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Melvin and his sister Madalyn – members of our new host family – stood to greet us as our boat slid up to shore on Ticao Island. He then took those of us staying with him – Florence, Mikaela, and myself – down the beach a little way to his village. Along the way we picked up several children, all anxious to see what we were up to. They seemed to know only one English phrase: What’s your name? And they used it plenty! When I told them mine they thought I was saying C-D and immediately began singing the ABC’s. I didn’t correct them; they seemed too impressed with themselves to ruin their fun.

This village sits right on the sea. Dinky fishing boats bob up-and-down in the water while anchored to shore; pigs oink from inside make-shift kennels; the men and select older boys play pick-up games of basketball in the village square; women sell dried fish that exude an odor so prominent we have to subtly hold our breath as we walk by. The central location of our homestay allowed us to experience village life in its entirety. We constantly heard pigs squeal, watched the kids clap their hands to the rhythm of their version of Patty-Cake, and never managed to get away from the sharp stench of fish.

One afternoon we interrupted a basketball game to play Duck, Duck, Goose with the entourage of village children who hadn’t stopped following us around since we arrived — they even sat outside the house and peered through the windows while we ate! The entire village gathered around to watch as we taught this odd-looking game of saying unfamiliar words while tapping people’s heads until something triggers one person to get up and chase the other. It went on for quite some time; but just as we were beginning to spite our decision to choose a never-ending game, a very large distraction came into the village square: two men parading a 25 pound fish straight off a fishing boat.

On our second night, after spending the day helping to mend ripped fishing nets, we got to take part in our own fishing experience – local style. Our expectations for the evening did not meet reality. For starters, it was not just an evening extravaganza as we thought (hoped?) it would be. After spending the late afternoon and evening lowering our nets into the water, waiting around and then hauling them out to find hundreds of sardines caught in our nets (at which point we let the crew take over), it turned out we’d be spending the night on the boat! This decision, however, was not communicated to us. Apparently after taking the several full buckets of sardines to sell on another island the crew decided it was too late to go back to Ticao. As they all found a space on the deck to lie down and close their eyes we figured they were just taking a short nap and followed suit. So you can imagine my astonishment when I woke up at 4:52 A.M. and realized I was still on the boat, still docked at the same place as when I drifted into sleep. It truly was a local-style fishing trip.

We spent a few days at the local school taking on our latest construction project: paving a pathway into the entrance of the school. We’ve mastered cement mixing and laying by now, so everyone around was impressed by how quickly and skillfully we got the job done. But that’s not to say it wasn’t hard work. As always, mixing the cement – perfecting the ratio of concrete to sand to water – in the heat too, is no easy task. Plus this time we had to mix the cement a little way away from the path. This added a new layer to our task: filling up buckets with cement and carrying them over to the path where we dumped and smoothed it out. The prospect of giving the kids the ability to walk to school without having to stomp through mud is what kept us going. And seeing the gratitude on their faces afterwards is what made the hard work and time put into the project worthwhile.

The second portion of our time on Ticao Island had me wondering whether I’m taking a gap year or on vacation — or maybe dreaming. Having moved from our homestay into the resort with the beach in our front yard, hammocks hung between palm trees, mango smoothies ready to order — we were in for a treat.

The highlight of this time was a day-long snorkeling (and diving, for some of us) adventure. Yanking at the elastic on our mask to haul it over our heads and positioning our snorkel in our mouths, we couldn’t wait to see what sea life buzzed beneath us. Turns out there was lots: sea stars, urchins, sea snakes, clown fish paroozing around their anemone, sea turtles, puffer fish, and even a few black-tip reef shark. On a separate divers-only trip Mikaela and Lucy also saw whale sharks! We spent lots of time milling around the beds of coral reef, checking out caves and tiny critters. Aside from the multiple snorkeling and dive spots, the day also took us to a waterfall and a beach with a rock formation that, when climbed atop, revealed the most stunning views of the never-ending turquoise ocean.

Over our final meal on Ticao Island we brainstormed schemes that would allow us to stay. Needless to say, we’re going to miss it here. And we’ve already vowed to someday return.

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