Let me tell you a little about life in my new ‘home’. This area of Leyte is mostly a flood plain punctuated with volcanic mountains. Thankfully the volcanoes are pretty quiet now. Barangay Barayong sits in a cluster of these mountains. Although it feels remote, it’s still within the municipality of Palo and the highway is only a 15 minute motorbike ride away. Getting to the highway is a bit of an adventure. The road is mostly dirt track with the occasional stretch of concrete. There’s no drainage so the flat parts are full of potholes and the climbs are rutted from the rivulets that form when it rains. The road goes past the provincial jail, where the road turns into a small muddy pond. Most households here have a motorbike or scooter. No-one has a car. It’s just not practical. The road is hard work on four wheels and anything other than a 4×4 would have a short and uncomfortable life. Anyway, the locals easily manage to fit a family of four and pretty much anything you might need on a bike. I have yet to accept the challenge of more than one passenger. No wait, the other day I did give a ride to maybe 3 or 4 kids (I daren’t look back to see how many there were). The funniest thing I’ve seen is a bloke carrying four old ladies down the highway, with one sat in front of him on the tank. There’s a saying they have here – “Only in the Philippines..”

In the village of Barayong, apart from a few ‘middle class’ concrete homes, the majority of people live in wooden houses. Many live without electricity and some are still ‘post-yolanda’ with tarpaulin sheets for walls and roofs. Some have concrete floors and some build their houses on stilts and have wooden floors, but many have just earth for a floor. Almost everyone cooks on wooden fires, usually inside the home or porch. Because there is no refuse collection, they also burn their refuse. This is the hardest thing for me to deal with. I’m an obsessive recycler, but never mind the environment, it’s a health risk right? In the mornings you can climb the hill at the top of the village and look across a smoky haze of houses as the sun rises over the mountain. It’s very pretty.

There is no piped water supply. A few are able to buy bottled drinking water but most drink, cook and wash with water drawn from various wells which have been dug around the village. The quality of this water is poor. When I arrived my neighbours told me that they don’t drink it, so I haven’t done, but I’ve learned that the families who don’t have enough money to buy drinking water actually do drink it. Many times people, especially children, become sick because of this. Almost everyone has only an ‘outside lavvy’ and also washes their clothes and themselves outside, which means with their clothes on. Having a bath is done standing up in a bowl. The ‘ice-bucket challenge’ is what we do here twice a day.

My place is attached to the church. I have a concrete floor, electricity, a calorgas stove and also a toilet where I can take a bath in private. Thankfully I don’t have to strip down to my undies and bath in public, which is what the other men do here. In summary I’m camping in a lean-to garage, but that’s a pretty good living here.

From my very first night I realised that the previous tenants, a family of rats, had not yet left the property. For the first few weeks I slept on the church stage. The rats were living under it. I spent the first night covering the hole with whatever I could find to keep them from getting near the floor where I was sleeping. After that first encounter, I made it my mission to buy some poison. It took me a long time to find some. The locals prefer traps, since they are reusable, but I don’t like the mess. Eventually I did find some, which they seemed to like. As I waited for them to die or leave, I took to sleeping with earplugs. What the ear doesn’t hear, the heart doesn’t grieve over. The earplugs also lessen the noise the church gecko makes. Previous to the rats, my only unconquered enemy were the local tiny ants. They are highly-organised machines which get into anything that’s not airtight. They find a container’s weakness and then exploit it mercilessly. Airtight tupperware is expensive here, but some food comes in resealable bags so I’d begun collecting them. The bags have to be quite thick, as the ants gather together to bite through cellophane wrapping. But good enough deterrent for ants is not good enough deterrent for rats. After my rodent housemates had chewed through all my carefully-collected bags – even the empty ones – I realised I needed to take my kitchen security to a whole new level. Now I have a plastic box with a locking lid inside which I keep my new collection of airtight bags. The box keeps out the rats and the bags keep out the ants. Combined with the poison, which the rats loved so much I nearly ran out of, the rats and the ants appear to have retreated. I am victorious.

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