Chivalry in Action
Philippines - Tim B
Day one finds us a little shot out and discombobulated from the travel but the expectations of the week ahead fuels our moods and appetites. Margrette met us at the airport and we began navigating through Manila traffic. The hotel we stayed in was nicely appointed and will provide a stark contrast to the sights, sounds, tastes and smells we are about to experience.
White Men with Swords
We toured the World Vision headquarters the next day and met Pam and Josaias, the World Visions Philippines National Director, a local man in charge and a large staff of office workers. Coincidentally Josaias is a huge fan of all things medieval. He proudly showed us photos of his very extensive collection of hand painted knights and highly detailed hand -made castle replicas. You could tell after a very short time of being in his company that he is a super intelligent man that carries a huge heart of a kid, a fitting leader to head up their operation.
Pam had us fill out the paperwork/waivers and walked us through protocol and behaviors expected for our project. Some of the items on the document we signed indicated that previous travelers had been inappropriate, broke promises made to locals in the emotionally charged locations or used World Vision in less than honorable ways… heartbreaking.
We did a small show in their parking lot for them after a meeting in their chapel and took some pictures. The ladies were shy but liked the photo ops and later we saw some posts on the internet with some of their pictures calling us "White Men with Swords", Medieval Times is not that well known in Manila.
The condition of the airport and the immediate area was only the beginning of the vast devastation we would see over the next few days. Some of the steel beams and collapsed concrete structures looked like they had been smashed by an angry titan. You notice right away even though things are pretty rough that there are smiles everywhere and more than half the locals will nod and or welcome you with a big smile and a "Mabuhay". Little by little normalcy is returning as is the spirits of these people.
We toured a section of Tacloban very near the waterfront. There is a large ship that was washed ashore into the street in an area that has many tin shacks on stilts. No addresses, street numbers or mail service to speak of now or even before the storm. There is a lot of concern about allowing them to rebuild there as it certain to happen again in the future. I can sympathize with the families rebuilding in that they can't wait for help and as a father I would do whatever it takes as quickly as I could to get my family out of the elements. The swath and severity of the damage is just unimaginable in its scope and help from local officials will be a long time coming for some.
Humans cry when their emotions become too strong to be expressed in words. I believe this to be a vent for pressure to keep us from going off the deep end psychologically. The church was the 1st of many times for me to be unable to contain my feelings.
We visited a huge Catholic church that could compare to any super nice place of worship in the U.S. The roof was torn off and there were young men precariously perched in different areas high off the ground cautiously removing the damaged sections with ropes on home made scaffolding and ladders made from debris salvaged from the building.
Many had died at the church there during the storm in the flood when the roof collapsed because the church was the place they looked to for sanctuary. The storm was so powerful and long in duration that some people were in a more or less safe perch but just could not hang on any more due to exhaustion and just let go and gave in to the flood waters.
The iconic religious statuaries were in inspirational poses and where they would normally been in the shelter of the church are now exposed to the elements until repairs are complete.
After walking through the makeshift cemetery in the church grounds I keep thinking of my own family - imagining my sons or daughter below the ground there. What I would do if I was in the same situation? My emotions got away from me so much I had to move away from the group and shake it off.
The drive to work the 1st day was when you really get a sense of the breadth of damage. We had witnessed some severe damage in Tacloban but it just went on and on for miles and miles in the countryside as we made our way out to the 1st elementary school. We saw ancient Banyan trees with trunks 20' thick blown over and more than half the palms blown down. The outlying farmers had much less technology but still clever ways of getting the job done constructing home made scaffolds and ladders from debris that would give any U.S. insurance company a panic and get your policy dropped in a second. We were giants by comparison to most of the locals and the way these sons, brothers and fathers would shimmy out onto flimsy supports beams to get the job done in their reconstruction endeavors was impressive.
The occasional rain shower would bring the residents with no running water outside for a quick bucket bath or teeth brushing. Our van would pass through the small towns and I was amazed at the comfort level of the little kids, villagers, livestock and pets as we passed within 1 or 2 feet of them (some of the small buildings were built very close to the road) at 20 or 30+ m.p.h. Situational awareness is highly developed at a very early age for all here in the Philippines.
The 1st School
This is where met the 1st group of students and experienced the resilience of these children that have been through so much; about half of the 12 or so classrooms at the school were damaged too severely to be used and yet so many happy faces- a completely humbling experience.
The teachers are truly amazing and the curriculum is just as much about good values and character as reading, writing, science and math. These women have so much courage and determination and honor their dead by surviving with strength and dignity.
The elementary kids put on a show for the ground breaking ceremony. I have never been a big fan of Katie Perry music… I am now 'Roar!'. Jason, one of our Knights from our Atlanta castle, was moved to the point where he jumped up and busted out some moves with kids in their very well-choreographed dance number, you would think Justin Bieber was in the house. I thanked the inventor of sunglasses again to hide my tears in that moment.
After their ceremony we received tools to demolish some concrete walls. We figured out how to maximize our knight to tool ratio and got as much done as we could under the conditions. It was sunny and very hot that day and we kept a vigilant on eye on Sean as the he is the palest man in the group being from our Toronto castle.
The teachers prepared an excellent lunch for us of chicken, rice, pork, fruit and I don't think anything on the menu aside from the drinks were purchased in a grocery store, all grown locally…delicious healthy, knight fuel!
After a late lunch we went back to work and took out as much of the wall as would be safe left standing until the rest of the demolitions could resume.
Someone had painted graffiti on a small arch that all the children walk through to enter the school that said "Death is everywhere", I told Margarette, our wrangler, earlier in the day that if she would get me some paint that I would cover it. No kid should have start the day with such a message or the heavy heart it must cause them each day they go to school. We were taking a half hour break to cool off and rest a bit before our show for the kids when she produced some paint and brushes… she is very efficient.
I was really starting to feel the lack of sleep/fatigue wear on me as I began to paint over the graffiti. The kids in the classroom next to me started to sing in unison as a part of the lesson and I could hear them really well because there are open louvers instead of glass panes that seal up. There singing revived me and I did not feel tired anymore, in fact I felt inspired by their ability to stay positive and the strength of these women that taught them. Jim, one of our Knights from our Myrtle Beach castle, joined me in painting at that moment which is good because I would not have finished in time for our show, I hate leaving things unfinished.
We prepared to put on our show for the kids to time with the end of the school day so they would not have to wait on us. It was well received and even though we were pretty exhausted from lack of sleep (we caught our flight from Manila at around 5 am and got into Tacloban around 6 am) the kid's energy flowed into all of us providing a powerful 2nd wind and fun was had by all. We decided that John, another one of our Knights from California, should be the champion as he is of Philippine heritage. He is the smallest of the group and the kids enjoyed watching him vanquish multiple giant white men with swords!
The Dancing Giant
Jason is the father of a brand new baby girl. I think he was especially moved by the plight of these children and being a big kid in his own right was singled out nearly right away by the children at each school. Their chanting of his name testifies to his ability to connect at their level, feel their pain and spread happiness direct from his heart.
The vision of the Giant He-Man Knight of the Realm surrounded by throngs of elementary school children and dancing in a sea of smiles will forever be burned into my memory.
The second day/school was an elementary school in Tabontabon. Of the 10 or so buildings about half were missing a roof. We were tasked with removing the damaged area and replacing it with the new tin provided by Medieval Times donations.
Their ground breaking ceremony was equally moving with traditional dances, playing musical instruments and speeches by the local mayor and school officials and a prayer. All the things I had witnessed and feelings I was having can make you call into question your spirituality. How can these things happen? In the speech that day they explained their religious beliefs that say everything happens for a reason and in the face of all this tragedy the silver lining is that this disaster brings cultures (Us there) together and makes you appreciate your family, home and friends… truly inspirational and testament to their ability to find anything positive out of this horrific disaster.
It was slow going at first until we made a hardware run and got some proper tools and hardware. The were 3 local men (volunteers that had kids in that school) up on the roof with us that did not speak English, but within a short time we had a system going through hand gestures and some comical attempts at speaking the local lingo. Good men with big hearts, broad smiles, simple clothes and very well worn rubber sandals.
I quickly realized that our time would be better spent teaching them how to install the tin properly and not to do the job for them as we were only there for a short time. They very quickly got an understanding of the process and they were off to a fine start running the tin straight and true.
I was extra diligent in the placement of every single step up on that roof that day as I have seen the inside of many emergency rooms in my action packed life but I am pretty sure I did not want to spend time in one there. All things medical; pharmacy, hospital, etc had very long lines for aid.
It is amazing how one child can stand out so much out of so many children. He was always in the front of the pack wherever we were and always with an infectious broad smile. Wire thin running wide open everywhere he went on rubber sandals or no shoes at all.
I don't think he was too interested in his studies as he was rarely in the classroom with the other kids. The teachers had to capture him in the late afternoon of the 2nd day to get him to sit still in a desk for his lessons. If you go back there one day in the future, if he is still there, Mr. Personality will probably be the mayor of Tabontabon! As we all talked about the day with each other on the way home that day it was revealed unbeknownst to each other that nearly all of us had slipped him a secret gift or 2 of gum, knight gloves or a little cash with the promise to keep it our secret. Ivan had a productive day while we were there. When the children hold a hand under their chin in the shape of all L it means "see how handsome or pretty I am?"
At the end of the 2nd day I gave all the tools we purchased to the 3 fathers that were working with us up on the roof at the elementary school. The 3rd day we were in a high school one block away and the weather was not cooperating very much.
Margrette and I were trying to figure what we could do under cover from the rain that would maximize our efforts. I was asking about the other roof and if the 3 fathers that helped us could be trusted to finish what we started yesterday. At the very moment I was asking about the men's character and rooting through the stacks of construction equipment and hardware they had brought for us at the other school, I found the bags of tools that I had given the three fathers. Every single tool was there! 40% of the Philippine population lives on $4 a day or less and the value of those tools could have been bartered for a nice amount of food…question answered and I felt like an ass for asking.
Third School Construction
We decided to finish the roof on the elementary school from the previous day because the weather was not cooperating and I did not want to uncover another roof without leaving it dried in at the end of the day. The large plastic tarps were working well and it did not make sense to uncover a classroom we had no hope of finishing. After the ceremony at the high school we moved back down to the elementary and got it nearly complete. The rain had made the roof very slippery so it was slow going and when thunderstorms come in the kids still get visibly nervous and scatter for cover, understandably so.
There was no dry ground or open space at the high school so we used the same field at the elementary school from the day before. The field, although now wet, was good level grass and enough room for us to do our thing in safety for all. The combined high school and elementary school brought out spectator numbers to approximately 1,000 or more, hard to estimate. The kids where awesome and the show was well received. You would think the Beatles where in Tabontabon that day and again our fatigue from the day's work was immediately erased by the energy drawn from children's excitement and the emotional charge of the experience. Ivan and his mega smile front and center for all up to the very moment we pulled away in the van.
Really no method to the madness as far as getting around on the roads, not many traffic lights to speak of. I think the record for most people on a moped was seven; Two of those being infants standing up and being sandwiched by their relatives holding their arms around the waist of the passenger more forward of them.
One lane passing becomes three, then two, then one with no lane marker, painted lines or road signs. Driving here is not for the faint of heart. One way streets are more of a guideline than law. Distance between vehicles is measured in inches not feet or car lengths as American driving manuals would dictate. For all this chaos we did not see a single accident the entire trip.
I have always been willing to try new things as far as food is concerned. If it passes the visual and sniff test I will give it a shot. I draw the line at fish heads for breakfast! You know its probably not going to be good if someone else orders it and the smell is so repugnant from halfway down the table it ruins your dinner (see Jim's face after trying squid juice)! Living in fear of getting a case of the squeebles kept me less adventuresome than I would be normally.
We had absolutely zero chance of blending in wherever we went. We stayed together as a unit or small groups at all times and people would ask us "Who are you guys"? We would describe briefly what our mission was and listen to the stories of their experiences during the storm. Nearly every conversation would end with "Can you help me with my roof, with my house"? Walking away from those conversations away was tough beyond words and I felt about 1 inch tall.
Near the coast on our way home from work on the last day we stopped by a field where there was a large statue of Jesus. I don't think it was originally meant to be a cemetery but it certainly was one now. There were more fresh makeshift graves than we could count, all from the day of the storm or shortly thereafter. Mostly small graves with toys leading me to believe there were many children. A lot of the markers have multiple names so some more of a mass grave because of running out of space. Again my imagination caused me to lose control and could not contain the emotional energy emanating from this place. The 1,000 yard stare of some people who lost so many was everywhere. You could recognize them in town and smaller outlying villages. For some it was more than they could bear and they just mentally checked out. For those lucky ones who have family and children to take care of certainly have something to occupy their minds to keep them strong and focused until time heals the grayness of depression and the colors of life return.
We got a chance to do a little exploring the final day before catching our flight back to Manila. We visited the Macarthur fallen soldier monument that was damaged during the storm as it was very near where the storm came ashore.
I am happy to report the monument was repaired before we got our photo and MacArthur was feeling well enough to photo bomb us in our group shot.
There was a makeshift cemetery in the field near the monument for a family that perished during the storm:
The Civic Center
The large civic center on the water front was particularly dramatic because so many people drowned after seeking refuge there. The massive concrete structure seemed a good place to get protection from the strong winds and debris. From what was left it looked like it was a popular spot with the younger crowd with small clubs and food shops all the way around the circular building. The 10'-12'flood waters caught them unaware and resulted in great loss of life for those unfortunate enough to be on the ground floor.
Margrette is the amazing lady from World Vision with the unenviable task of wrangling our boisterous group. She patiently answered our questions and also benefited greatly from having a thick skin and a sense of humor like us. She smiles frequently and is energetic but would occasionally put her head down on the seat and exhale deeply as she is also empathic and this place will cause you to overload sometimes.
She organized the logistics of rooms, flights and ground transportation and was a pro in every sense of the word. Near the end of our tour she was already getting things underway for the next group juggling the 2 projects with no problem.
The Take Away
Adversity reveals character; it is strange how you can find beauty in the most unexpected places and the heart of Medieval Times beats altruistic.
The sun goes down over the west coast of California; the Chivalry in Action Team is almost home.