By Merlie Alunan
Tacloban, the center of the Philippines, where everyone is just passing through, it may be. But there are many of us who understand better what love of a place means, after the storm surge and the wind had levelled the city and left it in ruins. We find the place in our hearts again, and perhaps we now realize more what it means to say, I love Tacloban.
Tacloban City — Jet Urmeneta, peripatetic and irrepressible native of Tacloban, picked up a young man once, we don’t know exactly in what circumstances. It might have been in an airport, at the NAIA perhaps, a case of have-money-to-travel-but-don’t know-where-to-go, especially in this strange country, the Philippines. The young man was a Belgian, but he spoke English with a pleasant accent, so Jet told him, “Come with me to Tacloban.”
Where’s that, the young man says.
“That’s the center of the Philippines,” said the disarming and irrepressible native.
So the young man went with her without questioning what might become of him in this touted “center of the Philippines.” Those were happier times, the young man landed among Jet’s family and friends, the Urmenetas and the Delgados of Apitong Country, people who understood fun and good company, food and conviviality, and proved to himself , long before it ever became a touristic byword, that it was indeed More Fun in the Philippines, especially if you’re in the “center,” as Jet boasted. Thus he proved to himself earlier, long before it became a touristic byword, that it was indeed “more fun in the Philippines,” especially if you’re in its “center” as Jet had boasted.
Geographically, Jet might be right. The Maharlika Highway passes through Tacloban, the midpoint on the way south to Mindanao, Surigao, Butuan, Davao, and north, Manila and the the rest of Luzon.
One can make many things of this geographic factor. To government authorities, it means that Tacloban has to deal everyday with loads of people in transit, going from here to there and back. It also means an extraordinary influx of informal settlers coming from various parts of the region, finding places for themselves in the warrens of the city slums. They build shelters very quickly, using what materials come to hand. They find jobs with the many business establishments in the city or do small buy-and-sell businesses of their own, or work as domestics, laundrywomen, waiters, construction workers, cargo handlers. A number of them become drivers of jeepneys, motorized tricycles, and pedicabs.
Most of them are escapees from the poverty that beleaguers the rural places of their origin, only to find their lot not much improved, even worsened by poverty in the urban jungle. Most of them are low-skilled or have no skills at all, which explains why they cannot find regular jobs, or why the jobs they get into are usually poorly paid. This is a fluid population, people coming in and leaving as they please, but there are always more coming in, squeezing themselves everywhere they can.
Businessmen, as usual, are the first to see the opportunities offered by the Pan Philippine Highway. Tacloban City is primarily a trading center for all of Region VIII, and also a regional center. All the national offices have their sub-agencies in Tacloban City. The ease of transport made possible by the Pan Philippine Highway exacerbates the city’s consumerist propensities. It is now easier to bring in goods. Most of what Tacloban eat come from the outside–meat, vegetables, fruits, even fish–they come from food producing provinces such as Davao, Cagayan de Oro, General Santos, Cebu, Bicol and further north. Business control the supply chain, hence it is vital to the well-being of Tacloban. In Tacloban as well as anywhere else in the country, the bulk of these are in the hands of the Chinese community. This is a very stable community, albeit somewhat set apart and focused largely on its own concerns.
The one biggest employer in Tacloban City is the government, City Hall, the Province, and the various agencies of the National Government.
Tacloban has no industries of any significant size, unless one looks at the schools as such. Tacloban is a university town, dominated by two big SUCs, the Leyte Normal University and the Eastern Visayas State University and several private schools, offering mainly elementary and high school education. There is a very small unit of the University of the Philippines. The city’s professionals find employment in government, in schools, in the hospitals that service the city, three government, and four private. The city hosts thousands of students from the entire region most of the year, another fluid population who stay only for the length of time required for the completion of their academic courses. Most of them leave soon after, for Manila or Cebu, in search of jobs.
In the aftermath of Yolanda, there was a massive diaspora of Taclobanons to different parts of the country. We are among those driven to seek shelter outside the city. Within ten days after the deadly storm, however, we also saw the frantic efforts of many Taclobanons to go home, understandably to find out what happened to family and friends caught in the calamity. Suddenly we hear laments about losing the city, losing home. After Yolanda gutted the city and reduced it to piles of rubble and debris, we listen to people mourning for the city they had lost.
” 2013 has brought me the most PAIN in my Life, the PAIN of Loss. I lost dear friends and relatives, and I am losing MEMORIES… I know I am blessed because GOD kept my family intact, but I bleed for my relatives and friends who went with the storm. I also mourn for Tacloban and the place it once had been, the Joy it had given me as I lived there. It is my Birthplace, my Habitat, my Roots, my Identity. In Church, yesterday, I felt so alienated, everything strange. The opulent Church of St. Peter here in Commonwealth was packed with people for it was the feast of Christ the King. I felt so little, so humbled, like a kitten stepped on in a stampede, like a five-year old crying in a pew. I miss my Santo Niño Church, but God is there and everywhere. After Mass, deciding to buy vegetables to augment our sustenance of canned goods, I thought of Rotunda San Jose where many Taclobanons could buy fresh-caught fish, Andok’s where I could buy a fast lunch, my suki fruit vendor and the pedicab driver who was among the lined-up corpse in the rotunda on the day I joined the exodus. I remembered the malls, the cafes where I used to hang out, downtown Tacloban Chinatown where my Chinoy friends would give me discounts for goods I bought at their stores, the University of the Philippines Tacloban College where I have so passionately taught for many years…”
The artist could readily talk about place and his connectedness to it. Perhaps, Dulce Cuna articulates for most of us what home means. These are thoughts we seldom have in better times. Now that the city has been turned into rubble and we are forced to flee for our lives, we begin thinking about what it means to us.
In better times, City Hall garnished the city with signs: “I love Tacloban.” City Hall proudly announced the HUC status of Tacloban and proceeded to impress upon one and all the pride and power of these new circumstances. Most of us cared little for the wranglings that took place in the name of the HUC. For most of us, Tacloban was just an address, we could be moving out pretty soon. It is the place where we work, where we have our business, where we make money.
It takes an artist to remember these: This is where the bones of my father and mother lie, as Daryll Delgado has said. It is where generations of my family have always lived. Where I had planted a garden and a tree. It is where I had fallen in love, where I had my first heartache, where I got drunk and fed the chickens for the first time in the town plaza. Where I feel safest, where I feel fully myself. I may go anywhere in the world, but this is where I want my bones to lie, beside the bones of all my ancestors, and if that is not going to happen, my soul will cross the valleys and oceans of the world to find its shores.
Tacloban, the center of the Philippines, where everyone is just passing through, it may be. But there are many of us who understand better what love of a place means, after the storm surge and the wind had levelled the city and left it in ruins. We find the place in our hearts again, and perhaps we now realize more what it means to say, I love Tacloban. HUC or not, its grounds have harbored our feet and we have breathed its sacred air. Away from it, we would not know who we are. (Photos by GMA, Fox, USA.com)
(Merlie Alunan is a denizen of Tacloban who survived the wrath of supertyphoon Yolanda, along with her children and grandchildren. She is a retired professor in English Literature at the University of the Philippines and in Silliman University. She is a poet at heart. With a new lease on life, she and her family are temporarily staying in Dumaguete City in the island province of Negros Oriental.)