I have just come back from my week on the Village Experience and I am ashamed to say I have become a walking stereotype…a carbon copy of exactly the kind of person you might imagine would emerge from such a trip.
The evidence for this? Exhibit A would have to be the various friendship bracelets and knickknacks that I am wearing round my wrists and neck. Exhibit B would be the happy, chilled out, self-satisfied expression that is splashed across my tanned and slightly grimy face. Exhibit C the fact that I keep banging on about “the people in the village” and “living the simple life”. Yep I am probably going to be annoying the hell out of people about this for plenty of weeks to come…
But the truth is that I really don’t care. I have had an incredible week, a perfect end to my elective experience and I cannot quite believe the impact this has made on me. I only decided to do it at the last moment as – being the first student out in the Philippines – the Village Experience was not due to be operational until there were a few more students out here to support it. But I got the nod from Rob back in the UK head office that he felt it was ready to go several weeks earlier than planned and I put my name down for it. And I only really did it for a change of scenery, but I’m so glad I did, because it has been a week unlike any other.
I left on the Sunday morning with my guide Rose, who is one of the members of the village. She has learnt English throughout school and university and is really pretty much fluent, once she gets used to your accent. We chatted while we took a taxi over to the port, crossed over to the island of Guimaras in a boat, took a jeepney to San Miguel and then a motorbike up to the village of Kati-Kati. I suppose the whole trip takes about an hour-and-a-half, and that is with a fair bit of waiting, so it really isn’t that far at all, and yet the difference between the hustle and bustle of life in Iloilo and that in Kati-Kati is immense.
I was greeted by the family that I was to be staying with, who were very keen to emphasise that I should see them as exactly that – there was my mum, Josephine and my dad, Jago, then there were my four younger sisters: Donabelle, Cherry, Charry and Angelica, and my younger brother Edwardo. In actual fact I was probably closer in age to my parents than to my siblings, but the latter were already calling my “manong” which is Filipino for older brother, and that kind of melted my heart just enough that I didn’t feel it was worth mentioning…
The family home was essentially a structure made from reclaimed tin and wood, with dirt floors and which had clearly been put together to house people at least half a foot shorter than me, so I was continually banging my head on doorframes. I was given my own room with a bed in the middle and blankets strung down from the roof to make convincing curtains. However I soon realised that this meant that the kids were all cramped in together in the next room so gave up some of it for Edwardo to sleep, perched on the edge of a sideboard. There was a mosquito net available but I found that the slightly higher altitude meant there was very little in the way of the blighters around. Plus the family had given up one of their few electric sockets to enable me to have an electric fan blowing steadily across me for the whole night.
An outhouse at the back contained a simple squat toilet and a large container of water. It turned out that the villagers all showered down at the well in the centre of the village, but I didn’t realise this until later on, because every morning, before I got up, one of the family would go down to fill this container for me! This was one of a number of acts of kindness that attempted to give me some element of privacy during my stay, but essentially you have to be prepared to be around people pretty much 24/7, because – apart from simply being the way village life operates – everybody is very curious about new people, especially the kids.
My arrival had been timed to coincide with one of the highlights of the Kati-Kati calendar – “Miss Muruyog 2013”; the annual beauty pageant. Apparently I had been put down to be one of the judges…AND to give a ten minute welcome speech to the village between Rounds 1 and 2. As you can imagine I was ecstatic to hear this, but in actuality it wasn’t nearly as embarrassing as I had feared, and certainly nowhere near as bad as when Round 2 finished, some loud hardcore jungle music started playing and all the elder ladies of the village stepped out of the crowd to start dancing to it…and one of them made a beeline straight for me to drag me up to dance with her…And this pretty much set the tone for the rest of one of the craziest days - indeed weeks - that I have ever had. The contest ended as the sun was going down and – after dinner and drinks were served - the village square was transformed into a huge dancefloor. More and more people started to spill onto it as the night progressed, the drinks flowed and the party didn’t stop until the wee small hours of the morning.
The Village Experience is a blend of village life with a healthcare element. For me this involved morning placements in the local hospital down in the small town of San Miguel, which was a wonderful opportunity to see how rural healthcare operates in the Philippines. It also involved providing the village with some basic medical training, which was something I did over two days – firstly doing a session on basic first aid, then doing one on how to recognise important medical emergencies. These were really good fun; I’m not sure exactly how much was taken in as I was speaking through my translator – Rose – although it did rapidly become apparent that a good number more of the children understood English than I had previously realised. I think they had just been a bit shy at the start, but after the joy they got from when one of the older kids misunderstood my instructions and ACTUALLY STARTED performing chest compressions on me (trust me it is agony) it felt like all the ice had finally been well and truly broken.
The rest of the week was unlike any other I have had. I don’t think I have ever been made to feel so welcome by a group of strangers in my life, nor will I ever again. If you have the opportunity to join this Village Experience then – once again – I heartily recommend it!
Rob is a 5th year medical student from Barts & The London, Queen Mary's School of Medicine & Dentistry.