On the ninth of November, 2013, I sat down on a bench in Manley, Australia, and picked up a discarded newspaper. A dark, swirling satellite image glowered from the front page, Typhoon Yolanda had struck the Philippines. I dropped the paper and raced home to make some calls. After affirming the safety of my loved ones and colleagues, I messaged an old friend, Jay Neil Ancheta from VSO Bahaginan, and he put me in contact with John Paul Maunes, Executive Director of the Gualandi Volunteer Service Program in Cebu City, a charitable project aimed at People With Disabilities (PWDs). I offered to join their organisation in a voluntary capacity for an indefinite length of time. John Paul accepted, and within a matter of days I’d hopped a flight to Manila, then another to Cebu City.
In the taxi from the airport, I flicked through the news-sites on my phone, searching for updates from Tacloban, a devastated city in the East Visayas, not far from where I would be deployed. The situation was appalling, there were so many dead that the emergency services had run out of body bags. As I swiped through images of civic annihilation, crying children and piled corpses, I came across an article about US military rations that had been donated for the survivors. They were being sold to the public in a Manila mall. Unfortunately, Filipino politics is breathtakingly corrupt. Before the typhoon, I’d been following the much publicised Pork Barrel scandal, where politicians were found to be fabricating charitable organisations in order to appropriate funds from a tax-money slush-fund for the country’s poor and vulnerable. The human animal still has the ability to surprise me.
It’s one in the morning as I step from the taxi into a dusty compound filled with volunteers sweating under the stark glare of temporary floodlights. A young man with a warm grin pushed his cap to the back of his head and came over to shake my hand, introducing himself as JP, Executive Director. He was a delightful fellow, clad in loose synthetic shorts and a pair of flip-flops; he welcomed me and gave me a brief introduction to the organisation. Not wanting to waste any time, I dropped my bag on the floor and began hauling completed sacks of relief goods out to the car park for the morning’s pick up.
By three the volunteers had dispersed and I was asleep on a thin travel-mattress beneath a desk in the office, by five I was up and dressed, at five-thirty the trucks arrived. A batch of Filipino volunteers helped us load the heavy sacks; carrying them above our heads we pushed them high up the trucks’ sides so the wiry drivers could drag them aboard. Two minivans, filled with volunteers from all over the Philippines, accompanied the trucks as we moved north through Bogo City and on to the Hagnaya Ferry Terminal outside San Remigio. The journey took around four hours, and as I stared out of the van’s window, the evidence of Yolanda’s destructive power mounted with every kilometre we travelled. At first the damage was light, only small sections of the corrugated roofs were missing, or peeled back like sardine tins, but by the time we’d reached Bogo, buildings had been razed to the ground, whole swathes of forest were flattened, their trunks splintered to toothpicks.
At the ferry terminal, the area most directly affected by the typhoon, large fishing boats had been hurled from the water to smash down amongst the buildings of the port; roads were filled with fallen trees and piles of debris. Picking our way through, we drove the relief goods to the end of the concrete jetty and transferred the sacks to four long outrigger canoes. After crossing the Tanon Strait to Bantayan Island, we off-loaded the food into hastily erected tarpaulin tents whilst the islanders engulfed us in smiles.
I made many such trips to devastated communities in Northern Cebu, in the company of psychologists, nurses, teachers, entertainers and musicians, who would talk to the people about their experiences, and entertain them through song, drama and poetry. I believe those people derived as much nourishment from the social interaction and the chance for levity as they did the food.
As international aid flooded into the area, roads cleared and vital infrastructure began to be restored, the demand for food and water dropped, but the people were still crying out for building materials. Alongside two German students form Malaysia, I was assigned to an evaluation team sent to the remote hinterlands of Northern Cebu, to find recipients for the home-repair kits GVSP had amassed.
Sitting beside a film crew in the open-bed of a battered van, I looked back down the mountain. Lush green fronds caressed the remains of shattered huts, entire fields of crops were strewn across the hillsides, uprooted trees lay across the branches of their remaining brethren, like casualties being carried from a battlefield. When the van could go no further, we shouldered the camera equipment and supplies, and continued on foot. Children sat in the mud at the sides of the trail, poking at burning piles of detritus, with thick, noxious smoke curling around their squinting faces. Some ran ahead, calling out as they went.
A woman appeared from the jungle, smiling as she wiped tears from her eyes. We broke from the trail and followed her into the forest, side-stepping the yawning hole where a tree had once stood. She led us to a clearing with two small branch-and-leaf huts at its centre. To the edge of the clearing stood a frail old man, our guide approached him and spoke loudly in his ear. Turning to face roughly in our direction, he beckoned us to follow him as he placed his hands on a length of cord that had been strung between the trunks of the trees. He took us from the clearing, his steps shuffling, the sealed lids of his eyes pointing this way and that as clouds of mosquitoes burst from the dense foliage. At the end of the string there was another clearing, occupied by an empty concrete plinth.
‘His house,’ our camerawoman explained, pointing to the plinth, ‘it’s all gone, he has no food, no water, no electricity.’
We recorded an interview with the man for a promotional public awareness video, left some food and a home-repair kit, and arranged for a team of volunteers to come and assist with its construction. Back in the van, we did a u-turn and headed further up the mountain, and once again we came to a point where we had to leave our transport and proceed on foot. It was midday by now and the sun was ferocious, the uneven volcanic rock difficult to traverse, with fissures and boulders at irregular intervals. After hiking for thirty minutes we came across a by-now familiar sight, an empty concrete foundation stacked with the broken fragments of someone’s life. We dropped our gear and waited, a few minutes later a young girl came striding confidently along the trail, her eyes useless; she navigated the obstacles by memory, stepping neatly over branches and patches of loose skree.
‘She is eighteen,’ the camerawoman said, ‘after the storm destroyed her house, some men came from another place and raped her here, in the ruins of her house, they choose her because she is blind and cannot identify them.’
The young woman wept uncontrollably as she recounted the terror of being blind in the midst of a typhoon, of being assaulted, of the thirst and the fear. And as I looked around, my eyes misty with tears, I felt nauseated. The squalor, the black-hearted rapists, the destruction, the blunt cruelty of it all crashed down on me, our whole twisted world was summed up atop that mountain. The pillagers of the Earth, the ignorant and the complicit, they all coalesced within in my mind – the architects of the storm.
I have been volunteering on and off since 2008, and I don’t need to go to tropical climes to bear witness to the devastating effects of adverse climatic conditions, the UK has seen all manner of amplified and unseasonable weather conditions in recent years. From stormy summers to unprecedented rainfall, we’ve had a dilute taste of what’s yet to come. But we too are blinded, a barrage of commercialism and stilted entertainment cossets us whilst an unacknowledged guilt festers at our cores. The greasy veil of so-called reality is muddying our minds, fostering a fatalistic nonchalance when focused engagement is urgently required.
Yolanda is the strongest typhoon to have ever made landfall. Not only are the world’s storms intensifying, they’re increasing in number, and the ramping of climatic turbulence will be mirrored in the unravelling of society. Social storms rage all over the globe, tsunamis of hatred and intolerance break sporadically over the cultural beachheads of nation-states, obscured by the ever-present fog of satiating consumption.
A sea-change in the social order is at hand, the storm will see to that, and it’s unlikely to be the altruistic communing some might hope, but a desperate dismemberment of the fragile non-reality of our blinkered existence. We, the architects, will have our scaffold pulled from beneath us, not by a golden band of well-intentioned hacktivists and anti-authoritarians, but by our own desperate, bloodied claws. Incensed by vapidity, tormented by the cracks in our illusion, oppressed by inequality, scarcity and anxiety, we’ll turn to savagery in our disenchantment. But when the dust has settled, when the fantasy of infinite, complacent progression is pierced, when the myth of our civility has dissolved into the tired earth, we can, and will begin again, hopefully chastened by our own stupidity.
I sit now, surrounded by mass-produced technology and furnishings, cheap plastics, and laminated chipboard, espousing change, a radical alteration of our lifestyles to derail the runaway juggernaut of misguided and unsustainable economic growth. Are my words of wisdom also ways of wisdom? Partially, I’m working on it. There’s still a long, difficult journey ahead, but I’ve made a beginning, and the word is spreading. We must educate ourselves, deal honestly with our illusions, and then put them aside, lest a miasma of self-deception and apathy extinguish any hope of averting a dark and savage destiny. However, when shedding our illusions, we must be careful not to allow the rank stench of corruption to fuel pessimistic nihilism. For, without hope, without optimism, we will not change, we will decompose. If beauty and art and togetherness, love, trust and equality are going to win, we must remain positive. With clarity of mind and a strong resolve, we may be able to sway the winds of change onto a less destructive path.
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