As I prepared for my visit to Tacloban, a particularly hard-hit area, I began the day in confusion. I left my hotel at 2:00 a.m., unclear as to when the flight even was. My ticket said one thing, the web site said another, and no one answered my phone calls. Not an auspicious beginning! Once I arrived at the airport, I learned I wasn’t the only one in doubt – but better safe than sorry. The flight seemed to be composed of passengers of more nationalities than the number of countries I have been to – and that is saying a lot. Each passenger was heading out for a different reason – journalists, medical personnel, UN representatives, recovery volunteers, insurance adjusters, spiritual leaders, and locals in search of missing family members. While I had been in contact with Relief PH and the Philippine Red Cross before leaving Manila, they had not been able to exactly tell me what to do. Uncharacteristically for me, that was okay. I would find out what to do once there if the official plans didn’t come through. Without a phone or internet connection, I couldn’t be reached, so I went with Plan B. I quickly donned my Tallit and Tefillin in what was loosely called the airport – basically tar pavement and rubble amidst tent. There I completed an abridged morning prayer service to the stares of many. After being unable to find what to do in the immediate tent city, I started walking into town.
On the way, I met a curious young man who wanted to hear about my Muslim life. When I explained to him that I was Jewish and not Muslim, he then wanted to know why I wore a Muslim hat! Further explanation probably left him totally confused. Undaunted, he invited me to his roadside tent, where we chatted for a bit. I explained that I wanted to go into town and see the hospital. He advised me that we could walk the 8km distance or he could get me a “tricycle.” i.e., a motorbike. As I was there only for the day, I opted for the latter. The young man warned me it would be expensive because “diesel” was in short supply, and everything was therefore about 10 times the normal price. My “driver” Roel was, without question, the highlight of my day. He asked me which hospital I wanted to go to and what was wrong with me. I assured him I was healthy and just wanted to visit some of the people who had been hurt and offer whatever solace I could. As we drove by his church, he asked if I was a rabbi, and I told him “no.” We then got into a religious exchange, and he truly began to open up. He began to describe November 8th, when Typhoon Yolanda struck the shores of Toclaban. The inhabitants had known for a week that a storm was due to arrive, but they didn’t expect it to be as serious as it was. When it began to approach land, Roel put his family of five in his “tricycle” and they drove to the church. He said he couldn’t see anything and, to the best of his recollection, he rode in neutral the entire way as the wind blew against them. They arrived finally at the church, where along with other “brothers” and “sisters,” they climbed to the highest place possible, keeping the children on top of them. Water levels continued to rise, and roofs were blown off around them. The group prayed for its safety, and at the same time, its members said goodbye to one another. Fortunately, Roel’s entire family survived, as did everyone that was in the church with them during the storm.
As we drove through town, Roel stopped every few minutes – not only because of the one-lane traffic, but to get out and hug someone. Each time he would explain that he was just thankful they were alive, as he hadn’t known. This touching activity continued throughout the morning. Finally we arrived at Bethany Hospital – it is basically now in the field, where 40 medical teams from around the world aid the locals in volunteer assistance. The greatest concern now: the potential spread of disease. A mass immunization project is about to commence with measles, polio, and tetanus vaccines. The focus is on the 1.4 million children who have been displaced from their homes. I thought of my wife Carol and my children. In gratitude for my own safe and healthy family, I found some of the scant English-language reading material in the hospital, including an old Highlights magazine and a Grollier Encyclopedia. Then I read to a group of about five children who, according to Roel, were now probably orphans. As the day continued, Roel shared more of his personal story with me. He told me that he sent his family to Cebu right after the storm, as his wife insisted on leaving. His immediate goal was to survive until the relief teams arrived. While he knew it would be better for his family in less-damaged Cebu, he wasn’t leaving. Toclaban is his home, he explained, and he will rebuild his home and then bring his family back home. He plans to remain with his “brothers” and keep the church as a haven and place to pray. While we were out, we headed to the house where he was staying, along with a number of his brothers. Suddenly he said to me, “Oh, another dead body.” In the days immediately after the typhoon, he recalled that hundreds of bodies were found along the sides of the road, after they had washed up. (He described the sight in more detail than taste will allow me to repeat here.) As some order has returned to the area, Roel noted that the bodies are now cleaned and placed on a truck that that the can be identified when families return. Many of them will probably be placed eventually in a mass grave.
Roel pointed out the site of his house – now a pile of rubble. At the entrance to the neighborhood, one of the neighbors guarded the area to guard against looting. Roel’s wife urged him to save whatever he could, but he said he had not yet found anything. He planned to continue the search for his children’s birth certificates and family photos, in particular. In his matter of fact manner, he said that the only things he saved were his family, his tricycle, and the clothes he was wearing. Roel wears the same clothes every day, as new clothing hasn’t yet been distributed. He noted that he’s really embarrassed at church services, but everyone is similar dressed, so G-d most understand. I’m sure he does. When we arrived at his temporary residence, his brother and family were there. Following his lead, I removed my shoes when we entered. Then he took of his socks, so I did the same. However, when he removed his shirt in order to wash it, I felt guilt, but drew the line.
His brother’s five children, ranging in age from two to twelve, didn’t know where Israel so, so I showed them on map found in a world atlas in the house. I asked them if they wanted to learn some Hebrew, and we exchanged a few words of Hebrew for some Tagalog. Roel offered me some rice and beans, but I declined. (It wasn’t a matter of kashrut, but of realizing these people didn’t know where their next meal was from, and he was offering me his food.) Amazing how Filipino hospitality continues to exist in the worst of times. In the late afternoon, Roel took me back to the airport to check in for my return flight to Manila. When we arrived, I started to pay him, but he refused to take the money. I didn’t know how I would begin to make him take it, but there was no way it was going back into my pocket. So, uncharacteristically for me –who usually takes pride in dressing appropriately, I took my shirt off, handed it to him, and told him to wear it to church when he went that night. That offer he accepted, and thus I learned the true meaning of giving someone the shirt off one’s back. I also told him I wanted him to give the money I had offered him to the church, to feed those who couldn’t feed themselves, whether now or at another time. That clinched the deal – and we were both content.
With time to spare before my flight was “scheduled” to depart and the check-in “table” not even open, I decided to just walk the grounds and peek into the tents there. What struck me was the number of smiles I received. With all the horrendous damage and inhospitable living conditions, with disease undoubtedly lurking and about to spread – with all this, people continued to smile. I just don’t know how they did it. Or maybe I did. On more than one occasion, I witnessed Bible study taking place – a true testament to the wonderful Filipino heritage of belief. The airport was bustling with military aircraft from all over the world, although no more than half a dozen commercial flights per days landed or took off. I continued to be struck by the huge variety of people I ran into from all over the world. I even met a Jewish Marine from Colorado who’s now stationed in Okinawa. Soon, I would be heading back to Manila and the relief efforts there. The week was not yet over, and there were doubtless other people and events for whom I could provide testament before the week was through.