Blog Series | Leira Lew

Leira Lew is a student at Calvin College. She spent the month of January in the Philippines with Mission to Heal. Leira, who traveled with 11 other students and a handful of medical practitioners, has agreed to share her experiences with us through a five-part blog series. This is the first blog of the series. Big thanks to Leira for joining us on this mission, but also for sharing this delightful – and insightful – synopsis.

A 19th century French novelist once said, “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” On this trip to Roxas, Palawan, I could not have said it better. I traveled with a group of 12 Calvin undergraduates and two alums to get a glimpse into the world of medical missions. Specifically, we shadowed Dr. Glenn Geelhoed of Mission to Heal and the medical staff of Palawan Baptist Hospital. I gained five main insights throughout my time in the Philippines. They were: 1) the Palawan culture/Filipino culture, 2) how social divides are everywhere, 3) how badly needed health care is, 4) the generosity of doctors, and 5) the power of group dynamics.
First up? The Palawan and Filipino culture.

When we landed in Manila, we were greeted by both chaos and hospitality. The latest data estimates that 14 million people occupy Manila each day. Walking out of the airport, I noticed so many cars and taxis that the air smelled of gas. The lights on the high rises and the sheer number of buildings and street architecture made it a beautiful city though. Christmas decorations greeted us as we drove to a doctor’s house. Once there, two maids welcomed us and our guide, Dr. Garcia, explained how his mentor had opened up his home to house us. It was such a blessing and completely out of his generosity. I soon learned that the friendly chickens we saw out front also served as alarm clocks. Roosters crowed at 4:30 am each morning. It was pretty rough at first, but eventually I appreciated that this is how most people wake up in Roxas and the other rural areas. It was a great reminder of our connection to animals. Fresh fruit, rice, eggs, and sweet bread seemed to be staples of the Filipino breakfast. Air conditioning is a luxury, so fans were the go-to source for comfort. After we travelled to Roxas, we were welcomed by our PBH staff. Eden, our guide, showed us the island and also the culture. The Philippines is a 2nd world, with pockets of very developed cities/rural areas and pockets of very poor, rural/city areas. There were very few obese people – if any – when we looked around in Palawan. Many staffers educated us on the past occupation stories of Spain and the US. Because of the long Spanish influence, and their close proximity to China and other Asian countries, I noticed that you could have one brother that looks totally Mexican and another who looks almost Chinese. My roommate, Dr. Ruth, said that she looked very Chinese, while her siblings did not. There is quite a lot of diversity in facial features and heritages here in the Philippines. I noticed that many of the older staff were not only medical professionals, but also either married to pastors, had relatives that were pastors, or pastors themselves. On weekends, they were actively involved in local ministries, if not leaders of their own ministries outside of PBH. It was inspiring. Many other staffers were in their twenties and single. They explained how many are not encouraged to date until after all of their schooling and post-grad schooling is finished.

One of the first necessities for surviving and thriving in Roxas, was learning how to get around: public transportation. For local travels, riding on a motorcycle attached to a little cab (a “trike”) was the way to go and only cost 12 pesos per ride. It was the most fun cab ride ever, and often it was entertaining to see how many people you could fit on those things. Or, if you are going further, the bus came every half hour and cost 30 pesos, but often had a telenovela playing, music, and other entertainment. Some girls and I rode on the roof one time to see what it was like. Safety rules are less strict over there, more like suggestions, and so often what we call overcrowded in the States, is a normal loaded bus for these Filipinos. There is a lot of trash and processed food wrappers everywhere. It seems that processed foods have taken off even in the most rural corners of Palawan. Every family in Roxas has a little shop at their window to sell what they can, and so you always see snacks hanging. Dr. Geelhoed (Dr. G) explained that when you are more worried about surviving at the present, the status of the future and survival of the environment then is not such a worry. To most, the forest seems like an endless green that cannot be harmed by dumping trash wherever you want to. That was interesting to me. The culture of Palawan was very rural near Roxas. A small town was there, but there were more fields of rice and caribou’s than anything else. Meeting the people, they are a very shy and polite culture. It reminded me of the Korean culture a lot. They value family time immensely, education, and the elderly. They also have most gatherings around food like the States. Most Filipinos speak English as they teach it in all of their schools and hold university in English. One thing the chaplain and my doctor friend, Dr. Ruth, were telling me is that there are so many tribes in the Philippines and so many dialects. It seemed that the Filipino’s are all very aware of their tribal roots and their customs, as well as the customs of most of the other major tribes. One nurse, Carla, is from a tribe where they end all of their sentences with a tongue click, and so the chaplain, Joel, was joking that we should go up to her and say, “Hello, “. The staff was so serious about their work, but sure knew how to be goofy and have a good time, even about their roots…

The second blog in this series – Leira’s insights on social divides – will be posted later this week.