Volunteering Will Spoil You for Other Travel

Any regular reader of my blog (I believe there are at least two!) will know what a life changing experience my two weeks in the Philippines volunteering in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (or Yolanda as it’s locally know) was for me. When I left I had five days in Bangkok where the world didn’t make much sense. Consumerism is was rife and it was hard adapting to life back in bustling city keen to prove itself on the international scene.


Despite having some amazing travels since (don’t worry updates are coming on life in Indonesia and Borneo) a big piece of my heart was left in Leyte. Travels haven’t quite been the same as standing side by side Filipino villagers and shovelling concrete from a decimated school classroom. And there still is so much to do in Leyte.


I was lucky to find All Hands a great organisation who will take anyone with enthusiasm! They also focus on doing work that is effective and immediate (ranging from clearing debris, food distribution and rebuilding homes) while focusing on areas that haven’t had much support in the wake of a disaster. This is why All Hands were based in Ormoc and not Tacloban, where the main focus of the global relief effort is. It’s also why we helped out baranguys that had not had any help or food relief in the month following typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).


So I’ve decided to go back, scrapping my antipodes leg of my travels, to work 6 days a week, doing all manner of unglamorous jobs that promise to ruin my wardrobe. A few people have asked whether they can donate so I’ve set up a fundraising page (just click the link below): http://www.justgiving.com/Vix82

If you feel you can and want to donate please do – 100% of anything I raise goes straight to the Philippines, even small amounts will go a long way and make a huge difference. It’ll only take a minute or two of your time 🙂

Thanks all




“I Couldn’t Be So Near and Do Nothing”

That was what Martin, an All Hands volunteer said about why he was here. Somehow it perfectly and succinctly summed up why the 45 other faces were here too; and not, like so many other travellers, making plans for full moon parties, drinking buckets of cocktails on a Thai beach.


All volunteers were here because they felt compelled to. There were no voyuers, martyrs or egos and besides the devastation wreaked by Yolonda was far bigger than the combined personalities of the 46 volunteers on Project Leyte.

But what does it mean to volunteer?

Continue reading

Bangon Ormoc

I’d not been to the Philippines before and I’d never done disaster relief work before. I had no idea what to expect. Stepping off the ferry (where the sound system was playing the most hideous Christmas remixes I’ve ever heard) into Ormoc city was surprised to be greeted not by the post apocalyptic scene I’d expected but by a functioning city.


Maybe not functioning in the same way before Yolanda had struck but functioning all the same, mobile phone charging stations were gathering a roaring trade at the road side, people queues quite orderly for food guarded and distributed by the Filipino army, armed with klashinkovs. (Guns would be a familiar site in the Philippines as most establishments had some form of armed guard). There were legitimate reasons our first briefing contained warnings about looting and an almost comical story about how at the height of the storm the guards in Tacloban prison had released prisoners (for their own safety) asking them to return after the storm. Unsurprisingly many failed to return after Yolanda had struck.


People were smiling welcoming us to Ormoc, a tall fit American guy we met on the ferry was being told repeatedly he was very handsome by the locals. The mood was upbeat and jovial, not what I was expecting, and everywhere there was that word –
Bangon. Scribbled on flags, grafitti’d on walls, emblazoned across t-shirts. Bangon Ormoc.


Bangon means ‘rising from a lying position’ in Filipino and Ormoc had risen and continues to rise after Yolanda.


It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Except in Thailand it isn’t one bit with the exception of the occasional tired looking plastic Christmas tree outside a western hotel and a questionable rendition of we wish you a merry Christmas wafting from inside its walls.

Not being the biggest fan of Christmas part of the appeal about being away was not being subjected to the tedious build up, frantic shopping and never ending cycle of Christmas dos. However strangely as Christmas Day was rapidly approaching I felt I should probably do something to mark it, perhaps it’s not the same as any other day after all.

Having been told about being able to get to Thailand’s highest peak from Chaing Mai, we signed up for a trip to Doi Inthanon National Park for Christmas Day.


Expecting some strenuous trekking in order to be rewarding with stunning views at the top we were somewhat disappointed that the trek to the summit consisted of a 5 minute stroll from the car park and the view was non-existent (although the car park offered some nice views of the cloud covered hills below us).


Ironic that much like Christmas itself our Christmas Day in foreign shores was pretty anti-climatic. However as the sun set and the temperature dropped a delicious (the best I’ve had in Thailand) meal, cocktail and a bucket of mojito later it was beginning to feel a bit more like Christmas.

There was no Santa Claus but we did have a nice chat to a lady from the Karen hill tribe who persuaded us to by a friendship bracelet and toy elephant… Certainly Christmas Day was a memorable one even without the cast of usual festive suspects.


What’s in a Word: Bayanihan



It’s a word brazen across our volunteer t-shirts. In Visayan (the language spoken on Leyte) the word is so much more than just a tag line. Its the reason why Ormoc was functioning far beyond expectations when All Hands staff set up base there. Its the reason why the majority of roads were clear. Its the reason why despite looking at us volunteers like we were crazy for bagging up trash outside that within minutes the whole neighbourhood was there helping and grabbing every bag they had to join in. Its the reason why when working in schools kids are so desperate to help clear the dust from the ceiling we just removed they are fighting over who gets to use the broom. Its the reason why things aren’t so desperate as they otherwise could be in Leyte.


Bayanihan means ‘unity’ in Visayan. In the wake of Yolanda it meant neighbour helping neighbour even if those neighbours are from the other side of the world. Somehow it encapsulates everything about the spirit of the Filipinos in the wake of Yolanda. It also came to mean strength in numbers and the reason why on Leyte everyone is still working tirelessly to rebuild and still will be many, many months from now.


Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Scorned

There’s a story in the Philippines that Yolanda (the local name for Typhoon Haiyan) had found out her husband was cheating on her. So great was her rage at the ultimate betrayal that she ravaged cities and countryside alike lifting the roofs of houses until she found him inside.


Scientists obviously will have a different version of events, and the Filipino story doesn’t say whether Yolanda found her wayward spouse. But whichever version of events you believe, the damage is the same; widespread and indiscriminate. Yolanda’s rage lasted for 5 terrifying hours on Leyte; stories of survival are incredible as whole families fled to the rice fields to crawl through irrigation ditches on their stomachs to avoid falling debris and ultimately death.


The statistics tell their own story of Yolanda’s rage; classified a super typhoon with unconfirmed winds of up to 196mph, the fourth most severe typhoon recorded and possibly the most severe typhoon ever recorded to make landfall. The reported death toll is over 5,000. The Philippine Visiyan Islands of Leyte and Samar beared the brunt of Yolanda’s anger. 90 percent of buildings in the main cities of Tacloban and Ormoc (where All Hands Project Leyte is based) lay damaged or destroyed. Over 1 million homes in the region were completely destroyed with an estimated 4.4 million people now homeless or displaced. Most areas have no running water or electricity.


My first day out in the field on Project Leyte and the scene was overwhelming. Roads were lined with flatten houses mile after mile, hillsides that would have been covered with lush green forests are now bare and lined with stumps or trunks stripped bare of all foliage. Schools, Chapels, businesses and homes are all affected. Pylons and power lines lie fallen, twisted and destroyed. There’s hope power will be restored before Christmas.


Yolanda’s temper had calmed by the time she left Leyte, perhaps exhausted by the sheer power she unleashed, or perhaps she’d finally exacted revenge on her cheating spouse. But one thing is for sure Yolanda is a woman no one wants to mess with again.


Warning: Travel has a Detrimental Effect on your Music Taste

Music often revokes memories and emotions. One thing I’ve objectively noticed is how bad my recent additions to my music additions both in terms or cheesiness and abuse of the ear drums – I still embrace them anyway. In start contrast to the music that I quoted in this post.

1. Gangham style by PSY
Camodians LOVE Gangham style. U.K. Readers will remember this was a minor hit a few years ago.

The positives of Gangham style is it’s ubitiquitous lyric ‘hey sexy lady’ universally understood across all 5 continents.

Like all good pop songs Gangham style also has a dance attached it. Fortunately this is a mix of the haka and one potato, two potato combined with a boy band style arm wave at 90 degrees to your audience. At attempt at any of the aforementioned move will almost certainly earn you the the respect (and a free beer) of the Cambodian people and unconditional love of all Cambodian children.

The downside of Gangham style is two fold. Enter any local par and they will bang it on repeat it’s frequently on repeat on buses and other forms of transport. Entering the 5th hour of Gangham repeat and I defy any westerner not to question their sanity.

2. Asaf Avidan & The Mojos – One day/Reckoning song
This song seems to be the travel anthem of 2013. You hear it everywhere on the traveller circuit in SE Asia. It’s actually a fairly good song and the only lyrics ‘one day baby we’ll be old, think of all the stories that we could have told’ reflects my worry I would be lying on my death bed wishing I had travelled plus ‘I don’t think about you all the time and when I do I wonder why’ refers to lost loves back in the UK.

3. Icona pop – I Love It
I arrived in Ireland for Halloween and a rendezvous with my sister and 3 year old nephew. He’d heard Icona Pop on the radio and was dancing and singing the only two memorable lyric from the song ‘I don’t care, I love it’ while dressed as a pumpkin. As a result it’s become a favourite on my iPod, despite being fairly trashy pop.

4. Flo Rida – Wild Ones
Not long before I decided to sell everything and travel the world with just the contents of a 55 litre backpack, I’d been a led on a (not so) merry dance of mixed signals by a woman who was (with hindsight) far too dull for me.

During one of our encounters she labelled me ‘Wild and Dangerous’ due to my choosing to camp after a wedding instead of paying for an expensive hotel. (A statement which ultimately said more about her than me).

Anyway this song is an affirmation of my ‘wild side’, I like to listening to it while jumping waves on deserted Asian beaches and celebrate my narrow escape from the grey and mundane.

5. Imagine Dragons – Radioactive
This is the theme tune on Air Asia flights (think Asia’s answer to Easyjet) it’s played on boarding, taxing and disembarking. The song itself is pretty ok but wouldn’t be my choice for take-off as its fuelled with inappropriate lyrics such as:

I’m waking up to ash and dust
I wipe my brow and I sweat my rust
I’m breathing in the chemicals

This is it, the apocalypse whoa.

Certainly this is exactly the imagery I associate with plane crashes.