Every day since March I have been traversing the narrow streets of Tacloban City’s mercado (wet market) on the way to work.
Our mercado seems to have returned to its usual self—dirty and muddy, fishmongers boasting their best catch, sidewalk vendors offering their goods at the lowest possible prices. And yes, the stench that has made this part of the city infamous has finally settled. I remember a writer-friend saying you cannot forget a smell, but rather than fight and try to forget, I feel like this stench is again doing its purpose—and that’s to bring Tacloban back to life.
When Typhoon “Yolanda” struck Tacloban in 2013, the first thing I thought was that the city would be turned into shambles: The living would go and live somewhere else, and the dead would be left behind. It was easy to create figments like that, especially when you’re standing in the middle of a street with the bodies of nameless, faceless people surrounding you. At that point you’ll find yourself torn between offering your grief to those who perished and saving the last of your remaining emotions to stay sane until everything becomes all right.
That’s exactly how I felt, and for many nights the mingling of emotions kept me up, awake and angry.
Nothing was left of our house when Yolanda came on that morning of Nov. 8, 2013. I had a front-row seat to a live disaster flick, and to be honest, I never thought I would live past the tragedy. But what I endured only failed in comparison to that of a close friend, whose parents were among the 6,000-plus casualties, or to that kind woman who gave me a haircut the day before. She has been missing since the storm, after a huge wave rushed its way inside the evacuation center to which she ran for cover.
“Harrowing” is still an understatement in describing what I’ve been through. Everything, or at least all that constitute the sense of normalcy, was taken away from me in a snap. I had to leave Tacloban to find help and, yes, to escape. But the ghosts of Yolanda were able to find me, and they, in the form of anxiety, led me back to the place I call home.
I have never been so angry at life, and I felt that kind of rage when I returned home. Was this the price I have to pay, to spend my living days in a dying city? Yes, my rants were first-world problems, but the air of despair was just so prevalent that to hope for a better tomorrow took an immense conscious effort by any person present. One thing saved me from the bitterness, though. When I was hired by a humanitarian agency that responded to Yolanda, I started to see life from a different perspective.
At work I came across a number of men, women and children who, despite the adversity brought by the storm, were able to smile. They looked forward to better days, no matter how devastating their situation was. Some of them had lost their loved ones, others had lost their homes like I did, and there were also those who had been left with nothing to hold. But they all had that same passion for living life at its best, of being able to begin again.
It made me jealous; at that point I felt helpless in, or more like incapable of, achieving that level of hope.
Busying myself with work served as my catharsis in overcoming the emotional turmoil brought by Yolanda. It served as my refuge; at the same time, it made me see that the realities, while harsh in their crudest sense, can be turned into wonderful opportunities, if only I would choose to make them so. Of course, letting go of the pain and the survivor’s guilt was not easy because they had already become part of me.
My choice to let go came in the form of baby steps. If there was any consolation, my job helped me adjust to the consequences of my decisions, albeit slowly. And yes, the communities I interacted with in my job were unknowingly helpful in my journey to self-healing. Their motivation to rebuild their lives was a slap in my face, especially during those times when I was in despair despite the fact that I was in a more comfortable situation than they.
One day the electric company reinstalled the power lines in the place into which I had moved, and in the same night the lights were back. More stores opened and resumed operations, students started going to school, and multicabs plied their routes until midnight. Houses shifted from tarpaulins to GI sheets for roofing, although a lot remained damaged. The barrio fiestas (which are a staple in Tacloban) resumed, now value-added with thanksgiving. A lot has definitely changed since.
The stench of the mercado somehow inspires me—the stench, which was accompanied by the hustle and bustle of the market folk, all of them striving to reestablish their definition of normal. The surrounding ruins remind them that they can never bring back the past, pre-Yolanda era, but it also gives them the drive to rebuild for the better.
I cannot say that I have totally healed. I guess my battle scars are here to stay. Yes, the guilt is still in me, but now I am using it for a different purpose: to make the most of my living days, to begin life again.
Fae Cheska Marie Esperas, 28, currently works at Community and Family Services International, a humanitarian organization committed to peace and social development, with a particular interest in the psychosocial dimension.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.