Fear the lady dragon: A thank you to unexpected family in Dumaguete

Happy July to US sisters and brothers and kapatids here in the Philippines. With only two weeks to go in my year of service, I thought I’d take a break from packing and share a bit about an activity I’ve been able to participate outside of my work at Little Children of the Philippines since last December.

My dear neighbor Ma’am Erelyn told me about a sports team she was on, a local dragon boat team that was training for an all women’s race in March and an international race in April. The team is called Umagu, taken from the name of the city D(umagu)ete, and an abbreviation for United Marine Guardians. When I agreed to join the team in training one night, I had no idea the shock I was in for.

Thunder was booming and rain was coming down in sheets, yet for some reason that night, Ma’am Erelyn still insisted we ride our bicycles to the hotel pool where practice was located that night. We showed up absolutely drenched to find a group of also drenched women and men of all ages huddled under a tent in the corner of an outdoor courtyard. The courtyard was about the size of a basketball court, and positioned behind a slightly old looking one-story hotel. A tiny three foot deep swimming pool occupied about a third of the space. I saw a few people holding paddles, but there was no boat anywhere to be seen- the only other items in the courtyard were a couple of folding chairs and tables, as well an assortment of buffet equipment. “I have no idea how this is going to work,” I thought to myself. I met a couple of girls who were around my age and intimidatingly cool (Aira & Mimings, hehe) and a woman who would become like a mother to me on the team, named Ma’am Weng. I was introduced to team captain Ma’am Jan, who immediately offered me a snack from her bag and sat down with me another newcomer to explain the history of the team and the basics of the sport.

Suddenly, a call behind us rang out, “Batch 1, Standby!,” and, in the midst of the continued thunderstorm, I turned to see two rows of five people lining each side of the pool in perfect position. They sat with legs straight in front of them, toes pointed forward, and arms extended far enough to grip a paddle frozen inches above flexed feet. “Attention!” And their upper bodies simultaneously pivoted forty-five degrees so that the paddles plunged into the water while arms remained ready. “Go!” With the last command, each paddle was guided through the water and exited at the hip in a perfect J-shape slice. The synchronicity was stunning. My newcomer partner and I were invited to join Batch 2, in which we practiced easy paddling and tried out strokes like starts, longs and power longs. I was shocked at how different the sport felt on the body from any rowing, kayaking, or canoeing I had tried, having grown up on the water in the Chesapeake Bay. I also had no clue how sore my lower back, shoulders and even legs would be the next day. (Note: Can you spot me in the following video?! Hint: 0:52)

My favorite part of the practice was talking with the team members on Batch 2 as we alternated water time with the first batch, completing sets of jumping jacks, squats, and arms in between. Welcoming teammates like Ma’am HiD explained that weeknights bring poolside practices while weekends cue 6AM practices on the water as the sun rises over Dumaguete and its surrounding islands (at least, once rainy season ends). Members have created a true sense of family by bringing snacks, boyfriends, girlfriends, and even their kids with them to practice each week. In fact, that first night in the pouring rain, a teammate provided bowls of steaming egg soup, the Filipino equivalent for chicken noodle soup, for everyone at the end of practice. When the team found out I was learning Bisaya, they immediately began cracking kind-hearted jokes about my accent and inability to pronounce the majority of words in the language. Since then, the team has included me in their advocacies and their trainings, as well as three races since March; one all women’s in Tambobo Bay, one international race here in Dumaguete, and one smaller race in Siqujior last weekend. I especially loved the all women’s race in Tambobo because it began with Zumba for all participants, and the atmosphere was competitive, empowering and friendly. We were thrilled to win first place in the women’s category in Siquijor last weekend, and the feeling on the boat in the women’s final was an adrenaline rush I haven’t felt since running cross country in high school.

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Being a member of Umagu has proved to me countless times the heart of the Filipino. It is resilient, it is determined, it is fun-loving and it cares always for family and for community. In this family, people of varying ages, experiences and backgrounds come together without hesitation to love and accept one another as they are. Some examples of this: Two weeks into practicing with the team, when the mother of our captain passed away, I saw the team come together in planning a vigil service for her family complete with songs, a sermon, and food. In April, when I was crazy busy in my work with kids’ camps, team members Ma’am Aidelyn, Wawa, HiD and Tetang came to my camp to set up and run an obstacle course for the girls I was working with. And lastly, at the end of each practice, we place our hands on a paddle held up by the captain, and thank God that we are able to come together to encourage one another and grow as individuals and as a team. Thanks be to God!

Follow Umagu Dragonboat Team on Facebook here, and read the following thank-you’s below.

Thank you to Maxuel for being patient with me every time my form needs correction, and to Wawa for helping me purchase a paddle and being like an older brother to me when I joined the team. Thank you to Aira and Shob (SHOB!!) for driving super far out of their way to scoop me for 5AM trainings. Thank you to Aira, Ma’am Kim, Ma’am Maru, Ma’am Shane, Arrah, Sabel, Marian, Sheila, Sasha, and Sheldaun for being kusgan & FIERCE women I was honored to paddle alongside in Siquijor last weekend! Thank you to the most recent batch of newbies for being amazing, to Sir Rey Tan for teaching me Bisaya, and, last but not least, to Ma’am Kim for being the absolute most sweetest, most organized, and most thoughtful leader who always makes sure I am taken care of. Umagu fam, I will miss you guys more than you know! Dragon love kanunay, “EE-mma”

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