Left Behind in Albuera

(Last week was the 3rd year anniversary of the super typhoon Yolanda hitting the Visayas. With the town of Albuera, Leyte sharing some headline news, though for the wrong reasons, that I wrote this article.)

Unless you’re hiding under the rock, you probably have heard that the mayor of Albuera Leyte, Rolando Espinosa, who was linked to illegal drug trade, was gunned down while he was in prison.

After learning the news, and after tracing back my memory and confirming where Albuera is, I ascertained that I visited this town three years ago.

A week after Yolanda ravished Tacloban, I volunteered to join a medical team headed by ACTS World Relief Team (see previous post) and a group of Harvard doctors specializing in Disaster Medicine. I was the lone Filipino doctor from the US in that group that came.

When we landed in Tacloban my heart sank after seeing in person the utter devastation of the place.

In one of our medical missions, a small team was sent from Tacloban to fly to Albuera. Two small helicopters loaded us up – 4 doctors (2 Americans, 1 local doctor-in-training from Romualdez hospital, and me), 1 military personnel who was our security detail, and several boxes of medicines and medical supplies.

After 40 minutes of flight time, we arrived in Albuera. The mayor of the town, Ramon dela Cerna Jr., (the mayor before Espinosa) was waiting for us there. After brief greetings, we were taken to the nearby health center where hundreds of people were already in line, waiting for the medical team.

We worked furiously for about four hours before our medications and medical supplies ran out. We decided then to close the clinic, though it was kind of sad as there were still people waiting in line. However we have triage and screened those in line and we have seen those that needed immediate care.

The municipal office even provided us simple meal, if I remember it right, chicken and rice. I’m sure food was in short supply at that time after the devastating storm, but they were still able to offer us what they have. That’s Filipino hospitality in action, offering the best for the visitors even if we have nothing left for us.

When we finsihed eating we were taken near the beach, not for a swim, though that would be nice, but because there was a clearing  there for the helicopters to land. While waiting for our ride, Mayor dela Cerna kept us company telling us stories of the storm’s tenacity, but even more of his people’s tenacity to rise to this challenge of life.

When our ride finally came, it was a lone helicopter, instead of two. It was a small one too, and can only fit three passengers.  There were five of us.

The pilot said that the other helicopter was sent on another important trip. He also said that he was not sure if he could  make a second trip as he might be sent for a more pressing mission, or maybe it would be too late in the day as the afternoon sun was quickly going down the horizon.

We knew that the roads were in bad shape, mostly blocked with debris from the typhoon. So most likely we cannot travel by ground back to Tacloban even if we wanted to.

I know we cannot leave the two American doctors behind. Too much liability for their safety. I also know that if we leave the local doctor-in-training and the soldier, the headquarters may not be too obligated to send back the helicopter for them, and they just have to find a way to travel back by ground the next day or so.

That was when I decided, that I will be the one to stay. The soldier volunteered to stay with me too. Since the headquarters knew that I was a member of the US group, maybe they will be compelled to come back for me. Besides I feel safe among my people.

After the helicopter departed, the mayor took me to the municipal hall, and told me that I can hang out there while I waited for my ride home. The mayor also promised me that if for some reason they were not able to come back for me,  he would find a way to send me back to Tacloban the next day. That’s a 120 km trip which usually takes 3 hours, though could be much longer with the uncertainty of the road conditions.

The mayor then went back to work, while I found a comfortable seat inside the municipal hall.

Not too long after, someone approached me making sure I was doing fine. She introduced herself as the mayor’s sister. I told her to not to worry about me, for I can keep myself entertained. Or since it was a long day for me, I could also catch some cat naps while waiting.

While I sat there, a group of the mayoral staff held their meeting near where I was. I was too sleepy to eavesdrop to what they were discussing. Maybe they were planning on how to take over the world. Before long, I faded into Lala land.

After more than an hour or so, I was informed that the helicopter was coming, and it would be landing in about 15 minutes or so. I said goodbye to my host, including Mayor dela Cerna. The soldier and I were taken back near the beach for the helicopter pick up.

On our flight back to Tacloban, the soldier who was with me, was thankful that I decided to stay and thought it was brave of me to stay behind in a strange place with uncertain circumstances. He was sure that if it was him and the other local doctor who were left behind, the helicopter would not come back for them.

I just thought that it would just be another adventure if in case they didn’t come back for me. Or perhaps I’ll have the people of Albuera adopt me for a time.

The advantage for being left behind? The trip back to Tacloban was beautiful, as we flew into the sunset.


 PS. A shout out to the people of Albuera: damo nga salamat!


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.”


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.


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.


(*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.