A backpack, bedbugs and toilet paper

Posted by

(This is a story of my trip to Tacloban, albeit more lighthearted than my previous post, “Tour of Duty.” It is not my intention though, to discredit the seriousness of the situation there.)

While watching CNN (Anderson Cooper 360) from the comforts of my home in Iowa, with live coverage of the effects of super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, somehow the strong winds jumped across the Pacific and reached me. It agitated me into action.

I was literally in front of a computer searching for how I can volunteer, when I received a phone call. It was from someone whom I have not seen for more than 10 years as he now resides in Virginia. He told me that a certain organization *(ACTS/GR3) called him and he in turn invited me to join them. I believe that was the heaven-sent sign I was seeking for.

After arranging my schedule in our clinic, soon I was airborne for the Philippines. From Des Moines, I made a connecting flight to Atlanta, where I was joined by four more people in our medical team. From Atlanta our next layover was in Seoul, where another doctor (from California) joined us there. Our next stop then was already Cebu, Philippines. Two more doctors (who flew from Colorado) were waiting for us there.

I traveled light for the trip and packed just the bare essentials. I was able to fit all my things in a medium-size backpack. But when I read the notice from the organization that each one should bring at least 3 days worth of food (as they cannot guarantee our food), so I also brought a small duffel bag with cereals, power bars, chocolates (survival essentials!), apples and water. In fact, nothing was guaranteed for us, food, lodging, nor security. The only thing guaranteed was that there was a lot of work for us.

I did not even notify my mother who was in Manila that I was going to Tacloban. First of all, there was no chance of seeing her anyway as we were flying directly in and out of Cebu. Another reason was, as the situation in Tacloban was dire, and there was even reports of rebels and insurgents taking advantage of the chaos, I did not want her to worry about me. I just called her over the phone after I already returned back to the US.

When we arrived in the Philippines, as a returning expat, the custom officer looked at me in disbelief, as I was just lugging a backpack. Perhaps he was looking for the typical large balikbayan boxes that any returning Filipino carry. But nothing of this trip was typical.

From Cebu, we caught a commercial plane flight to our final destination. Flying on a C-130 would have been more dramatic, but it did not happen. After 32 hours of travel (that’s my own time, I don’t know exactly how long were the other’s), which includes flight time plus layovers, we finally landed in Tacloban.

The short bus ride from Tacloban airport to the place where we stayed was one of the most heart-gripping experiences I had. I saw with my own eyes the desolation of the place we came to. Street after street, block after block, were piles of debris, brokenness, and misery. The stench from decomposing unretrieved bodies was overwhelming. One of the American doctors tapped me in the shoulder and sincerely said, “I am so sorry for your country.”

destruction in Tacloban
destruction in Tacloban (photo credit: ACTS website)

Barely 3 hours after we landed, even though we were all travel-weary, jet-lagged, tired, and hungry, we started working. We relieved a team of doctors who were already working in Tacloban for a week. On my first day, our group was divided into 4 teams and we treated a few hundred people in our mobile clinics. And we saw even more every succeeding days. (It was reported that on the 2 weeks of medical mission, ACTS/GR3 has seen more than 6000 patients in Tacloban and its surrounding towns.)

We stayed in Romualdez hospital, which was not operational at that time due to damage from the storm, yet it provided lodging for us. On our first night, 7 of us slept in 1 room, mostly on the floor. There was scarcity of beddings in the room for us – maybe 2 hospital mattresses, a couch, a mat, and cardboards. Being the only Filipino in our team initially, I thought that I should give the mattresses to our foreign visitors, so I slept on the cardboard. Being hospitable whatever the circumstances, is one of our Filipino traits you know. Besides I am used to sleeping on a hard surface anyway.

When we woke up the next morning, I was sorry to learn that the one doctor who slept on a mattress, got bitten all over his body by bedbugs. Who would think that sleeping on a cardboard was better, as at least it has no bedbugs? Many members of our team, were also feasted upon by mosquitoes. I brought a mosquito net but I let somebody else use it. I jokingly told them that even Filipino insects practice colonialism as they were specially attracted to Americans.

Many of the doctors I was with were unsettled with one trivial fact: that there was no toilet paper in the restroom. I explained to them that most Filipino household don’t use toilet paper. We use soap and water instead.That’s what the ubiquitous tabo (dipper) is for, which is indispensable to our culture.

But since they were so culture shock with this, and we did not bring toilet paper, we went for “operation toilet paper.” Me and another commando went to the camp of the Taiwanese doctors who were lodging in the far end of the hospital and hijacked some toilet paper. OK, OK, we did not really stole them, we just took some rolls they left behind.

The following day, a group of doctors from Harvard and another group from Abu Dhabi arrived and joined our team. The Abu Dhabi group initially asked if there was a hotel they can stay, perhaps after seeing the meager accommodation we had. But after learning that the nearest hotel was probably about 3 hours away, they decided to stay. It was amazing that the next day, we have to wake their group up as they slept so good despite the “meager” accommodations.

On my third day, another Filipino doctor (from Baguio) arrived and joined the team. Being the only two Filipino doctors in our team, we believe we had the advantage. First of all, though we don’t speak Waray ( the dialect in Tacloban), yet we speak Tagalog, and thus we did not need an interpreter. Most of the foreign doctors required an interpreter.  We also understand the culture better so we can connect with them easier. Though some patients may have preferred seeing the American doctors, due to our ingrained colonial mentality, viewing them as superior. Yet working hand in hand with them we earned their respect.

For me, as a Filipino, it is quite understandable why I volunteered: for this is my country, and this is my people. For the other doctors, it is for no other reason than the goodness of their hearts and their sense of humanitarian mission. They sacrificed their time, effort, and not to mention resources, as nothing was paid, not even our airfare, and we were all volunteers. (All donations to ACTS/GR3 was used for medicines and medical supplies.)

After a few days of working with these highly trained and yet very compassionate doctors, and after undergoing a unique experience together, we have formed a bond. A bond more than bedbug-infested-mattresses and mosquito bites. Beyond toilet paper-less bathrooms and cold pail-and-tabo showers. Even beyond being medical professionals, foreign or otherwise.

For one special time (despite of the calamity), we were one race – the human race. Working together. Sharing a common goal. We were a team.


*ACTS (Active Communities That Serve) / GR3 (Global Rapid Rescue Relief). Learn more of their work and their mission, and how to help at actswr.org

** After returning home, I left my backpack in the garage for a month, where it was freezingly cold, to make sure I don’t bring in any chance-passenger bedbugs to our home. 


  1. God bless you and all those who went with you to help the victims of Typhoon Haiyan. A true selfless act of kindness, sacrifice and generosity. So many help out in kind but you and your group actually went and help people in person. That is amazing & inspiring. I live in Capiz. My folks are still there. When I saw one of the main images all over the net, I panicked. It’s part of a coastal village close to our city. If only I could go home then I would. Things are better now in Capiz though still no electric in most towns. The Visayas pretty much still need our help & I hope people will not stop making sharing whatever they have for the victims. Happy New Year.

    1. It’s true, the Visayas still need our help. I hope politcizing and corruption will be set aside, especially in our own government, and the aid really reach the people that needs them.

      1. It was heartbreaking indeed and even with our efforts, I feel we have not done enough. I really don’t know though what will be considered enough. Yet, it is still fulfilling that somehow I know I have done something.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s