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Tacloban Tales: Yolanda stories from the road

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Willy Plaka of Barangay 88 retelling the morning of November 8, 2013
Willy Plaka of Barangay 88 retelling the morning of November 8, 2013

Yolanda stories from the road

The day started dreary with the downpour since the wee hours of the morning. No matter, I cannot help but feel cheerful waking up in a new city (in Visayas no less) and getting on with the day’s itinerary. I was advised prior to the flight it would not be the usual sight-see-cum-beach side trip. We were headed to Tacloban after all, a city which became a household name after the November 2013 super typhoon. Nonetheless what I learned on the road were the stories of the unsung heroes of Tacloban – the ones who chose to move on and grow even after all seemed lost.

I think a good way to travel Tacloban is by hiring vans to get you around the city. They line the arrival area of the Tacloban City Airport offering service and tours. The drivers we met gamely answered questions, shared their personal stories and recommended stops to visit and dine. I travelled with people from SMART Communications who have been to Tacloban a few times. It was a learning experience being with a passionate and knowledgeable team. Their previous visits served as starting points in revisiting areas badly hit by the disaster and witnessing how they have come along after.


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Memorial Sites

The Tanauan Yolanda Memorial Site in Barangay Cologcog
The Tanauan Yolanda Memorial Site in Barangay Cologcog

Our first stop was the Tanauan Yolanda Memorial in Brgy. Cologcog designed by the Mindanaoan artist Kublai Ponce Millan. The memorial site was a mass grave for more than 200 Taclobanons who perished during the storm surge. But contrary to that bitter end the memorial aims to be a symbol of hope – a surge of hope – for the Tacloban of today. The figures in the middle depict Taclobanons extending help so everyone can reach up and stay afloat while the others extend their hands to heaven. An arch of doves adorn the topmost part reminiscent of the promise symbolized by the rainbow. The names of the victims are printed in a glass panel placed at the rear to remember them by.

Surge of Hope for the people of Tacloban
Surge of Hope for the people of Tacloban
Tower roof above the chancel of the Cathedral of Palo
Tower roof above the chancel of the Cathedral of Palo

A good six kilometers away from the Tanauan memorial is the Cathedral of Palo. The cathedral was constructed towards the end of the 16th century and underwent renovation and improvement following the occupation of various church orders. The latest rehabilitation effort however was after Yolanda when the structure (mostly the roofing and pillars) was ransacked. A part of the reconstruction efforts was the transformation of the church’s ground as a mass grave. Pope Francis himself made the cathedral part of his itinerary during his January 2015 papal visit. He went around the grounds blessing the resting place of the bereaved.

Part of the church grounds turned to a mass grave
Part of the church grounds turned to a mass grave
Crosses for young ones laid to rest at the church grounds
Crosses for young ones laid to rest at the church grounds

Stories from the road

We found ourselves revisiting Barangay 88 after a couple of city stops. This barangay was badly hit by storm surges being surrounded by water from almost all sides. Here we chanced upon former barangay captain Willy Plaka. He informed us the old barangay hall was already boarded hence we cannot go up to view the now Mahusay Survivors’ Farm Garden – a low lying area previously composed of houses facing the ocean. What he granted us, however, was his personal story of the storm and the survival thereafter.

Willy Plaka of Barangay 88 retelling the morning of November 8, 2013
Willy Plaka of Barangay 88 retelling the morning of November 8, 2013

His wife ushered us inside their house and recalled the morning of the storm: how a coconut tree pierced through their concrete living room wall and with it rushing water. They swam to the ceiling holding on for their lives knowing not to challenge the almost 7 feet water submerging their house. When the water eventually subsided, human instinct for heat and water kicked in. And true to the saying make lemonades out of lemons, Sir Willy braved the waters and extracted coconuts (for food and water) from the tree adorning his former living and dining room. They likewise opened their doors to neighbors who lacked shelter despite the state of their home and family.

A makeshift cover of corrugated roof, wood and steel hide the pierced wall of the living room from the outside
A makeshift cover of corrugated roof, wood and steel hide the pierced wall of the living room from the outside
A rather spacious bedroom now converted by the family to a closet after the damage
A rather spacious bedroom now converted by the family to a closet after the damage

You can hear the nearby beach standing at Sir Willy’s backyard but they have learned to live here again at peace even after the typhoon. He revealed helping others as much as you can, despite differences, makes surviving a shared experience. Their house withstood the surge albeit with scars which remind the family the importance of keeping together amidst crisis.

Nanay Melchora talking to Sir Darwin of Smart Communications
Nanay Melchora talking to Sir Darwin of Smart Communications

We also made a stop to visit Nanay Melchora, 72, of Barangay 54 that afternoon. She was by her door working on a shirt on her sewing machine. Her diligence would make you think she has been sewing for years but nanay revealed she only learned two years ago. She was one of the recipients of a sewing machine as part of SMART’s livelihood effort for the typhoon victims. SMART together with the IEDAR donated 61 sewing machines to families in Tacloban. The recipients underwent 15 days of training at the Eastern Visayas State University.  Even at such a ripe age Nanay Melchora chose to learn a new craft in order to support her family. The pay is meager but it does not hinder her to persevere in finishing her commissioned projects come rain or shine.

The day drew to a close with continuous rains expected for the coming days due to a brewing storm. Thankfully it did not stop us from going around places and meeting people. Rain and the cold were present but there was also a pocket of sunshine at every stop. Hearing stories about Yolanda was an unconventional way of exploring the city. Nonetheless the stories made Tacloban more personal and less synonymous to destitution. It might take a while to remove its connotation to Yolanda although I think the latter is not such a bad thing. It seemed the people we met knew the topic about the typhoon would pop up. And it was amazing how they chose to tell their tale and learn from something they could not forget.

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