- By Chad Loftis
It is said that in the Philippines, when Filipino boxing champion Manny Pacquiao fights there is no crime. Everything stops. Apparently that goes for putting your life back together, too.
Here in Veloso, Samar where one of the biggest storms in recorded history has forced everything to stop, like it or not, a Pacquiao fight seems like something from another world. But it has still had the usual effect: there is no sound of hammering or chainsaw; almost everybody in town seems to be gathered around one of the three TVs connected up to generators, watching the fight. Or rather, watching a long string of glitzy commercials - drastically out of place in this muddy, decimated landscape - peppered by short intervals of boxing.
In the biggest of the three houses - and one of the few strong enough to have survived Haiyan - a hundred or so people are being hosted by an effusive bald man, probably in his thirties, who is relishing the fight from his chair like a tribal king with a glass of coconut whisky. Rumour is, he charges 5 pesos for the privilege of looking at his TV on special occasions like this - a little extension of his 10 or 20 peso phone-charging business. But as more and more people wander over to watch through the windows I never see a cup being passed or anyone turned away. He even offers me a prime spot on the floor right in front of the TV, at his feet as it were, and a taste of some fish salad. “This is a time,” his demeanour seems to say, “to enjoy the little things.” And that seems right. Maybe when life as you knew it is lying in muddy heaps shovelled to either side of the road, the little things are what you miss most.
This morning in the crumbling husk of the Marabut Community Church one woman told Kuya Gerry, a senior member of our relief team, “We have enough rice, thanks to the government relief, what none of us has is underwear.”
In his last fight, Manny Pacquiao was knocked out in the sixth round by a right to the jaw. Since then he has been training, according to the commentators, and I have to say, he looks strong.
He wins - convincingly. Filipino honour is redeemed.
But shortly after the final bell has sounded there is another reason to celebrate: a tell-tale whine of air brakes as the 40-foot semi-trailer carrying the relief supplies our team came here to deliver finally rolls into town. By now, the 20 tonnes of goods have been in transit for well over 72 hours - most of those spent sitting idle at the ferry-port in Surigao. Pascal, a 30-something European who, along with Tom, has spent all week ensuring these supplies reach their destination, leaps from his pickup truck and scrambles into action. It’s obvious he has not really slept in days and the adrenaline he’s been running on has been all about this moment. But there will be no time to savour it - the trucking company is becoming very impatient and wants its driver to begin the return journey tonight. Dusk is already approaching and there are two other communities to make deliveries to after this one.
Everyone gathers expectantly in front of the Veloso (Evangelical) church where the goods will be distributed. The truck is opened; big sacks of rice unloaded, survival equipment, sheet after sheet of plywood and then the 10 kilo plastic buckets full of canned goods, rice, a tarpaulin and some candles. One for each family.
The fumes from the plastic and plywood that have been accumulating inside the truck for three days are so strong the workers have to wear masks just to stand in the trailer's opening. Soon their eyes are bloodshot and watering. And this is heavy work. But there is a festive atmosphere. Everyone seems happy for something to do, something to look forward to. No one tries to take more than their share.
Waiting with the others is the father of six who had to make a harrowing, mile-by-mile journey from Manila where he drives a jeepney to find out if any of his family were still alive (they were). As he waits his turn to receive aid he and his little daughter are inseperable.
With half the truck unloaded and the supplies in the hands of Veloso families, we shut the doors, pile into the pickup and race to the community of Santa Rita forty minutes away to unload the remaining buckets and plywood. It is already dark - pitch dark here since there is no electricity for a hundred kilometres or so either way up and down the coast - but seemingly everyone in town comes out to help move the relief into two tiny community buildings next to the road. The story goes that members of this community, a village hurt but not crushed by Yolanda, were spotted on the news by the Filipino president as they left Tacloban (the largest city destroyed by the typhoon) in an organised convoy carrying piles of looted goods. As punishment, the president swore no government relief would be given to Santa Rita.
When members of the church there were told we intended to bring some supplies their way looters or not, they wept.
Watching this whole community sweat together as the heavy buckets are passed from hand to hand by the light of car headlamps it is obvious they are organised. Even the mayor is here overseeing the long human conveyor belt. The criminal part is more difficult to see.
I can’t help thinking about the Marabut church where we worshiped this morning - their obstinate determination to meet, to join together in weeping and thanking God for their lives and calling on him to give them strength. Someone had even given up a USAID tarp they might have slept under to use as a provisional roof over the annihilated church building. The storm has destroyed many things here but it has not vanquished the will to stick together, to look out for one another.
Like their national hero, Pacquiao, Filipinos have been knocked out by a right to the jaw. But like him, they are standing up to fight again, together. And together, I have to say, they look strong.