Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hope, Faith and Love...Yolanda Aftermath.

Thoughts and realizations bombarded our minds as we go through each town in Samar and Tacloban... If we could express it through pen and paper compiled together, we could write a book about what we all saw... Reality.

We each have our own story even though we went there as a team, we still have one goal and that is to spread awareness to the rest. Here's how mine started...

After the typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit The Philippines, we could see almost on every news channel the devastation it has caused that took lives of thousands and destroyed their homes and livelihood. My initial reaction was, "What could I do to help?". It was an open question to everyone. After seeing tons of shocking images of the typhoon aftermath, I still could not believe it just happened in a day. Already filled with vast amount of sadness, I then found out that we lost our friend, Agit Sustento (bassist of the local band Kadangyan) during the typhoon together with his family. His wife and mother found dead but his 3 year old son, Tarin and his father are still missing. Tarin was wearing only his diaper and a life vest during the typhoon. My heart broke into pieces as I imagined myself losing my own son and I said to myself I can't just sit here and do nothing. Since that day I couldn't stand just being idle and comfortable that way in my house watching the people there cry for help in the news and all over the internet.

I called immediately Edwin Pamanian, the man behind True Manila (TM), an organization that I am proudly part of, and asked him if he wanted to go also to Tacloban and some surf communities in Eastern Samar to do an ocular and to deliver donations as well, he was also thinking of the same thing. True Manila gathered donations and raised funds for the relief goods. We then set a meeting, we gathered together to pack relief goods with other TM volunteers and discussed the best way to bring the donations to affected areas considering all suggestions that all became options. There I met Miguel Rivera, who happens to live also in my hometown in Laguna (what a small world we live in). That time I was beginning to think I was really meant to start a journey with these people. Fortunately, we found out that Miguel's TM batchmate, Sofonias Gabonada, was with an organized group going to each town in Samar as well (what a blessing!); together with Ryan Taclan (the son of the congresswoman Sofonias is working for) and Sister Maria Fe Gerodias. Everything fell into place, so we decided to take that option. Miguel and Sofonias coordinated with each other to hook up True Manila with their group. We finalized everything, after that we found ourselves in a caravan with around 18 tons of relief goods locked and loaded in 3 trucks headed to Samar to get distributed to over 6,000 families. Donations from ABS-CBN's foundation Sagip Kapamilya, True Manila and the rest from the humble hearts who care. Right then and there we were off to a journey to touch lives as many as we can.

The funny thing was, after finalizing things, Sofonias' group only had plans distributing goods to all of Eastern Samar. They had a plan...and we, True Manila people (me, Edwin, Miguel and two film students from Germany Theo Asmuth and Gregory Weisert) DIDN'T... We did'nt even know when and how we are going to fly back home to Manila... "The best plan is to have no plans at all" as we always say. That line became our motto. It didn't confuse me, I just thought we live by it because paying it forward is the only thing that matters in our hearts and minds. To do what we think is right and extend our love to each and everyone, to resolve what ever problem that may come our way and push through. And to help in every possible way we can. Because there's always an answer... There's always a solution to everything. It all goes down to pure intentions of giving and making a difference. "What powerful words came into my mind before it materialized" I thought to myself. Before I knew it, our journey already has begun...

"Oh well, anything goes..."

I will not break down detail by detail the hours that took place in each point we had taken because it is close to limitless (notice the exaggeration). It is true, the process of getting relief there is very slow... But blaming and ranting about how the government's system works will not be a help neither. Everything is different than what the news say on TV. There are problems within problems. Physically, most of the roads are broken so consider extra hours given to land travel. It took us two and a half days to reach Allen, Northern Samar from Manila via car and ship because we took RORO (a large commercial boat) along with the 3 trucks and 1 van from Bulan, Sorsogon. Most of the time we were on the road. From Catbalongan to Borongan, Samar, we were lucky enough to not been hit by a landslide. There was nonstop rain and the weather was gloomy adding up sadness in the sky. We have almost mastered the art of sleeping while sitting in the van.

After dropping off thousands of packed relief goods in Eastern Samar namely Balangkayan, Hernani, Quinapondan, Salcedo, Mercedes, Guiuan, Giporlos and Basey... It is very depressing to see how devastated the whole area is. It is shocking, confusing... A lot of questions roam around my head, "How will they rebuild what's lost?", "How about their livelihood?", "How do they feel each day waking up to this?", "How will they survive?". After helping with the distribution of relief goods in Eastern Samar, then we were off to our next destination... Tacloban. That time, Sofonias' group didn't go with us. True Manila team went there with one truck that carried our goods and was also bound to be there. We rode the truck with Gregory, Theo, Edwin and other drivers at the back with the sacks of relief goods, while me and Miguel sat in front with the driver at that time and passed through San Juanico bridge. Apparently, one of the truck drivers has a family there and up until then, he has no idea if they had survived.

Just a few minutes upon reaching Tacloban City, the stench of the rotting dead bodies pervaded the air. If Eastern Samar was bad, Tacloban I must say, is worse. "It is a living, breathing nightmare", as my fellow volunteer, Miguel, describe it. It is muddy, and almost every structure in the city were totally wiped out. Trucks and cars hanging on trees, dead human bodies along the streets remain unclaimed and dogs and other animals also rotting beside the roads, such as pigs etc. According to one resident, you can barely see the sea before the typhoon occurred. Now, based on what I saw, Tacloban is a total wasteland. It's hard to accept that fact, coming from a volunteer's aspect, what more from the victims'?

After 6 days of relief operation it is then I felt my body getting tired... Within those days I barely had sleep. We only had shower twice in Samar, none in Tacloban (oops). We barely ate, because we gave away the food we had in our bags because we couldn't possibly eat overhearing people who are getting dizzy because they are hungry and thirsty at the airport while waiting for the C130 to fly everyone to Manila. It is impossible to ride the plane if you don't have connections inside. It took us overnight just to take a flight to Manila with the survivors. These survivors waited days just to ride the C130, most of them are with children and without food and water, of course they will die in hunger. DSWD workers didn't even know when they last gave water to them, that is when we realized that these people from DSWD doesn't really care because we were thirsty and starving ourselves. After that our True Manila team started to act and talked them out to give us the boxes of water to distribute it to the people in and outside the airport. I, while looking after our belongings while the boys were around giving water to everyone, opened a box of cereal in one of our bags because that was the only food left and approached mothers with children and gave some to them. At around sunset, we finally boarded the plane. Honestly, the plane was packed, we were like sardines in an oven, we lost our dignity. There are no seats, only at the sides, for the patients. We were all standing up during the 1 hour flight, imagine how a mother of five can manage her children like that.

When we got to Villamor Airbase in Manila, we were amazed how organizations worked well with each other and when some volunteers got in touch with us when they found out how we volunteered and that we just flew in from Tacloban. You could see in their eyes the willingness to help and to just be there for the people. Our experience really is an eye-opener to all of us... One of many. Especially to the two Germans who were with us the whole relief operation. It is very touching to see a lot of foreigners who took a step forward and traveled thousands of miles and risked their own lives just to help our countrymen. With our spirits inspired and moved, we went straight to Jollibee (a famous Filipino fastfood chain) and celebrated the experience that have changed our lives forever.

Personally, I think volunteering is a risk. You risk your own life for the sake of others. You do not care about your own or your team's protection, because you know also that they know what they're doing. Simply because you share the same passion and compassion to others. I think that's what helping is all about, putting the lives of your fellow people ahead of yours. My advice to those who want to volunteer first hand when disaster strikes... First, make sure you are fit to volunteer and does not have any major illness, you might turn from a volunteer to a victim, it is better to be safe than sorry. Second, expect the unexpected, always be ready, you will never know if the worst is going to happen. Lastly, never be afraid to ask, especially in times you can't do something or not capable of doing it, there will be always someone out there who can. Help one another, that's the key.

If you don't trust the government (well, who does nowadays?), get up and serve the people yourself. As someone said to my fellow volunteer David Carson (American), "Money will come and go. How often do you get to have a true life-changing experience? In this case, it's not just your life that will be changed. If you're thinking about it, your heart has already decided. You're just waiting on the brain to catch up." As for David's advice, "Put the mind at ease and follow the call."

See, we can always make use of what we have and what we don't have. It's just up to us how we will get our acts together and figure that there are a lot of ways to help. We should always remind ourselves that help and acts of kindness doesn't only exist when tragedies like these hit us. We could always raise hope to humanity and extend our love anytime and anywhere as long as we are alive. Let us make our lives worth living.

I will say it again, everything is different than what we see on TV. We saw the truth with our own eyes. And I must say, we have the right to bash our government. Because there are enough relief goods for everyone, it's just that if you entrust your donations to the government, it will all be held down first and just sit in the city hall (or God knows where) for a while. In the midst of crisis, when help is needed by the people, personal agendas are on top of their list. But on a lighter note, it's amazing to see volunteers from different organizations communicating and helping each other for the clearing and the rebuilding, to have an organized system and equal distribution of the relief goods to all communities not only in the places that can be reached by car. Volunteers are the ones doing it instead of those who are in the position. It is really a shame but that's how it goes down there. Except for foreign aides and NGO's, everything is disorganized and we really did not see any government effort there. Okay, maybe there's a small effort and yet, terrible management, there is no organized system. I just want to share this, a few of many experiences we had in Samar and Tacloban. If you are going to post another rant on social networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter... You might want to think again. Please know what is the real situation there, go there so you would witness yourself from the perspective of a volunteer, a victim, a survivor, a patient, a doctor, a soldier, a nun, everyone... Because in my own opinion, I don't think we have the right to rant and complain, sometimes what we say is completely different than what is really happening. We don't assume something we don't know. Keep your negative opinions to yourself because it is not just YOU who is affected with this tragedy...  it is ALL OF US! Just do the best you can to help and let them feel loved. Notice how it would reflect positively in your life.

"Be the change you want to see..." - Mahatma Gandhi

Few of many...

For those who want to volunteer first hand in Tacloban please get in contact with True Manila or Kusog Tacloban, like their page on Facebook. They will help you once you're there. They really need manpower to do carpentry, clearing etc... God bless you all!