47 days after and I’m back in Manila. Sipping a warm cup of comforting, overpriced, Christmas-themed coffee in an uppity shop where college students feign interest in stacks of readings, and journalists pretend to write. It’s a far different world from where I was in the last couple of months.
47 days covering a flooding in Zambales, an earthquake in Cebu and Bohol, and a super-sized typhoon of epic proportions in Tacloban. Hyperbolic statements can’t even begin to describe that last one.
But to better understand these 47 days, I’d have to do so using disaster-related units. I left Manila before Typhoon Santi hit. I came back way after Typhoon Zoraida left the country’s area of responsibility. In the alphabetized world of local weather-forecasting, 47 days is a lot of letters.
During those 47 days, my cameraman would often ask me when we’d return to Manila. And I’d nonchalantly answer him with the most noncommittal of replies: In a few days, maybe more.
When I got back to Manila, I wanted to write about stories from Tacloban that never made to air – stories about people that would hopefully inspire and engage others into action. But since I got back, I’m either mildly despising or just get virulently put off by every word I write.
I’d always tell myself that perhaps there’s a need to rest a bit, and take the writing in stride. In a few days, it’ll come. Maybe more.
But what else is there to say really that hasn’t been said by other writers, photographers and videographers trying to make sense of what happened in Tacloban? Much has been said. And I’d like to think that at the end of the day, no amount of justice can be done to the stories there. No verbose articles, no gut-punching documentaries, no heart-wrenching photograph, no bullet-points, no Venn diagrams, not even kindergarten stick figures. Nothing can properly explain or illustrate how much Yolanda has changed the lives of everyone caught in its path.
Weird how it took so long before I mentioned that name here. A name that you can’t say without bringing up the pain and destruction it caused in the same breath.
Over the last few days, I tried writing about that. About houses demolished to pieces by a raging storm surge. About tragedy not having any visible demarcation. About the dead bodies scattered in the streets of the city, waiting in vain to be remembered by those who loved them or even by those who knew them. Bodies waiting to be recovered and be given a proper ceremony for a life that was lived and abrasively cut short. About people who survived but were left to fight for that second life because of hunger, thirst – and the worst of all – sorrow.
But I couldn’t. I’d always end up Ctrl-Z-ing every pathos-filled phrase and punctuation.
I was looking at photos I took from Tacloban during that time to get some inspiration, maybe even a sense of sanity. And then I stumbled upon a series of photos that made much more sense to me than the images of tragedy. Photos that depicted hope.
Meet Cesar Cayanon.
A signboard painter since he was 15, Cesar told me that he lost everything in the storm – save for his life, a few cans of paint and a lot of inspiration. The day after the storm, he found some brushes from the debris. And so he painted.
“Hindi ako naniniwalang walang pag-asa. Nandito ang mga Leytenyo.”
Cesar hopes that with his signs, he can inspire others to stay in Tacloban and fight. He says it doesn’t matter if they win or lose in the end. The point is that they fight.
Meet Locela Domingo.
She lost her home from Yolanda. She sent her children to Manila to seek refuge among relatives while she stayed behind. She now lives in a makeshift tent in a sidewalk near the Capitol building.
She told me that she’s always thinking about her children especially now that Christmas is nearing. She’d describe the holiday as her favorite. Her family would be gather around the dinner table, and what little they had, they still found something to celebrate and be thankful for.
This year, Christmas will be different for Locela. With her children away from her, she decided to pitch a tree she found in front of her new home. Instead of the usual star, she placed the flag on top of it.
With what little she has now, she says there are still reasons to be thankful for.
“’Yung Christmas tree para hindi tayo mawalan ng pag-asa, yung bandera, para ipakitang may tiwala pa rin tayo sa bansa natin.”
And finally, meet Aoki and the rest of the Japanese volunteers.
It’s payback, they say. Filipinos helped them out during the devastating quake and tsunami in 2011. And it’s only fitting, they say, to be in Tacloban. Like tragedy, kindness has no borders.
The Japanese team’s primary job was to set-up a medical tent to offer aide to the victims. But every morning, the volunteers would find themselves some free time. And they would spend it with the children who were living in a nearby tent.
They couldn’t understand what the children were telling them about Yolanda. And the children couldn’t even begin to fathom what the Japanese were saying. But in Tacloban, language wasn’t a barrier. People understood what it meant to be there for each other.
Rumiko Nomura, a Japanese volunteer, said they enjoyed playing with the children every single day.
“I love to see their smile because even if there’s a huge disaster, you can still see them smile.”
Stories like Cesar’s, Locela’s and Aoki’s are in abundance in Yolanda-hit Tacloban. You’d see the best in people in the worst of circumstances.
You’d hear them and meet them, and suddenly, you find yourself believing that like everything else, this too shall pass.
Hope has a contagious quality. It reaches your black-forlorn heart, sticks to you and infiltrates your being in the most unexpected of ways.
Tacloban and the rest of the places that were hit by the typhoon has a long way before it recovers. Donations are still needed – from food and water to clothes and shelter. Vigilance is needed to make sure that the government does its job of rehabilitating these typhoon-struck areas and that they serve the people and not other interests. People who are still looking for the missing need a more systemized way of finding loved ones, to give the dead the proper ceremonies and the living, the proper closure. Creating jobs, fixing schools and hospitals, bringing back power – the list is endless.
It’s going to be a long time before anyone can say that everything will be okay. Certainly not tomorrow.
But with hope slowly creeping in, who knows?
In a few days, months, years. Maybe more.
Not today. But it’ll come.