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Kunama 1977


Well, it all started when I was successful in becoming a Rotary Exchange Student (Rotex), with the opportunity of being able to spend a whole year in the Philippines. I was hosted by the Rotary Club of Makati - which is “THE” wealty and progressive “centre of Philippine Progress” and is a part of Metropolitan Manila. Wow, what a change to live an exciting city life after Cooma!

I lived with four Filipino families throughout the year, apart from the numerous others I stayed with while island-hopping. Filipino families are typically large - most of the population being Catholic - and two of my families had eight children, which was really great. One thing that they all had in common was genuine kindness, friendliness and hospitality. That is what really made my stay so fantastic - it’s so wonderful to live with families who treat you like their own daughter and to have so many really nice friends.

Being a student I attended school there (between the many vacations, that is). Just as all my foster-sisters did I attended an exclusive all-girls Catholic school. Actually, I nearly had a heart-attack on my first day in the Philippines when I was told what kind of school I was going to, but I soon realised that everyone (except for those who are very poor) went to a private, Catholic, mono-educational school. When I started school I noticed that the girls were all very friendly; not snobby as might be expected of daughters of important and wealthy people. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed my Filipino school life, even though I am not a Catholic. I enjoyed the beautiful closeness between my classmates, being accepted as oneof them; and I joined them in a class Retreat, Social Work programs, an army-training bivouac, parties and such like.

School itself was quite strict - almost like a gaol compared to MHS - with guards at the gates (mostly for our own protection) and no leaving the gronds during the day. We had to stay at school even for lunch, but that wasn’t too bad as the cafeteria and canteen facilities left our old tuckshop at MHSsomewhere in the middle ages. Full school uniform was worn always.

Classes were a bludge - in fact, my school eliminated all homework to allow more time for family life! (It is probably partially due to the high regard for family life and religion that families are so close and happy). I was in 4th year high school (their final year) and most of my classmates were of the same age as myself. Due to the short length of High School life, standards are lower, but these are made up for with increaed length of College or University courses and everyone goes on to tertiary education if they can afford to. (ALL of my former classmates are now attending tertiary institutions). School was fun and especially enjoyed learning Filipino and Philippine History. But actually, school only took up about half of my stay as vacations (sorry Aussies, I mean holidays) were most generous, with over three months’ summer vacation, plus Christmas vacation semestral breaks and public holidays.

These holidays were for me filled with activity, particularly travel. I visited many parts of some 10 different islands, with Rotary-arranged trips, as well as those with my foster-families and friends. Sights included volcanoes, festivals, jungles, mosques, Buddhist Temples, a pearl farm, beaches - the festivals were really something! The experiences of participation in a true-blue festival are really memorable and so utterly fantastic I just cannot express it in words. Easter, spent on a small island with other Rotex students of different nationalities was something incredible and included a reinactment of the Crucifixion; flagellants whipping themselves bloody in penance, and other “pleasant” but very memorable scenes. Christmas and New Year were also very much celebrated, unique and happy occasions... well, back to travel before I go off in Blyth-type sidetracks...

Seriously speaking, travel throughout the country was really beneficial in that it brought me in contact with such contrasts and such different people - ranging from poverty to wealth; from Muslim settlements next to Catholic shrines; from modern society to mountain-dwelling natives; from ordinary people right up to President and Imelda Marcos. Knowledge in their native language (even though English is more widely spoken) made sure that no barriers existed in my understanding of the people. My families and friends are very proud of my interest in Filipino, and it also enabled me to become “Number 1 Haggler” amongst the Rotex students, to get us bargains in the markets instead of being ripped-off as are most foreigners.

Even every-day life was very different. Very easy-going, with maids, driver, gardener and various other houshold help, depending on the wealth and size of the family. Lots of delicious, fattening food (followed by lots of extra weight and drastic diets); movies, parties, discos, restaurants, clubs... endless entertainment. (Well, not quite endless - as under Martial Law there was a 1.00 a.m. to 4.00 a.m. curfew, except during festive times such as Christmas). And let me not even begin to mention the treatment of a white girl by Filipino guys... but is sure is something I miss... (Ho Hum...). Life, particularly for girls, is very protected and quite conservative. But when the whole society is like that, you become part of it and you accept it or you’re lost. It was a nice way to be at the time I guess... but when FI cameback to Australia, well... all that changed again, naturally. (However, let’s not turn this into a discussion on morals).

Needless to say, the experiences and understanding I gained were well worth the sacrifices of having to do Year 12 one year later than I could have done and having to write this article a week before my HSC Exams. I could rave on forever but anyone who knows me knows that already. So... to cut a long story short, I saves Qantas from liquidation and saved the Philippines from sinking and saved Cooma from obscurity, by returning to Australia in January 1977 - anxiously awaiting another year at Monaro High...

Marina Berzins

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