Signs of life amid misery reveal Filipinos' spirit

TACLOBAN, Philippines (AP) - November 20, 2013

A crowd gathered around. And on one of the few stretches of road here that wasn't overflowing with debris, they played basketball.

I didn't know what to think at first when I stumbled upon six teenagers shooting hoops over the weekend in a wrecked neighborhood of Tacloban, a city that Typhoon Haiyan reduced to rubble, bodies and uprooted trees when it slammed into the Philippines Nov. 8.

As a foreign correspondent working in the middle of a horrendous disaster zone, I didn't expect to see people having a good time - or asking me to play ball. I was even more stunned when I learned that the basketball goal was one of the first things this neighborhood rebuilt.

It took a moment for me to realize that it made all the sense in the world.

The kids wanted to play so they can take their minds off what happened, said Elanie Saranillo, one of the spectators. "And we want to watch so we, too, can forget."

Saranillo, 22, now lives in a church after her own home was leveled by the storm.

Countless families lost loved ones to the typhoon, which killed more than 4,000 people. Hundreds of thousands of survivors have endured unimaginable suffering: hunger, thirst, makeshift shelter, little if any medical care, and a desperate, dayslong wait for aid to arrive. Tacloban was filled with hopeless, fear-filled faces. Even now, blackened bodies with peeling skin still lay by the roads, or are trapped under the rubble.

But as the crisis eases and aid begins to flow, hope is flickering. People smile, if only briefly, and joke, if only in passing. They are snippets of life. They do not mean, by any stretch, that people are happy in the face of tragedy. But for some, there is a newfound enthusiasm for life that comes from having just escaped death.

When a kid with mismatched shoes rolled the grimy, orange-and-yellow basketball my way, I was encouraged to attempt a slam dunk. I opted for free throws instead, and miraculously sank the first two, to immense cheers all around.

My third shot hit the rim, circled twice and rolled the wrong way. The crowd roared a sympathetic "Awwwwwwwwww." There were a lot of laughs.

In Saranillo's neighborhood, I saw four giggling children jumping up and down on two soiled mattresses strung across a cobweb of smashed wooden beams that had once formed somebody's home. Two women stood on a hilltop high above, dancing.

A few yards (meters) away, a 21-year-old named Mark Cuayzon strummed a guitar. He too, was smiling. And in this city virtually erased by nature, I had to ask why.

"I'm sad about Tacloban," he said. "But I'm happy because I'm still alive. I survived. I lost my house, but I didn't lose my family."

I covered the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan, and cannot recall a single laugh. Every nation is resilient in its own way, but there is something different in the Philippines that I have not yet put my finger on.

While walking through Tacloban's ruins, I and my colleagues were almost always greeted by kind words. When I asked how people were doing, people who had lost everything said, "Good." Superficial words, of course, but combined with the smiles, and with hearing "Hey, Joe" again and again (an old World War II reference to G.I. Joe), they helped form a picture I have not encountered in other disaster zones.

Perhaps it has something to do with an expression Filipinos have: "Bahala Na." It essentially means: Whatever happens, leave it to God.

Elizabeth Protacio de Castro, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Philippines in Manila, said her nation has grown accustomed to catastrophe. Some 20 typhoons barrel across the nation every year. Add to that earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, armed insurgencies and political upheaval.

"Dealing with disaster has become an art," de Castro said. But Typhoon Haiyan "was quite different. It was immense, and no amount of preparation could have prepared us to cope with it."

And yet, they must cope.

"So rather than screaming or staring at the wall in a psychiatric ward, you do everything you can. You do your best, then let it go," said de Castro, who helped provide psychological aid to victims of the 2004 Asia tsunami during a previous job with the U.N. Children's Fund.

People playing music or sports in the rubble, de Castro said, "is a way of saying, 'Life goes on.' This is what they used to do every day, and they're going to keep doing it."

"It's not that Filipinos are some happy-go-lucky people and don't care," she added. "It's a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. They're saying: 'I can deal with this. I'm at peace, and whatever happens tomorrow, happens.' ... They need help, of course, but they're also saying, they're going to get by on their own if they have to."

De Castro has been counseling students in Manila who lost parents and siblings to the storm, and said some have displayed incredible determination. "They've lost their entire families, and they're telling me, 'I have to finish my studies because my parents paid my tuition through the end of the year.'"

That sense of determination is literally written in the ruins of Tacloban.

One handwritten message painted on a board outside a destroyed shop said the "eyes of the world" are on the city. It added, "Don't quit."

Those who have gotten a chance to leave Tacloban have done so, of course, though many will no doubt return one day.

On Monday, I rode on a U.S. Air Force C-17 out of Tacloban to Manila, along with about 500 people displaced by the typhoon. There were babies and pregnant women. Some had tears in their eyes. One man held a doll with stuffed animal-like angel wings. He stared at it intensely, kissing it over and over.

As the plane neared Manila, an American crew member held her iPhone to her helmet's microphone, which was linked the aircraft's speaker system.

She hit play, and Earth, Wind and Fire's 1978 hit "September" belted out. The sea of eyes squatting on the cargo plane immediately turned radiant.

Men twirled their arms. Women swayed back and forth, and the words echoed through the plane's cargo hold:

"Do you remember ...

While chasing the clouds away,

Our hearts were ringing,

In the key that our souls were singing.

As we danced in the night. Remember,

How the stars stole the night away."

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