On a little island in the middle of the Philippines, there stands some incredibly attractive property. Ocean views on hillocks; fertile soil that gives rise to corn, cassava, coconut; curious lava-rock formations that attract the eye and, occasionally, the butt of a scratching goat or cow.
Everywhere, happy neighbors and a healthy community; folks who will take care of you in trying times. Every morning and afternoon, children in school uniforms walking the over-two-kilometers from home to school; school to home to help their parents, cheerfully waving and calling to foreigners riding by in trucks, there to help a community recovering from an extreme act of nature.
The foreigners seem rapidly attached to this little island. They visit homes and gulp at what they find: The same gorgeous sea and lovely breezes that make this place heaven most days also make it a prime target for devastation when things are just-so in the skies above: Roofs go flying, right off their houses. Hollow-block walls shear from pillars, in some cases leaning away, but not quite falling, resulting in something that looks safe, but isn’t, by any standards.
Light materials, like bamboo, make up the bulk of the building materials here: thatched coconut-palm roofing adds a final pastoral touch. It’s very picturesque, but won’t withstand anything like a typhoon.
Galvanized iron sheets must make a racket when they go clanging off in the wind, only to wrap themselves around telephone poles or other people’s better-built homes.
The foreigners think of all of these things while they are tromping through this lovely countryside, and they look with worried eyes at the big storm systems just off the island. The urgency is palpable: What next? How much time do we have before the rains come?
Perhaps just as palpable is the foreigners’ need to keep on naming things. They cannot easily remember the curiously musical names of the people whose homes they visit, but they want to keep all of the people they encounter locked away in their memories. An observer, standing by at the nightly meeting the foreigners seem addicted to having, will overhear strange phrases:
“Pregnant-Lady, Falling-Down House.”
“Coconut Tree Manor.”
“The Place With The Guy Who Needed Help But Walked Right By His Own House To Make Sure We Saw His Disabled Neighbor’s Place.”
“The Blind Lady.”
“Bamboo Grove, Fire Ants, Deaf Husband.”
The foreigners do this because they can better remember this way the people they met. In these times, it matters equally what state their houses were in, what state their communities were in–and what state their spirits were in.
What matters most? Forward movement. A bridge to recovery. For the foreigners, to remember these people is to remember the brief shining moment when they were able to convey the message: You were not forgotten. You will be remembered, even if by very strange phrases and a code that only a few will understand.
For more information on the aid work I undertook on Bantayan Island in the Philippines with my teammates of ShelterBox, please click here.