Travel diary from a volunteer mission to Palompon, in the Philippines, March 2023 with TLUG
Though I have known about this trip since Christmas, it didn’t properly sink in until I said my goodbyes and see you soon to colleagues and students. The group going this time met in Stockholm for information on February 11, and we’ll be the biggest group so far, with 12 participants. Of those 12, we’re two without training within odontology, an English teacher and a young woman working as a teacher in preschool.
As me and my dear travelling companion were driving down to Malmoe, in order to catch the train to Copenhagen, my insides were in turmoil and it felt as if I had a whole swarm of butterflies in my tummy. A sign of not having put myself outside my comfort zone in a while, perhaps?
Five of us flew from Copenhagen, while the rest of the group flew from Stockholm and we eventually met in Dubai for the connection to Manila. In Dubai we had a nine hour wait for our transit to Manila and some of us decided to take a little tour of Dubai by night, seeing Burj Khalifa, The museum of Future and other impressive buildings. Within half an hour one had seen a handful of Maserati’s Porches and other “gas guzzlers” as well as pavements of solid marble and posh shopping malls and I knew this was not a place for me.
After a total travelling time of about 40 hours, out of which the last three were spent in a minivan, we reach what was to be our home for the next two weeks – Palompon Lodge. A fairly simple place of living, made up of a narrow four-storey building.
The remainder of that Sunday was taken up by unpacking, taking a rest, having a little shopping spree for essentials like water and something for breakfast, messages home and a meeting concerning the first working day at Santiago Elementary School the next morning. We did manage to find enough strength to go out for our first Philippine dinner experience – a very bland experience.
Day 1 (Monday) – Santiago Elementary School.
We were picked up at 8 am, we went past the storage at Flora Codera’s house, the local representative for TLUG and former headmistress at Santiago ES, to pick up necessary equipment and then we sat off on a more and more bumpy road through fertile green and lush jungles, where rice fields, the occasional water buffalo and small houses cut through the greenery.
On arrival we were greeted by children dressed in yellow tops, waving the Swedish and Philippine flags while cheering and smiling. After introductions with the teachers, the dental staff started to unpack materials after which a special greeting ceremony took place with singing, dancing, speeches and photo sessions. After placing all materials at working stations, the screening of the around 180 learners took place, starting with the youngest learners in Kindergarten. Documentation was taken care of, collected into piles with different types of treatments needed in combination with referrals to the local dentist, Dr Molon. Treatments that were possible to perform besides the obvious mission of prophylaxis, were fissure sealants, fluoride varnishing, simple fillings with so called Fuji and the occasional extraction if the child was in severe pain.
For lunch, the whole staff and our group were treated to a buffet on which the centrepiece was a whole grilled piglet. Work continued after lunch with the rest of the screenings, a short coffee break and rearrangements of the stations before treatments could take place there and then. Though working until after 5 pm, all treatments were far from finished so after cleaning of instruments and organising, we were taken on the bumpy road back “home again”. A quick shower took place since this first working day ended with a meal with Nils Berger, the philanthropist of this mission, ship owner and founder of the Santiago Foundation.
Day 2 (Tuesday) – Santiago Elementary School
Woke up just after 3 am by preaching and praying, followed at 5 am by church chimes for AGES… impossible to get back to sleep! There had also been a dog fight in a neighbouring street in the early hours. Between 5.30 and 6.30 am, I was out with my friend for a power walk and after a quick shower, followed by a meagre breakfast, a morning meeting and a transport back to Santiago ES for treatments and lectures about dental and oral care as well as eating habits.
After packing everything down, photo shots, speeches and diplomas of Gratitude of Appreciation were handed out, we had a quick change and then a Tuk-tuk ride out to the beach where we had a wonderful, relaxing swim in the Philippine Lake – lovely!
Day 3 (Wednesday) – Liberty Elementary school
Church bells again at 5 am- impossible to get back to sleep! A 45 minutes’ power walk, breakfast and then a pick-up at 8 am, to get a lift to Liberty Elementary School. Once again, we were greeted by happy-looking little children, singing with flags in their hands.
This time, the staff had prepared a corner room, where narrow benches were put together two and two, with a blanket and pillow to form five stations for the odontology staff. Screening the 117 learners, grade Kinder to grade 6, was done by lunch and the necessary treatments were performed during the afternoon.
All classes here as well, had a lecture about the “sugar-clock”, how to think about tooth brushing and a repetition about how to best use the toothbrush. What struck me the most today, was that the older learners spoke better English, and that the staff was even more helpful.
Once more, a special child struck my mother heart more than the rest and, in this case, it was a girl, who was born without legs and with jaws looking like Pickaxe or Mikado, without any occlusal surfaces. According to the teachers this girl was carried to school by her father every day and during the school days, she had a brother who took care of her needs – amazing! What will happen to this girl after grade 6? A longer distance to school, without any means of being able to use a wheelchair. A picture of this girl will for sure remain on my retina.
Day 4 (Thursday) – Tinubdan Elementary school
After the mandatory morning walk, we were taken to one of the smaller schools in this project. It has 85 learners and is located close to Liberty ES. Here both teachers and learners were speaking less English, which I had to think about during the lectures – more body- and sign language required!
What was good though, was that quite a few parents to the young learners in Kinder were present and we could therefore tell and show them how to help their children with the brush and remind them that it’s their responsibility to keep the brushing up!
Being the hottest day so far and placed in a valley, we were happy to be able to wrap up around 3pm, pack all the materials and be taken back “home”. A quick change into bathing wear and off to the beach in a Tuk-tuk. It turned out to be the best therapy imaginable after yet another hard working day!
Day 5 (Friday) – Taberna Elementary School
Only one more working day before our well-earned relaxation on the beautiful Kalanggaman Island, which is only accessible from the harbour of Palompan.
This morning, we went out to the Taberna ES. Next to it was a high school with grades 7-10. Taberna being the biggest of the schools we’re attending, has 242 learners and has only been visited by TLUG once, in October 2022.
The clinic today took place on an outdoor stage of concrete and being the hottest day yet, we got worried about having to work in the sun. That problem was solved by teachers and parents raising a sunscreen, made up of tarpaulin sheets. More terribly alarming cases were found, out of which one girl of about 9 years of age, had to have three permanent teeth extracted. The main reason for this, we noted, was that the teachers only supervised the brushing of the Kinder and grade 1 learners. The teachers have therefore been told to bring their own toothbrushes on Monday when we’ll be back again. If they themselves don’t know how to brush their own teeth, how on earth are they supposed to be able to instruct and supervise the learners’ capability of doing a good job? This evening preparations and shopping was done for tomorrow’s morning trip out to Kalanggaman Island- we’re SO much worth it!
Day 6-7 (Saturday and Sunday) – Vacation
It was quite a bumpy boat ride out to the Island, since a strong wind was blowing. It was also hazy and lots of clouds hiding the sun. There were many more people than I had expected on the island and all through the night, there were people partying- which meant it was more than difficult to get a few hours’ sleep!
Sunday turned out to be cloud free and the beach and water was a pure delight! Absolutely fantastic! As for me, I managed to get that first bit of tan, sitting at the very front of the boat on the way back to Palompon harbour.
Day 8 (Monday) – Taberna Elementary School
Back to Taberna ES for the pile of documents sorted out for treatments last Friday, as well as lectures for teachers and parents, having heard on Friday that supervising only took place in Kinder and grade 1. Seeing once again that a fair amount of parents were present, I invited them to take part during lectures.
We managed to finish our work already around 2.30 pm in the almost excruciating hot and clammy surroundings and many of us felt as if we’d just melted into a puddle of liquid! Ceremonies, speeches, handouts of certificates took place and of course loads of photo shots before we were allowed to leave.
Day 9 (Tuesday) – San Joaquin Elementary School
The first of the newly added schools to the project with a mere 99 or so learners. The stations for screening were quickly put in order by helping parents and teachers, after the formal ceremonies of gratitude and appreciation. This little school was situated much higher up in the mountains and along the route there, the small villages seemed to consist of small farms with growing fields and nice gardens full of flowers we only have in pots.
By now, we’ve added lectures for both teachers and parents. Most classes at this school were small, which made the lectures a bit more individual. The dental staff noted that the learners here had a lot more tartar on their teeth and noticeable worse looking teeth, not very surprising since it’s a newly added school to the project.
Another long working day and not until around 5pm, we were driven back “home”.
Day 10 (Wednesday) – San Joaquin Elementary School and Baguinbin Elementary School
Back to San Joaquin for the treatments needed. The preschool-children were screened and only screened, to make them used to seeing a dentist and showing their teeth. What a bunch of cuties! A lecture with mostly mothers present took place where stress was made on the fact that it is their responsibility if their children come to suffer from caries and cavities. We were invited for lunch and the now so familiar ceremony with speeches and new certificates of appreciation. After the nice letters and greetings from many of the learners as well as photo shots, we started to drive to the last of the six schools, during our two-weeks’ of working- Baguinbin ES, situated closer to the sea.
Greetings with flags, happy smiles yet again and a formal greeting ceremony took place before we were able to put up screening stations. With a short break with coconut water and fruits, we were able to screen grades Kinder up to grade four. The teachers at this school really showed how grateful they were for having been selected for the project with TLUG and they made their utmost to assist in every way they possibly could. This was also shown in inviting us for dinner as well before ending the day.
While working, thunder was heard and a heavy rain started which felt fresh and some of us actually thought it felt a bit cold in the cars taking us back “home”.
Day 11-12 (Thursday & Friday) – Baguinbin Elementary School
These days consisted of a full day at Baguinbin ES, with lectures in classes as well as for smaller groups after finishing the screening of grades 5-6. We got to see layers of plaque and tartar, sometimes in such thick layers that it was difficult to see the actual teeth. The gums of the children also started to bleed very easily as tartar and plaque was scraped off. The last working day was divided up in finishing treatments at Baguinbin ES and inventing what material in the storage was left and what will need to be brought with the next group coming October. Lunch had of course been prepared by the school staff this last day and the speeches by the school head was extra emotional as she had tears in her eyes and many of the learners cried as we left.
A couple of memorable things occurred while working at this school and the first of these concerned a girl in grade 4, who had a 45 minute long walk to school every day. Not having any siblings at the same school, she was accompanied by her dog on her walk to school. This dog saw to getting a place in the shade during the school days and then walked the girl back home again in the afternoon. I think that this girl was in “good paws”!
The second incident was another girl who had two sets of teeth along her front in both jaws. Being asked if she wanted to get the sets of milk teeth extracted, she answered she did and that little brave girl could meet up with her mum, a bag with 8 teeth in her hand and newly cut spatulas from a bamboo stick. The latter to use every day in order to tilt out her permanent teeth, since they had erupted behind her milk teeth. The mother who met up with her daughter, gave us a big beaming smile, expressing her gratitude in shy manners.
As for the journey back home to Sweden it wasn’t a jointed enterprise, since some of us felt that a few days of pure vacation was needed to deal with all impressions. Therefore, we had our goodbyes done on Friday evening around a dinner table where nobody felt left out.
The overall and lasting experience of this service during a period of two weeks with TLUG, will be something I’ll bear with me forever and feel rewarding in so many other ways than monetary. Though it was hard and tough to see people in such poor living conditions, these people showed us big smiles and appreciation and generosity, difficult to find in our opulent and selfish Western Europe. How a simple gesture like a toothbrush and toothpaste tube can bring so much happiness, being in a country where hardly anyone could point out Sweden on a world map, is almost beyond understanding.
None of us participating in this group or in other groups working as volunteers across the globe are in any way a hero and while everyone can contribute with something, nobody can do it all!
// Elisabeth Disley