Traveling would be my story. This was my resolution at the beginning of 2013.
The journey took me to unbelievable places, and it was a different story each time. I had gotten hopelessly lost in a city during a big festival; swung like Tarzan in a magical island; painted my whole face black and danced until the sky faded into darkness; and watched teary-eyed as an entire night sky filled with floating lights.
The story keeps changing and evolving every time; if there is one thing I am absolutely sure of, it is that I would always be surprised.
In February, I found myself in Samar, one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines. I came to the southwestern part, along with a small team, to visit towns and interview people. I was there to help create a development plan, and while it was depressing to be constantly surrounded by the destruction left by Yolanda, I found myself mesmerized by the people – their smiles, strength, and courage.
The kids were, of course, a joy to interact with. While we were surveying the damage in one school, a whole hive of students followed closely behind, whispering and giggling as I snapped photos of their classrooms. They would peek through the broken windows and unhinged doors, exclaiming “Picture, picture!” Every now and then, I would turn around and call back to them, “Picture, picture!” They would swarm around me, those smiling faces with their twinkling eyes, and pose for the camera. The grown-ups were calmer and gentler, but were sources of beautiful wisdom. Our driver, Manong Ponsing, told me about how the storm had washed away his home in Tacloban as easily as if it were made of paper and cardboard. Luckily, his uncle’s home was just nearby and the current was flowing in that direction, so he and his whole family were able to swim the short but harrowing distance to the house. “The first thing I did after that was say a prayer,” he said in a low, husky voice. “I am just grateful that my family is safe and complete.”*
One scorching afternoon, I met a nurse in the town of Marabut, who told me about the trauma Yolanda had left on the townspeople, and shared stories that left me quiet and thoughtful: a woman who couldn’t sleep for a week after she lost her husband to the typhoon; a child who would run away and disappear for days at a time; a man who climbed up a coconut tree and refused to come down for fear of another storm surge. She shared her own tale about the angry, howling winds of the typhoon and how she and her family had found solace in a comfort room in their house. “It’s funny, it really did give us comfort that night,” she said with a chuckle.
I came across municipal officials who talked about their own experiences on the field. In the wake of Yolanda, it was surprising how many of them still had a positive outlook on public service. And with so much negative press on the government – about what they’re doing or not doing – it was refreshing to find leaders who were taking initiative and going beyond what was required, so they could better serve their people. The fisheries officer in Marabut, for example, was a shorthaired woman who learned how to dive at 52 – despite the age limit of 50 – so she could survey the municipal waters and know first-hand the state of the marine life. “My instructor told me age is just a number. As long as my body can take it then it’s okay. So I did it and I’m glad I did because I get to see the different kinds of fishes. It is very beautiful underneath the sea.”
The agricultural officer of Sta. Rita was always a pleasure to listen to because of his optimistic views on change and progress. He had a mild and meek expression on his face, but when he talked it was always with purpose and passion, “I interact with farmers and help them in their work. I was a farmer too and so was my dad,” he shared. “The best part about my job is when they approach and thank me for helping them. Because of these experiences I learned that it isn’t impossible for farmers to rise from poverty. If you really want it and work for it, then it will happen.”
I took the stories these people entrusted to me and treasured them like the gems that they were. Unsurprisingly, it was also through these people that I was able to discover the beauty of Samar as they pointed out the amazing sights that made them proud to call it their home.
Traveling surprises you. But it also has the capacity to disturb and hit you where it hurts the most. Somewhere in the middle of Samar, I realized that there are countless stories out there waiting to be told. This isn’t just about my story anymore. It’s our story. Not just their problems, but our problems – as a country and as a people. And I know there is only so much one person can do, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying.
I hope that by telling these stories I can make people see a different side of the Philippines, to see different ways of living and points of view – that there are individuals out there who are doing more, going beyond what is asked – and understand that a country is only as good as the collective efforts of its people.
*All interviews were in Tagalog and translated into English.
Entered this story to Wego’s Life-Changing Travel Story Contest! Would really, really appreciate it if you could visit their Facebook Page and like or share my entry. They posted it on their timeline. Thank you! 🙂