(note from the editor: It’s been three months since Ariel Neidermeier returned from the Philippines where she volunteered to rebuild homes devastated by Typhoon Haiyan. Today, Ariel’s emotional connection to Tacloban and the people of the Philippines remains strong)
When I was on project we spent a lot of time working in the coastal barangays of downtown Tacloban deconstructing destroyed homes and debris. Eventually, the locals began to recognize the bands of roving All Hands Volunteers in mismatched socks and bandanas, carrying tools to the next work site. They would always smile and wave at us as we trudged past. It made me feel at home in the moonscape of downtown Tacloban, where huge piles of rock and rubble were more common than intact homes.
To say that I miss Tacloban and Project Leyte is an understatement. When I returned to Berkeley, CA, to the comfortable routine of my job and seeing friends and family, I assumed my memories of Tacloban would slowly fade into the depths of my memory. Months later, the nostalgia for my time volunteering with AHV is still as painful as when I boarded my plane back to the States, silently wiping tears on the hem of my Project Leyte t-shirt as I walked through the gate.
I long for my fellow volunteers and the work we devoted ourselves to. I crave the rewarding ache of my muscles at the end of a workday and the ease with which I tumbled into a deep, well-earned sleep each night. It was during those long, hot days that I learned the true meaning of hard work and gratitude.
I remember working on a site where the family cooked us a hot meal for lunch the first day we were there. We happily ate it but politely told them we couldn’t accept lunches from them again for fear that they were depleting their own scarce resources by cooking for us. The next day, the husband of the family, Edgar, served us cold cokes and pastries during our break time. He ignored our polite declines, placed the snacks in front of us and said with finality: “Yes. It’s the least we can do.”
For us volunteers, the feelings of gratitude were mutual. We might have cleared their properties but they let us into the deepest, darkest corners of their souls by talking of the deaths they experienced during the storm or the hardships they faced moving forward in their lives. I remember a man named Andy telling us about his 4-year-old daughter’s fear of “big waves” ever since the storm surge demolished their home. He looked haunted when he shared this insight, like he couldn’t figure out how to assuage her fears. It felt like too little to say ‘thank you for sharing’ in response to his story, so we didn’t. Instead, we kept shoveling until Andy’s back patio was cleared of rubble and he was able to walk through it unobstructed, a look of delight on his face.
Gratitude is what I left with when I packed my backpack and walked out of base for the last time, determined not to cry in front of the family of volunteers waving me off. Gratitude is what I’m left with as I sit here, far away from the ravaged beauty of Tacloban, thinking of the Filipino people rising above the destruction and moving forward. I am grateful to have contributed a small effort to rebuilding their great city. Tindog Tacloban.
(You can catch up with all of Ariel’s blogs from the Philippines here.)