Wednesday, October 21, 2009


My weekends begin on Friday around 11am when I catch the jeepney to Bontoc, an urban center located on the Chico River. It is about an hour long drive to the city filled with beautiful scenery and often hilarious conversations with the local people. No matter how loud we are or how distracted we may be, the Igorot people never fail to practice a moment of silence when passing a portion of the road near Dantay. Many people have been the victims of vehicle accidents at this place and some even believe it to be cursed by the anito (evil spirits of the ancestors). Although I have some trouble understanding the full influence of the anito on the Igorot people, I too observe the silence out of respect for the deceased. The fare is 60 pesos. That is equivalent to about $1.30. Upon arrival I head straight for the Diocesan office. I have lunch with the development staff including: Sarah, Mileatte, and Mariza who are about my age. We travel together often and have become good friends. I work at the office in the afternoon and then I go to the Bishop’s residence to stay with my Filipino family, the Alawas’. There is Bishop Brent, Auntie Shirley, Merv, and Fengag. The Alawas’ have three other children, a daughter, Joanne, and two more sons, Erwin and Challikis who are closer to my age. Their daughter is an optometrist and their sons are studying in University. I love to sip coffee and chat with the Bishop, or go around the Diocese with him visiting far flung communities. Auntie Shirley is a great cook and so easy to talk to. Merv is in High School. He is very committed to his school work and volunteerism. Fengag is the baby of the family, just like me. I call him Baby Brent. He is very popular among the boys his age and is leading them to a strong interest in preserving the traditions of the Igorot culture. It is so cool. He is often the one leading the playing of the gongs. The Alawas’ have made a room for me there in their home where I sleep on Friday nights. Saturday morning I get up early and head to the pool to coach swimming. I stay there all day and by 3pm I catch the last trip back to Besao. Then I do it all again the following week.
Melanie West Goes…Bontoc

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I know that many of you have been worried about me with the recent calamities in the Philippines, so I want you all to know that I am safe. There was mass flooding in some parts of Manila after typhoon Ondoy. The poorest of the poor were displaced from their homes mostly because they are living in shanty towns on the edge of the rivers. People are doing what they can to pitch in, but with 80% of the population living in extreme poverty; it has been a challenge to adequately disperse the available resources. The mountain province was not adversely affected by typhoon Ondoy. It was the typhoon that soon followed, Pepping, that caused problems for us. Bishop Alawas and I were in in his truck (picture below) when the land came crumbling down around us.

We lost power for 8 days, water was scarce (we had to collect the rain), and there were some very serious landslides that left more than 40 dead and many others injured in nearby villages. I will be traveling to one of the hardest hit areas this coming Sunday with other church members and Bishop Alawas to bring supplies and comfort to those families. The people of the Philippines need your prayers.
Melanie West Goes...Landslide.

First Timers

In the past three months I have done a lot of new and exciting things. Some of which, I had never imagined. I want to share with you some of those things which I had never done in my life before, but which I have now experienced. It was my first time to…
1. Using toilets with no seats. The bathrooms here are a new experience in and of themselves. They call them a C.R., short for comfort room. Flushing is by way of gravity and you have to dump a bucket of water in to get it to flush. Don’t forget to bring toilet paper when you travel anywhere that is more than ten minutes from your house, because most people don’t use it. They use water, and it is not usually available for those who do. I won’t go into too much detail about how to use the C.R., but let’s just say that I have extremely strong leg muscles now. 2. See a coffin inside a house. Imagine there were no funeral homes. Where would you take you dead relative if you wanted to have a visitation service for other friends and family members? Well, in the Philippines, they take the coffin to the family home. Funerals last about 10-12 days and the dead is never left alone during this time. I have been to two funerals here in Besao so far. Both of the deceased where men that I had never met before. In the U.S., It would be very rare for people who did not know the deceased to go to their funeral, but it is normal here. It is very important that everyone in the community attend at least one day of the funeral, and everyone give a gift. Typically, a gift would consist of: food, money, or flowers to the family of the deceased. It is considered disrespectful if you chose not to attend. At first, it is strange, but I have actually come to respect and possibly even prefer the way that the Igorots honor their dead. The people sing, tell stories, and jokes, and of course they eat! The family has a lot more time to cope with the death and they have people around to comfort them; instead of the way we do it where three days after your family member dies, you might be all alone. Another interesting thing about coffins here is that some are not buried, but rather hung on the sides of the cliffs. It is less common now, but in the past, the Igorots believed that this was the best way to keep the wild dogs from digging up the graves of their loved ones. 3. Eat sweet spaghetti. My dad would consider eating sweet spaghetti a sin, but the Filipinos love it! I can’t wait to have some good Italian food on The Hill in St. Louis when I come home. 4. Use a typewriter. I didn’t even know that people still used typewriters, but they have them at the Diocesan office so I took the opportunity to write my parents a letter (It’s in the mail mom and dad, so you should be receiving it in a couple of weeks). It was actually sort of hard to type on because you can only use two fingers. It is very time consuming and you can not erase your mistakes. It was fun though. It reminded me of those old 1950s films where all of the women are in a big room on the typewriters. 5. See people eat dog. One day some of the ladies and I were standing around talking at Edila’s storefront when a rabid dog came running down the street. We all scrambled to get behind the counter and the gate and grabbed the little kids, but a few people were bitten, including two kids. The men came running with clubs and 2x4s. I looked away as they beat the dog until it lie dead on the street. I was sad, but I was more concerned about the children who were bitten. We rushed them to the municipal hospital for treatment, but the vaccine was not available so everyone bitten was taken to the city of Bontoc (about a 2 hour drive) to receive the rabies shot. They are all doing well now and are fully recovered. When I asked the men what they would do with the dog, they replied, “We will eat it!” I couldn’t believe it. They were going to eat the dog that had rabies. I tried to talk them out of it, but they would not listen to me, and they laughed and joked, “Okay, cut off the head and cook it extra well. Melanie is afraid that we are all going to get rabies!” It was a lost cause. They were going to eat that dog no matter what I said. I went home in disbelief as they enjoyed their feast. 6. Ride on the roof of a vehicle. Okay, I know this sounds dangerous, but it can actually be safer than riding inside the jeepney. In fact, the survivors of most jeepney accidents are those who were riding on the roof, because they are able to jump off and out of the way of danger. Plus, the view is amazing! 7. Swim in a cave. I have been swimming since I was a baby, but I never swam in a cave before. It was cold! Reminds me of early morning water polo practices at Lindbergh High School when the water was so freezing cold that coach Lombardo had to literally push us in. The cave was beautiful though, and the water was clean and clear. You could see right to the bottom. 8. Stand up and introduce myself in the middle of a church service. Sadly, at most churches you could come and go and most people would not know if you were there or not. Well, that is not the way that it is here. Everyone knows everyone else and they know if you are not at church. If you are a newcomer, they will ask you to stand up and tell them a little bit about yourself.9. Spend the night in a hospital, as a patient. To make a long story short, I drank some unclean water and ended up with a bacterial infection in my stomach and intestines. I will spare you the details. The important thing is that I am fully recovered, and I learned a very important lesson. When you are in a developing country, don’t drink water that you don’t know where it came from. 10. See a DVD that contained 18 movies for less than $2. I am sure that pirating DVDs is very illegal but they are everywhere in the Philippines. I didn’t know that it was even possible to fit more than one movie on a DVD, but apparently it is.
11. Feel homesick. Since before I can remember, I was always ready to go on trips that led me away from home. My sister Stephanie was the exact opposite. She didn’t even like to go to our friend’s overnight birthday parties, and I think she was in High School before she would go to the grocery store without me. I, on the other hand, was eager to get out and have an adventure and I didn’t mind if I was all on my own. I would make new friends wherever I landed. Even at the age of three I begged my mom to let me spend a few days with my uncle Danny and aunt Debbie at their house in Terre Haute without the rest of the family. I’m not sure if it the vast distance or the fact that I have not seen home for over 3 months, but recently I have been feeling a little homesick. All of the people here would like for me to extend my stay, and I told them that if I could bring my friends and family to Besao I could stay forever, but I can’t do that, so I can’t stay for more than a year. I can’t wait to see you all again and share the stories of my adventure with you.

Melanie West Goes…First Timers