I’ve been wanting/needing to record some old memories here for a while. Sometimes I fear when I’m old, I’ll forget the important events and places I’ve experienced. I want to write down the things that stand out from important trips I’ve taken. The only record I have of most of my travels are some journal entries and e-mails I sent to friends and family. So, I decided to highlight some of my favorite memories, mainly for myself and maybe my kids, to enjoy later. Here’s one about the six months I spent in the Philippine Islands with Youth With A Mission when I was nineteen. I attended a Discipleship Training School on board the M/V Island Mercy, a ship equipped to provide medical assistance, mainly eye surgery for cataracts.
I once had a dream about a clock. It was set inside a large ship’s wheel or helm. It wasn’t a very interesting dream, just the clock, but for some reason it stuck with me and I would sometimes picture the clock in my mind.
Several months after the clock dream I arrived on board the M/V Island Mercy docked in Manila Bay. It was late, but I was given a quick tour of the ship and there, in the main gathering area or lounge, was the clock from my dream. I stopped and stood there staring at the clock on the wall for a few moments before hurrying after my guide who had continued walking down the hall and was rattling off ship terminology, explaining which side was port, starboard etc.
Later, as I was lying in my bunk being lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the ship, I thought about the clock and my dream and felt such a sense of peace, feeling I was about to embark on an amazing adventure and that I was exactly where I should be.
Manila is a sea of sixteen million people and the most densely populated city in the world. A chaotic combination of cars, jeepney taxis, motorcycle taxis, shanty towns, skyscrapers, market places made from colorful awnings and full of delicious, tropical fruit, handmade crafts, chickens, pigs and children selling eggs and jewelry and fishermen displaying their daily catch.
The months we spent in Manila consisted of daily work duties, preparing breakfast in the galley at 6:00am or working in the 110 degree engine room. Five days a week we had morning worship and lectures on the aft deck, our music and voices joining with the hum and clatter of the busy pier. Many weekends we spent in the city with the street children of Manila. Playing games with them, passing out snacks or just being a listening ear and a shoulder to lean on. I always left the children feeling as though we could never do enough for them.
The students and ship’s crew represented several different countries and cultures, but we became a family, learning to live and work together in close quarters, teaching each other our traditions and languages.
The night we sailed from Manila there was bio-luminescent algae glowing electric blue in the black waters of Manila Bay. Next morning I woke early to work in the galley, but first I slipped outside to the bow of the ship to watch the sunrise. As the sun rose over the sea I saw that we had exchanged the polluted waters of Manila for the clear, blue waters of the rural islands. Flying fish soared in and out of the waves around the bow and islands of palm trees and bamboo forests slid silently by.
Our destination was the island of Mindoro where the ship was part of a medical outreach providing dentistry and cataract surgery for people who’d otherwise be unable to afford it. Once, I had the opportunity to watch the surgeon perform the eye operation, skillfully and quickly removing the cataracts and inserting new lenses into the eyes of a woman who had been mostly blind for twenty years. As her eyes healed, she began to regain her sight over the next couple days.
Mindoro is where I had my first glimpse of how beautiful the Philippines truly are. We spent our free time exploring the island, swimming in the ocean, and marveling at the pristine, white sand beaches. One night a group of us were laying on the beach after dark watching the stars and my friend was pointing out the constellations he recognized, Orion, Sagittarius the archer, and I realized the stars seemed brighter and closer then I’d ever seen before. Suddenly I felt incredibly small and insignificant, a speck of dust in the cosmos. I voiced my thought to the group and one of the girls said, “Yes, we are small, maybe no more than a speck of dust or a grain of sand, but God sees us”. God sees us. He sees me. In the midst of all the chaos, the creator of the universe sees me. At the time, this thought was as profound as is was simple.
Next we sailed to the remote island of Palawan. This time a pod of dolphins joined us for a while during our sail. They played in the wake, coming close with an inquisitive eye and diving away again, like children unsure of a new playmate.
In Palawan we moved off the ship and into a YWAM base in Puerto Princessa. Emotions ran high as we said goodbye to the ship and crew, our home and family of the last four months.
Palawan proved to be one of the most exquisitely, beautiful places I’ve ever been. I loved hiking through the rich rainforests where the thick, humid air resonates with the songs of hundreds of tropical birds and the sunlight is filtered through the canopy of palms, banana trees, mango trees and bamboo. One forest we visited had families of monkeys and monitor lizards. The beaches are a mix of white sand and breath taking mountain cliffs and the bluest water. On a free afternoon, I went island hopping with a group of friends in a little outrigger boat. As we were skimming across the water, I looked down and realized the water was so clear I could see purple starfish on the sandy bottom 15-20 feet down. The water looked so perfect and inviting, it took some self restraint to not dive straight off the back of the boat. We snorkeled through coral reefs with shoals of neon colored fish, I tried my hand at surfing and mostly spent as much time in the sea as possible. My days on the island flowed together in waves of green and blue.
My team spent most of our outreach phase in Palawan. We spent a few days at an orphanage clearing brush and planting a garden. Next, we held a vacation bible school for children of prisoners, living in a prison village and held a youth camp for teenagers.
Then we moved for a time to the Ransang YWAM base across the island. This is where we were truly roughing it. The base was a handful of bamboo and palm leaf woven houses with no running water or electricity. From there we trekked through dense rainforest to visit a remote tribe of people.
This was the most trying part of the trip for me. The place its self is amazing and the people we met were beautiful and generous, but I’d been away from home for five months and I was beginning to feel homesick. Homesickness combined with the fact that we only had bucket showers or a stream to bath in and I never quite felt clean and the slow pace of life in this remote place was starting to affect my morale. If it hadn’t been for my team of friends, I probably would’ve lost my mind in the jungle.
The last couple weeks of outreach were spent back in Manila at a home for troubled youth called Alay Pag-asa. It was a shock to my system going from the rural and slow paced village of Ransang to the chaotic concrete jungle of Manila. In spite of the shock, I fell in love with the kids we met there. Many of them had been street kids, but were now in school and learning vocational skills. To hear their stories of transformation from homelessness and desperation to currently striving at school and learning a trade was a wonderful example of empowerment.
It’s strange writing about something that happened a decade ago, because I’m not the person I was then. I suppose none of us are the same as we were ten years ago. This trip was a turning point for me. It was in the Philippines that I began to come out of my shell and leave the young timid girl behind. There’s so many more stories I could tell about the people I met and the adventures we had, learning to live with giant insects and spiritual warfare, but one of the most important things that happened was I learned how to be myself. I’m still learning really, but that’s where it started. One of our speakers during the school told me I was like a bird in a cage, but the door to the cage was open and it was up to me to step out and fly away. Since that time I’ve had so many other major life experiences that have been beautiful and extremely difficult in turn, the cage is far away.
Originally written on 2/24/2012