Chivalry in Action
Philippines - Sean D
For me, the adventure began once we left the airport in Manila. I'm not a terribly experienced traveler. In fact most of my experiences have been limited to the eastern half of Canada, some of the United States, and the company's resorts in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. So for me, Manila alone was near sensory overload: The acrid diesel fumes from millions of small engines in trikes, jeepney-buses, and cars threatened to burn out your sinuses, throat and lungs. Blood-shot, sleep-deprived eyes, widened in fear of imminent vehicular collision, which you cannot believe hasn't happened a hundred times over in this fish-school of mechanized humanity. The cacophony of engines and horns; endlessly beeping courtesy-honks of "I'm here!" reduce conversation to near-shouts. Oppressing heat and humidity, inflicting the ubiquitous "Jungle-nuts", and "Swamp-a**", immediately upon partaking of a non-A.C. environment. All of this prompted the immediate thoughts of; "Wow…I better pay attention… I'm way out of my element here"
Upon venturing out the next day to present World Vision and the Philippine Red-Cross with the company's donations, we were treated to a better cross-sectional view of Manila during the daytime. The better parts of Manila were not unlike Toronto; tall new condos, shopping malls, billboards and advertisements, chain-restaurants, new cars and trucks. Some parts of Manila seemed more dystopian; homelessness, poverty, squalor, corrugated tin shacks for homes, garbage, open sewage, pollution. There was also the palpable sense of the widened division between the haves, and the have-nots, punctuated by the presence of metal-detectors, and pat-downs from guards armed with shotguns and automatic weapons. All of this made me feel very conscious of how we might be perceived during our tenure here; ambassadors of charity and kindness, or more tourist-exploiters?
This was brought even more into focus once we were at the World Vision offices. Jim, Jason and I were all disconcerted at some of the waivers and contracts we were being asked to sign. Most telling of said documents we were asked to read and sign dealt with the manner in which volunteers were expected to conduct themselves. It was also impressed upon us to be mindful of our conduct around people in general. Everyone we would encounter in Tacloban will have experienced some grievous loss; family, friends, home, livelihood. I began to feel the importance and impact our visit could have. Increased atmospheric pressure to strike the right tone with those we would encounter, weighed on our minds, bodies, and spirits.
We were very well received at the World Vision offices. Everyone was dutifully impressed with Leigh's oral presentation of what Medieval Times is, and what we were here to do. They were equally impressed with our fight demonstration led by Tim. We happily posed for lots of pictures with all of the staff, most of whom still seemed unsure and slightly bewildered by the presence of six large white guys yelling and fighting with swords. The well appointed offices of the lawyer chairing the Philippine Red-Cross were equally receptive if smaller staffed, with most wearing a similar "What are you doing here?" expression.
2:30 AM Tacloban bound on a short flight from Manila. The jet was full to capacity with foreign aid workers and Philippinos visiting or returning. The first thing I noticed stepping off the plane was the smell of smoke; wood-smoke of camp or cooking fires, and the chemical smell of burning plastic and garbage. What is an airport really? Most of us can conjure a mental image of one readily. The broadest definition would have to be; an area of tarmac composed of asphalt or concrete large enough to accommodate the landing taxiing, and takeoff of airplanes. That was all that remained of the Tacloban airport, accompanied by a chain-link fence shell of a terminal. After we collected our bags from a ridiculously damaged carousel, we all piled into our arranged transport and began our odyssey.
The utter devastation was omnipresent throughout the island of Leyte. Virtually nothing was left standing. The airport was simply the first structure we observed, and during our entire 4 days on the island of Leyte the only structures we observed that hadn't sustained some damage had been constructed after Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda. Coconut trees, power-poles and lines, concrete, steel, aluminum, garbage, everything was everywhere! Along every road we traveled one/two room corrugated tin and canvas shacks with coconut wood frames had been erected right along the side of the road. They reminded me of the ramshackle forts that we would make in the woods as children. Most of the population of Leyte lived in such dwellings. A passing glance though open doors and windows revealed how the population was living; dirt floors, naked children, minimal possessions, open flowing sewage, roaming feral dogs, while dinner (poultry and swine) was outside pecking or rooting through garbage. "Man these people are living on the edge!" Leigh would often state, incredulous at what we were witness to. I couldn't help but agree, but which edge was more precipitous? The very edge of the road upon where their homes now stood, choking on the exhaust of those small engines? The edge of starvation and malnutrition from what little food they were consuming? The edge of rampant diseases like typhus and dysentery to which they were all obviously exposed? Or the edge of Mother Nature to which all are disturbingly more vulnerable, especially those dwelling in a home a strong fart could knock over.
We could scarcely begin to comprehend how people could live like this, and began to pepper our World Vision envoy Marge with questions; "Why are they living on the side of the road? Why don't they build better homes? Why don't they have grocery stores for food? Why is there still so much devastation and destruction still around 5 months after the typhoon? Why? Why? Why? Why?" We sounded like children, and Marge patiently answered; "They live beside the road to have access to electricity. They build their shelters from the materials available. This is their home; there is nowhere else for them to go. This is the only means available for them to get food." And so on.
It was then that we checked into our accommodations in Tacloban. After the luxury of the Sofitel, the Asia Stars Hotel left much to be desired; no hot water, benches for beds, science class mold/fungus experiments, roaches, odor of a summertime dumpster. After we all conferred on the state of our rooms we made jokes, but it wasn't lost on us that compared to nearly everyone else in Tacloban, we would still be living like Kings.
The first school we visited was an elementary school in Dagami. We stepped out of the van to cheers and screams of delight from the schoolchildren. Like the Beatles, like aliens landing from another world, the children could not stop staring at us. Most of them had never seen a white person outside of a picture in a magazine or television. We were greeted with pleasantries from local dignitaries, and then several performances of dance and song from the various grades. Jason got up to dance with the grade 3's and became the children's hero for the rest of the day. Following the presentation we began our demolition of some walls on a collapsed school room. Children were playing about here, yet there was debris and glass everywhere, surely we could get this cleaned up in a day. One immediate problem presented itself; no real tools other than some broken, inadequate sledges, and shovels with holes through the blade. This could take longer than we thought.
After lunch I was fastidiously reapplying sunblock in the only shade available. Being fair-skinned and exposed to numerous burns throughout my life, I didn't think getting a sunburn here was such a good idea. The children gathered around staring, pointing, and laughing; "Why is the whitest person we've ever seen, covering himself in more white liquid? Is that why he's so white?" The children touched the skin of my arms, examined my freckles and hair, not believing what they were seeing. I made a move to flick some sunscreen at one boy, he rose up his fists to fight me off, I dropped back into a Cat's-stance and did a Muwashuke block. "WHOOOAAA!!!!" Hmmm…. The kids like the martial-arts huh? Tim likes joking with me whenever I do Karate or Tai Chi in front of him; "Sean's so pretty! Easy there Qui-Chang Kang, that's not what we're doing here!" But these kids seem to like it. I went through all of the Tai Chi sets I knew, and some Karate katas as well. The children laughed and applauded, and threw invisible "Haduken!" fire-balls back at me. Funny how some things can translate any language barrier.
Back to work. Demolishing the wall revealed the sub-standard construction and engineering practices which flourish when there's no regulation; sand in cinder-blocks instead of concrete, a quarter of the requisite steel rebar necessary to support a wall of that size. It was slow progress and obvious we weren't going to finish the job. We were all a little frustrated. None of us wanted to leave the job unfinished, but there are only so many hours in the day, and the school day was done.
Jason led a procession of children to the back field where we performed our fight demonstration. All the school-children, the teachers, and even most of the local adults stopped to watch our performance. Leigh got them cheering, and we didn't disappoint. The loudest cheers were for Jason! The children followed us back to the van to see us off, cheering the whole way.
The next two days took us to TabonTabon, first to an elementary school, and then a high school. The itinerary and result of each day was the same as the first. Not unreasonable expectations for construction or repair in one day, but again we were left without the means to accomplish our goals. This was the frustrating element of our work; we had the mind in Tim and the muscle and some experience in the rest of us, but we were without the tools and equipment which would have made these types of projects so simple in North America. I'm not as handy as some other people, and I never thought that I would ever want my cordless drill or electricity in general so bad in my life. I was beginning to understand how such damage and devastation could go so long unrepaired.
The weather didn't help either; raining so long and hard, the school grounds looked like miniature versions of Venice Italy. One telling moment; prior to the rain our second day, the children had been gathered around Jason in a mob, when the first rain began to fall the children all screamed and immediately scattered for indoors. Later the children would pass through or play in the rain as though nothing was wrong. Marge explained that some of the children who survived the typhoon had anxiety whenever a storm came in, as they had difficulty distinguishing between a normal storm-cell, and the typhoon.
What made up for the frustration was the children, with little Ivan leading the way. It's nearly impossible to explain how happy these children were to see us; following us around, laughing, trying to touch our skin or hair, peppering us with questions in broken English "What's your name?!". Their energy and happiness was absolutely infectious. We could have stayed there for weeks, doing repair jobs throughout the day, and performing for the children at the end of each day would have made it all worthwhile. I suppose that part of reason the children were so enamored with us is the novelty of our presence in general, which would eventually wear off the longer we stayed, but I still would enjoy every minute of it.
Our time on Leyte was coming to an end. Our last day we drove around to see a little more of the island, Leigh said the climate and vegetation reminded him of Hawaii or Florida. We saw the MacArthur memorial, and an impressive bridge spanning the water dividing a portion of the island. We were afraid that we might not get back to Manila when a violent storm-cell battered us while we awaited our plane in the remains of the Tacloban airport. Back at the Sofitel in Manila we all had a greater appreciation for many of the things we take for granted, and were again reminded of the gulf in the quality of life which separates the haves from the have-nots.
It would take legions of workers, materials and years of time before the population of Leyte could enjoy so many of the things we take for granted here in North America. However, whenever I think back to my time spent there, I don't think about the destruction. I think about the laughing happy children like Ivan, and I'm grateful for the short time that I was able to spend with them, and those happy memories that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.