MANILA, Philippines—I found the Filipino heart on an island struggling through its worst disaster.
With a backpack, a pack of Oreos and a bit of courage, I landed on Sibuyan Island on June 24, 2008, anxious about my toughest assignment yet: to cover the search and retrieval operations in the aftermath of the sinking of the MV Princess of the Stars.
But beyond the grim stories of lives lost and lives changed, I saw—and experienced—a town with a big heart. The townsfolk of San Fernando welcomed strangers like long-lost friends, selflessly sharing themselves and the little left of their resources even when they had to make do.
It did not take long for me to feel at home. And this sense of family, of familiarity in a place so new, led me to find intimate stories—the kind that just had to be told.
There was the overwhelmed but determined Mayor Nanette Tansingco who, at one point, broke into tears and pleaded for help for her hometown. San Fernando (pop: 22,000) was grappling with twin tragedies at the time. On top of the sinking of the ferry, its people were also trying to cope with lost homes and livelihood in the wake of Typhoon “Frank.”
Breath of fresh air
The power supply was intermittent and virtually all communication lines were down when the swarm of emergency workers and journalists arrived on the island. (I landed with neither nor itinerary, but I always found my way with the help of gracious locals throughout my 10-day stay.)
No public transport was in sight at the clearing where we were dropped off by an Air Force chopper some seven kilometers away from the town proper—the only viable landing zone at the time. But I and the other journalists did not have to wait long; the locals readily offered us a ride on their scooters.
My scooter “kuya” (elder brother) did not ask to be paid—a breath of fresh air from taxing Manila. I insisted on at least covering for gas.
The town hall was too kind a host. The lone computer in town connected to the Internet during the early days of search and rescue was my only lifeline to the Inquirer News Desk in Manila. And the mayor’s staff always yielded the workstation when it was time for me to send my stories.
On my second day there, Anna Magno, a mother of five, recalled how she had lost her seaside home to a storm surge never before seen on the island.
She and her children, all very young, were among the evacuees who slept in a classroom in the town’s elementary school, turning desks into beds and the muddy hallway into a kitchen.
In a coastal barangay near the sunken ferry, fishermen lamented their unwanted idle time. There was a feared toxic leak from the shipwreck and fishing was banned in the rich waters of the Sibuyan Sea, keeping fishermen and their boats onshore.
But everywhere reporters went, the residents were ready with smiles and hearty greetings, often asking if we had eaten or had slept well.
To have strangers look after you in a place not your own kept the energy going despite long hours under the sun.
It eased the heavy feeling I always carried with me after a day at the site of the sunken ferry, where death and grieving became a daily fare no one can ever get used to.
Toward the end of my stay, Tita Nitz, our surrogate aunt who offered reporters a comfortable place to sleep, said the owner of the house—a cousin now living abroad—had called to say he was waiving our lodging fee.
We may never repay such generosity but we had to insist. So much good was going around that no price can ever match all the kindness, certainly not the meager amount we virtually forced Tita Nitz to accept.
Hugs and exchanges of contact details sent me off on the way back to Manila.
Back at work in the city, I’d always stare at the unsightly “X” tan line my sandals left on my feet from those Sibuyan days. I kind of wished the mark would stay longer.
More than just reminding me that I should have applied more sun block, the pale “X” on my sunburned feet was my badge—a badge that I had touched the heart of Sibuyan.