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I always visit Tacloban. My frequent visit in my hometown made it closer to me as if there was no ocean that separated us, as if there were no islands between us. But this time, I felt I was visiting my hometown for the first time. It was a universe away like a page from a history book. I planned my trip as if I was going to an isolated island. I packed sanitary napkin, laundry detergent, shampoo. I brought home a  large luggage of goods, in fear there was no  grocery store.  Back then, we used to have everything. We had malls, restaurants,  hotels, and parks. Watching  Tacloban through the window pane,  I was guessing which stores were opened. From above, I saw the skeleton of my city. The green mountain tops surprised me. The last time I was there, Yolanda made everything  lifeless. The airport was naked and dead. We passed through San Jose, one of the places that were covered by flood. Tents donated by United Nations stood in the grounds flattened by Yolanda. The rain poured and I wondered how the people living in tents could survive. It had rained for the past few days.
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Everything was normal at home but outside, everything was too far from its original state. There was no place for strolling.  I accompanied my mom to the store that just reopened. The prices went down but the place needed a major cleanup. We walked through the wet floors. A lot of people squeezed in to buy items they had lost during the typhoon. Women were buying stained kitchen utensils. On the store walls, I spotted muddy hand-prints of Yolanda. There were a lot of vendors in the streets though we consider them now as the business in Tacloban. Only  a few big retail shops opened. I bet tourism went well. Almost all the operating hotels were fully booked by foreigners on mission. Though the downtown area had electricity, it was still a haunted city.

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Every house in Tacloban needed a repair.  Too many streets needed to be cleared and cleaned. Too many stories. Too many smiles. One smile came from Kuya Tantan. He lived near the airport area which we  knew had been soaked by the sea. During the storm, he transferred his family to his neighbor’s house. As soon as he reached the second floor of the house, the entire first floor was a pool of seawater. They stayed in the second floor with broken glasses from the window. He heard people outside asking for help. He spotted a hole on the wall, where the air-conditioner was intended. He removed the bars and let the people in. He saved the lives of  eight random strangers. One was a 15-year-old boy. After the storm, he told the boy to come back in case he never found his family again. The boy did not come back.
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One afternoon, we went to the city hall. Kids were running  with their balloons. A group of Koreans performed  Christian songs. One stood out and prayed, ” I pray Tacloban will be the richest city.” Tears streamed down my face. I felt he meant  what he said and I believed in it.  Tacloban will be.

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Welcome to my hometown where every photo you take is a Pulitzer price, where every day you spent is worth keeping in memoir.

TACLOBAN SHIP

 

 

Learn from Nothing

It has been more than a month since the typhoon Haiyan hit the grounds of Leyte but I still cannot believe. To me, it happened more of a nightmare than an actual event. The TV always flashes the most recent development in Tacloban and I still cannot believe how much media attention is given to the city I grew up with. Tacloban has never been on the spotlight. If not for the typhoon, there are some Filipinos who might not know there’s a place in the Philippines called Tacloban. Now, some people can already name the barangays and the streets of Tacloban. Without Yolanda, no one would ask me, “How’s your hometown?” No one would respond me a three-second silence when I told them, “I am from Tacloban.” They say it was like a movie but never did I think that it would resemble a movie. How can I believe when Hollywood movies show skyscrapers, busy streets, thick jackets, concrete walls everywhere? I cannot believe a catastrophe is so near to me, a tragedy within my periphery and it happened in a place where my life began. And of all the cities in the world, why Tacloban? I cannot believe…

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“You want to find yourself, right? In Tacloban, you will find yourself because there’s nothing you can find here except yourself,” my brother joked. In an article of Huffington Post, Philippines is recommended as one of the places you should go after a break up. I loved how the writer said “Reevaluate your problems in the Philippines.” My personal problems became temporarily less noticeable when I knew that the only problem that mattered in my hometown was how to get food. Anyone should be ashamed of himself for worrying too much on his career, what to wear, where to buy this and that, and how to earn more. I somehow felt how privileged I was. The only problems I had to resolve were frivolous. I may have had some misfortune but nothing compares to people who lost all their possessions to the the sea.

Basics

When I was in Tacloban, everything was expensive. I made sure I finished everything on my plate including the sardine sauce and the tiny fiber of green papaya. I learned to like tasteless crackers. When I was walking around the town with a bottle of water, I tried to drink in droplets. When church friends brought us fried chicken, it was so heavenly. When I did not need to make a call, I turned off my phone to save my batteries. Before I left, a bakeshop opened. The price of slice bread was higher than the regular price but a lot of people were willing to buy.

I now live in a metropolis where everything is in abundance. If I get hungry, there is a Seven Eleven to serve me. If I want to eat chicken, there’s a grocery store or a marketplace that sells dressed chicken. And if I want an instant fried chicken, I can always walk to Jollibee. I saw two kids in Tacloban meticulously taking chicken’s feathers off. The chicken was a Haiyan survivor too. He stayed on the comfort room to save his life. I can take a bath anytime. But in Tacloban, it’s not a split-second choice to take a bath. People fetched water and some would have their bath near public water pumps.

Passengers in Manila often complained about traffic jam. There are just too many people, too many cars, too many buses. On the other hand, people in Tacloban walked for miles in search of food and help. There was no tricycle or a jeep around the city. And if there was, it was probably costly. People get agitated for waiting too long for a taxi ride and sometimes I hear some passengers in MRT curse and quarrel. At least, they still had a ride. At least, they did not need to walk.

I was mindlessly wearing a shirt with lines from Dead Poet’s Society. I just realized how ironic it was to wear a shirt like that in times of crisis. My shirt stated: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute… But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. ” My brother said you will forget whatever principle you keep, you just want to survive. Very true…

Charity

Haiyan changed how I think about charity. I used to criticize celebrities and public figures who helped victims of natural calamities. But when I saw with my very own eyes how helpless and how much was lost in Leyte, it was uplifting to know there were a lot of people who were interested to help. Whatever their motives are, we welcome them without reservation. This is not the right time to question people’s kindness. It’s very discouraging to read negative comments about Bongbong Marcos going to Tolosa and other nations giving assistance to Tacloban. It is so easy for a person to criticize if his life is so normal, if he has everything he needs and if he has all his family members alive. But if he lost everything, he will grab whatever help that comes his way. They may be his foes or the least expected people. I no longer care about imperialist ideas. They are only good in theory and paper. When I know that people are dying and no concern from the national government is evident, I see hope in flags of different colors. I no longer question celebrities who travel and send relief. It might be petty to be overwhelmed by a presence of superstar but it is a source of happiness when nothing is left.

Just Alive

How precious life is! This may be another repetitive lesson. I heard a lot of stories of people who fought for their lives during the typhoon. Some lives were paid by heroes we may never heard of. Most of the time, it is a challenge to be satisfied. The summary of our dissatisfaction in life is:  “I don’t have the life I deserve” while others  are mourning over their loved ones’ death- they do not deserve.

I’ll be spending my holidays in my hometown. I don’t know if we will have soft drinks or fruit salad.  I don’t know if there will be fireworks. I just know we will celebrate life.

Megaphone

The night of  November 8 was one of the most difficult nights to get by. I was crying over the phone as my friend and I were talking about the news of the super typhoon Yolanda that hit our hometown Tacloban. I monitored updates in Facebook and cried some more as I read some of my fellow Taclobanons looking for their families. I woke up in the middle of the night, sobbing, calling “Mama.” I called my brother and parents for the nth time but all I could hear was the telephone operator. I was waiting for news about Tacloban the whole day. All we had were reports and videos taken around seven in the morning. With so much tension and anxiety, I complained why entertainment shows should continue to be aired when we who left our families in Tacloban were very desperate for news. I kept repeating in my head the little information we had. Water reached 15 feet high in downtown area. Portions of roof were flying. The trees were dancing. Electric wires were fighting the wind. I calculated the chances of how my family could survive, how far was our house from the sea, how sturdy our walls were. I imagined broken glasses and water covering our house. I thought of my elderly parents and my teenage nieces.

Not my city

When I first heard the news about the devastation and violence in Tacloban, my reaction was: “That is not my city.” I used to believe it was one of the most quiet and peaceful cities. “Don’t go there. It’s not safe. People steal and kill.” I read a lot of warnings before I went to Tacloban. Some people associated this unruly mob behaviour with the stereotype given to Warays. They were known to be war freak. I don’t have a Waray blood but I was born and raised there. I am one of them and it pains me to know how chaotic my people and my hometown are perceived. It was a safe place where my brother biked around with his pricey gadgets. In my entire life in Tacloban, I walked in the streets without a fear of threat.

I arrived in Tacloban on the fourth day after the typhoon. We passed through the nearby towns that did not have extensive media coverage, Tolosa, Dulag, and Abuyog. The mountains facing the Pacific Ocean had nothing but barren soil that complemented the murderous sea. The coconut trees were perfectly cut as if there was a giant ax that chopped them all. As we entered the city, I could not recognize Tacloban anymore. It had no civilization. People were everywhere looking for food and news. They lived up to their name, “Waray” which meant “nothing”. I was speechless throughout our trip.

Not God’s punishment

In the midst of this crisis, I wonder why someone would drop the words’ God’s punishment’. If you were a victim of Yolanda, these were the last words you would want to hear. Those who were heavily affected by the typhoon were those who lived near the coastlines. They were fisher folks, people who built their dream houses, ordinary people who had nothing to do with PDAF and pork barrel. They were far from people who lived near the gates of hell. To utter the word punishment is unbearable for a person who lived a decent life and lost everything in a short span of time. We try to interpret God’s message with positivity and end our philosophical explanation that those who survive have more work to do and those who are gone have completed their mission.

No megaphones

Tacloban, an urbanized city turned into a small village where strangers talked liked close friends, where the main source of news was by word of mouth. Without electricity and clear communication lines, people were eager to share and receive news. When we walked our way to our parents’ house, people were a lot friendlier than usual. They asked how we were doing. They were clueless that the entire world was watching them. I’m glad that there was no television during the most crucial moments because it could have been more depressing to hear news on how ill-equipped our government was and how insensitive some of the leaders were.

Much has been said about the destruction that took place in Leyte and Samar. Bad news were widely spread but supply of food, water, fuel, and good news were limited. When I was in Tacloban, I wished there were some military personnel or officials who had megaphones used to pacify tension in the crowd. People were panicking for unverified news. If there was a voice out there, it could have saved more stores from being ransacked. It could have shortened the line of people waiting for C130. It could have uplifted their spirits. If someone with a megaphone strolled around the city with a simple message: “Everything is under control. We are doing our best to help,” it could have improved the situation in Tacloban. Stories of rape and bandits circulated as quick as fire but stories of relief goods and free services did not reach that far. By this time, I hope there are megaphones in Tacloban.

Spreading hope

I stop browsing photos showing the destruction and depression in Tacloban. I want to see more photos, more news stories of camaraderie, compassion, resiliency, and hope. Tacloban was a beautiful city surrounded by seas and mountains. It aches me to know that what most people know and what most people see are ruins and death.

My family is fortunate to have survived. I guess we who have been spared  from the typhoon, we who are given a chance to live longer owe the victims of the typhoon some hope. We need more good news. Instead of saying “When you go to Tacloban you will be depressed”, say “When you go to Tacloban you will be inspired by the courage and the resiliency of the people.” Instead of saying “When you go to Tacloban, you will be harmed,” say “When you go to Tacloban and help, you will be rewarded.” Instead of saying “When you go to Tacloban, you will feel like it’s the end of the world,” say “When you go to Tacloban, you will feel like it’s going to have a new beginning.” Instead of saying, “When you go to Tacloban, you will see death,” say “When you go to Tacloban, you will find life.” When you see people fixing their houses, finding food to eat, protecting their families, looking for their loved ones, lamenting over the dead, you will find the meaning of life in its barest form.

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Note: Written November 25, 2013