The Exodus

Monday, November 10, 2014


It was only on the fifth day that I finally decided to leave for good. It took me that long because I was not able to get to a final decision from my sister. I do not want to leave anyone behind so I have to wait for us to have a fixed and final decision to leave.

Fortunately, my sister Mabelle, was not in Tacloban when it happened. She was with her kids on vacation in Manila.  Good thing though because there was nothing to be saved in her house. She came in to Tacloban via Cebu and Ormoc because all the roads coming in from Manila was damaged. San Juanico bridge was unpassable. She and her sister-in-law Rochelle and friend Alberta had to take the flight to Cebu. They were planning on taking the C130 to Tacloban, but the waiting list was so long. They decided to take the Supercat and go to Tacloban via van. They arrived at about 9 or 10 in the morning to rescue us and the first thing that we really did was hug. They brought biscuits and medicine and milk. The biscuit was the one that would sustain us for the rest of our exodus out of Tacloban.

We decided to take the C130 because of some miscommunication, me, the kids, Mel (my maid) , my sister and her boyfriend, and some neighbors decided to walk to the airport. That was about 10 to 15 kilometers but could be more because we have to take a different route. We can’t risk taking the route in Real because there was a lot of dead bodies still uncollected near Astrodome. I don’t want the kids to see that. I have them wear mask because the stench was just too much. It was a stench that you didn’t want to smell again, the kind of odor that clings to your hair, and seeps through every pore into your body. It was a smell that I would never forget.

On our way to the airport, with 3 kids in tow, we took turns in carrying Arashel and Matt, because there were places that water was still knee deep. Then it started to rain, we had to stop and let it pass. We have to save water so we only took a sip of whatever water we had. Then some pedicab was already taking passengers to Coca-Cola in San Jose so we took the ride. It was a rip off because we were charged 300 pesos for just a short distance. I had no choice, my kids were getting tired.

It was starting to grow dark. It that time, darkness was our enemy. We didn’t have any flashlight. We have heard of the looters who would stop people and loot from them. I prayed we don’t meet such. When the rest of our group finally reached Coca-cola, we brainstormed if we should wait for my sister Mabelle who was going to come pick us up in a van. But we didn’t know where they exactly were because there was no signal yet. We have no way to communicate.

We decided to push through with our plan to go to the airport. It was safer there. There was signal, although no power, but at least, there were a thousand soldiers there. That would be the safest place for us.  We started to walk again.

We flagged down a car and asked if we could hitch to the airport. We were allowed so we helped ourselves into the back of the car. After half an hour stuck in traffic, yes, there was a long queue of cars trying to get to the airport, the driver decided to turn back so we were forced to get off the car and continue to walk. Then a couple of tricycle (the tricycle itself was already improvised designed to carry a lot of passengers) came and I asked to be brought to the airport. They were charging us for 100pesos per head. There were ten of us together so we paid a thousand pesos just for that ride.

Along the way, we saw more of the destruction. There were more dead bodies everywhere, some just wrapped in tarpaulin, or bedsheet and tied. I could feel how heartbreaking it must have been for someone to abandon their dead on the sidewalk. But they had no choice, there really wasn’t any place where they can bury their dead.

When we finally reached the airport, it was full of people. There were more coming in, but some were backing out. I saw one teacher from my alma mater and where my daughter was also going, she asked if we had plenty of food with us. I asked her why, she said she bought a flight that day, but the schedule was still on Friday. She said she’ll be staying in the airport until Friday because she can’t go back home. It was dangerous. And that was just Wednesday.

We decided to stay there. Since there was already a signal on my phone, I was able to contact my sister. My children’s dad also tried contacting me. My kid’s grandfather works for a big news company. At that time, I was told that the family members of media men in Tacloban was given priority to take the C130.  They asked favor from one of their ground reporters covering the event to assist us in taking the flight. But because it was already dark and raining, I was not able to go past the airport tower, where she apparently was waiting for me.

Some of us went into the queues of the two commercial planes that were selling tickets. We were hoping to buy, I had enough money with me. But the long lines were crazy, they were not even open yet.

But because it was night time, I opted to stay with the kids in the dilapidated main hall of the airport because there were chairs. At least, if we are going to spend the night there, we were seated properly. There was still a moon that night, at least it was giving us some light. That was the only light we had, plus the occasional light of the media’s cameras. Media from all over the world somehow had a station inside the airport, and their cameras provided extra light. CNN, BBC and even one that I don’t know what language the reporter was using and one or two times their cameras panned at us.

Arashel and Matt started to sleep, without having any dinner but some pieces of biscuits. And there was still milk. So at least they were fine. My other daughter was still able to eat some biscuit. The grown ups on the other hand tried our best not to feel hungry. In fact, I did not feel any hunger at that time. Adrenaline was working at its best, to our advantage.

Tacloban airport is located beside the sea waters. If you have landed at Tacloban airport, you would know this, because the runway is really built on the shorelines of Cancabato Bay. That is why, as the night deepens, the sound of the waves grew stronger. It became colder, with occasional sprays from the waves which I think were bigger that night than usual. At that moment, I thought that if another storm surge would happen , we will all die. There was nowhere else we can go to or run to. We felt so vulnerable. And it was a frightening feeling, to be sitting there, hearing the big waves splashing behind you, on a cold dark night. I hugged my kids tight, to give more warmth to them. I didn’t get to sleep that night.

As early as 4 am, there was a hefty number of people falling in line at the commercial plane counters, waiting for them to open and start operations. I lost hope of buying tickets, so we moved on to the next plan. My sister would use her media identification so she could get past the towers and find the correspondent. Luckily, she was allowed entry. The things the media/press ID can do. I thought that we should have done it the night before, but it skipped my mind. We have the media ID’s because we own one of the local tv channel in Tacloban.

Finally, my sister Arianne was able to locate Nikko Dizon, the correspondent whom we were supposed to look for the night before. Turned out she went down into the lines and kept shouting my name, looking for me. I didn’t hear that because we were on the opposite side of the tower. When my sister got to talk to her, we were told that our slot was taken by a certain military officer, a general, who used our slots to let his family out of Tacloban. He promised that he would give us a slot the next day.

As it was getting light, I noticed that there were more people there in line than the night before. And since we were promised a slot by the general who took our slot, we were asked to stay in a separate queue. Our names were already in the manifesto, and there was a military officer incharge or our group. There was about 20 of us in our group.  It was around 8 am that we were allowed entry  into the tarmac. We were just waiting for the C130 plane we were assigned to, in that case, we were supposed to take the US Air Force C130 plane.

But then some confusion started to brew. Emotions were running high. Egos were inflated, and a confusion on who has authority over who was in charge of some certain things erupted. All units of the military was present there, the navy, the army, air force, etc. They were all there and a confusion over jurisdiction started.

We were counted and grouped into 60’s as that was the capacity of every C130.  After that, we were asked to sit by the shoulders of the runway. There, we were entertained b the soldiers with their story. They played with Matt and Arashel and Margareth and with the other kids, trying to ease the kids anxiety or boredom. One baby started wailing because she was looking for milk. They ran out of milk since they’ve been at the airport  the day before. I had another bottle of milk that was supposed to be for Arashel. Since I was already anticipating that anytime now we would be leaving, I gave the bottle of milk to the baby. The mother was just so grateful.

Photo: lifestyle.inquirer.net
We were in the same group as this man. He does not have any place to go to, he was even asking us which group we were queueing at, Manila or Cebu. When we asked him where he was going, he said he don't know, he just wants to get out of Tacloban. 

The soldiers shared their water with us. There was one soldier who , by coincidence, was surnamed as my surname , became a lifesaver to us.  He assisted my sister and her boyfriend in looking for  Ms. Dizon the night before. The sun was scorching hot and we were there basked in the hot midmorning sun. It was only about 2 pm, when we were told the C130 plane that was to take us out has arrived. Immediately we were asked to move to the runway, near where the C130 was. People started to fill in the plane. When it was our turn to board, somebody from behind cut through us and when we were finally so near to the door, we were told that the capacity has been filled. This happened twice, and all the while we were just inside the shoulders of the runway.

At some point of our frustration, we were called to stay at the CAAP office. Ms.Dizon was still negotiating with the military for our slot.  This certain general again said that he would conduct a special operation. We were told of the plan, we were to stay inside the CAAP area where we should wait for another plane. We were to wait for a certain signal coming from one person we choose as a lookout. We were to wait for the Japanese national to stand up, and immediately follow him as to make it look like we are a part of his group. That time, foreign nationals, expats, were still prioritized to fly out  of Tacloban.

When we finally saw the signal, we walked forward to the plane in a quick but guarded way so as not to attract attention. We were told to be discreet because if people at the other side of the gate saw us going to the planes, people may panic and create pandemonium. It would be something the military won’t be able to control. We were careful not to raise suspicion.

But when we were again somewhere near the plane, another group cut through us. It turned out we were not the only ones doing the special operation thing. That day, families of military men were priority .

Resigned, we got back near the CAAP office area, just beside BBC Network’s camp. I decided to text my sister to come get us from the airport. We would take the van going out of Tacloban to anywhere.  We decided to stay inside the camp while we waited for my sister to come rescue us.

At that moment, I relied on the media to have some water. Ms. Dizon would help me get water from the soldier’s camp.  I have to beg from the soldier on duty for water saying I have kids needing water. Finally he gave me but limited. He specifically told me not to tell anyone about the water because sooner or later, everybody would be asking from them, their supplies may not last too.

The soldier surnamed Lim also checks on us from time to time and would fill his pockets with bottles of mineral water from their supply center and would give it to us. The children, although playing, were already starting to tire, feel agitated and hungry. It was about 3 or 4 pm and we haven’t had anything to eat. We had the last piece of Fita and they divided it among themselves all three of them. We contented ourself with water. Water was our lifesaver.

Matt started to feel sleepy and I laid him on the large airport trolley/trailer used to carry passengers baggages. Matt slept lying on his back, in that trolley. And that was when BBC correspondent Jonathan Head took notice. He went to Matt and placed a bottle of mineral water beside him. And he talked with my sister who was then watching over Matt. I was falling in line inside the CAAP office so I could use their free calls and made a call to my brother in Manila.

When I went back to where the kids were, Mr. Jonathan Head was already talking with them. Then occasionally he would give us bottles of mineral water from their supply. He promised me that if their food supply arrives, he would give us some. But we didn’t wait that long. He asked to do an interview with me and I did answered his questions. It was quite lengthy, but I am not sure if it was even shown.

This is a screenshot of my tweet to Mr. Jonathan Head of BBC and his reply. Thank you.


Another woman interviewed me in perfect Tagalog, but she was scribbling it in Chinese. So I guess she was a correspondent for Tzu Tzi gathering data, or from another Chinese news company. I was starting to have a headache. It was about 5 pm when we decided to go out of the camp and wait for my sister outside the airport.

We waited for another hour and a half before my sister arrived in a van filled with relatives of her husband. We piled in into the van and we were going to go to Catbalogan City in Samar, which is where her husband’s relatives were.

At around 9 pm, we had our first meal in a place near Calbayog City. It was a small turo-turo (kitchenette) and was selling food to motorists. I asked them to stop the car because I really was so hungry already. We had fish soup and rice. That was the best meal I have ever had in my life!
My kids were finally able to eat their first  rice after almost 20 hours.

We spent the  night at a hostel in Catbalogan. There was no power also so we were in a hotel room with only a candle lighting the room. We were so exhausted I didn’t bother taking a bath. I know we were stinking but all guests of that hostel were also from Tacloban, so we were all stinking of the same distinct odor.

We set out to take the bus going to Manila at around 9 am. When we finally boarded the bus, an ordinary one, non airconditioned because it was the one on schedule. This is another ride which we would never forget.


The Bus from Hell


Fresh from our trauma, we thought we were just being paranoid when the bus we were on was running over the speed limit. It was like the driver doesn’t care whether his passengers were still comfortable or not. At some point, it was like a roller coaster and I feared for my children. It was like riding a roller coaster and it scared the hell out of us. I prayed as I prayed during the storm. I worshipped. I asked God to ease us from our anxiety and nervousness.

The bus driver decided to stop over Naga City. When the bus stopped for gasoline at their terminal, one passenger approached my sister Arianne and told her to tell the driver to slow down a bit. He said he didn’t want to tell the driver because it will cause trouble. My sister did talked with the driver, but instead of calming down, the driver snapped and shouted at my sister. My sister started to cry because of the stress and her frustration and fear over the bus. My sister nearly didn’t make it. She was about to surrender when the wall she was holding on to collapsed.

Because the bus driver started arguing with us, my other sister Mabelle decided we get off the bus. When we got off, we tried to talk with the supervisor. But instead he took the side of his driver. I could site so many errors on the part of the bus company: driving alone (they are supposed to drive in tandems so that they can took turns in driving), overspeeding (he was driving way past 80 kph, he would not slow down while overtaking in very, very narrow roads and he looked like he was stoned.

We decided to stay in Naga City and looked for a cheap hotel. Good thing there was one and it was really cheap. We stayed for the night. That was the only time I was able to take a bath, wash my hair and relaxed a bit. I was so filthy that the soap and shampoo just won't make any bubbles or suds. Temporarily, it made us feel better, the only problem was the clothes. The kids have some fresh on, but I realized I only had a couple of shirts and a short and I have already used it the day we stayed in Catbalogan. 

We had to travel light, because we walked from our house to the airport. We only brought one bag with clothes and another bag for food and water. 

I had no choice but to borrow some of my sister's clothing and if you saw me, you would have laughed at my fashion sense. I was wearing a leopard-print sleeveless shirt and a capri pants with tiger prints. I would not want to be caught dead in that outfit, but since I already cheated death, and there really was no other option to make, so I have to wear it.

We set out to the bus station to take the bus to Manila. Good thing the hotel we slept in was near the bus terminal. We were finally able to reach Manila on the 17th of November, 2013. nine days after the typhoon ravaged our place.

I have gone back to Tacloban only once after the New Year to check on our things, cleared what needs to be cleared and I ended up giving away most of our clothes to our former neighbors. They were so happy because at that time, there was a limited suppply of clothing donated. I also donated to my former neighbors toys that my kids don't play with anymore.

It's been a year after Yolanda, and my kids have not been back to Tacloban yet. I have plans of returning back to the place I love not just because it is where I was able to felt freedom with my children, the cost of living is just proportionate to my earnings. I want to go back to the place where I have my peace of mind, to the place where you can buy fresh fish at 20-40 pesos, where you can take the tricycle and go around the city, all for 50 pesos. I want to go back to the place where my children felt free. Living in Tacloban is so laid-back, I was surprised I didn't miss what I had in my almost 10 years of stay in Metro Manila.

Tacloban, I shall return. 


Keep the faith,

Mei








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