My first assignment as a field communications officer for Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was quite an adventure. As soon as typhoon Rai (local name Odette) hit, back in December 2021, I already figured that I would have to join the team for the emergency response.
I had so much anxiety leading up to this trip. I would be going to new places, and be surrounded by new people. I didn’t know the conditions in the area, and I didn’t know my daily itinerary. I knew I would be traveling over land, air and sea, and I was worried about my motion sickness. I was even worried about not waking up early enough, and being left behind.
Still, I packed all my gear, prepared for every emergency I could think of, took deep breaths, and held on to my anxiety meds. On January 21, I hopped on a plane to Butuan.
In Butuan, I joined the team and we traveled over land to Surigao City, a trip of about two hours. It had been over a month since the typhoon, but still the road to Surigao, and the city itself, showed signs of damage and landslides, and most places did not have electricity unless they had a generator.
The scenes reminded me very much of Marikina and Antipolo after Typhoon Ketsana (local name Ondoy) hit in 2009. Debris lined the streets. Many buildings had broken windows and doors, roofs and walls. Electric poles had fallen, and even if they had been erected, the lines could not all be connected yet, and so most of the city was still without power. So many commercial and dining establishments were closed. Some places had large signs announcing that people could come in to charge their devices. Local hotels and inns were filled with representatives from various NGOs and government agencies who were in the area to do relief work.
We visited several island barangays of Surigao City, where we distributed hygiene kits and did mobile clinics. With Dr. Chen, I roamed these communities, capturing the extent of the damage, talking to the locals. Even as they told us how they survived the typhoon, even as they showed us the houses and structures ruined by the storm, they smiled and laughed and thanked us for going to them.
The damage was much more heartbreaking on the various islands and remote communities of Surigao City and Dinagat Island Province. While it was bad enough that so many people lost their homes, life was made more difficult by the fact that schools, churches and health centers were also destroyed.
Whenever anybody back home asked how I was doing, I always told them, “I got injured!” On my very first day on this assignment I had an accident. I had new shoes, and I had not tied my shoelaces securely, so I tripped and landed on all fours. I suffered wounds on my palms and knees, and got scratches on my camera. Luckily, I was with Dr. Chen, the emergency coordinator for our response, and she quickly wrapped up my hands. I had some swelling on my right hand, but some Katinko and Salonpas helped a lot. (I got an x-ray over the weekend, and my hands are fine!)
Amidst all the damage that we saw, and my accident, it was incredibly fun and exciting to finally be in the field. Lovely field workers whom I had only spoken to via email or over Facebook, whose names I had encountered in reports and documents, were finally flesh and blood folk with whom I shared meals and rides, who watched out for my welfare and made sure I got to where I needed to be. It was a thrill to ride vehicles clearly marked with our organization name and logo, to wear the vest that told people why we were there and what we were doing.
It helps too, to find joy and beauty in the small and the random. Like some lovely cats.
I woke up to some great views.
I saw gorgeous flowers.
And there were a lot of laughs!
The company of lovely people, and pride in our work, made the trip enjoyable, and the discomforts barely noticeable. The assurance that our safety was a priority kept my anxiety at bay.
And the yummy food sure made me feel better about everything!