My Tacloban, My Philippines

I flew into Tacloban airport for the first time in 2009. This provincial capital (pronounced “Tac-LO-ban”) of 200,00 people is hot, crowded, and gritty – as is its airport – and populated by the fierce Waraynon people. These are not the friendliest folks in the Philippines, and their largest city has a seething edge to it that one doesn’t normally associate with the country.

But become part of this culture and you will be fully accepted as a member of what must be one of the strongest, most loyal communities on Earth. I married a Waray, and have become one of the 24 members of her immediate family, 60 or so members of her close family, and hundreds of cousins and other relatives. I love them all, and they love me, unconditionally.

The Waray put their propensity for settling disputes with machetes to good use at the end of World War II, marching side-by-side with MacArthur after his return to Leyte Island, to drive the Imperial Japanese off of the island and out of the country. The US should be eternally grateful for their sacrifice and friendship.

Now these most resilient of people are being put to a most extreme test. The shocking damage caused to Tacloban and much of the surrounding area by Typhoon Yolanda means that an already impoverished part of the world will become more so, with the prospect of any sort of normalcy years, if not decades, away.

I wonder about the old man standing near the airport entrance, amused by my feeble use of the local language and who wished my wife and I a fond farewell when we left Tacloban, bound for the US a couple of years ago. He probably lived close to the airport. Did he drown in the typhoon’s surge?

I wonder about the joking, towering security guard at our downtown hotel – 18 dollars a night for a double that was home to five of us for a couple of days – who was proud to be as tall as the strange “Kano” (short for “Americano”) with the sunburnt skin. Did he die in the storm?

I wonder about the high-school kids working in the local McDonald’s, next to the harbor,; the squadrons of workingmen who loaded our new refrigerator and about half a ton of other goods onto the ferry, across a plank that on its best days would be described as “rickety”; the tricycle drivers who took us across the city and down to the MacArthur Memorial in Palo; the nice young woman in the Waray bookstore who helped me find a local professor who specialized in the origin of the local language; the guys in the street testing the noisy 6HP engines that are a staple of the region’s small fishing boats; and the endless parade of kids, teens, and adults hustling around the city trying figuratively to keep their heads above water. What happened to all of them?

My wife’s immediate family is safe and sound, tucked away in their tiny village in Samar Province, north of Tacloban. The tin roof flew off their main house, one wall came undone, two of their three small bamboo huts were flattened, and the small grove of coconut trees upon which they make much of their living was destroyed utterly. But nobody was hurt, the seven babies and toddlers are doing fine, the roof and wall have already been nailed back on, and new huts will be completed soon.

Many cousins from the neighboring village, who were attending high school in Tacloban, are still missing a few days after the storm blew through. There will be trauma and tears somewhere in the family. “Life is hard” is one of the foundational phrases among all Filipinos, and life among the Waray people remains as hard for most today as it was when their families first populated these islands many thousands of years ago.

Yet life there is also vibrant. I’ve drunk the local coconut wine (called “tuba”) while noisily engaging in chicken fights in the ocean cove that lies at the foot of my wife’s village. I’ve ridden in the small, outrigger bangka boats, helping to paddle when the engine conks out, on short jaunts and on the four-hour trip to Tacloban.

Awakened by roosters and the implacable sun, fed chickens that were running around just a few minutes before, enlisted to help fasten the fishing net one day and to scrape coconuts the next, and lazily sitting around in an apparent tropical paradise, I’ve lived the “maupay” (good) life there.

I’ve danced the local “kuratsa” for hours on New Year’s Eve. And I’ve laughed, my God how I’ve laughed along with the endless, divine comedy innate to a tightly knit, often battling, always loquacious family and people who will tell you their choice in life is to laugh often or never stop crying.

We will all cry many tears as this tragedy continues to unfold, and will mourn for the loss of life that has occurred. Many of my wife’s family will likely take the 24-hour bus ride to Manila in search of work. Christmas and New Year’s won’t be as joyful this year as in years past. The shadow cast by this storm may last for generations.

But the Waraynon will fight, as they always have. They will fight to rebuild their houses and lives. They will fight, fight, and fight some more to restore their world, with a fire inside that will not be extinguished. They will endure.

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