I will never go back to Tacloban! I swore myself this 4 years ago out of scorn. It was after I joined Ms. Pintados and lost. It was such a big dismay, I felt that I deserved at least a spot in the top five. I felt cheated and clueless. I did not know of the reasons for my exclusion in the final five.
I felt that my performance was flawless, that they had no real reasons. It was impossible for me to mess up. I tried to see the logic behind my defeat. Perhaps because I was not a local or politics.
I felt humiliated that night, after all, I already had enough experience. As the night ended, I was certain that I would never set my foot in Tacloban again.
I buried all that in my past til Typhoon Haiyan came. I could not help but put myself in the same situation. I almost perished during the Ormoc Flood of 1991, one of the worst natural calamities with more than 5,000 people dead. I was one of those children who would queue up for food and clothes.
As news broke of the terrible devastation, I donated half of the clothes I owned and my camping gears ( it was nothing major, I had a yearly tradition of giving away half of the clothes I own as to be a minimalist). I headed to Red Cross to join the other volunteers in the repacking but I felt I could do more.
After a couple of days, I ended up in Villamor Air Base as one of the head marshalls over seeing the flow of evacuees from Tacloban. When I went home, I was also an online volunteer, encoding all the names of the survivors of several baranggays. Although, I was doing a lot and barely getting any sleep, I felt that I needed to do more.
After Miss SCUBA International 2013, I decided to use the prize money to fund my own volunteer activities. I became close friends with the fellow Villamor Air Base volunteers (we ended up being collectively called “Team Avengers” for managing to organise the simultaneous arrival of 3,000+ evacuees with only 50 volunteers).
We decided to support the Bantayan Back to Sea project by DAMGO Inc. As we planned our trip, I realised that the C130 plane will drop us off at Tacloban City. The place I swore to never visit again.
Despite the promise, I swore to do more. After a couple of checks, we boarded the C130. Without proper ventilation or seats, it was like being inside a flying sauna.
Me and my fellow volunteers managed to meet other groups also on their way to Tacloban.
The flight seemed longer than I thought perhaps because I was feeling the sweat dripping from my forehead.
It was a spur of the moment trip, we had no idea what was before us. It took a lot of effort to reach Bantayan.
We had to take the van to Palompon but the ferry did not leave until the next day so we had to spend the night in their terminal. I slept on top of boxes of stuffed toys that someone from Manila donated.
The next day we took a ship to Cebu then another bus to Daan Bantayan and another hour-long trip on a ferry to Bantayan.
When we arrived at Bantayan, I realized how most of the locals thought they have no power to change the situation.
I was lucky enough to meet the people changing the current status like Mr. Allan Monreal, Michelle Lim and Mr. Francisco Pacheco Jr. I was all smiles when I heard all their projects because I have wanted to see more sustainable changes that would empower Filipino communities. Damgo sa Kaugmaon Inc., started from a grassroots project focusing on rebuilding the lives of fisherfolks by giving them back the livelihood that they lost.
After spending days in Bantayan, you get a feel of how it would be like if every Filipino see that they are not powerless, that they can change and make things better for themselves and for the community. I left Bantayan with lots of good memories and lessons learned. It reminded me of what I dream for this country and why I have not given up on it.
After that trip, the vivid images of Tacloban haunted me. It made me wonder if what I did was enough and if I could still do more. Luckily, I met some friends from Couchsurfing who were implementing a programme in Tacloban and they asked me if I wanted to volunteer. I could not make any commitments then being tied to contracts and commitments.
A sad reminder
As months dragged on, I slowly forgot about Tacloban. I got side tracked by personal issues, to the point that city life became toxic for me. My life fell into a full paralysis. I was alive and yet dead from the inside. I would spend the money I earned to amuse myself with food and sights but it was an unquenchable thirst for significance.
As December 2014 was ending, I meet the same friends who invited me for volunteer work in Tacloban. I remembered my unanswered question. I had lost everything in Manila and felt totally helpless. I needed to find a way to feel in control with my life again. I needed an escape.
January 5, 2015 started with the sun slowly beaming over the mountainous horizon. I woke up to the sight of Allen Port, the ship has finally reached Visayas. After 30 hours of travel by land and 2 hours on the ferry, I knew that my life has reached a full restart. I kept repeating “Tabula Rasa” in my head.
“Football for Life” was the name of the programme teaching children football as a for of psychosocial support.
A photo posted by Paula Bernasor (@happinas101) on Jan 20, 2015 at 2:55am PST
I lived in the staff house and received living allowance.
At the start, I felt useless and clueless but as the days passed, I found my niche in the programme implementation.
I met the coaches, the children and the rest of the people who were working to rebuild the city. Their stories were equally vivid and it inspired me a lot.
Life was simple, everything closes by 9p.m. and there were not much to do after work. For someone living in the city for years, I was a bit in a shock ( no Family Mart, Coffee Bean, Divisoria or even 7 Eleven ).
The things that I got used to in Makati, nowhere to be found (like my favourite whole wheat bread or fresh basil, definitely first world problems).
Being used to living the metropolitan life, I ended up drowning in all the materialistic cravings. Day after day, I slowly managed to get used to things (except for the slow internet which I will never get used to because they are abusing consumer rights and charging to much).
I met new people who shared the same ideals and as January ended, I knew I had to stay longer. I planned to spend my birthday in Sagada and the idea of being in the office on my birthday did not bother me at all. I felt that I was where I needed to be. February came to an end, unknowingly Tacloban seduced me into staying for almost 6 months.
The simple routines: walking to the shared office arriving with excited Sandra (the resident dog who pretended to be my pet) running towards me, staying until midnight in Jose Karlo’s while listening to a confusing playlist, and hanging out after work or taking random trips with friends during weekends, brought happiness and contentment.
June came and we had to face that the programme is about to end. During the assessment, I was confident that the programme will get another year as there is none like it in Tacloban.
Everyone was rebuilding physical structures, we were rebuilding dreams. I always joked around when some of my friends from university ask if I do not want to practice my profession as a nurse. I would respond, “I am nursing dreams here in Tacloban.”
I never planned on staying long but I felt it was necessary. The time spent in Tacloban was not only to help the children recover but to help myself as well. The city reflected the turmoil that was hidden in me.
It is now funny when I remember those last few days of December where I would cry out of hopelessness. Tacloban served as my totem. It reminded me daily of life, its fleeting moments of defeats and triumphs. Moments of destruction is often followed with rebirth, a delicate balance we all need to accept. We too often forget life’s duality, not worry too much because everything falls into place.
We all have to embrace our nomadic nature, it does not have to be changing places but in constantly changing our minds and hearts for the better.
To always be open to life’s challenges and adventure, to set foot into the unknown with full trust that good things will happen.
I was a lost nomad with an unset direction and unclear vision. What Tacloban gave me was the priceless gift of clarity and hope.
“Nobody can build the bridge for you to walk across the river of life, no one but you yourself alone. There are, to be sure, countless paths and bridges and demi-gods which would carry you across this river; but only at the cost of yourself; you would pawn yourself and lose. There is in the world only one way, on which nobody can go, except you: where does it lead? Do not ask, go along with it.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations