A Man’s House is His Castle…literally

When we arrived in Davao, our mission director brought us from the airport to his house for the first week. As he pulled up to his house, he remarked, “In the Philippines, every house is a concrete fortress. This is our fortress.” The huge metal gate swung open, and we were inside his domain.

High walls around any property that looks like it might contain something worth stealing are the norm in many parts of the world, and the Philippines is one of those parts. Those who can afford it surround themselves with concrete. Those who can’t use bamboo or whatever they can find. Walls are at least 10 feet high, and topped with painful things to keep would-be thieves from even thinking about it. In many cases, as in our townhouse complex, the metal gate is guarded by a cheerful, polite, saluting, smiling armed guard, 24/7. (We assume our guard would quickly lose the smile, salute, and politeness should anyone dastardly appear before his gate.)

Here are some of the styles of wall that can be seen about town. Note the sharp stuff at the top edges of some of them. They can be forbidding enough, but their edge is often softened by attractive flowering tropical plants.

First, the basic and inexpensive bamboo fence:



Next: walls of corrugated metal roofing turned on its side and girdled with barbed wire:




A little more upscale: molded concrete with shards of broken glass inserted sharp-side up while the concrete was still wet, so that they now stick up like teeth:




Concrete and iron. A little more attractive and upscale, but still spiky:



And in case the iron spikes aren’t enough of a deterrent, you can always add barbed wire:




But don’t get the wrong impression: once you’re within the walls, your Filipino hosts are the friendliest people on earth — provided you entered by the gate. As our Lord said, “He that entereth not by the door… but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.”

That’s a lot of babies!

The birth center where I’m volunteering is a pretty busy place, especially given that we only have 5 beds in the labor and delivery room and another 5 in the postpartum room. (Families stay at the clinic a minimum of 6 hours after the birth – more if the baby was born in the early evening or if the mother or baby have health issues that need to be monitored.) Each day is broken into 3 eight hour shifts during which the birth room is staffed by a supervisor and a team of three or four other midwives. While some shifts are quiet, others are very busy.


Five tired midwives after a very busy shift!

Year in and year out, the babies keep coming. When I came to Davao for the first time in 2oo9, there had already been over 14400 babies born at the birth center. And when we arrived again this year, everyone was busily counting down to baby number 20000 — less than 100 births away. There was a lovely gift for the family of baby number 20000 on display in the prenatal room and the clinic staff had each chosen their “guess date.” I didn’t get to play the guessing game because I didn’t get to Davao before the deadline, but I was lucky enough to be on shift today when little Mr. 20000 made his entrance.

For several days now – ever since there have been less than 15 births to go – there’s been an air of anticipation in the birth room. A very busy day at the clinic can see 12 or more babies arrive in 24 hours, but sometimes we go several days in a row with only 2 or 3 babies a day. When I came on shift this morning, baby number 19998 was less than an hour old. Number 19999 arrived less than two hours later. And right around lunchtime, we got to meet lucky Mr. Lucky Number!


Grand prize – baby #20000!

One of the Filipina midwives jokingly took the “grand prize” sign off the family’s gift (a baby bed filled with diapers, clothing, and other baby items) and put it on the baby for a picture.


All the midwives on shift got their picture taken with the mom and baby – along with the office staff and a few midwives who weren’t on shift too!

The best part of the story is that the family didn’t even know about the prize beforehand. The birth center offers monthly “outreach clinics” in several of the poorer neighborhoods of the city to make prenatal care more accessible for mothers who might have a difficult time coming to the birth center regularly. This mother had had all her prenatal care in her neighborhood at an outreach clinic so she did not know about the countdown to birth #20000 and had never seen the prize on display in the prenatal room. She had no diapers and only one set of clothes for the baby so the prize will certainly be put to good use!

The city wakes up


The moon over palm trees as I walk to the clinic at 5:15 am.

Day shift (6 am – 2 pm) has become my favorite, despite (or perhaps because) it requires rising at a ridiculously early hour. The water pressure in my shower, a disappointing trickle between 7 am and 10 pm, is fantastic at 4:30 am. Matt has purchased an on-demand water heater for the shower in response to the children’s shrieks but I disdain to use it, enjoying the cold blast which will ensure that I am wide awake.

By 5:15 I’m pulling the door closed behind on a houseful of sleepers and walking up the hill to our gate. The guard is fast asleep in a chair, wrapped in a jacket with his hat pulled down over his eyes. He starts awake as I approach and gets up to open the gate with a sleepy mumbled “good morning mam” in response to my cheerful “Maayong buntag!”

Out in the street, it is still dark except for streetlamps but there are signs that Davao is getting ready for the day. Behind the closed doors and screened windows of the little sari-sari stores along Bacaca Rd. there are slivers of electric light and the sounds of people preparing to open shop. A lonely tricey-cab putts its way up the hill. I inhale dust and the sour smell of the drainage ditch.

Down on the main road, there is more traffic, though it’s still fairly quiet compared to later in the day. People are standing on the side of the road waiting for jeepneys. A bakery is open on the corner offering breakfast to the crowds of people already standing in line waiting for the hall of justice to open at 8.

I cross the main road – one lane at a time, like a game of frogger. I’ve become a very accomplished jaywalker in the last six weeks! My route cuts through the parking lot of the shopping mall, which won’t open until 10. The parking lot is surprisingly busy with early morning walkers and joggers and even someone doing tai chi.

There are no cars or triceys yet on smaller street behind the shopping mall which leads to the clinic. The sky is getting lighter now. I pass high concrete fences with spikes or barbed wire on top and cheaper and less durable fences made of corrugated scrap metal or bamboo. I admire the people who have brightened the tiny concrete “yards” beside their one-room shacks with potted plants, a splash of bright tropical color in the squalor of urban poverty.

It’s quarter to six, and I’m almost at the clinic now. The morning stretches in front of me, full of possibilities. Babies are unpredictable! Will it be a quiet shift or a busy one full of women in labor, first cries of newborns, and complications that require a quick and decisive response to save a life? I’ve brought work to do just in case it’s quiet, but I’m ready for a birth – or a few – today! I walk up to the blue gate and step inside.

Driving in Davao City

This past Sunday as we left church, our friend Pastor Vic came out of the building to see us off.

“Matthew! Are you driving?”

I did not deny, but confessed, “Yes, I am.”

With a wide and mischievous smile, he replied, “I will pray for you!”

“Thank you,” I answered, “I will need it.”

The drive to church was the first trip we had made in the car we had taken possession of the previous afternoon. That same Sunday in the evening, I parked the car to play tennis with some friends, and got back in to find it would not start. I had left the headlights on and played a few too many sets (OK, it was 7 sets). I needed a jump start, and another one the next day. I joked that God had answered Pastor Vic’s prayers on our behalf, since doubtless if I had been able to drive home when I wanted to, I would have ended up in an accident. (Since then, all has been smooth sailing. Please pray along with Pastor Vic that it would continue to be so.)

My first two trips in the car, I did not use the horn. I remarked to Sora that this was proof that I did not yet know how to drive properly in the Philippines. Since then, I have begun to tootle regularly whenever I want to let someone know that I am coming along into a space that they appear to be thinking about occupying. In the USA, one uses a horn to indicate outrage or to warn of an impending crash. Fits of road rage and offended looks follow. In Davao, it is simply a polite way to say, “Here I am, and I want to make sure you’ve noticed me, so we can both be safe,” and no one thinks anything of it.

Despite all this trepidation about driving, Sora turned to me yesterday while we were in the car together and remarked, “Driving here is actually not bad at all, because everything is moving slowly. You never go faster than 20 or 30 mph.” That is indeed the thing that keeps us safe: there is time to anticipate and react; time to judge the approach and intention of other vehicles.

I am mostly commuting back and forth to Faith Academy Mindanao, which involves two fairly busy intersections without stoplights. As one of our fellow missionaries explained it, “Traffic that is already going through the intersection has a virtual “green light”: the light remains green for them as long as their train of cars is going through; but when their cars stop, the light turns green for someone else.” In other words, “It just flows.”


The car is driving quite sweetly. It’s a 2001 Toyota Revo, rear wheel drive. It has a good suspension and plenty of ground clearance, which is important for handling potholes, rocks, and “sleeping policemen.” Our carport has a very steep entrance, and requires a very sharp left turn at the end of the drive. In order to make egress easier, we have taken to turning right into the opposite carport, then backing into our own driveway. We’re getting better at it, but a couple of times, we have had to start over a take a running start to overcome the steep grade and resulting wheelspin.

Traffic Davao

Once on the streets, our Revo becomes part of the flow of Davao traffic. It is a very colorful and diverse vehicle population. I have read complaints about Jeepneys, which are antiquated, slow, and emit untold pollution. Yet they are certainly picturesque and humorous. One particularly well-decorated one had the biggest Mercedes emblem its owner could find mounted on its front grille; Scuderia Ferrari shields on the flanks behind the front fenders; and a Porsche badge on the back. (I’m pretty sure that if I gave the operator a Lamborghini badge, he would find a place for it as well.) Here are some others. Not my photos, but they give a pretty good idea of Jeepney style. As you can see, “subdued” and “reserved” are not really in it:



Some are painted deep purple like the Knight Bus from Harry Potter. Others are pepto-bismol pink (a frequent color for buildings here also).


Alongside the Jeepneys are even slower vehicles: tricycabs. These are motorcycles with large frames and sidecars welded on to transport passengers — sometimes 6 or more! With so much weight taxing a little two-stroke bike engine, these vehicles crawl, and they are accordingly near the bottom of the totem pole on the road, staying to the side and getting out of the way when larger vehicles “tootle them with vigor.” At P7-15 per trip, depending on how far you’re going, tricycabs are much cheaper than taxis (P40 just to sit down in one, plus P3.5 per 500 meters of distance traveled) –but usually more expensive than Jeepneys (a few P per ride). Meanwhile, real motorcycles (without extra frames or sidecars) zip around and through traffic faster than anything else.

All this is just part of the culture. It’s not better than American traffic, nor worse. Just different. We’ve been told that after about 6 months, the differences will start to tell on us, and we will go into culture fatigue and be catatonic for a few days. I’m hoping it won’t be that bad. Nothing else has been so far!

Cebuano Lessons Begin

Sora and I began our language lessons with BeBe M. today. She is a very skilled language teacher who evidently knows many languages and is adept at explaining the ins and outs of the local language (Cebuano/Visayan/Bisaya, though the former two may also denote different dialects spoken elsewhere) to foreigners.

I noted with amusement that the vocabulary in the first chapter of the textbook can be combined to say “I am a very fat, tall, rich, handsome American Christian missionary.” (Tambok kaayo, taas, dato, gwapo Amerikano Kristohanon misyonero ‘ko — but I’m not sure that’s at all right, and it may violate syntax rules about conjunctions and series of adjectives that I do not yet know.) Ate BeBe also explained — too late, perhaps, but better than never — that there is only a slight difference between “good morning” (maayong buntag) and “good prostitute” (maayong buntog). This seems to me to be too bad to be true, as though the language were designed with booby-traps to give native speakers maximum amusement at the expense of beginners!

Those who know Sora and me will know that we are rather frightfully competitive by nature. And in this case, we are having a friendly contest to see who can learn Bisaya faster. Sora has an impressive advantage in working at the birth clinic, where she will be able to converse with the mothers, guards, and Filipina midwives at least three days a week. (At the end of the lesson, Sora had Ate BeBe record some questions for her to ask her patients at the birth clinic: stuff like “When did your labor begin?” and “How many wet diapers has your baby had today?”)

My main advantage lies in having learned and taught several languages myself, so that I am aware of places to watch out for tricks of idiom and have practice with inflection and synthesis of grammar. But that won’t be enough to beat Sora. To win, I will have to be more deliberate about forcing my broken Bisaya on the local population and begging them to converse with me. The guards at the gate of our apartment complex are one target audience, and I have already forewarned Raymon and Ronan that I will be badgering them with conversation. Our helper Flor M. is another, and she has already expressed amusement at the way I immediately greet her with any new phrase I’ve learned in the local tongue. A third place to practice will be at church, where the congregational singing includes praise songs half in English and half in Cebuano.

In hindsight, I think it was providential that we didn’t get in touch with Atè BeBe until after our first month here. It would have been too stressful trying to learn language while getting settled into our apartment and starting work at the school and the birth center. But we are quite comfortable now (notice how I’ve been posting about delicious pork!), and just obtained a good vehicle for transportation. So the time seems right to jump in with both feet.

The Pork is Yummier in the Philippines

I take our eleven year old son to Faith Academy for 5th grade PE classes twice a week (primarily so that he can play on sports teams as a part-time student). We ride a taxi home.

Today, I knew that I would need to pay some workmen who were installing a window air conditioner that we had purchased back in January, and I found myself with only a P1000 bill in my wallet (about $25). The workmen needed P350, and were unlikely to have change. So I decided to get some food on the way home, in order to break the P1000. First, Ezekiel and I bought six mangos (P60/kilo) from a fruit vendor on the corner of my usual place for catching taxis. This wasn’t actually a great price: they are P40 at the market. But it was nice to bring some mangos home for hungry kids’ lunch. Indeed, they gobbled them up, and then asked for more just an hour after lunch.

With Ezekiel holding the bag of mangos, our taxi driver drove us home along Circumferential Rd. on a whim, I decided to take the plunge and asked the driver to stop at a shop selling liempo. The subtitle on the sign read, “Tastier than Lechon.” Liempo is rotisserie-roasted pork belly. It looks like this:


It tastes like the tenderest pork you’ve ever tasted, wrapped in bacon. It isn’t actually wrapped in bacon, but it tastes like it, because the outer layer has been cooked and seasoned just the way bacon would be.

The sign wasn’t kidding. It is tastier than lechon — which is itself plenty tasty. Indeed, liempo is probably the best meat I’ve ever tasted. The only problem is that it’s a little pricey: P185 for a half-kilo piece. But I’ll probably get three meals out of it in this family of vegetarians.

The Philippines is widely held to serve the best pig in the world. I readily believe it. This is a good place to be a Gentile!

Our Homeschooling

(Cross-posted from Colvinism.)

We are fairly laid-back classical homeschoolers. (The laid-back part is important for sanity when running around the USA visiting churches, and now adjusting to a new culture here in Davao City.) I know we were always interested in reading about what other homeschoolers do, so I’m posting this for others’ benefit. Please take it in the spirit in which it is offered: not a narcissistic post saying “Look what great homeschoolers we are” (for we are not), but an explanation of our curriculum in hopes that it may be of benefit to others. We stumble and struggle in many ways, and it is not by any means all smooth sailing. It is, however, a joy, and it’s not one I want to give up for any institutional school without overwhelming reasons to the contrary.

We gather as a family each morning to do a version of Cindy Rollins’ “morning time“. For us, this involves the form for Morning Prayer for Families at the back of the REC’s Book of Common Prayer. We do rotating prayers for our senders, changing each week to a new diocese or group of churches or friends. Scripture readings are taken from the Reformed Episcopal Lectionary, and hymns chosen from the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, the blue CRC Psalter Hymnal, the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise, and Duck Schuler’s Cantus Christi. Some of our hymns:

Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah (Ps. 148, Kirkpatrick)
How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place (1982, #517)
Sing, Ye Faithful, Sing with Gladness (1982, #492)
Come, Ye Thankful People, Come (1982, #290)
If God is On Our Side, Against Us Shall Be None (Book of Praise, Hymn 27)
The Son of God Goes Forth to War (Cantus Christi, Greg Wilbur’s tune Greyoaks)
Holy God, We Praise Thy Name
St. Patrick’s Breastplate
As The Hart, About to Falter (Genevan tune for Ps. 42)
Hail, Thou Once Despised Jesus (1982, #495)
I Will Sing My Maker’s Praises (Gerhardt, 1659, Cantus Christi)

We also sometimes sing Nick Kozel’s through-composed NKJV psalms, which we learned during our time in the FORC. We add a new hymn maybe once a week or less often. We sometimes discuss the Scripture lessons. I focus on having the older kids draw typological and situational parallels, which trains them to think about the details of Bible stories in a deliberate way. For instance, Ezekiel delighted me today by remembering that the calf of Samaria mentioned in Hosea 8 was set up by Jeroboam.

Since starting in August 2012, our older kids have learned by heart the first 22 questions of the Heidelberg Catechism. (We use the version in the CanRef Book of Praise, which I think has a more pleasing phrasing than the CRC version.) The younger two kids lag behind the older two by about 6 questions or so.

Naomi and Ezekiel have also memorized the following poems, and each recite one of them every morning:

John Donne, “Death Be Not Proud”, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “No Man is an Island.”
Robert W. Service, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
Kipling, “If.”
Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
Blake, “The Tyger”

(“If” and “Sam McGee” are fairly long, and require regular review, sometimes with prompting. But they’re neat things to have in a kid’s memory.)

All the kids also memorize passages of Scripture and recite them during Morning time. These are typically about 3-5 verses long. Examples: Matthew 16:24-27, Matthew 5:5-12, Deuteronomy 6:4-9.

We looked at Renaissance art last year and discussed it: Michelangelo’s sculptures and Last Judgment; Dürer’s Rhinoceros, Brueghel’s Tower of Babel. We need to get back on track with this, as we haven’t looked at art in a while.


(Not Dürer’s Rhinoceros.)

That’s it for Morning Time. I would like to add in some music listening and appreciation, but haven’t found a way or a time to do it yet.

For Math, our older kids use Teaching Textbooks. Ezekiel is in Math 7, and Naomi in Math 4. I do not like the fact that they require CDs. Having a kid insert a CD into a MacBook’s slot-loading optical drive is a recipe for scratched discs. So to get around this, I have copied all the discs as disc images using Disc Utility, and the kids run their math off these “virtual CDs”. The younger kids do Miquon Math. Isaiah loves it, and is in the blue book. (This is the kid who was beating his parents at chess at age 6, and whose math skills have been honed to a fine edge by the need to keep score in all the games he loves to play.)


Ezekiel and Naomi also use the computer for typing practice using MasterKey for Mac.

For writing, we are doing exercises adapted from the excellent Classical Writing: Homer. We have the old version of the textbook, from back when it was available as a PDF. (I don’t think they sell it that way anymore.) I was influenced to use this curriculum because Sora used it with Talia many years ago, and it made her a better writer. I was also impressed with the ideas expressed in this blog post about the definition of real literacy, and the skills of which it consists. I want my kids to be able to express their own ideas well, to have copia when they are composing, and to be able to expound and condense. I also want them to have an ear for good writing, i.e. writing that is “sounding and significant,” as C.S. Lewis says. Right now, Naomi is doing paraphrases by synonym substitution, and Ezekiel is doing paraphrases by grammatical change. We are not doing much sentence diagramming or formal English grammar, because I feel that they will get just about enough of that via their studies of Latin.

I use Hans Ørberg’s outstanding Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata series, which covers all of Latin grammar. Ezekiel is on chapter 9, and Naomi is on chapter 4. Yes, this is slow, but I am very pleased with how thorough the book is, and with the excellent vocabulary retention the kids have from it. There are 40 chapters, so Ezekiel will be almost halfway done with Latin grammar by the end of 5th grade this year. I supplement Ørberg with English-to-Latin composition sentences of my own devising. We also do almost all the exercises in the accompanying workbook, and read the dialogues in the Colloquia Personarum book. Kids also review their vocabulary using the Quizlet app for iOS. Some other person has kindly uploaded flashcards for all the vocabulary in the entire book, and the kids enjoy the “Scatter” matching game. I get more grumbling about Latin than any other subject, but I don’t take it too seriously, because I remember how much I grumped about it when my mother taught me, and I chuckle because no other subject was so formative and important in my education. I am intent on giving my kids Latin and Greek and Hebrew before they leave my home. Whether they keep them thereafter is their business. (Our oldest, who graduated last year, appears to be more interested in movies than languages, and has probably forgotten all the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew she ever learned. But she did learn them.)

Finally, the icing on the cake and the most enjoyable portion of the homeschooling day for me is literature. The kids have their own reading that they do in their spare time (lately, this has been The Ranger’s Apprentice and Percy Jackson books borrowed from the Faith Academy Library, and Ashtown Burial series by N.D. Wilson on the iPad’s Kindle app), but we also read together aloud. We have been reading Padraic Colum aloud for the last two months. He is an Irish poet and reteller of mythology and folklore whose books are in the public domain. We first discovered him with The King of Ireland’s Son, which I read aloud for Sora and Ezekiel, and we all enjoyed it so much that I decided to use Colum’s The Children of Odin for Ezekiel’s literature reading as well. Since then, we’ve moved on to The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles. When we finish, we will move on to The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tales of Troy. These books have several great advantages: They are told in a literary manner that is engaging for young readers. They are available as illustrated ePub files that can be read on an iPad. (We have limited sources for physical books right now, and our shipped boxes have not yet arrived from the States.) They also happen to be among the sources for the model exercises in Classical Writing: Homer, so it’s hard to go wrong when picking passages from them to use for paraphrase or transformation exercises. By the time we’re done with Colum this year, our older kids will have a very good grounding in Norse and Greek mythology.

We’ve had a lot of fun with the Colum books so far. Some of the illustrations are just delightful. I call this one “The Argo meets Hokusai’s Wave”:


The kids go to sleep at night listening to the music of Jamie Soles or Alexander Scourby’s reading of the KJV.

I hope this is useful to other homeschoolers. I should reiterate that we are very low-key about all this. We often miss a subject, and probably miss a whole day a couple times a month. But I don’t worry about it because I know how much time-wasting happens in an institutional school (assemblies, convocation, busywork, lessons paced below a student’s ability, etc.). One-on-one instruction is so much more effective that, ceteris paribus, a homeschooler can afford to spend much less time on formal lessons than an institutional school student would.


Back in Ohio, Matt used to play tennis two or sometimes three times a week. When we left to drive across the continent and then fly to Davao, regular tennis was what he missed the most. It was a great physical outlet, good exercise, and it made him happy. So he was really hoping to find some “tennis buddies” here in Davao too. God does not overlook the little details: this week Matt met another tennis player of similar skill level who is interested in playing twice a week. He even knew about a covered court fairly near our house so they can still play in the evening when it rains (we get torrential downpours after dark almost nightly, and being near the equator, the sun sets shortly after 5:00 pm year round.)

Ezekiel, our 11-year-old, isn’t enough of a tennis player to give his dad a run for his money yet (we’ll see where he is in 4 or 5 years…) but basketball has been his game since he was about four. We were praying for an opportunity for him to play on a team here, and this week he started practice with Faith Academy’s junior high boys team. (He’s also now taking PE twice a week at Faith, as enrolling for at least one class was necessary in order for him to join the team.) Today I took ZZ out to buy him a new pair of basketball shoes.

These may seem like small details, but we weren’t sure either was going to happen and we are very thankful to have them fall into place so quickly! Both of these guys are much happier when they have a regular athletic outlet!

Below: Ezekiel playing last year for Mars Hill Academy.

zzbball1 zzbball5 zzbball10