SOMEWHERE IN THE VISAYAS—I am still on the road, on and off, and the hours I spend at the back of a van—shaken to madness from the bumpiness of the roads in lower-class municipalities here, and awed at the magnitude of loss and destruction that our people have been subjected to and which we can withstand - remind me why I am essentially still a land-travel person.
Travel reminds you just how beautiful nature is. We studied these in grade school—hills and moutains, plains, rivers, seas. I don’t know about being fun, but the Philippines is decidedly a beautiful country.
It puts you in your place. You may believe that you’re a hotshot woman of the world. In your mind, the things you have to do are of the utmost importance that even an idle 30 minutes is a waste of your time. You may feel incovenienced at having to share a hotel room with a near-stranger or annoyed that your Internet connection is painfully slow that it takes you forever to load pictures on Facebook. In some cases, there is no signal altogether. You may complain that the only restaurant in town is a lechon manok joint.
You may vow not to eat Andok’s for the next six months, but then you see the houses that have been destroyed by the great typhoon and the tents or makeshift shanties that people have built beside them. There are mothers cooking their meals in an outdoor stove or fathers worrying about the skin complications of their babies from a toxic spill. People are grateful for some biscuits and juice you bring as snacks during your discussions. And it is like you are whacked on the head, disabused of any notions of grandiosity.
It incites your curiosity about humanity in general. In between stretches of narrow, unlit roads with fallen trees on either side, there are stores, other shops and houses that do have electricity. For example, a carinderia owner, whose bathroom you asked to use during a stop, has a tarpaulin saying “In loving memory of ___” inside her living room. Beside is a picture of a boy. You ask, did he die from the storm, too?
Entire communities sitting by the shore have been wiped out, even the houses made of concrete. How on earth do you start building back and looking forward to the days ahead?
The houses that are roofless, windowless, doorless and which stand dark and vacant - where are its occupants? You imagine how in better times, entire families may have sat around teir television sets, watching primetime teleseryes after a simple but filling dinner.
It reminds you that sometimes the usefulness of a camera and a pen/notebook has its limits. As a writer and researcher, you have to document the things you observe and the information you gather. Sometimes, though, you feel like a voyeur for taking people’s pictures or even for jotting down what they tell you. This is the story of their drastically-altered life, and you are but one of the many onlookers to their misery who have come and gone.
It makes you celebrate how people are different from each other. People have unique experiences of tragedy. Who’s to say he or she has it better or worse than the others? They also have different ways of coping with loss. Some stay where they used to be, others feel like they don’thave a choice, yet others leave altogether. How would YOU have responded, if it had happened to you?
It also reminds you how we are the same. Despite our many differences, we all love our families and would sacrifice for them. We are happy just sharing a meal and laughing. So long as we are together, there is nothing we cannot overcome.
It tells you that you are just a speck of dust. Far and removed from your natural environment, you realize you are not indispensable. The office gets by even if you are on leave. The kids display a remarkable deal of maturity you have never imagined. Life goes on - as it has, and as it will. It’s all too humbling.
It makes you think long and hard about why you are here, and where you are headed. Having nothing to do but sit for many hours forces you to reflect on your situation. What is the quality of the choices you have recently made? Are these choices aligned with the vision of yourself and core values you profess to have? What are you doing with your life—and are you even doing enough?
It sets off an avalanche of ideas for present and future stories to write. Like this one. And many more yet to come.
And then the wheels stop turning and you are where you set out to be, and apart from an aching back and a need to stretch, everything just seems crystal clear.