Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Stories from Leyte

This is my column today, April 8, 2014.


I woke up Sunday morning in Leyte to heavy downpour, the kind that makes one want to snuggle deeper in bed and not get up at all.  I would have wanted to linger in bed and enjoy the rare weather phenomenon -  just barely 24 hours ago I was on the verge of passing out due to heatstroke as I addressed a graduating class of almost 500 pupils in one of the biggest public schools in Tacloban City—but I had a catch to flight back to Manila in a few hours. 
A heavy downpour in summer is unusual, at least for those of us in Metro Manila who suffer uninterrupted weeks of sweltering heat during this time of the year.  A downpour would be welcome development if only it weren’t spawned by a typhoon that was predicted to hit the southern part of the country any day now.  News of the typhoon spread very quickly and by noontime people were talking about imminent destruction that might just rival Yolanda’s.  I had to go online to search for more accurate weather bulletins to allay the fears of kith and kin. 
It will take some time before people in Leyte recover from the trauma they experienced during the super typhoon.  Stories of miraculous survival and heartrending loss, as well as of courage and valor, during the height of the super typhoon and in the critical days after, were still the most animated topic of conversation in many encounters with relatives and friends.   I was particularly  awed by the story about how a friend (she was editor of my college paper when I was a freshman) survived and found herself in Basey, Samar after being washed ashore from Tacloban City in Leyte and after floating at sea for almost 10 hours clinging tightly to a piece of wood.  There were a number of similar stories and I could only wish someone would be able to put together a compilation of these stories into a book someday.
I was in Tacloban for a speaking engagement.  The speaking engagement went well despite the unbearable heat.  It was heartwarming to see children being kids again as they tried to enjoy the ceremonies that marked their rite of passage from elementary to high school.  Good things do come out of the most horrifying experiences and in this particular case, I noted the collective effort of teachers and parents to make the graduation ceremonies more fun and meaningful.  The kids did a song and dance routine a la High School Musical for their graduation song instead of a more formal choral rendition of, say, The Impossible Dream.  
The kids were also not required to wear togas nor school uniforms but were instead asked to come in their Sunday best, which can be and was indeed interpreted loosely.  I saw kids wearing elaborate party dresses while others opted to come in simple sundresses.  In lieu of the more formal toga, the kids were asked instead to don a short stylized alampay inspired by the University of the Philippines’ famous sablay.  Truly, what a difference comfortable clothes make on the behavior of children! They seemed to go overboard in giving awards and recognition, which was not necessarily a bad thing given the fact that quite a number of the members of the graduating class perished during Yolanda.  In keeping with the informal tone of the ceremonies, I ditched my prepared formal speech and decided to speak to the graduates in a more personal and engaging way. 
I also took the time to visit relatives in my hometown 60 kilometers south of the city and to check on some friends in Tacloban who were severely hit by the super typhoon.
The good news is that the towns facing the Pacific Ocean have now acquired a shiny glow. Thanks to availability of construction materials, the silvery glare of the sun reflected on tin roofing is very noticeable as one travels around the island. Coconut lumber is abundant and can be had almost for free because of the millions of coconut trees that were uprooted by the super typhoon.  Mercifully, most of the donor agencies are now focusing on rehabilitation and rebuilding efforts so it was heartwarming to hear of stories of people distributing farm implements, pinakbet seeds (seeds of vegetables that are ingredients for the common dish), and yes, various mechanisms to make available funds on easy credit. 
Most of the people I talked to expressed dismay over stories of spoiled relief goods that had to be buried or discarded, but quite frankly, many are already indifferent to the canned goods and food packs that find their way to households.  Of course it might be a different story when supply of rice is depleted, but right now most people I talked have more than enough.  Government must shift focus to enabling people to find livelihood and sustainable sources of income rather than just distributing relief goods.

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