On a tight clump in the floor, in front of a slowly moving fan and with some ants and other insects as night guests, the four of us share in silence feeling of exhaustion from the endless travel hours and gratitude for the comfortable lives the world’s lottery has awarded us with.
Larra (Philippines), Sameen (Pakistan), Wei Han (Malaysia) and me (Marina, Spain) joined Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in our University (UCL) at the beginning of the year. With different passions, motivations and experiences, we all came together realising that, as students, there is already so much we can do to give back.
Our project has officially started, exams are over and we’re off to the Philippines about to immerse ourselves in a rural village in the North of the country. We are going to work with Gawad Kalinga (GK), a Philippines-based non-profit organisation that aims to bring 5 million families out of poverty by 2024. GK’s mission is to “restore the dignity of the poor by providing land for the landless, homes for the homeless and food for the hungry”. The purpose of our EWB-UCL team is to develop a sustainable solution for the lack of access to clean water that the GK community in Aritao struggles with daily.
Finally, we stand in the opposite side of the world, speaking a language only Larra understands, eating food our stomachs hadn’t tasted before (like balut, fertilised duck eggs) and sweating a climate London would never experience. After completing a set of last minute duties before our project begins – like paying a visit to a hospital in Metro Manila to get the third shot of the rabies vaccine, finding SIM cards and buying loads of toilet paper – the night arrives and the big question comes: “Where are we going to sleep tonight?”
We drive and drive through the busy streets of Metro Manila, without a certain idea of where we are heading, trusting tito (uncle) Danny who is up front leading the steering wheel. Regardless of the uncertainty, we set our minds free and observe the hustle and bustle of the Metro: the street vendors with chicharrones, balut or chicken feet, the countless Karaoke sites and Comedy bars that seem to be so popular among Filipinos, or the colourful jeepneys that rule the roads fearlessly.
We finally stop at a neighbourhood in Quezon City, one of the areas of Metro Manila, where we meet an extroverted GK employee with bronzed skin, long dark hair and a powerful glance. At this point, she was supposed to lead us to a nearby hostel for us to spend the night there. However, after a short conversation with her, she kindly offers to take us in for the night instead. We suddenly find ourselves lying on the floor of her home in Quezon, sharing intimate life visions interrupted with basic practical knowledge, such as how to effectively flush the toilet with buckets of water.
Not only she gives us a home for the night, but she also takes us out to a very popular local bar and engages with us in meaningful conversations. It is inspiring to listen to her motivations for working with GK. Starting as a volunteer, she ended up as a full-time GK employee, a position for which she deferred various higher paying jobs in foreign countries like Qatar. You can clearly notice the shine that appears in her eyes when she talks about the kids in the GK communities, the work of the organisation in Mindanao (one of the most dangerous areas in the Philippines), or the famous GK Bayani Challenge, a “5-day test of courage, endurance and love for country” where people come together to face the challenges that threaten the poorest of the poor (http://bayanichallenge.com/bc2015-overview). These words about Gawad Kalinga ignite our excitement for the weeks to come, and the local atmosphere makes us realise that we eventually ARE in the Philippines! Still bewildered, jet lagged and astound by everything around us, we admit in comic grins that the project is now a reality.
Once we are back home, our memorable host shares with us everything she can possibly think of; she even wakes up at 5am on the following morning to prepare us breakfast! Fresh pandesales, longaniza, scrambled eggs, rice and effective Nestcafe fill up the tiny and cosy hand-made wooden table, around which we would sit sharing our last minutes with her. The last minutes of what has been a chaotic, messy, but unforgettable start of our EWB experience.
It hasn’t taken us long to discover how hospitable the people are here, and how little relation there is between wealth and generosity. Tomorrow morning we’ll be on some bumpy road on our way to the next stop… but for tonight, tight together trying to get the most of that slowly moving fan, with our eyes closing timidly and our last sparks of energy fading away, our minds ponder curiously over how this trip will shape our thoughts.