I’ve been based in Tacloban for barely a month now and walking around the city never ceases to amaze me at how devastated these areas have been, how much work has been put in to get to this state seven months after Supertyphoon Yolanda (internationally known as Haiyan), and how much more work is still left to do.
While walking back from the book launch of this beautifully moving book entitled “Agam: Filipino Narratives on Uncertainty and Climate Change”, a colleague was telling me of her experience doing the rapid assessment in Tacloban City only 3 days after Yolanda. Seven months ago, the road we were travelling in was strewn with debris. So much so, that she said you could barely walk on the road. In my month in Tacloban, I can imagine what this debris was like… trees, parts of homes, rocks, water from the sea… sometimes dead bodies. She told me that the communities along that road were in confusion and pointed out the little eskinita (alleyway) into one barangay where she was led to talk to some of the community members… the community where the barangay captain had broken down in tears in front of her and she didn’t know what to say or do.
I can imagine being in that position, in front of someone who had lived through that moment of Yolanda. It’s happened a couple of times here in this city. I first came here six months after the supertyphoon, where there is now some semblance of normalcy. Businesses being opened, houses repaired, schools opening, students laughing and giggling to each other as they walk home. You get a little bit desensitized and in my case coming in this late, you can’t fully imagine what it was like. But then you talk to someone or pass by something and you have a moment of clarity that reminds you of how devastating this experience must have been to this people. And sometimes when that realization happens when with a person telling you about their experience, you feel very alone and separate from them; divided by the line defined as the disaster, of which they are on the side that they experienced Yolanda… and you didn’t. It is a lonely and deep pockets of realisation, of imagining what it must have felt like to go through the supertyphoon. It happens in moments taking the road passing Tanauan and seeing cemeteries with little makeshift memorials, passing by the solid-looking Coke compound which looks safe but was where some workers drowned from the storm surge inside. It happens in moments when your staff comes to you with a leave form apologetically asking you if he can take a break tomorrow so he can move into his house and you ask why, thinking he came in from another province, and he tells you his house was totally washed away and he smiles at you because it is finally rebuilt, seven months after. It happens in the beginning of your presentation to the women leaders of Tanauan when you realize in the middle of your introduction to tread lightly because you don’t want to stir up things they don’t want you to stir up and you have to be sensitive about something you did not personally go through. And then you falter a little and lose your train of thought. It happens while reading the reflection of a writer in the book Agam, of her parents sending her off from the province with love and sandwiches, so proud their daughter is going to be someone abroad… and then for the daughter to hear of the supertyphoon and come back, terrified for her parents.
Tonight on the tricycle back to our temporary home while talking a good talk with my colleague, I drank the sights in. I do that during the day to take note of places to eat in, grocery stores to check out, pharmacies to keep note of, as I will be based here for a while. Tonight, two nights before the famous Pintados festival of Tacloban, I drank the sights in for an entirely different reason. The colorful banderitas, the new establishments opening with bright tarpaulins of welcome, the smell of barbecue in the air, the crowds of people walking towards the city centers, the cars and vehicles on the street even at this time of the night. On another year, this might just be a sight of festivity. But for the first Pintados festival happening after the supertyphoon, this is a semblance of normalcy, a push that the situation can’t stay as it was for the last seven months. People need to move on, to be given a chance to forget some things, to get hope that this kind of devastation may never happen again, to be ready for the inevitable when it does come.
It has been a huge struggle to wrap my head around everything that has happened in Tacloban… and a lot has happened, from the government, from other organizations, from the people themselves. It has been a lot of learning, of how situations changed and anticipations and projections of how they will continue to change. It has been as big a struggle to wrap my heart around the biggest disaster I’ve ever worked in. But right now, I feel like we are collectively standing in a precipice; behind us was the response of the world and that short step off the cliff ahead of us is the real test of what we have to do to rebuild… and rebuild better so this kind of damage never happens again. And there is so much left to do to rebuild.
I’m looking forward to tomorrow and to Pintados. I’ll take it the same way residents of this city will take it. For fun, for normalcy and more importantly, for hope. Filipinos will keep picking up and plugging on. And the people here will smile and laugh harder, bigger and longer than how hard they cried in those days after the disaster.
I am so very proud to be a Filipino.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.