Return to Leyte

A few weeks ago, I got a message from Nerissa Cumpio. “Good morning Sora, the opening will be on September 16th, I hope you are available that day.” For several months, I’d been getting updated photos of the building project progress and finally, the date was set for the (re)opening celebration of Cumpio’s Midwife Clinic! I immediately started to plan my trip.

Rather than fly into Tacloban airport, I decided to make it a bit (more) of an adventure and drive to Leyte. I figured that the cost for gas and the ferry would be comparable to flying and that this plan would allow me to see more of the Philippines, and bring Naomi and Ezekiel with me. Unfortunately, I had a very tight schedule for when I needed to return to Davao, requiring some very long days of driving! Ezekiel decided the long days in the car did not appeal to him, and Matt had classes to teach in Davao, but Naomi came with me, along with Gabriela, one of our friends from Davao.

We set off on Sunday afternoon, well-provisioned with snacks and water bottles. The plan was to drive from Davao to Surigao City on the north-eastern tip of Mindanao, spend the night there, and take a morning ferry, reaching our final destination in Leyte in time for lunch. I had not been able to find a working phone number for the port or the ferry company in order to confirm schedules, but I had the all-important copy of my vehicle’s OR and CR and I had found what looked like a fairly recent ferry schedule on a travel website so I wasn’t too worried.


Our route.

The drive from Davao City to the ferry terminal in Surigao City is estimated at just over 5 hours by the google maps app. All I can say, is, whoever created the algorithm for the google maps travel times must never have driven in the Philippines. Our trip was on the Pan-Philippine highway the entire way, but most of the Pan-Philippine highway (outside of the major cities) is only two lanes, and there are frequent landslides and bridge repairs requiring constant maintenance.


Road works ahead.

When road construction limits the two lanes to one, there are never any flaggers directing traffic nor lights at night. And when passing through the numerous small towns the road becomes full of slow-moving tricycabs, bicycles, pedestrians, motorcycles laden with anywhere from four to six passengers plus cargo, dogs, chickens, carabao, etc. (Most of these also have no lights at night.)


Small-town traffic!

Gabriela had been working day shift at the clinic so we did not depart Davao until 2:00 pm. We reached Surigao City around 10:00 pm, completely exhausted. I had planned to go to the ferry terminal before we slept to confirm the ferry schedule and find out how early we needed to show up to secure our place on the ferry, but we were so tired we by the time we were approaching Surigao City that we chose to just check into a hotel and set our alarm for 5:30 am, figuring the ticketing office was probably closed already and that getting to the ferry at 6:00 ought to be enough for an 8:00 am departure. (Rookie mistake!)

We slept well and arose bright and early, headed for the ferry about 10 minutes away. As we got closer, the lines of parked cargo trucks on both sides of the road led me to suspect I might have made a tactical error in not taking the time to visit the port the night before. My inquiries at the port quickly confirmed my suspicion. I was permitted to hand in a photocopy of my vehicle registration to secure my place in line, but not to buy a ticket yet. I was told the morning ferry was already full and the noon ferry was “probably” full as well. The driver of the first car in line to board informed me that he had arrived at the port a little after midnight. Ooops! I texted my friends at the birth camp in Dulag to let them know we would not be there for lunch after all (“Maybe supper, then?”) and we decided to make the best of it by driving around Surigao to see the sights and maybe finding a (more pleasant than the ferry terminal) place to relax for a few hours.


The Surigao beach where we spent most of Monday morning.

We bought some pandesal at a local bakery and found a place where we could rent a beach cottage (picnic table with a roof) for 100 pesos. Naomi played in the water and Gabriela took a nap. We’d been told to check back in at the ferry terminal at 11:00 am, so right on time, we headed over. The ticketing agents were clearly overworked and stressed. When I finally got their attention, I was told my name had been called half an hour before! (I protested that I had left my cell phone number… but that was with a different agent, who had gone off duty in the meantime.) It was okay, we still had our place in line for the next ferry and were allowed to buy our tickets — a multi-step process involving no less than 5 different people all in different offices. I continued to hope for a lunchtime departure though there was no sight of a ferry yet, we parked our car where we were directed… and waited.

The ferry showed up around 2 pm and unloaded. Then the loading process began, and I realized this was going to take a while. The order of priority for ferries is passenger buses (which get on the next departing ferry after they show up), private vehicles (like mine, which apparently usually need to wait a while!) and finally cargo trucks, which explains the lines of trucks on the side of the road leading to the port. And all of these vehicles, crammed as tightly as possible in order to fit as many as possible, are required to back into their place on the ferry… the ramp only works on one side of the boat.


Finally, the ferry’s here!

The crossing itself was pleasant and uneventful, taking a little over an hour. The sea was calm and by leaning over the side into the breeze we could avoid the smell from the large truck full of pigs directly below us. Though there was some nervousness in certain quarters due to the unfortunate ferry accident that had occurred just two days before, I saved all my anxiety for the night driving.


Naomi, enjoying the fresh sea breeze and avoiding the smell (though not, alas, the sound) of the pig truck.

As the San Ricardo ferry terminal came into view, we enjoyed the beautiful views of the sunset over the mountains (the sun sets early near the equator!)


The welcome sight of the Benit (San Ricardo) ferry terminal, late afternoon on Monday.

Unfortunately, we still had 170 km to drive, mostly in the dark, on winding mountain roads. Again, we pulled into our destination around 10:00 pm, tired from a long day of travel. Nerissa and her husband Alex were waiting to meet us at the Haiyan Foodstop, a restaurant built after (and named after) the typhoon. The Haiyan hotel is still under construction but two guestrooms are open, and that was where we were staying for the night. A joyful reunion and a good night’s sleep (with no 5:30 am alarm this time!) and we were ready for the next day’s adventures.


Trip to Surigao

We have many friends in Davao City now, but it is still loud, smoggy, and hot. Our family has learned to manage it by getting out of the city every few months, taking a day trip or an overnight to somewhere quieter, cooler, and more relaxing. In July, we drove to Surigao to stay overnight in Bislig City and visit Tinuy-an Falls and the Enchanted River.

We had a 4 hour drive over mountain roads through the bukid, including long stretches without pavement, scary wooden bridges, and shambling carabao along the side of the road. After pulling into Bislig, we ate dinner at a clifftop restaurant overlooking the Pacific. While waiting for our order, the girls visited a doll museum. Hosanna asked, “Daddy, why don’t they let anybody touch the dolls?”

“Think about your dolls at home, Hosanna. Did any of them look this nice when they were new?”


“Do they now?”

(Frowny face.)

“That’s why.”




Tinuy-An Falls is “the Niagara Falls” of the Philippines. Hosanna, normally so fond of mugging for the camera, for some reason didn’t really want to cooperate with any family pictures, so her recalcitrance is here memorialized for posterity.



The Enchanted River flows forth from a fathomless hole in the earth in a paradisal setting. I couldn’t help but recall Coleridge’s “Kublah Khan” and “the sacred river” flowing from its “chasm”. (Click for larger view of the panorama shot.)



During our last trip to the States, we bought ourselves a new toy: a GoPro for taking underwater shots, and a special snorkeling mask to mount it on. It saw good service at the Enchanted River. (The water at Tinuy-An was too murky for pictures.) We hope to take it back to Cebu next year for another swim with the whale sharks.



Matt diving in above the bottomless pit.



The schools of fish swam at leisure, unperturbed by diving visitors.


Ezekiel underwater:





Eden Nature Park

I’m on summer break from teaching at Faith, which gives us a little more flexibility for June and July. Two weeks ago, we decided to beat the heat by getting out of Davao and heading for the mountains, where the air is less humid and the temperature seemed downright cool. We went to Eden Nature Park and had a fun and relaxing time. Just what we needed to recharge our batteries and keep from getting too stressed out in the city.

The views are amazing, and there is vegetation everywhere:



It is a place of flowers…


Wooden saints:


“Indiana Jones” ziplines:


Horseback rides:


The obstacle course:


And the quondam “infinite” pool (the trees have since spoiled the illusion of connection with the horizon):


Here’s Isaiah with a statue of a carabao:


We enjoyed a tour of the park, conducted on a shuttle jeepney whose operator had evidently been a Davao City taxi driver in a previous career. We saw the hydroponic greenhouses where Eden grows lettuce and carrots, and the vast mangosteen groves. (Sadly, not in season.)

Two days of cool, fresh, mountain air is helpful for keeping missionaries looking this happy:


Election Season

The Philippines is in the final stretch of a general midterm election, with voting taking place on May 13th. This means two things:

First, certain jeepneys and vans rove around the streets with bullhorns strapped to their roofs, blaring music and speeches in support of candidates. I find this hilarious, but I suppose it is effective, or they wouldn’t do it.

Second, most of the concrete walls along the major streets of the city are papered with campaign advertisements. My favorite is the ad for incumbent Congressman Karlo Nograles, whose youthful, bespectacled grin is probably the most frequently encountered likeness on posters around town.


Congressman Nograles is
winning on this wall, for


Karlo Nograles is doing
pretty well on this wall, too.

It was a bit of a wake-up call to hear our pastor here pray that the elections will be peaceful. That is something we have always taken for granted in the States and Canada, but it is a different story here in Mindanao. Pray that the Lord will keep his hand on this beautiful nation, and that He will give them rulers who love righteousness and hate dishonest gain (Ex. 18:21).

For me, the most remarkable and refreshing thing about politics here is to hear candidates describe things as “ungodly” or “righteous”. (For instance, there was a grenade-throwing incident in late 2012, and the government posted large signs near the entrances to certain malls deploring and condemning “this godless act”. In the USA these days, not even the worst deeds can be called “godless,” lest the atheists be offended.)

There is a Christianness about political discourse that one cannot find in the States. That does not mean that such language is always appropriately used, but the very fact that it is used is a tribute to the Christian faith of the Philippines.

The best laid plans…

I spent last week traveling with another missionary in northern Luzon (the largest of the Philippine islands.) We visited Georgia Macad’s charity lying-in clinic in Tabuk City and the sister clinic started last year by her friend Crystal in the much smaller village of Bugnay.


The clinic in Tabuk City is surrounded by rice fields and palm trees.

Though the trip was exhausting in some ways (we were “on the road” 5 days out of 7, traveling variously by air, tricey, taxi, bus, and jeepney) it was also a wonderful opportunity to see another part of the country and learn more (much more) about the workings of a smaller and newer midwifery mission work than the large and longstanding one I am part of in Davao City. Georgia’s clinic is 6 years old and currently has 20-15 deliveries a month compared to 120+ in Davao; Crystal just started her clinic a year ago and serves women in 5 tribal villages that can only be reached by steep footpaths through the mountains. I greatly enjoyed my time visiting with both of them.


Rice terraces near Bugnay.



The remote, terraced slopes of Kalinga province must be some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere. Photo by my traveling companion HB.

While we were in Bugnay, a group of us hiked to the neighboring village of Buscalan where my friend received a traditional Kalinga tattoo from the world-famous Fang-od. (See more about her, including some great photos, here and here, though I won’t vouch for the accuracy of anything beyond her age and current practice of her traditional craft — word on the ground in Bugnay is that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet about Kalinga as much has been invented and/or sensationalized.)


Still limber and practicing her craft with skill and finesse at the age of 92. Photo from the camera of my traveling companion HB.



The traditional tools: charcoal and a calamansi thorn. Photo from the camera of my traveling companion HB.

Our ride to Bugnay was on a bus and though the scenery was memorable, aside from some brief excitement when I dropped my phone out the window taking a picture (the driver stopped and I retrieved it) it was an uneventful trip. On the way back to Tabuk, we took a jeepney and rode on top (more comfortable and a better view than inside.) We certainly had an amazing view but it wasn’t always reassuring to be able to clearly see the condition of those steep mountain roads with their hairpin turns (often unpaved and frequently only one narrow lane, with regular evidence of recent landslide damage!) It was a bit like a very long and very beautiful roller-coaster ride. Eventually I stopped gripping the rails with both hands so that I could take photos and video footage. If you can get it, I highly recommend freshly fried banana lumpia from a roadside stand, eaten on top of a jeepney on a mountain road in Kalinga province as just about the best breakfast ever.


At a rest stop: riding on top of the jeepney on the way back to Tabuk from Bugnay. Photo by my traveling companion HB.

I intended to write at length as soon as I got home and to post many, many photographs (I took over 300 photos and half a dozen video clips while in Tabuk and Bugnay) but on our return journey, something happened that made that much more difficult. My friend and I had just made the return flight from Tuguegarao (the closest airport to Tabuk) to Manila, arriving shortly before 3:00 pm. We took a taxi to the guest house where we were spending the night before our return to Davao the next morning, dropped our luggage in the room and then, as we had not eaten since breakfast around 7 am, decided to visit the Mall of Asia to get some lunch. As we walked toward the main street two men riding tandem on a motorcycle sped past us, and the passenger grabbed the strap of my purse off my shoulder as they passed.

I had just bought the purse in Tabuk a few days before: it was made of handwoven Kalinga material, had a long shoulder strap, and was just big enough to hold my wallet, iPhone (containing all the photos I had taken during the week), and passport. It was broad daylight, the street we were on was quiet but not deserted (in fact a police car had driven past just a few minutes before the snatching.) I was talking to my friend and not particularly alert for trouble, but as always when walking I had the strap of the purse looped around my wrist and hand. Everything happened so quickly I had no time to process what was going on. I yelled, hung on desperately to the purse strap, and was pulled to the ground and dragged behind the motorcycle. The stitching holding the strap to one side of the purse snapped and the other end of the strap was burning the skin off my finger and thumb as my legs scraped along the pavement. I reached up with my other hand and grabbed the back of the snatcher’s shirt — my only clear visual memory of the thieves is a handful of black fabric — and he let go of my purse strap. The broken strap was immediately entangled in the wheel of the motorcycle and I could not physically hold on any longer, but lay in the street, badly bruised, watching my friend running screaming after the motorcycle, and unable to believe what had just happened. The two men never stopped or looked back, even when a security guard they passed drew his gun and shot after them. They turned the corner and disappeared into the thick Manila traffic.

In retrospect, I was very fortunate not to have been badly injured or killed. We spent the next several hours checking security camera footage in the barangay hall (though the motorcycle spent several seconds on camera, the license plate on the had been tilted so that it could not be read) and at the police station. The barangay officials and the police were uniformly respectful, sympathetic, and attentive. Unfortunately, there was very little that they or we could do. Two men on a motorcycle in Manila, identifiable only by the color of their t-shirts? Might as well look for a particular piece of sand on the seashore. Given the circumstances, the purse might possibly have dropped (once friction broke the strap) and been run over before the thieves even realized it was still attached to the wheel. Matt, back in Davao, called the banks to cancel all our credit cards, faxed a copy of my passport to the police station (this and the police report allowed me to fly home the next day) and attempted to remotely lock my iPhone. I had not chosen to pay for a data plan for the phone, reasoning that I only really needed internet access at home. This bit of frugality made it impossible to get GPS coordinates to track the phone unless someone logged it into a wifi network.

Four days later, I’m still figuring out how to pick up the pieces. Luckily Matt’s ATM card had a different number than mine, so we are not completely cut off from access to our money (good thing, since rent is due this week!) but we’re not sure how long it will take to replace our credit cards. Getting a new passport will take about a month and will require another trip to Manila to appear in person at the US embassy. We’re not sure when and whether we’ll be able to replace the iPhone, which I used constantly for everything from currency conversions to Visaya vocabulary practice, but especially for taking pictures for our facebook page, newsletter, and blog. And of course all the photos and video footage of my trip to Kalinga provice – with the exception of a handful pictures I’d loaded to Facebook from a very slow connection in Tabuk – are gone forever.

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.”

Farewell and the Trip West

We departed from Cincinnati last Sunday, after saying farewell to many dear friends at Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church. My farewell sermon is posted here. Fr. Wayne and Sandy McNamara came down from Dayton. We were also delighted to see some our senders from outside our church: Tim and Monique O’Neil and Wendy Jacques and her daughter Jenna. The Jacques family was the very first to pledge monthly support for our mission, so they occupy a special place among our supporters. Here are a few shots of the gathered crowd of friends:



Words of encouragement were spoken, toasts were proposed, and we were very blessed.

Then we started driving. And driving. And driving.

Our goal was Las Vegas, where my wacky brother and his beautiful fiancée Trudie were scheduled to be wed in the Luxor Hotel on Wednesday evening. That is 2,000 miles in 3.5 days. Our kids saw the last snow they are likely to experience for three years – in Texas, of all places!


We stopped in Amarillo, TX for the night. We make it our policy always to choose hotels that offer breakfast as part of the package, and we had a good experience with the Staybridge Inn and Suites in Amarillo. They had some very nice waffle-makers:


We started driving again, and had gone one exit on the highway when we realized that Isaiah had left one of his hearing aids on a table in the hotel lobby. We turned back and reclaimed it. After that, we made such good time that we were able to stop and see the south rim of the Grand Canyon, which you can read about in an earlier post. Our kids are fantastic travelers after five months of trips to the East coast to visit churches.

(Click on the panorama picture for a larger version.)


The next day, we pulled into Las Vegas. My brother and his bride exchanged their “I do’s” and enjoyed the company of several friends who came all the way from Maryland. We’re pleased to report that Isaiah was kept safely away from the gaming tables, and we escaped Vegas without visiting either the topless revue or the exhibit of plasticized human cadavers. The kids were impressed by the Egypt theme:


From there, it was a mad dash to Victoria, BC – a trip that took 1,400 miles as we attempted to avoid the Rockies. We ended up making the trip in only two days, and actually made it to the Tsawwassen ferry by 4:15 on Friday, just as the sun was setting:


Hosanna, hearing us discuss the ferry boat before we boarded, inquired, “Are the fairies making the boat go?”

Now we are safely arrived and comfortably lodged at Sora’s parents’ house. We had planned to visit three churches to share our mission to the Philippines, but God, in what we have come to know as His usual way, has made it five – four Anglican and one Presbyterian.

Please pray that we’ll be able to sell our van, and that we will continue to have God’s mercy attending us as we travel. Pray that our vision for missionary work will be a blessing to the congregations we visit.

Also, please continue to pray for the people of Mindanao who have a long recovery ahead of them after the recent typhoon and the devastation it brought. Both of the mission works we’ll be involved with are working on bringing the love of God to the affected areas, with hands and skill to heal and help.