In case you didn’t know, after months of fundraising, researching, planning and a not insignificant amount of panicking, last Wednesday I returned from 12 days of relief work in Tacloban, the Philippines.
The day before I left Tacloban, a good friend sent me a message saying she was interested to know whether/how my time there had ‘changed my views about life, the universe and everything’. I’ve been asked the same thing a lot in the last few days, so I thought I would break with protocol for once, and rather than a daft pog blog post, I’d try to put a few things into words, as so far I think I have failed to answer the question. (I promise to go back to daftness on the next post. There was quite a bit before I even reached Tacloban….)
So, has it changed me? Right now, definitely. I hope in 6 months, a year’s time I’ll still say yes as I now have a different sense of perspective, having lived in a safe cocoon of comfort all of my life. I knew intellectually that there are a lot of people around the world in difficult situations, but only through the tv, internet, radio and newspapers, usually consumed from my comfortable sofa. I’d never seen the absolute poverty I saw first had with the sounds and smells that accompanied it. I’d never attached these things to real people that I could look into the eyes of, touch and talk to.
I wouldn’t leave a dog in some of the places I saw entire families living. If I am honest, it took a huge amount of effort every morning to get myself ready to go again. I was scared of what I would see that day. Scared that it would either break my heart that little bit more, or worse, that it would be the day that my heart would start to turn to stone so I could deal with it. Then I would get angry with myself. How was it ok for me to find it difficult to see these people’s lives when they were living them, every day?
But what I never, ever expected was for these people to be smiling, laughing and ready to wipe a chair clean for me to sit on when I walked, often unannounced, into their home.
Early on in my visit as I was walking through an area called The Shed from one make shift house to another to assess two families we’d been asked to help, I was asked if I felt pity for the people I was meeting. I didn’t and I don’t. I feel utter amazement at their resilience. Not just the people in the shanty houses, but every single person who went through Yolanda and are still standing, getting on with life, able to tell their story. I heard so many stories and words drop into my mind all the time:
‘We were very much scared. We thought it was the end of the world. We thought we would die.’
‘I had to wrap my legs around Mama’s [arthritic] legs to keep her afloat. I kept saying ‘there is no pain’.’
‘We borrowed a motorbike as soon as the wind stopped – we needed to find out who was alive. It took two hours to travel what should have taken ten minutes.’
‘I jumped out of the window into the water. The people in the house next door caught my arms and pulled me up.’
‘Their family evacuated but their eldest daughter forgot something and went back to the house. They found her body two weeks later.’
‘She got her mum onto the roof of a car and used the power cable overhead to pull the car through the water up the hill to dry land.’
‘I walked to find out if my partner was alive. I don’t know who long it took; I just kept walking until I got there. I didn’t look around me – there were dead bodies everywhere.’
The language has changed now. Nine months on, these amazing people are not Yolanda victims, they are Yolanda survivors. I feel honoured to have met every one of them, and to have heard some of their stories first hand. And I also feel privileged to have been accepted by the family I was lucky enough to stay with. I was called ‘tita’ (auntie) by all the children and my best family moment was when I discovered I’d been introduced as a sister (causing much confusion to the person asking, as one look at me and you can see I’m definitely not even a teeny bit Filipino!).
So now I am back, what has changed? Well first, I appreciate my home comforts in a way I never have before. A reliably flushing toilet, a hot shower, drinking water in every tap, walls, a roof that doesn’t leak and furniture that’s not been dried out and cleaned of thick mud because there are no funds (or insurance) to buy new things. Watching children with the books I took out for them was amazing – they poured over them for hours as they all lost theirs nine months ago. I’ve never seen children so happy to look at books and it made me see how much we take such simple things for granted.
Right now, things don’t worry me in the way that they would have before, but I’ll wait a few more days to see if that is due to jet lag or my experiences….
The one thing that really struck me though was on Thursday. I’d been back less than 24 hours but for some reason thought going into the office for a days work made sense. I’m not saying that every Filipino walks around with a smile plastered on their face, but if I smiled, even complete strangers always smiled back. Having got used to that I found it quite odd that nobody I smiled at on my commute did the same in return. It made me wonder (possibly slightly sarcastically) what terrible things must be going on in everyone’s heads that morning to either not see the person in front of them or just not be able to turn their mouths up at the corners a little for a stranger.
One last thing I will say is that in my mind I had thought that being able to say to people ‘We can help. We can solve some of your problems’ would be a real high. It wasn’t. It was one of the most difficult things to do, as I felt like I was lording it over them, taunting them almost with the fact that I had money that they didn’t. People who are so very much stronger than I will ever be. Don’t get me wrong – I’m so pleased that we were able to help, just from a personal view, I found it very difficult. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’, and all that…
I don’t know if that answers the question. I guess it’s the people around me who will be best placed to judge if the experience changed me in a few months time. I hope so though, and I hope it’s for the better. :o)
Wonderful post, Helen. I do believe you’ll hold onto some of what you’ve learned. Life is like that. You’ll get back into your routine, but you’ll have new knowledge to view it with.
Thank you. And I hope you are right :o)
I’m with Michele on this, Helen. A fascinating and heartfelt post. And you will carry this experience through the days, weeks, months and years ahead. I’d be willing to bet good money that ‘aha’ moments will pop up even years from now, based on your changed perspectives. And for the record, I’m not entirely sure that you can change for the better, or we’ll have to start calling you Mother Theresa :-) x
Thank you Paula. You were right about the utter loveliness of the Filipinos :) And thank you for the very kind words, but it’s not true – maybe I should let my evil side show on the blog occasionally…mwaha ha ha! (That is my evil laugh) ;o) x