Friday, March 6, 2009

Iloilo, the final stop for the 2009 GSE Philippines Team

Our final stop was Iloilo, site of the 2009 DisCon for District 3850. As I write this blog, I'm back in my apartment in Boston. Much of my stuff is unpacked, and I'm preparing to head back to work in the morning. Though I'm glad to see my friends and family again, I'm sad to have said goodbye to the new friends I've made since arriving in the Philippines in February. It's my sincerest hope that I'll get to see them again.

This leg of the trip has been a reunion of sorts. I met with members of every Rotary Club I've been to: Zamboanga, Dipolog, Kabankalan, Bocolod and many others. We reminisced about what happened during our visits, memories I'll carry with me forever.

On March 5, we went to Safari Night, where we were thrilled to jungle-themed songs and dances (I believe there were some "Lion King" renditions there, and Shelley decided to join the fun at one point) performed by the different clubs of District 3850. Jon also gave a Wushu demonstration, which earned him a thunderous applause. As we had done so many times, we spent the night dancing, thoughts of our impending trip home still in my mind but for the time being pushed aside.

Next morning we listened to the different speakers at DisCon. One of the most memorable was Senator Mar Roxas, who spoke of the need for people to be involved in their government. He recited his speech from memory, and at the end the crowd rose to give him a standing ovation.

Our final night was spent at the Governor's Ball. Though much dancing and fun were once again had (as always), it felt a little surreal. A part of me didn't believe that this was our last night in the Philippines. This trip has been a learning experience in so many ways: professionally and personally. I've learned much about the news business, and about the direction I want my career to take.

I want to thank the Rotary Club for giving me the chance to be a part of the Group Study Exchange, and boundless gratitude to the Rotary Clubs of District 3850. Salamat.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Roxas, the next to last stop

As we entered the city of Roxas, a feeling of apprehension came over me. Here we were, less than a week remaining before we boarded our flight back to Boston. It suddenly hit me that this trip, without a doubt the best experience of my entire life, would soon be coming to an end. Since then I've been trying to make the most of my time here. I've taken as many photos as possible, trying to commit to digital every aspect of our journey.

During our first night in the "Seafood Capital of the Philippines," as Roxas is known,I met my host dad Mark Ortiz, a real estate developer and hotel owner. I went to the Metro Central Roxas Rotary Club meeting, where we ballroom danced the night away.

The next day we went to the Church of Pan-Ay. First built in 1572, an rebuilt in 1884, the church, a beautiful structure, is home to the biggest bell in the Philippines. Cast by Don Juan Reina, it was made from 70 sacks of coins, and weighs 10,400 kilograms. We ascended the 67 steps (I counted!) from which we were treated to a breathtaking view of the city. We got to ring the bell, the sound of which left our ears ringing afterwards.

After a meeting with the city's mayor, Vincente Bermejo, we had lunch at the Fishpond, where we saw how our lunch was caught. Jon took a try at climbing a coconut try, and suceeded just as the camera ran out of power.

That evening we traveled to the Barangay Talon, where we saw some of the projects the Roxas Rotary have done. We saw a slideshow of the relief work they did following Typhoon Frank. Words can't describe how powerful the images I saw were. Utter devastation was all that remained, and the Rotarians there made a Herculean effort, bringing food and other supplies to the affected areas. Jerry, the Rotarian giving the presentation, got chocked up as he saw pictures of the children who had been left homeless following the disaster. I can only imagine what it was like to be there.

On March 4 we left Roxas and made the long drive to Iloilo, for the final leg of the journey and the Discon. As reluctant as I am to leave the Philippines, I do so with memories of a wonderful experience and friendships that I will treasure forever.

Mangroves and Madyass

In Kalibo, my host dad Botoy took me around the city, which still showed some of the damage left over from Typhoon Frank. As we crossed a bridge, I could see lamposts which had been twisted by the winds and rain.

The team traveled to the Bachawan Echo Park, a giant mangrove forest. We walked almost a kilometer through the trees, some of which had been lost in the typhoon. It was a beautiful sight, as we trekked underneath the canopy of leaves and branches.

Afterwards we took a our of Asu Banga, an agricultural college where Botoy, a farmer for many years, gives a weekly lecture each Saturday. I was very impressed with the wide variety of programs the students are working on.

Though retired, Botoy still works as the publisher of the local newspaper, the Madyass Pen, and took me to his office. Though small, it has the air and presence of a real newsroom. I checked out some of the rough drafts of upcoming pages, and Botoy showed me how he gets from articles to the finished copy. We joked that if he ever needs someone to take over that he should give me a call. We also saw a pig farm, as well as a beach owned by Botoy's wife's family.

Once more I and the team took to the airwaves at DYRU, the local radio station. Doug, Jon and I answered some questions on where we had gone and our experiences. Our last stop before hitting the road for Roxas was the Kalibo Pilot Elementary School, which has seen some support from the Rotary Club.

On to Roxas!

Having a blast in Boracay

On the white sandy beaches of Boracay, the team enjoyed some downtime, perusing the shops and restaraunts. We were met by members of the Boracay Rotary and shown around the lovely island. Our rooms in the Diniwid resort were stunning, as we took in the view from our second and third-story balcony. I finally got to ride a tricycle, and the experience was one to remember. The fact the fare was one-tenth of what the cabs back home would have charged didn't hurt, either.

Much of my own time was spent walking the beaches and looking for some new clothes (not an easy task for someone of my size). I met Lee, owner of Real Coffee. It's a great place to go for breakfast, and the shakes are second to none. She's been living in the Philippines for almost two decades, and remembers what Boracay was like before it became so commercialised. Jon made it a point to check out areas of the island where shops and stores don't dot every available corner.

On the last night of our stay we attended the Governor's Conference, where I met some old friends and shook some new hands. As I downed another delicious meal (the fourth one of the day, if memory serves), I reminisced about my time here and what new experiences the remaining cities would hold.

Next stop, Kalibo!