Finding Her Smile

Getting up close and personal with a carabao in the Philippines, much to the amusement of the locals.

One thing that I’ve been surprised at here in the Philippines is the level of humour people have.  I suppose that after years of working with Ricky, I shouldn’t be surprised.  But I am.

Everywhere I’ve gone in the Philippines there has been laughter and joking.  Inside jokes have rapidly developed with the partner staff I’ve travelled with, whether about papayas or iced tea or backbiting.  And there has been much joking in community meetings as well.

One of the first places I visited following up on our Typhoon Haiyan was Kampingganon barangay on Bantayan island.  I spent about an hour seeing people at their work, and getting photographs of people planting corn, preparing seed, and plowing their field.  I was laughed at for including the carabao (water buffalo) so prominently in some of the photos.  But that’s ok, laughter had been part of the experience so far.  And I can laugh at myself.  And at a carabao.

The time arrived for the community meeting when I would be talking to two dozen or so people about their experience during Yolanda (as Haiyan is known locally).  I was expecting things to get serious at this point.

I asked “Can you please tell me about your experience on the day of Yolanda?”

Everyone in the group turned to look at one older lady.  They smiled and giggled a bit as she got up to tell me her story.  I thought it was nerves.

She told me about the first time the storm hit the island, how they evacuated to another house to escape their own house which had lost its roof.  She told me about how, when the wind died down, she went back home to see what could be salvaged.

Then the storm hit again.  A flash flood from the nearby hills had her grabbed by a meter of fast-moving water.

And she lost her pants.

At this, the whole gathering broke out in laughter, including the lady telling her story.

Even as she was fearing for her life during the storm, she was aware of the humour of her situation.  And she loves to tell the story.

As we continued to talk, she continued to joke.  She even invited me to her birthday party on December 1.  Apparently, I must make sure to bring a gift.

“We still smile,” I have been told many times on this trip.  And it’s true.

Toward the end of my time, I met Evelinda.  Her story was much harder to hear.   She told me about clinging to her daughter for dear life as the storm surge smashed through the community she was in near Tacloban.  She told me of losing her grandmother in-law, both her in-laws, and her two-year old son in the storm.  Tears rolled down her cheeks as she talked about her daughter’s trauma since the storm.

And then she said, “It took me three months to find my smile again.”  And her smile is a beautiful one, and we saw it a lot as she kept talking about “cold ice” during the day, only to be asked where she kept the “hot ice”.

The smiling faces cover a deep pain for the survivors of Yolanda.  But it is not a false front.  It is a genuine humour and love of life that has impressed me and will stay with me as I prepare to head home to Canada.  It has inspired me.  And I hope you will remember both the tragedy of Typhoon Haiyan, but also the humour and spirit of the survivors as they continue to rebuild their home.

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