I went this morning to see “the boats.” I had been asked several times if I’d seen them, so I got the sense that it was something to behold. I saw a few photos on the web, but it was hard to place the ships among the heaps of detritus from the storm.
The boats are massive. Bigger than the MSF staff housing structure that comfortably sleeps well over 20. Bigger than a standard sized apartment complex. The water surge brought them inland and then left them there after it retreated, simple as that. To ensure that they don’t topple over, stabilizing wedges have been put in. You have to crawl under one section of one boat’s hull to continue down one of the roads. It’s a bit freaky.
A fellow named Manolo came to chat with me. The Filipinos are near uniformly friendly. He asked me where I was from and who I worked with. Oddly enough, when I told him that I worked for MSF and we had a full hospital providing free medical care, notably dispensing no-cost medications, he was unaware of this. We joked about basketball with his friends, and then I set off. He thanked me for coming to his country and helping his people. It still shocks me how gracious the Filipinos are for humanitarian assistance. There are signs randomly strewn around town indicating such salutary sentiment.
It probably speaks to my cautiousness that I suspected the teenager to be a tout, which in most countries means he befriends you, shows an interest, tells you some facts and then asks you for money.
Not here. I walked around for an hour seeing the five or so boats that were abnormally hulking on land. Not once was I asked for anything. But the kids smile and yell out, and adults say “good morning” or some other greeting in a warm manner.
This is not a unique sensation amongst the staff, I’m finding. The consensus is that this is a kind, welcoming, and honest place. To underscore the point, I thought that I had left my cell phone somewhere the day before. I went back there with a local MSF staff fellow to help me translate, and he said something of the order of: “you will probably get it back, people are honest here.” Not since travelling in Japan have I found a place like that.
The contrast between life-as-usual playful staff and friendly interaction, immediately counter-posed with the evident destruction and loss of life in the typhoon, is hard to reconcile. It’s as jarring as a massive boat in the middle of the street. I’ve never been exposed to the aftermath of a calamity, but I did not expect the resiliency of the Filipino community to be this pronounced.
A small convoy of people were coming through the MSF hospital space, and I said hello to a man and woman. They responded with an American accent on their English, and stopped me to talk. Turns out that they had Filipino heritage, but had grown up in New Jersey. They had donated some money to the project, and were coming by to see it. The woman asked me if I had found a lot of PTSD (her word), and I stated that there was some, but less than I had expected. She said, “yes, we are very resilient.” A few more minutes of talking revealed that she and her husband were doctors, herself a psychiatrist. She knew from whenst she spoke.
There are always some clinical anomalies. Here, it seems that it is trauma-induced psychosis. This is a rather rare phenomenon, showing up for brief periods after rather extreme stresses on the body (lack of sleep, dehydration, sustained high stress). Often this occurs in persons with a vulnerability to psychosis (they have had bouts of paranoia in the past, during periods of high stress, substance use, or just spontaneously). But I have now seen three cases which developed with seemingly no pre-Typhoon psychiatric history. In otherwise highly functioning people, frank auditory hallucinations and paranoia have developed post-typhoon. Common symptoms to all three involve hearing the voices of dead people, and thinking that someone is going to come and kill them. Family support, sleep, antipsychotic medications, and close follow-up have been effective, but the psychosis is lasting longer than expected. Something to ask the local psychiatrists about when I see them next.
Another odd thing. There is no word in Tacloban that I have heard that means “foreigner.” Kids yell out “sankai” which translates to “friend.” While there may very well be one or more, it is notable that in two weeks of being on the ground, I do not know it. This is contrast with other regions that clearly demarcate in-group and out-group members. In Canada we have a unique politics of identity. It makes very little sense to say that someone is “not Canadian.” If I meet someone on the street or in the hospital and ask them where they are from, and they respond with the only three English words at their disposal: “I am Canadian,” I could very well smile and say, yeah, but where were you before here. Un-Canadian behaviour would be someone who was being unfair or culturally insensitive. The Canada I know seems to pride itself on being inclusive. Or, said differently, we have a rather weak politics of exclusion. The sense of inclusiveness here in the The Philippines is a marvel, and, if I can say, more pronounced than any place I have yet been.