Still Water

During our recent trip to Poland I was asked a question that I have never encountered before.

We were in a restaurant when the waiter asked me what I wanted to drink. I then requested for water. To this the waiter further asked:

“Still or gassed?”

I looked at him intently and bid him to repeat the question, and he asked me again, “Still or gassed?”

Is he asking me if I wanted “distilled” water? But what about the gas? Does he know that I am feeling gassy? Will they gassed me or something?

Finally it dawned on me that he was asking if I wanted “regular” water or “carbonated” water! It’s just that I am not familiar with the term “still” or “gassed” water.

Realizing what his question was, I stated confidently, “Still water, please.”

Something I learned in Poland was, first, they don’t offer tap water in restaurants. Water is always bottled so you have to pay for it. Secondly, they like carbonated water, for some reason or another. And thirdly, they really call the carbonated water, “gassed” water. I think technically it is more accurate than the term sparkling water.

During the rest of our stay there, I was requesting for “still water.”

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Polish still water

Perhaps I am not the only one who wants to drink still water. I was reminded of a popular text in the Bible in Psalms 23, “He leadeth me besides the still waters.”

Apparently sheep cannot drink from a rushing water. So the shepherd has to bring them to a spring or brook with quiet water, or he has to make a small dam for the water to be still, and only then can his herd of sheep drink the water.

But maybe it is not only our drinking water that we wanted to be still.

Last summer, in our home trip to the Philippines, we were able to visit Palawan, and we spent a few days beside the ocean. We rode boats when we went island hopping, did some swimming and snorkeling, and enjoyed some time kayaking.

During those water activities, you want the ocean to be still. We would not dare sail in a turbulent sea or when the waves are raging. So we want the water where we are treading, to be still waters, as well.

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photo taken at Sabang, Palawan

However the waters where we tread, are not always still. It can be stormy at times.

Two years ago, the waters near Tacloban, Philippines became turbulent. So turbulent that it caused 15 to 20-foot-high storm surges during the super typhoon Haiyan (local name Yolanda). It caused terrific devastation not just near the coast but even spanning to several kilometers inland.

I witnessed this devastation first hand, and it’s not easy to forget such horrendous tragedy . Sadly to say, thousands of lives were lost, with millions more affected. I can only pray for the continuous healing and recovery of those survivors.

(video taken during one of our helicopter medical tour, Tacloban, November 2013)

We may like to have still waters all the time, but you and I know that angry waters is part of our lives. And I am not only talking about drinking water or sailing water for that matter. I think you know what I mean.

You may have not experienced stormy waters before and I hope you won’t ever go through them. Or you may have gone through some rough waters before, and glad that you’re over it. Or you may be going through raging waters right now, that you are desperately asking when will the waters go still.

My friends, we are not promised that we will only go through still waters. But even when I cross through turbulent waters, God has promised that He will be with me, “yea, even though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death.”

And when the storm clears, He will lead me besides the still waters, and He will restore my soul.

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(*post dedicated to the people of Tacloban, in this 2nd year anniversary of the tragedy brought in by Yolanda)

Gunita ni Yolanda

Isang taon na pala ang nakakaraan nang tumahak at rumagasa si Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) sa Pilipinas, lalo na sa lugar ng Tacloban. Ito ang pinakamalakas na bagyo na lumapag sa lupa sa kasaysayan ng mundo. Libo-libong mga tao ang napahamak at milyon-milyon iba pa ang naapektuhan.

Isang taon na ang nakalipas mula nang ating maging bukang bibig ang super typhoon at storm surge. Sangayon sa aking mga nakausap at nakasalamuhang mga survivors, kung naintindihan lang daw nila na ang storm surge ay parang tsunami, ay marami raw sanang tao ang lumikas sa tabi ng dagat bago humagupit ang bagyo, at marahil ay hindi ganoong karami ang mga namatay.

Isang taon na rin ang nagdaan mula nang tayo ay malagay sa spotlight sa harap ng buong mundo, matapos tayong sagasaan ng bagyong Yolanda. Lumipad sa Pilipinas si Anderson Cooper, isang kilalang CNN reporter, at doon niya inilantad ang kalunos-lunos at kaawa-awang kalagayan ng Tacloban, at kung paanong walang maagap na tulong na dumarating. Kanyang kinalampag ang mga kinaukulan at namumuno sa ating gobyerno, ngunit sa halip na tayo ay magtulungan, tayo pa ay nagbangayan. Bakit ba hindi natin maintindihan na ang bagyo ay hindi namimili ng antas ng buhay o kulay ng ating partido?

Isang taon na rin pala ang nakalipas mula nang ako’y tumungo at umapak sa Tacloban, kasama ng mga dayuhang manggagamot upang tumulong sa paglunas sa mga nasaktan at nasakuna. Isa lamang ako sa mga daan-daang mga volunteers, national at international, na tumugon sa tawag ng pangangailangan, na dumagsa at lumapag sa nasalantang siyudad ng Tacloban.

photo taken upon our arrival at Tacloban airport

photo taken upon our arrival at Tacloban airport

Makaraan ang isang taon, may pinagbago na ba sa katayuan ng mga nasalanta ni Yolanda? May kaginhawahaan na ba sila ngayon? O patuloy pa rin silang dumaranas ng paghihirap? May naging progreso ba sa mga buhay nila? O araw-araw pa rin nilang binabata ang epekto ni Yolanda hanggang sa ngayon? May mga ngiti o halakhak na kaya sila? O patuloy pa rin ang kanilang impit na hikbi at hinaing?

May saysay ba ang mga pinagpaguran ng mga taos-pusong tumulong, dayuhan man o lokal? O nauwi lang ito sa wala? May naging kabuluhan ba ang mga milyon-milyong perang donasyon na umagos mula sa iba’t ibang bahagi ng mundo? O nauwi din lang ito sa kawalan?

Pagkalipas ng isang taon, may nagbago ba sa atin at sa ating mga pananaw? May mga leksiyon ba tayong natutunan mula kay Yolanda?

Sana naman ay mayroon.

A backpack, bedbugs and toilet paper

(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.

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*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.