worry in the world…. Grrr!

And then a van-loadful of musicians and dancers arrived, and Arjun appeared to tell us that he made a  deal with the musicians that they would perform for free, if we provided them with food. There were 20 of them…!! By now, my head was spinning and the house was overloaded with people. Everyone streamed upstairs for the “concert” and we were squished on the floor like peas in a pod. One of the boys from the hospital came in a wheelchair and we had to carry him up the stairs and plop him unceremoniously at the top, because there were so many people we could not take him any further up. People were sitting on the stairs, peering through the ballisters at the performance. I can not believe we managed to fit 70 people upstairs and for dance to be performed there in the very limited space. Luckily Filipinos are small – you couldn’t have fitted that many kiwis up there!

Later on, the dancers went outside and performed some stunning fire dance to native drumming – by which time the party ended and people started dribbling home. It was 11 pm and the next day we were starting our holiday program at Ateneo. My head was spinning and I had a throbbing headache. I felt so useless and ineffectual, and annoyed at Arjun that he had not given me any idea what to expect! In the end, I had to leave the women in the kitchen cleaning up the dishes and just go to bed. Of course, in retrospect, and retelling it, it sounds funny. But it is horrible being placed in that situation, as a host – without really having a clue what is going on!…. It was a bit like that again this weekend with Jay’s family.

And what happened about the rice? Arjun did not buy any rice, and so someone went to the neighbours and borrowed rice for the party. I don’t know how it was all sorted out in the end, but I am amazed that we actually managed to make the food stretch as far as it did. Everyone got a plateful of food, although not everyone got pizza.

I will write another post about the holiday program later on, because that is another whole chapter in itself! In the meantime, here are some more photos of our artistic endeavours over the last month:

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James Sackor Bartee on

Hi Kate
I read you blog with much interest. I must say that I laughed and lauged till the tears filled my eyes because i know exactly what you experienced or are experiencing. During my voluntary service in Freetown, I decided to take sponser a outing for the director's family or should his household and the neighbors. I asked the director's son to manage the program. My own count of participants came to a certain number and based on that, I ordered a bus to drive the participants to the beach. To my surprise and utter dismay, on New Year's daay (the day that we planned to go to the beach), the bus came to pick us up and I noticed that there were more people than expected. I almost blew up when we had to stop along the way to pick up even more people. Thank goodness, I had enough rice for the occasion. I prepared the food myself and decided to add extra just incase there came more people.
It is like you wrote, it is very difficult to plan if one does not know the number of person one is preparing for. The culture in the Phillipins is no different from that of Africa.


Megan Wilson on

Hi Kate
I think you're amazing! Storms, unexpected guests, extended extended family hosting, catering for the masses with one cup of rice and holiday programmes. And this is unpaid leave. Your a saint. I bet the party guests left happy and not at all aware of your stress and the kids all had a ball at the holiday programme. Am enjoying reading your blogs. We've created a MoTEC blog!. Early beginnings but check it out. motecmotec@blogspot.com.
Keep up the amazing work you're doing and all the best with getting your drains in b4 the next big rain.

Megan on

Hi again Kate
sorry that MoTEC blog address was wrong its motecmotec.blogspot.com
We like comments!

saharandreams on

Hey Megan,
There is never a dull day that is for sure! Now, I am back to construction work. It's a nice break from the intellectual stuff. Although, today I had to break the routine to make a newsletter for Kids Worldwide. Spent 12 hours on it.... ahhhh... but it is done now. You will be getting a copy in your inbox tomorrow probably!

Great work with the Motec blog! So - you managed to find a way to integrate blogs into the work - good idea! Bet Brian isn't using it though! I put one comment through just now, but am now thoroughly fed up with the computer... so that is all from me for now!

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