So what happens when you pluck 18 plucky, young journalists from different developing countries and then fly them off to a foreign land, have them live together, school them about their craft, immerse them with assignments that test both human frailty and hopelessness which in the end will teach them more about each other’s culture, faith, hopes and dreams?
No, you do not get a Disney movie. Instead, you get the Malaysian Press Institute.
Every year, the Malaysian government would invite more than a dozen reporters from various fields — print, TV, radio, multimedia — in a fellowship that is not unlike Tolkien’s group of humans, hobbits, dwarves and elves who take on a singularly-goaled adventure. Except for the part where we have to destroy an evil, all-powerful ring.
Getting invited to talk to students is always a fun thing. Except for the hours that precede it when you’re cramming in preparation, college-style, replete with cups of watered-down cappuccino and empty power point slides. It’s a frustrating thing, really. Not because you don’t want to do it and delay the inevitable. But preparing for these sorts of things forces you to finally pause from the seemingly endless chain of stories, take a break from the daily grind of reporting, and actually look back and find meaning in seemingly meaningless moments in your career.
You’d want to believe that shooting it from the hip will ultimately save you from the utter embarrassment of saying nothing in from of hundreds of empty faces, staring at you for being an ass. But improv-ing a talk is kinda like a salesman selling you a wondrous new product — BS-ing your way though it but having the customer ultimately shutting the door in your face because they didn’t buy what you were saying.
I’m giving a big talk this week. And I don’t like doors getting shut in my face.
Which is why I’ve decided to lock myself in a room. Stare at the last eight years of my career in the face. And reflect.
But the real point of this writing is that I’m just procrastinating.
Because eight years worth of reportorial baggage can be a bit daunting.
Wish me luck kids.
Wrote this two years ago when I spent Christmas in Iligan City to cover the aftermath of Sendong. Until now, the memories remain.
I have, as my friends call it, the Macaulay Culkin syndrome.
Every Christmas, I dream of not being home alone.
Since returning to the Philippines eight years ago, my December calendar is usually filled with four words – work, work and more work. It’s a way of coping. For years, I’ve stood by this rationalization that if I keep myself busy, I won’t have a second to feel the loneliness of not having a family to spend Christmas with.
My family lives in the United States. Rarely do they get to visit the country during the holiday season. So our Christmases are usually spent on the phone – greeting each other and trying our hardest to feign merriment just to hide the worry and guilt of being together at a time when families should. That’s the life of an OFW family. Well, in this case, I’d like to think more of myself as the OFW.
But this Christmas was to be different.
Remember that moment when Kevin McCallister, Macaulay Culkin’s character in the movie, wakes up on Christmas day to find his family there waiting for him after being left home alone? Well, I was to have that Macaulay Culkin moment. That one Christmas when you wake up and your dream is right there.
My family made plans to fly out to Manila to spend Christmas here. For the first time in years, I wasn’t going to be home alone. I took a leave from work. I made sure that the few days that they’ll be spending here will more than make up for all the Christmases we weren’t able spend together. With all the vindictiveness I could muster, I was going to put the past Christmases to shame.
But as they say, even the best-laid plans go wrong. They hit a travel snag and couldn’t fly out ‘till Christmas Eve. Which was fine. Delaying gratification gives things more worth, more weight.
But then Tropical Storm Sendong hit. December 18, I found myself being shipped to Iligan City to cover the aftermath of the year’s deadliest storm. Since I wasn’t sure when I’ll be flying back to Manila, my family decided to stay in the US and delay their trip for a few more weeks.
So at a time when I thought I’d be hanging Christmas decorations in our home, I found myself walking through rows of houses destroyed by the storm, visiting empty homes that reek of the smell of mud and death. Instead of attending parties, I was in funeral homes – counting cadavers upon cadavers. At at time when I thought I could have a whiff of Christmas, I was wearing a face mask to protect myself from the stench of decaying bodies. I wasn’t with family or friends. I was with strangers in evacuation centers. I wasn’t listening to Christmas songs. I was hearing stories, painful ones, of victims who lost their loved ones during the massive flood that followed the storm.
A few days ago, I was walking around Barangay Hinaplanon – one of the hardest-hit areas in Iligan. Not really going anywhere but just going somewhere. Out of the corner of my eye, there was a boy covered in mud. He was digging with his father. They were looking for their Christmas tree which they lost during the flood. Behind them was a throng of neighbors, picking up whatever they could find valuable in a mountain of rubble.
The boy’s name is JK. And at a time when smiles were a rarity in Iligan, he greeted me with one. I approached him and asked him what he was doing. He told me that he wanted to dig up their tree so that they could still have Christmas. His family planned on spending it together and he has been looking forward to it all year. He thought that without the tree, his family couldn’t have it anymore.
It’s strange how victims of calamities have so little to give but so much to offer. There I was, thinking of the what-ifs of Christmas and JK showed me what is. I looked at JK and I saw myself – a kid wanting to have that Christmas. That amid the devastation, confusion and the pain, JK underscored what’s important during Christmas – family.
I shared JK’s story that night in living rooms across the country through TV Patrol. Upon hearing his story, a kind-hearted Iliganon messaged me and arranged for money to be wired so that Sagip Kapamilya can buy a Christmas tree for JK. The very next day, JK’s wish was granted. Under their new tree, his family gathered and had their Noche Buena.
It’s far from what they had before. But it was more than enough for them.
In the darkest of times, JK had his moment. He woke up to a Christmas worth celebrating. He was Macaulay Culkin.
Of course, their problems are far from over. But at least for one day, one moment, there was hope. Hope that people will continue to believe even when tragedy strikes. Hope in strangers sharing what they have.
It’s Christmas today. I’ve received countless messages and phone calls from friends, family and colleagues asking how I was here in Iligan. Most of them in disbelief, others sympathetic, that I spent Christmas here.
Strangely, I’m alone but I feel right at home.
It’s not the Christmas I imagined but it’s the Christmas I needed. If anything, JK’s story reminded me that even when things get rough, we can still make that Macaulay Culkin moment.