Two girls, two worlds
We are on a cramped wooden motorboat complete with bamboo outriggers — heading to the shores of Poro, a remote island in the Philippines.
The engine’s sound is deafening. Jamy is scared. The 14-year-old is 13,000 kilometres from home. The journey to the other side of the globe has been traumatic, and now the other passengers — mainly local men — are staring openly at her pale skin and strawberry blonde hair.
Some have their cell phone cameras trained on her, Jamy whispers. “Can’t you see Mum? They have their phones in their hands but they’re not talking into them!”
Our only distraction during the three-hour boat ride is a B&W television. We are watching what seems to be a Philippine soap opera but we cannot understand a word. Nearby, a group of men are squatting on the floor playing cards.
Jamy is also nervous for another reason. We are on our way to meet Juvelyn Zurita – also 14. We have been sponsoring her through Plan Canada. The girls have been exchanging letters, drawings and photographs for 10 years, and now they are about to meet for the first time.
The last three days did not make this up-coming meeting any easier on Jamy.
The trip from Toronto started out with an ice storm shutting down the airport. Then we ended up spending a night in Singapore’s airport. This was Jamy’s first exposure to post 9/11 security.
A dozen soldiers and police officers swept through the airport with assault rifles checking IDs. Jamy was at an Internet kiosk checking Face Book when a soldier, rifle at the ready, demanded to see her passport.
After landing at Cebu airport we took a taxi to our hotel. The traffic was insane and driving like nothing we’ve seen before. Hawkers, their faces swathed in T-shirts to protect them from the sun, stuck their heads in our open windows trying to sell us sunglasses. Jamy burst into tears at the sight of a little girl, in rags, alone by the roadside.
“She’s going to get run over”, cried Jamy, “and nobody cares!”
When we arrived at our hotel in Cebu, the underside of our taxi was searched with mirrors on poles. The security guards were looking for car bombs. At reception our luggage had to pass a bomb sniffer test.
Just as we were settling into our room a staff member knocked on the door to check the mini-bar but by that point Jamy was so nervous she wouldn’t let him in! ‘What if he’s an imposter?’
Meantime, Juvelyn is also scared but for different reasons.
Terrorism is the least of her worries. There are no western hotels or tourists to bomb on the beautiful island of Poro; rather, she is about to meet her sponsor family from far away Canada. She’ll have to dance for us in front of her whole school. And she will have to use the English she learned in class – would she remember the words?
A Plan vehicle is waiting for us when the boat docks. We are lucky — most people have to travel on motorcycles with seating boards. They can fit up to four people but one false move and everyone falls off!
We drive over a mangrove-fringed bridge to our resort on adjoining Pacijan. The next day is our big day!
Plan staff pick us up at 8 a.m. sharp. We arrive at Juvelyn’s school and are greeted by a huge banner, strung high up over the road, welcoming us. The high school students are dressed in brilliant red and white school uniforms.
And there she is, the young woman we’ve traveled all this way to meet. Juvelyn is overwhelmed by her Canadian visitors. And we are overwhelmed by our welcome. We only donate $33 a month to Plan but are treated like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
Mauve orchid garlands are placed around our necks as we are led to an outdoor stage. Our visit coincides with the turn-over and blessing of a newly constructed building and we are the guests of honour! We are entertained with singing and dancing. We think how nervous Juvelyn must be, having to dance for us.
Juvelyn’s teacher advisor speaks about her – what an excellent and popular student she is.
I am flattered to be asked to cut the ceremonial ribbon and open the two new classrooms.
On a tour we learn that the school has computers but no Internet access. No Face Book for Juvelyn.
In her letters, she has told us that she works hard at school.
“I hope that you are satisfied my records for my schooling. I do this so that I can reach the goal of success someday”.
(Juvelyn hopes to earn a scholarship for college in Cebu).
For the children who stay, fishing and farming are the main source of income. Juvelyn would be destined to a life of poverty.
Next we are taken to her home to meet her family. Her mother is a cemetery caretaker, her father a labourer at the port.
Juvelyn, the youngest of five children, has a sister and three brothers. Some have left home. She and her family live in a concrete house with a galvanized iron roof. Garbage is burned 10 metres from their house and drainage passes through an open canal.
Juvelyn’s chores include collecting firewood and water.
They own a pig, cow, a chicken and two cats.
More than 100 children and their parents join us for lunch. I am happy we had brought enough stickers and pencils for them all. Juvelyn shows us how to drink coconut water out of green coconut shells.
After lunch we take on a tour of community projects. We ask if Juvelyn can come with us. Jamy wants to spend as much time with her as possible.
The girls aren’t scared anymore. The radio is on in the car and I can hear them, typical 14-year olds, singing along to James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful.
When Jamy (into alternative bands) asks Juvelyn who her favourite musicians are she says Shakira and Britney Spears (she obviously hadn’t heard all the Britney stories).
Juvelyn also likes to watch TV. A few years ago Juvelyn sent us a drawing of “ the best thing inside my house” -a Sony television!
She especially enjoys soap operas like Jamy who loves The Hills.
Juvelyn and her family come back to our resort with us for a special dinner. She shows Jamy a pink cell phone her sister has given her. She hopes that she and Jamy can text each other one day.
There is more entertainment. It’s like Filipino Idol until a power outage forces everybody to go home.
The next day Juvelyn meets us at the boat to say goodbye. She is proudly wearing a necklace that Jamy chose for her at Toronto’s Eaton Centre.
Jamy is scared again. It’s all those men on the boat with their cell phone cameras.