A literal relief drive
I’m sure I won’t remember their faces, nor will they remember mine.
Never more than an hour together, never any face time, never much conversation. My hands were only on the wheel, eyes only on the road. Our interaction was limited to me opening my car, popping the trunk, and getting them to their destination. A few directions given here and there, and some small talk about the distance I was driving—nothing more.
I entered the base intending to repack goods. The first orientation I attended was for “Operation Salubong.” We were warned to be extremely careful about what we said and did. The first rule was never to ask how they survived. Never express pity. Never carry their baggage without prior permission. Oh, and remember to smile. I was braced for an intensely emotional encounter.
But it wasn’t. The first family I drove under “Oplan Hatid” shared with each other updates on areas in and around Tacloban. They completed a rundown of who should’ve been in Leyte but left, and who needn’t have been in Leyte but stayed. No hysterics—just your ordinary Sunday-lunch discussion. Some comments acknowledging familiar landmarks on the way to their home.
I picked up only bits and pieces of their conversation. I didn’t try to be part of it; I was still worrying about saying the wrong thing. But this I’m sure I understood correctly, and I continued driving with a heavy heart: “Tacloban smells like death.”
I knew nothing of who they were, how they were connected to one another, and whose house we were going to. What we shared was only that short ride (even shorter considering the absence of traffic in the wee hours of the morning)—that last link in the chain to a next step.
But what next step? Building a new life in Manila? Perhaps. One of the boys was keenly observing the roads and worrying about how little he knew and how he’d get around. Musing about how he knew Tacloban inside out—even the side roads and the shortcuts. I feel the same way about Manila. To be displaced from such familiarity, from a place that lets you feel like you’re the insider, can be exciting. But to know that none of it will be back, should you choose to return, must be frustrating to say the least.
They volunteered to ride back with me to the highway so I wouldn’t get lost. I refused. I drove away, and that was that. I have their contact details from a form that Oplan Hatid requires for every dispatch, but I don’t intend to reach out, nor do I expect that they will.
It was a pleasant surprise when, on my second evening at Villamor, I found myself without a potential passenger. They had somehow managed to send everyone off; drivers were in excess.
During downtime, Krispy Kreme, coffee and some barbecue from a local celebrity were offered. I eavesdropped as one of the “veteran” volunteers (who had been there far longer and far more frequently than I had) questioned a survivor—a mother carrying a three-week-old. The volunteer asked the off-limits question: “How did you survive? You held on to the baby?” She did.
We heard a new C-130 land. Sometimes it would be a false alarm, we were warned. Because they’re military planes, we can’t know what’s aboard until the plane opens. Sometimes it would be cargo, sometimes soldiers. Sometimes 100 survivors, if it was an American pilot; if it was a Filipino pilot, he’d squeeze in 300.
Once the newly arrived survivors had been sufficiently examined and debriefed, I volunteered for the first family headed to Quezon City, without thinking. They turned out to be a couple of young men, and I was afraid. But I’d already volunteered, and how could I say, “Hey, I changed my mind, give me another family”? So I took the car and hoped for the best.
I guess it’s cynicism (or fear) that comes with living in Manila and expecting the worst of people—especially strangers, especially men. I was put at ease only when I saw the boy in my passenger seat make the sign of the cross before we drove off, and when I learned that it was their father who would meet them at the landmark—a popular funeral parlor along G. Araneta.
We didn’t talk much either, just a few apologies for running over potholes, and a few hurried phone calls taken and ended. At a certain point, somewhere in the middle of BGC, one of them started blasting “Jenny” out of his phone. Strangely comforting. We both knew this hit from the late 2000s. It’s still running through my head tonight as I write.
When we arrived, there were about a dozen people waiting at the curb. It was a grand reunion at the witching hour, in the rain, on the sidewalk facing a funeral parlor. A few questions, particularly about the whereabouts of another cousin they’d been expecting. I popped the trunk once more, waited for them to gather their belongings, and was about to drive off when one of the men who welcomed them insisted on opening my passenger door.
He held out his hands, gesturing for mine. He shook my hand while thanking me—again, I could only understand bits of what he was saying. He seemed to be also asking about the rest of their family, but I could give him no information. Never mind, he said, and settled for the endless “thank you” instead.
But as I said, I won’t remember him.
But what I hope to remember—and I hope they’ll remember—is that at one point, amidst the doubt and lack of concern, we all managed to trust each other. It’s not the ideal situation a 23-year-old girl is expected to be in: alone in a car with strangers, speeding across deserted streets. But nothing about this was ideal. Not for me; even less so for my passengers.
My stories are two among hundreds. There were drivers who brought at least 17 families to homes across Luzon; there were others who dedicated every single day to the operation. Some drove to as close as Taguig, one to as far as Baguio. That guy received a huge round of applause at the tent.
Over each day, the system was improved, with numbers and bidding and online registration. Over each day, I’d like to believe that we were each made stronger—drivers, dispatchers, organizers, marshals, counselors, survivors.
Cecilia Ejercito, 23, is a management trainee.
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