Monday, April 16, 2012

Greetings from Mindoro!
In my last update I mentioned that despite my efforts to write consistently, I live in a jungle and things happen.  I apologize for not writing in so long, a lot has happened!
After I arrived in the village of Pandarukan, my base for the moment, I had just over a week to get settled and make repairs to the room that is my temporary home, and then life got crazy.  The temporary visa that I had been given when I arrived in the country was due to expire on Friday, and and knowing that it was rainy season, I decided that I’d better renew it Monday to give myself plenty of spare time.  The closest immigration extension office is in Batangas, a 4 hour bus ride and 3 hour ferry ride away.  I should have been able to make the round trip in one day, and to be sure I got up at 2:00 a.m. Monday morning to catch the first bus that came by.  Nothing.  For 5 hours I paced up and down the road, alternating by trying to sleep propped up against my bag.  Finally at 7:00 a bus arrived.  It was a later start than I expected, but I should still have been able to make it back late that night.
Four hours later I arrived at the pier in Abra de Ilog, where I’d catch the ferry to Batangas.  A ferry was just arriving, and was scheduled to depart again at 12:00, but just as the ticket office opened to sell us our tickets, someone heard news that Batangas had just announced that a signal 1 bagio (category 1 hurricane) had hit.  Though the seas were still calm where we were, and Batangas is a well protected harbor, they decided to not sell any tickets, and the ferry went back to Batangas empty.
Hoping that the other major ferry company operating in our area would take us, all of us passengers waited till its 2:00 p.m. ferry arrived, but they refused to take passengers either, and it also returned to Batangas empty.
With a signal 1 bagio on the way, I knew that there was no hope of getting off the island until Wednesday at the earliest, so I took the last bus from Abra and arrived home around 10:00 that night.  While I slept, the bagio hit full force.  When I woke up the next morning the river that runs through our village was impassible, and the wind was blowing sheets of water right through the cracks in the walls of my room.  I was soaked by the blowing rain by the time I walked to the edge of my porch, so I decided to go ahead and take a shower right there that morning.  I sure enough wasn’t going anywhere that day.
By Wednesday morning the storm had abated some, and I was running out of time to renew my visa, so I got up at 1:00 a.m. hoping that I had missed the first bus last time.  I should have known better.  I found out that the road was broken just south of us and just north of us, I was boxed in.  When people started waking up around 5:00 that morning, I went to a friend who had a motorcycle and asked him if he’d be willing to take me to the break in the north, so I could find a way across and catch a ride on the other side.  After a bit of cajoling, he agreed and we set off.  About an hour later we arrived at the break.  An entire valley had turned into one huge river, and it had broken across the road at its lowest point.  About a quarter of a mile of road was four to five feet deep under the water that rushed across it.  Two little outrigger boats had been dredged up from somewhere, and for an outrageous price they were ferrying people across just above and just below the break in the road.  There were no vehicles on the other side, though, to take people, so I decided to wait a bit and see what happened.
Just then a huge grain hauling truck pulled up.  It was the only vehicle that had any chance of getting across, but its owner was worried that it would be washed off the road.  After about half an hour of pondering, he decided to go for it, so about 20 of us hopped in the back and held on for the ride.  A couple of times the truck seemed like it was starting to slide off the road, but the driver kept moving and we got across without incident.
The truck was only going as far as the capital of Mamburao, about an hour south of Abra de Ilog, so when we arrived I grabbed a tricycle (motorcycle with sidecar) to the bus station.  Of course none of the busses were running.  I was sorely tempted to call the whole thing off and go home to sit out the rest of the storm.  After all, what were the chances that the ferries were running?  But if I didn’t get my visa renewed by Friday, I was going to be in big trouble, so I sat in the bus station to see what would happen.  About 20 other people were doing the same thing, and it seemed to me that the busses could make a profit if they would run.  I’ve lived here long enough to know, though, that during a hurricane all semblance of organization goes out the window.  Busses, Jeeps, ferries, etc. run whenever they want to, or not at all, and passengers are completely at their mercy.  And so we sat.
About an hour and a half later, a small van service that runs between Mamburao and Abra, decided to take advantage of the passengers, and so all 20 of us piled in and headed north.  It was mid afternoon when we arrived, and I’d already been traveling for over 12 hours, but I had made it to Abra and I wasn’t going to leave until I had my visa.  Of course no ferries were running, so I settled in to wait it out.  This time I had been smart and had packed a change of clothes, a blanket, and a long book, all wrapped in a thick plastic bag.  If I was going to have to camp, I was going to be a comfortable as possible.
I spent that night on the back seat of a bus, and surprisingly got a pretty good night’s sleep despite the hooting and hollering of the drunk bus driver and conductor in the bar right outside.  Abra is no place to spend a night.  There is absolutely nothing to do after dark or when there are no ferries, so most of the population gets drunk every night.  That is one of the reasons that I went home Monday night.  I was running out of time, though, and didn’t have much of a choice, so I said a prayer and enjoyed being somewhat dry for a few hours.
By 12:00 p.m. the next day, Thursday, the seas had calmed down enough for a ferry to come.  The pier at Abra de Ilog was built originally by McArthur’s army as they made their way through the Philippines (McArthur’s famous, “I shall return,” speech was given on the beach in San Jose on the south end of our island).  It was only intended as a temporary landing point and was built on a completely unprotected section of beach.  Since it was easier to just use what was already built rather than make a new port, we are still making due to this day with the makeshift jetty.  Unprotected from the still churned up sea, the ferry pitched and rolled and gouged huge chunks of concrete out of the pier as it tried to exchange its load of passengers and trucks.  We had to time our jump just right as we boarded to keep from getting smashed as the steel ramp grated up the pier as the ferry crested a wave, or alternately ending up in the ocean when the ramp dropped off the end of the pier as the ferry fell into the next trough.  (Where’s OSHA when you need it?)  We were on board, though, and 3½ hours later I was in Batangas.
Visas in the Philippines have become increasingly more difficult and complicated as the government looks for new ways to generate revenue.  We used to be able to get 7 year resident visas which were relatively quite economical.  Today, the best way for the average person to stay in the country is to renew your tourist visa every 59 days, and leave the country once a year.  I was pretty well resigned to this, and walked into the immigration extension office that afternoon fully planning on just renewing my tourist visa.  I had planned on being careful and reserved, speaking English and not offering any unnecessary information.  I didn’t want to raise any unnecessary questions even though I had nothing to hide.  God had a better plan, though.  I think He let me forget my intentions, because I walked into the office speaking Tagalog (the national trade language) and openly telling the official behind the counter why I was here and how long I planned to stay.  To my utter surprise he turned to me and said, “You can renew your tourist visa like you had planned, but if you leave me your passport over the weekend, I can get you a one year visa for a fraction of what you would pay for a year’s worth of renewals.  That way you also won’t have to come back up here every two months.”  I was a bit nervous about leaving my passport with someone that I didn’t know, but God seemed to say that it was ok, so I left my passport with him and headed home.
When I arrived back at the port, I found that the apparently the ferry company felt that one ferry per day was enough, and they had no plans as to when they would run another ferry.  There was nothing else to do but bed down again.  The seats in the ferry terminal are metal bucket seats, and they weren’t particularly comfortable to lie across.  That combined with three TVs blaring through amplified sound systems kept sleep to a minimum, but somewhere in the early hours of the morning a voice blared over the PA that the ferry company had decided to run another ferry, and it would leave around 8:00 that morning.  I was going home.
By the time that I got to Mindoro and caught a ride down to my base village I was so exhausted and hungry that I almost passed out and had to put my head down.  It’s awfully hard to get anything worth eating while traveling over here, most prepared food has unclean meat in it.  I managed to make it back home around 10:00 p.m. that Friday night, and after a big pot of soup and a shower at the village hose, I fell asleep.  Finally I could rest.
Alas, the rest didn’t last long.  I had to be back in Batangas on Tuesday to pick up my passport, but in order to pick it up I had to pay the balance of the fee, and I was out of Pesos.  I had exchanged as much as I thought I’d need for a month before I left the capital of Manila so as to keep as many dollars as possible to make transporting the money safer, but I had underestimated and I hadn’t been able to find a money exchanger since.  Monday morning I was up and off to San Jose on the south end of our island.  At about 5 hours by public transportation, it San Jose has the closest reliable bank.  The water had subsided on the road to the north, and busses were getting through there, but up till Sunday night the landslide and washed out bridge to the south of us was still under repair.  My friend agreed to again take me to the break so that I could walk across, and I caught the first leaving bus on the other side.
When I got to the bank in San Jose, the lady at the new accounts desk said that she’d love to give me a new account, but their policy for foreigners was that they had to see the foreigner’s physical passport, and the zerox copy that I had, along with 3 other IDs, was not enough.  I couldn’t open an account, and thus couldn’t exchange the dollars that I had with me.  She wouldn’t budge.  In desperation I asked to talk to her manager, and while I waited I did some serious praying.  If I couldn’t change my dollars I couldn’t pick up my passport, but if I didn’t have my passport they weren’t going to give me the account that I needed to exchange my dollars.  It was my own fault that I got into such a pickle, I should have thought ahead a little more, but I was in the pickle none the less.
When the manager showed up he took a look at my IDs (including my missionary ID from AFM), and listened to my predicament.  “Ok,” he said.  “No problem.  I see that you’re a man of God, so we’ll open an account for you, let you take just enough to get your passport back, and then put a hold on the rest until we see your passport.”
It meant another trip to San Jose, but God was good and I would be able to work it out.  In the end I found out that I’d have to make another trip anyway.  San Jose was where I was going to buy the motorcycle that was to be my means of transportation.  When I stopped by the dealership on the way back I found that I’d need a bunch of paperwork from my local township.
To make a long story a little bit shorter, the next day I headed back to Batangas to get my passport.  The official was late getting my visa from Manila, so I ended up having to sleep in the Batangas terminal again, but God was incredibly good to me and against all odds I now have a one year visa for a fraction of the cost of renewing my tourist visa like we normally would have to do.  Within a week I made it back to San Jose, unlocked my bank, bought my motorcycle, and was back in the village of Pandarukan.
Oh, did I forget to mention that that first big hurricane ended up being a category 3 hurricane that caused more destruction and deaths throughout the Philippines than we have seen in years?  I think I also forgot to mention the 2 more hurricanes that followed in quick succession during the time that I was traveling back and forth to San Jose.  That’s a total of 3 hurricanes in 4 weeks.  Looking back it doesn’t seem like I accomplished a whole lot in that time.  I got a visa, opened a bank account, and bought a motorcycle.  Considering the three hurricanes, all the red tape I had to crawl though, and the public transportation, however, I’m surprised at how much did get done.  Satan was fighting, but God was with me and now I’m set, as soon as God allows, to move into the mountains where I’ll be out of contact with the lowlands for months at a time.
Speaking of the Batangan . . . .  Backing up to the Monday that I made the first attempt to renew my visa, Ramon (the Alangan church leader whom God has given several dreams to regarding the Batangan) and another church leader named Standing were scheduled to make the first trip into Batangan territory.  The plan was for them to scout out the territory and find the place where God showed Ramon that we should start at.  The highland Batangan are so bent against the outside world that even if one of the lowland Batangan comes to their village speaking the Batangan language, the people will disappear into the bush.  Ramon felt that it would be wise, all things considered, for them to make the first contact and ease the Batangan in the area into the shock of a white person.   I also felt that this was the wisest plan, and was glad to have the Alangan taking so active a role in the project.  It may mean a little longer before I can move into the mountains of the Batangan territory, but the investment will pay off in the long term health of the project.  It may actually be faster as the highland Batangan might have utterly refused if a white person had shown up the first day.  The ideal, as I have mentioned before, is for this project to be a joint project with the Alangan believers from my parent’s AFM project, and I, hopefully helping to overcome some of the Batangan cultural barriers more quickly and effectively, at the same time giving the Alangan hands-on mentoring in cross-cultural missions.
That Monday Ramon and Standing were scheduled to leave for the first expedition to the Batangan, but they weren’t able to leave because of the hurricane either.  Early Wednesday morning they headed out, while I headed north to Abra.  There were so many breaks in the road to the south that they had to take 4 different vehicles, and do quite a bit of walking in between.  Once they got off the bus where they heard there was a trailhead to the Batangan, they walked another 3-4 hours before reaching the first village.  On the way they came to a fork in the road.  They asked directions to the village that they were aiming to reach, but were told that the river crossings were still too high from the hurricane.  They were told that there were Batangan at the end of the other fork in the road too, though, and there were no river crossings that way.  They made a quick change of plans and headed to that village.  This village is one of the lowland Batangan villages, but when they arrived they found out that the man who leads the southern half of the Batangan tribe lives in that village, and they were invited to stay in his house.  God had led Ramon and Standing right to the head of the tribe without their having any idea that he lived there.
The Batangan culture is markedly different from most Asian cultures in that they prefer to not beat around the bush when conducting business.  If there is a reason that you are visiting a Batangan, you should just come out and say so right away rather than do the careful social dance leading up to your request like most other Asian cultures expect.  Knowing this, Ramon and Standing laid out their reason for being there right from the start, despite their plan to simply visit villages and not make a stir.  The man was not particularly happy, he didn’t really want them there and refused to talk much, but he admitted that his jurisdiction as the leader of his tribe did not extend to the things of God, and if God had sent them (and me) that he did not have the power to stop us.  He did expect us not to force religion on anyone, or to make a big commotion and stir up the people in the interior.  Essentially, though it was grudging, he gave us free reign to work in the interior if the individual villages are willing to let us in.  This was as far as that trip got because of the hurricanes, but praise God as this was a major advance! 
One week later Ramon and Standing headed off again to Batangan territory.  Satan had been fighting hard, bringing problems at home with sickness and finances, and Standing had almost backed out.  God gave Ramon another dream during this time where he saw himself in a Batangan village, and a man approached him saying that he would guide them wherever they needed to go.  With this encouragement, they pushed forward and headed south on Monday.  Right as they arrived at the trailhead the third hurricane hit.
They spent the night in the village that they had intended to go to before, and there they found a man named Dong who was expecting them.  Friday night, God had given Dong a dream telling him that two Adventist natives would come asking him to guide them.  He awoke puzzled.  He was actually an Adventist who had been converted nearly 40 years ago, along with a small group of other lowland Batangan, from the work of an intern Filipino pastor who had taken a fancy to his village.  Less than a year later, though, the pastor left and the believers were left with practically no support till this day.  The church, abandoned in its infancy, has not grown or reached beyond itself since that day, and has done nothing to reach the highland Batangan.
Considering this, Dong had dismissed the dream.  As far as he knew, there weren’t any other native Adventists, and no Adventists had ever given any indication of wanting to do any mission work to the highland Batangan.  Remember that centuries of fighting between the mainstream Filipinos and the native tribes including the Batangan have created so much prejudice and cultural barriers that the gospel has never been able to penetrate when carried by the locals.  That is why AFM is here, to provide a culturally neutral bridge for the gospel to reach the Batangan.  Considering all of these things, Dong had just about dismissed the dream when Ramon and Standing showed up asking for a guide to take them to the interior.  He gladly accepted, marveling at God’s timing and wisdom, and they set off hurricane and all.
As the three of them headed toward their destination, Ramon began to recognize landmarks.  They were very near the place that he had seen in his dream.  In his dream, God had first shown Ramon a map of the world, color coded by receptivity to the gospel.  Then He had zoomed in on the Batangan territory.  As he seemed to zoom closer and closer, Ramon found himself looking up a huge valley between two mountain ranges.  He was looking south, and a huge finger, God’s finger, pointed to a place up near the headwaters of this valley, where the river that flowed through the valley split into two tributaries.
As the three men walked along the base of a mountain range, Ramon began to recognize this as the outside range of the one that God had shown him.  Excitedly he tried to get to the top of the nearest mountain in the range, hoping to see up the valley and ask their guide what village was at the fork of the two rivers.  Every time he tried to climb up, though, heavy clouds socked them in and reduced visibility to about 500 feet.  Night fell without their being able to identify the place.
The hurricane had hit full force by now.  The hard packed clay of the area was as slick as ice, everything they had with them was soaked, and all the rivers in the area were impassible.  They were forced to turn back without reaching their destination or identifying the area in their dream.  However before leaving they made an agreement with Dong to meet again in a week and head as quickly as possible to that area.  Today, Ramon and Standing left to meet Dong and start into the mountains.
Friends, please pray for this trip, from Tuesday through Friday of this week.  This could well be the decisive trip.  If all goes well, the men will arrive at the place that God has shown us on Wednesday morning, and will immediately try to find a village willing to let me live with them.  If they can find a receptive village, they will start building a house, and next week I will go with them and finish it.
Satan has been desperately trying to stop us.  He has been fighting us ever since we got here, but he seems to have stepped it up.  Sabbath evening Satan almost tempted Dong and Standing to back out.  Later that evening, when through intense prayer, plans for the expedition went through, he caused an unexplained motorcycle wreck.  God protected me, and neither I nor the motorcycle got a scratch even though we went over a 3-4 foot cliff.  As soon as I got back to the house a messenger arrived asking for medicine for Ramon’s wife who was showing symptoms of poisoning.  There was no explanation, though, as she hadn’t eaten anything that the whole family hadn’t eaten.  While Ramon prepared the charcoal, I prayed asking God to bind Satan’s power and keep him from preventing this trip.  Ramon’s wife immediately felt better, and recovered completely without any medication.
Now, as Ramon and Standing left just this morning, news has arrived that a low pressure system is moving in.  God has all power, though, and He can stop the rain just as easily now as He did on Lake Galilee.  Please pray that He will bind Satan, protect his agents and their families, and that this trip will succeed in finding a receptive village.
Thank you!  The spiritual powers that are fighting us are very real.  Here they manifest themselves more openly, but they are no less real at home.  God will not be defeated, though, and He has promised to work in answer to His people’s prayers.  Thank you for being a part of this team, thank you for fighting with me!
I hope to have news regarding this expedition early next week, Lord willing.  Until then, God bless!
John Holbrook
P.S. I forgot to mention in the previous update that I can’t receive mail at this e-mail address.  My only means of communicating here in the mountains is through a satellite phone powered by solar panels.  It is a little bit expensive and dependent on the sun shining.  To keep usage down, I send these updates to a volunteer in America who forwards them to the e-mail list.  The address is only monitored for address changes.  If you know someone who wants to receive the e-mails, do send their address to this e-mail, of if you want to be dropped, reply as such to this address.  However it may be up to a year before I can get to a place to check and reply to letters sent to this address.  The best way to get a hold of me directly is through AFM at their website,

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