Chivalry in Action
Philippines - Jim C
The Gut Check
Tacloban's airport terminal is an eviscerated skeleton of a structure, ripped wide open on all sides, with temporary particle board partitions and bright blue tarps trying to fill in the gaps where the walls have been blown in. There is a serpentine baggage carousel, shattered and rusted, that luggage is placed on to be claimed. After deplaning, we straggled around the dead carousel, momentarily unsure about finding our luggage. A dim sense of dread slowly started to grow in the pit of my stomach. I glanced furtively at the jet that had brought us to this place- our only lifeline and way out of here, and as it fueled in preparation to take off and leave us, I felt another wave of trepidation wash over me. I looked out beyond the terminal and realized that almost everything I could see was destroyed. The coconut palms that had looked so appealing from the sky resembled umbrellas that had been blown inside out- their tortured fronds all skewed forlornly in the same direction. These palms are legion, and none of them escaped damage from the storm. Coconut plantations were a major agricultural crop in this region- now crippled. According to the locals, it will take a minimum of 10 years for the coconut trees to regrow and become a viable cash crop, provided that another Typhoon like Yolanda doesn't wipe them out again.
Back at the carousel, we retrieved our luggage and were ushered to a waiting van by our incredible hostess, Margrett. A Filipino humanitarian aid worker, she was responsible for our safety during our stay in Tacloban, a job that she took very seriously. I cannot say enough about her. She kept us under her wing the whole time. This trip would have been impossible without her. Her local knowledge and organizational skills (along with a whole lot of patience) made what must have been a logistical nightmare seem almost effortless. We could not have asked for a more gracious and accommodating host. Thank You so much, Marge. We will never forget you or your dedication to the Filipino people. Safely shoehorned into the van, (five 6 foot-plus knights and one even bigger Leigh) we started down the broken road into downtown Tacloban, ground zero of the most powerful Typhoon to make landfall in recorded history.
"How is this possible?"
How do you accurately describe what total and utter devastation looks like? I mean, you can look at the pictures and imagine yourself there. You can see the wreckage, the mountains of refuse, the rubble and rebar and splintered wood- but being there is an entirely different proposition. I don't think that we were quite ready for what we were about to see- you have to understand that we had been up since 2 am that morning, and I don't think that any of us were prepared to go on this emotional rollercoaster of epic proportions- and this day was only getting started. The coastal area that we first drove through was one of the hardest hit, and the enormity and scope of the disaster hit us all like a hammer. We stared out the windows as the broken scenery floated by, our jaws collectively on the van floor, and most of us wondering aloud, "How is this possible?" It did not seem possible that any human being could survive the kind of forces that were capable of inflicting such massive damage, and many did indeed lose their lives. But many more survived than perished, and that in itself was impressive, given the level of carnage. But the Filipinos are resilient. I didn't know it at the time, but out of this wreckage the true nature of the Filipino people would be revealed to me, a people whom I knew next to nothing about, and that their stories would not only inspire us all, but serve as a mirror into my own soul. The ultimate story of Tacloban is not a tragedy. It is the about perseverance and strength of will, and the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
Marge took us to breakfast at a little roadside shack called Andok's. We piled out of the van, got our boots on the ground, and looked around. There were large concrete hangars collapsed all around us. The main road we came in on was choked with traffic and pedestrians. There are three favored modes of transportation in Tacloban. First, and most numerous, are the mopeds and motorcycles. They come in all shapes, sizes and states of repair/disrepair. We saw many roadside vendors selling liter coke bottles filled with what we thought was some local concoction, but it turned out that they were selling gasoline in them. Some mopeds are rigged to accept this bottle as a type of mobile gas tank, one that fits between the pilots' legs. Not very safe. Second are the tricycles. They are motorcycles or mopeds that have a sidecar attached, and they serve as taxis for the locals. They are absolutely everywhere. Third is the infamous "Jeepney", an iconic Filipino bus. Picture a school bus. Now shrink it to half size, cover it in chrome or sheet metal, and paint it with the craziest graffiti you can imagine. They run in routes just like a normal bus would, and there are thousands upon thousands of them, and they are always packed. We also got our first taste of what would become routine for us throughout the week, which was being stared at like we were from another planet. People would do triple takes as they drove past, most would crack a sheepish smile or throw a friendly wave as they motored past. We quickly learned that everyone was intensely curious about us. We wound up posing for quite a few photos throughout the week, especially Jason, who is twice the size of any of us, and has a personality to match. After eating (I was a little concerned about eating the local cuisine, a fear that proved unfounded). Marge took us on a tour through the ruined city. We stopped next to a huge ship that had hitched a ride in on the 25 foot storm surge and had come to rest in the middle of a neighborhood. Loaded with iron ingots, the ship weighs many thousands of tons and can only be moved by dismantling it, piece by piece, a process that could take years, given the limited resources available. Building supplies are hard to come by in Tacloban. (Leigh went shopping for tools and found a few things we needed. Price gouging is unfortunately a bit of an issue as well).
The damage we witnessed in the neighborhood of the beached ship was almost beyond belief. Small fires smoldered on the side of the road next to massive piles of splintered wood and broken concrete. Many stray dogs nosed through the piles of garbage, looking for scraps. As far as the eye can see, small shacks are being thrown up, pieced together from the remnants of the ones that were destroyed, and built on top of the bones of the ones that were blown away. All of these shacks are occupied, and in some of them you can see children squatting in the darkness inside. They line the roadways and canals, sucking what electricity they can from the patch worked grid, many teetering over the brown water. It's not hard to see a secondary humanitarian disaster waiting to happen if another storm hits. The displaced have rebuilt their homes even weaker than they were before. But the stubbornness that allowed them to stare down typhoon Yolanda is the same that compels them rebuild despite the danger. We would encounter this resiliency again and again. We would learn to respect it.
There were many emotional moments had by all of us during this trip. I referred to it earlier as the "emotional rollercoaster of epic proportions" and I wasn't joking. It seemed like every time we thought we had a handle on what was going on, something else would come along and throw us into another headspace. The first real shot across my emotional bow was the church that Marge brought us to on the first day. Most Filipinos are Roman Catholic, a religion brought over by the Spanish, now practiced by over 90 percent of the population. As the van pulled into the courtyard, we were all eager to get out and stretch our legs, and it seemed like a great place to get some photos. It's a huge church, imposing and grand, and we piled out and began to explore. As I made my way around the side of the church, I noticed a few crude crosses leaning in the tall grass toward the outer courtyard. There were a few people sitting on the concrete portico facing the crosses. As I stood there trying to figure out what I was looking at, Marge came up behind me. She told me that after the Typhoon, there was nowhere to bury the dead. So the people started burying their relatives on any church property they could find. There are sites like this all over, she said. There are mass graves, too. Hundreds of people all buried together, there were so many bodies in the aftermath of the storm, there was nowhere to put them. I think at that point I started to feel a little lightheaded. And the oppressive heat was starting to get to me. I wandered into the roofless church. There were many religious icons in varying states of distress being stored in the entryway as the roof was being repaired. I was still trying to process what I had just been told. Tim, Jason, Sean and Leigh all seemed to be having a similar reaction to the makeshift graveyard and ruined church. The hits were coming fast and hard. We didn't know that there was a surprise of another kind waiting for us, just down the road.
Have you ever had a surprise party thrown in your honor? One that you had no idea was going down, and were totally caught off guard by? Well, I haven't. But I imagine that if I did, it would be a lot like what we walked into at the first school we visited. We had driven a long way out of Tacloban, into the verdant green countryside, the ever-present smashed trees lining both sides of the narrow roadway, windows down, and getting a quick lesson in Filipino driving etiquette. Pass everything slower and smaller than you. Honk to let them know you're there, but pass them at all costs; Wrong side of the road? Why, no such thing here, good sir! Use any and all available pavement at your disposal! Just don't forget to honk. That's extremely important. Vast tracts of open land slid by, rice paddies being worked by brown shirtless men and svelte grey cows with rings in their noses wandering through muddy yards. Tin shacks beyond number followed us wherever we went, like the scrolling background of a cartoon. Our destination? Dagami North Central, a primary school that had been damaged in the storm. Our mission? Assess the damage and fix what we could in what limited time we had. To be honest, we didn't really know what to expect. We didn't have any tools. Marge told us that we were going to help them do some repairs on their damaged buildings. We weren't too worried. After all, we had Tim Baker with us. He can fix anything. 40 minutes of honking and passing later, we arrived at the school. We got out of the van and followed Marge into the small warren of buildings. As we approached the central courtyard, we started to hear kids. Lots of kids. We were not prepared for what was about to happen. Unbeknownst to us, the entire school had assembled around a raised concrete slab that served as a stage. Six chairs were lined up in front of the stage- our chairs. When we entered, the kids started going crazy. They had been waiting for us! We were ushered to our chairs, with throngs of kids standing right behind us, all of them smiling and looking at us in wonder. All we had to do was smile at them and they would dissolve in laughter, the girls covering their mouths and the boys shoving each other. I was handed a program (yes, a program) detailing the festivities to come. Once again, as in the church, a sense of unreality came over me. We were the unsuspecting honored guests of a ground breaking ceremony! After an introduction by the regional administrator, Miss Yu (catchphrase- You must miss me, because I Miss Yu), we were treated to a "doxology," a song of praise to God that was accompanied by a dance routine by a group of 6th grade girls. It was easily the most touching moment of the trip for me, and I struggled to keep my emotions under control. Thankfully, Jason provided some comic relief by jumping in on one of the dance routines, and becoming a legend at that school in the process. After the ceremony, we got to work, taking down the walls of a damaged building with sledgehammers. After a few hours of swinging hammers in the hot tropical sun, we were smoked. The teachers had cooked lunch for us, as they would every day that we were there. The overwhelming sense of gratitude that emanated from every person that we encountered at that school, and the other schools to follow, was incredibly humbling. To close out the day, we broke out the swords and did our thing. The kids pretty much lost their minds at that point. Chants of Jason! Jason! and a swirling throng of children buoyed us to the van. I know that we were all running on fumes at this point, but in that glorious moment, I didn't feel it. The positive vibes had taken us to a happy place.
And so it went for the next 2 days. We received pretty much a hero's welcome at each school we went to, and they all had their own unique forms of gracious entertainment prepared for us. All of their performances were extremely touching. The teachers and students were very grateful for the donation that Medieval Times had pledged to help repair their schools and I know that we all felt a strong desire to affect as much change as we possibly could in the limited amount of time that we had there. We wanted to work! But there was inclement weather, and such little time. So we had to prioritize. There was a kindergarten classroom that needed a new roof, and that became our target. Tim marshaled the local troops, (a group of the schoolchildren's fathers) and gave them a tutorial on how to properly lay a tin roof. It took 2 days, but most of that roof got repaired. The rain came down as we tried to not slide off the unpainted tin, as our newfound fans milled around on the ground below, looking up at us as we worked… I vividly recall standing on the apex off the roof as the storm clouds rolled in, looking down on the muddy schoolyard. Sean and Jason were down there, and they were surrounded by throngs of children. Sean was showing them his moves. Jason was, well, being Jason. I remember as the clouds opened and the wind rushed down, driving the rain before it, the crowd of children streamed off in all directions, screaming little shouts of mock panic as they made for the safety of their classrooms, leaving Sean and Jason standing alone, looking around and shaking their heads. I'm still trying to figure out why moments like that are so precious to me- maybe I'm ascribing too much meaning to them- but the entire trip was full of moments like that, too many to mention. Leigh smiling down like a friendly giant as little brown faces looked up at him. The stunned look on a Filipino man's face as Tim gave him his expensive Leatherman multi-tool as a gift. A penny pressed into my palm by the neighborhood "crazy lady"- did I see a knowing flash in her eye before she hobbled off on her bad leg, babbling to herself? Was she trying to thank us? The looks on the kids faces as they danced with Jason or poked Sean's whiter than white skin. The doxology that had me in tears. Little Ivan, who followed us everywhere we went and had a movie star smile. Why was my mind struggling so hard to assign meaning to everything that was happening? How was I finding such beauty in the middle of a disaster area? Driving back each day from the schools through the countryside each day offered much time for reflection. These people were giving back to us as much, if not more than we were giving to them. What was the lesson to be learned here? These experiences are valuable only if you take something away, something profound about the human condition that you can share with others. I know that each of us had different experience, all filtered through our own perceptions, but I witnessed more kindness and genuine emotion from my friends than I ever expected and was caught off guard by my own feelings as well. I learned that no matter where we are from, we are all only humans, and humans love each other, and will help each other in a time of need. The children of that broken place always had smiles on their faces, and as they ran barefoot through the mud, I couldn't help but think that they were so much stronger than I am, and freer of mind and spirit. In the wake of disaster, they don't try to rationalize, they just exist. Standing on a roof in the rain, I came to the realization that I had taken my entire life for granted, and had failed to acknowledge or appreciate the gifts that I had been blessed with. These people were happier than me. I learned that no matter how bad things get, life will go on, things are never as bad as they seem, and a great attitude and appreciation for the simplest things that life offers will see you through the darkest times. I am eternally grateful that I got the chance to meet these people, and to be able to have this transformative experience with such great friends.
We saw many other things that would both inspire and horrify us. Around each corner is another story, and they are all equally as compelling as the last. A universe of broken lives, all slowly congealing back together. The city and countryside are still a raw, open wound 4 months after the storm. Driving through the crowded marketplaces close to the city, with the odors of rotting fish, mopped fumes, and open sewers combining into one fantastic super-smell, I felt like an ant inside a pile that had been kicked over. Looking over the endless lines of graves crowding a church yard, I felt the inevitability of my own mortality stronger than I ever had. Standing in the cool rain in the countryside, I felt reborn. This city of contrasts, where life and death are both on such prominent display, can play tricks on your mind.
As we took off through the rain, I looked once more through the plane window. Beyond the racing droplets, the island had once again become a beautiful place, a green tropical paradise filled with promise, and gently drooping coconut trees. She was allowing us to see her true beauty one last time. As we rose higher, slowly the mists filled in, and the island was lost to sight, but not to memory. Maraming Salamat Po. Thank You. We will never forget you.