When supertyphoon “Reming” struck the Bicol region, it left our place cooler and darker, literally and figuratively. I could not immediately adjust to the darkness. I couldn’t clearly see what came before us. When I was able to adjust, I saw sorrow sweeping the land. I tried my hardest to avert my eyes, but I simply couldn’t. I became noisy.
Then I heard on the radio a call for volunteers to do something for a relief center our school put up. Out of curiosity, I braved the mud-covered streets strewn with service poles and cables of all sorts. I was directed to report to the Fra Angelico Building. There I found a group of students I have never met before; strangers, I was disposed to say.
White Cord, Green Cord
I hesitated for quite a while. I saw that they all had green cords for their IDs. Nursing students, I muttered. I saw no other color. Mine is white, CAS’. I felt like a different specie. I felt like OP (out of place, dude!) I then started asking what a Political Science student is doing here. I do not know how to dress wounds. In fact, I could not bear the sight of wounds. But I got attracted to the glow on the faces of those around. I liked the coy smiles which seemed to tell me to stay on. Curiosity got the better part of me. I enlisted as volunteer, whatever that may mean.
The first night that I had to sleep in the Center was simply agonizing. There were no lights, no beddings, not even a mat. And the food! Since that night and until the end of my volunteer work (with some days as exception) we survived on over-cooked rice and “karnenas.” “Karnenas” stands for “karne” (actually corned beef, carne norte, that is) and sardinas” (canned sardines). If there is any better definition for agony, then this must be it, I thought. But when I saw what other people in the communities were going through when we went to Camalig up to the poblacion of Polangui in the company of Sir Jude, Sir Abe, Dean Chie Muñoz, Kuya Leo, and Kuya Kaloi, I felt ashamed. At least I had food to eat, there is a roof above my head, I can lay my back on a dry place. The people I saw had none of those. Walking under the scorching heat of the sun, getting exhausted for a day’s work, bad food, whatever, no longer became my concern. That I must be able to do something became a consuming thought.
Days and nights passed like seconds. We would pack relief goods at night, lie down wherever sleep overtakes us, wake up as the sun shines, feast on instant noodles for breakfast, load what were packed the night before, distribute them to people in places I have never been to. Back at the Center, we would enjoy a bit of rest, then join the late afternoon feeding program in a nearby community, have dinner of “karnenas,” and then find some time to jam with fellow volunteers.
Because we were together 24/7, I was, unconsciously, beginning to establish very strong bonds with the other volunteers. We started to become as close as siblings. Certainly, we had some instances of misunderstanding, as would siblings. But these didn’t cause our bond to break. Girlfriends, Paksit, Needles (noodles mispronounced), Bip Stick (Beef steak), Tuna (a surrogate name for sardines) are now words of lingering happiness. And so are Bonjing, Boy Rason, Boy Ludog, Boy Dasmag. We entertained ourselves by spoofing TV shows such as “Goin Bulilit” (of Kuya Reku) and “Mr. Bean” (of Whey). One time we had a kind of a cultural night with Father Mon. Everyone had to show his “talent.” Eventually, I felt belongingness.
The Road Not Chosen
Things have an uncanny way of becoming routine. But when we went to remote areas in Polangui in the company of some AQFI staff for relief operations, I discovered that life can get us into some surprising turns. We took a road that many would choose not to travel—distant, macadam, jarring. With that kind of terrain, it would be foolhardy to punish our already battered school bus doubling as cargo truck for our relief operations by taking all of us in one punishing ride. So we separated into two groups. One group, to which I belonged, would be for relief distribution; and the other would do medical mission.
As soon as we reached Cotmon, the first barangay, I saw smiles of people waiting for us. It has become a common scene in our relief operations. As relief distribution was finished, I saw a woman picking up spilled grains that would not even fill a cup. I thought that she must be in dire need that even if these were dirty, she still picked them up . . . grain by tiny bit of grain.
Saving a Child
After Cotmon, we proceeded to Danao, one of the farthest among the barangays, nestled at the slopes of Mt. Malinao. There we found a child whose life was in peril. Because it was already getting dark and we haven’t been to the last barangay yet, an argument ensued between us. We had to make a decision: Whether to help the family of the child who does not have money to pay for hospitalization or give priority to time for our own safety. “An oras yaon sana, an buhay nawawara.” We chose to help the child. Good thing Engr. Virgilio S. Perdigon, Jr., OIC Vice-Rector for Administration, was with the medical mission group. We decided to ask help from him. He and some of the AQFI staff brought the child to a clinic then to the Aquinas University Hospital while we continued to distribute the relief goods in the last barangay.
After serving our purpose in the last barangay, we bade farewell to the barangay folks. They replied with a hearty “Merry Christmas.”
Our Christmas was merry, indeed. We had a Christmas not just for a day but for the entire time that we were in the Center. Sure enough, we didn’t have ham and keso de bola but “karnenas” for our meals; we did not decorate our Center with blinking lights, not even with a Christmas tree, but ours was a genuine Christmas.
Two days before Christmas day, it was Father Senen’s birthday. We took the day off and had an excursion in the beach. There we found time to practice the song “Hawak Kamay.” We were to present it to Father Senen as our gift. When it was our turn to present it, we did not expect much because we only had a couple of hours for practice. As we reached the chorus, we literally had hawak kamay and invited all the guests to join us. Our eyes and those of the visitors and guests became moist. Dr. Walter Jalgalado would later comment that it was the first time the volunteers became very serious. But it was great, he said. Later that evening, “Boom Tarat Tarat” was played, we shouted names of different administrators, including Father Mon’s, and requested them to dance. To our surprise, they did. I used to think that our administrators can never go along with our generation’s culture; I was proved wrong.
After two days of Christmas break, we resumed our relief work. When we went to Malinao, I met an old lady who came for her supply. That time we distributed five (5) kilos of rice to every person. I know that the old lady could not carry that weight. I asked her if she had a companion who could help her. She had none, she said. I then asked if she has money so that she can just take a ride home. Again, she answered in the negative. I asked her how much the fare would be and gave her the amount. Suddenly, tears rolled down her cheeks. “Makasupog man. Ako na ngani an naghagad ki bagas, tinawan mo pa ako ki pamasahe,” she said. (I am ashamed. I have asked for rice and you still gave me fare money.) Then a man came saying that it was nice of me to give the old lady fare money because her residence is kilometers away. He then asked (in Bikol), “Isn’t it that Aquinas was battered by ‘Reming’?” With the sweetest smile I could summon from my lips, I answered, “Yes, Aquinas was battered, but not in spirit.” He then commented, “Aquinas molds students into the best persons that they can possibly be. Too bad I didn’t finish my studies there because of poverty. I hope and pray that my children can go there. But I guess It will only be a dream. We barely have enough money for food; we don’t have anything left for education.”
It was like cold water splashed on my face. I have repeatedly asked myself what a Political Science student is doing in a relief operation and I had the answer: To personally witness the depressing condition of our country. And, it made me love the very institution that I used to dislike. I’ve always asked why I am not studying in Manila when I passed the requirements needed to be there. TaSaTû became the first satisfying answer. I always thought less of Aquinas University and there’s this man in front of me telling me that I am part of an institution that creates dreams across the region. I never thought that this will happen but TaSaTû did change my perspectives, as it changed lives of different people who we’ve helped. And those people who we have helped may not have known our names, and perhaps they never will. They may forget our faces and the date and time we went to them. But they will never forget that at one time in their lives, there were people who reached out their hands to help ease their hardships. This must be a treasured memory of events that happened . . . unscripted.
*The writer is a second year Political Science student. He was a very active TaSaTû volunteer who also doubled as video documenter. – Ed.
Originally published in the Special Magazine Issue of Gimata- the in in-house newsletter publication of Aquinas University last March 2007-house