I have never written about this yet though I already told a lot of people about it. It is part of the list of fantastic experiences during the aftermath of Super typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
It was day three after Super typhoon Haiyan devastated Tacloban City. Jerome, my cousin, and I decided to go and walk some ten kilometres towards the city center and find out how our relatives were. Jerome’s family lived in Anibong, one of the villages that were severely wiped out by the storm surges and was plowed by around 11 ships that were washed ashore.
That day, we started walking towards Real Street to Imelda Avenue until we reached Siren and then we were welcomed by the two-storey debris that swallowed Anibong. Everything was piled up and you had to brave the rubble – we literally walked, crawled, hopped, slid, and maneuvered our way through whatever there was in the hopes of seeing my uncle, aunt and cousins alive. Thank goodness, they survived; it was a big relief and joy!
People were helping each other. All the men went down from the hill where they took refuge and they searched for food and water. The women stayed with the children and the wounded – it looked like a war zone. From that altitude we saw the city crumpled and lifeless. Dead people were everywhere and little packets of smoke rose in the air – it was either they were cooking or they were burning their dead. There was literally no earth to bury your dead.
It was noontime when we arrived Anibong and I told Jerome that if we wanted to check out the possibility to scavenge for food and water then we had to go quickly before the sun sets. So after several moments, we traversed the same debris, watchful not to cut our sole in the protruding nails from the wooden debris that were mangled together. Being injured was as good as dying since medical reinforcements was bleak.
As we passed by Rizal Avenue, we saw the exit ladder of the old Gaisano Shopping Center being pulled down by people. Ever watched World War Z? Well, that was how it looked like when I was in that ladder and people saw us and wanted to do the same thing to be able to enter this department store to look for food.
We entered through an exit door and landed near the toy section. We were struggling in the dark mainly because the only light we brought was the LED of a cigarette lighter! It was a foolish thing to do but we were in survival mode and all I had in my brain was to be able to get bottled water. A few litres would really be a big blessing.
We walked unsure in the dark until we arrived the textile section. Near that was the women’s shoe section that had a passageway downwards to the grocery section. I told Jerome that we were gonna risk it. So we went down, much like going to the darkness of hell. We had the bleakest light and possibility of getting anything. Every time we heard movement and saw flashes of light, we would follow it. Some doctors, policemen and rich Chinese businessmen were there with us. We were all equal except that they had big torch lights with them!
So we crafted that technique to tail with people who had better light and I gave up on our LED lighter.
It was almost an hour in that dark grocery that had already been looted the day before. We had no luck and I told Jerome we had to get out before we trip on anything and injure ourselves. I was sure that the slimy floor covered in mud and other liquids could contaminate any cut you had. So we went out.
We walked to Justice Romualdez Street towards the direction of the Balyuan tower. On the way, we saw the crowds exiting the new Gaisano Central, another mall in the city, and most of them were leaving as if they did some shopping. They had stuff like blankets, pants, dresses, tables, racks, etc. I wasn’t interested in those things because we didn’t need them. The only thing I noticed that could help us transport whatever we found were like luggage bags that we could use to carry water or food. Several people passed us by with a luggage as if they were catching a flight to Rio de Janeiro! I found it a clever idea so I told Jerome to wait in the grocery area as I try to get for us a luggage bag!
I went up the topmost floor where the crowd were busy taking blankets, pillows and anything to get their family warm in the cold nights. Some of them were even getting hangers for the desperate thought of washing their clothes and hoping to sun-dry them afterwards. I was in the middle of this frenzy when I realized for one second that I placed myself in a dangerous situation. I was walking on a slab of glass that fell down on the escalator. It was very dangerous! It felt like walking on ice and one wrong move could cost me my life. So I moved as slowly as I could, even shouting at the crowd who started pushing each other and elbowing me while I was on that thing! I survived it but I didn’t get any luggage. Very disappointing.
(I know that at this moment this story is kinda’ bleak but just follow me for a few more moments because in that dark situation I found something very interesting. )
I reunited with Jerome and told him that I didn’t find any luggage. We decided to go down to the abyss of the grocery section in an attempt to find water again. We went to the very end where I remember buying them before, but it was already empty. People needed the same things I searched for and we were already too late.
It was a very tiring day and I was almost desperate until I saw this flicker of light in the darkness.
A petite lady was clanking her flashlight because it didn’t light up steadily. When she succeeded in turning the thing on, the light beam illuminated something that made me smile: a rack full of KAONG and NATA de COCO.
It was placed high up in the rack so I went to where this petite lady was and offered help. I said to her, “Maybe I could get a number of bottles of Kaong or Nata de Coco for you while you beam the light steady on them?” She agreed. I asked her how many she needed and she told me four bottles. So I reached up to the bottles and gave them to her. There was a pause. She illuminated the bottles and then in the darkness she blurted out: “Kuya, dire’k hini nga green! Gusto ko it red! (Kuya, I don’t want the green ones! I want the red ones!)”
I broke into laughter! And there was a crowd laughing in the darkness!
I said, “Okay, okay! Choosy!” She grinned and in the darkness, people were still laughing and one even jeered, “Choosy ka pa te, ha? (You’re still choosy, eh?”) and we all laughed again!
Everyone had their share of Kaong and Nata de Coco. It was a sigh of relief.
We went out with a smile in my face. I never imagined that amidst the tragedy and desperation, I was still able to laugh. All the stress, tension and trauma vanished in a split second.
Indeed, I always use this story to tell people that even in desperate times, laughter is the best refuge. That moment also showed how Filipinos are so resilient that even a super typhoon cannot drown the joy of life. We are happy people.
That moment also showed how the condiments in life (kaong and nata de coco color options) made us human. It is primal to survive but live – smile, laugh, take joy in the most trivial things.
You were meant to be happy, even if you are choosy.
Choose to be happy in this life. You are never getting out alive anyway!