Tacloban: wakening days in the land of Yolanda
"Hey my friend!!! Come!! Please come!! Come here and have lunch with us!!"
It was a Sunday afternoon in Tacloban, where I had landed three days earlier with Lucas Veuve (a fellow photographer/videographer) to document the aftermath of Haiyan (locally called Yolanda), the super typhoon that devastated central Philippines in early-November 2013.
My goal was to discover how the most vulnerable communities of Tacloban were coping with the challenges brought by Haiyan and, hopefully, portray their daily lives in a dignifying manner.
I wanted to give them a voice, I wanted to give a face to all the numbers I was seeing on the news: more than 6,300 people dead, millions displaced. I wanted to meet the humans behind those numbers, I wanted to hear (and photograph) their stories.
I knew I was having a great opportunity to experience something special, both as a person and a photographer, but I could never imagine that my time in Tacloban would teach me so much about life, and myself.
During the almost two weeks I spent there, I saw neighbors sharing the very little food they had, I saw friends helping each other to rebuild their houses, I saw families having a good time together, despite all the difficulties they were facing. I saw solidarity, faith, optimism, resilience.
Six months had already passed, but life was still hard for the fishing and coastal communities. The vast majority of them was still living in tents or temporary shelters, basic services such as electricity and tap water were still unavailable, and their livelihoods had been seriously affected by Haiyan/Yolanda.
They complained about the lack of support from the local authorities, they said that after a few months most of the NGOs had already left, and they often questioned about the donations many countries had sent them. "Where is the money? We don't see that money! Many countries have sent money to help us but we don't see that money, we think the government is keeping everything - or most of it - for themselves".
However, instead of just complain and wait for help, the communities I was fortunate to visit were working relentlessly to rebuild their lives. Their secret? Faith, optimism and solidarity.
It was fascinating to see how supportive they were with each other, it was inspiring to witness their camaraderie.
Even though they had very little, in terms of material possessions, and also food, they were sincerely willing to share everything, even with that white/"rich" guy holding a big/expensive camera.
How not to be touched by that?
("There is no act of faith more beautiful than generosity of the very poor", from the book I am currently reading, Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts).
In a society where individualism is almost celebrated (Capitalism?) and people are reduced to the amount of money they have in the bank (Consumerism? Objectification of humanity?), it gave me hope to see so much compassion and generosity.
It also made me fell ashamed of myself for sometimes complaining about little, superficial things: the poor iPhone battery life, a slow 3G Internet...I've always tried to guide my life with simplicity, gratitude and humbleness but Tacloban made me realize that there was still a gap between the person I was and the person I wanted to be.
So I said yes, took a small plastic chair and sat to have lunch with them. And it was by far the best meal I've ever had in my life. Not so much about the food itself - which was good (rice and fish) - but more about the moment and everything it represented to me.
Surrounded by debris and sitting inside of what was left of a house destroyed by Haiyan/Yolanda, we shared a meal and some beers, we laughed, and we sang. Happiness. Resilience. Hope. Faith.
Their physical environment might have been destroyed, but the strength of their spirit was intact. And that's why I was sure in that very moment that better days were yet to come. They would make it, I had no doubt about it.
I haven't been back to Tacloban since then so I can't tell you if their lives have really improved over the last months. I hope they did. I hope they keep working on a better future for themselves, always with that inspiring smiles on their beautiful faces. I'm sure they are.
I am planning to go back there and visit everyone I met last year, but that is a topic for another post.
For now, I express here my deep gratitude for everything they unconsciously taught me.
Thank you, Tacloban.
I will never forget the moments and lessons you gave me.