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Typhoon Haiyan: A Plea for Help November 28, 2013

The plane bumped again. The turbulence was getting worse and so was the pain in my legs. We’d had a brief respite in Tokyo, but after spending over half a day traversing the Pacific Ocean, it hadn’t been enough. I was eager to deplane and the weather was getting in the way. Closing my eyes, I prayed for relief.

Typhoon Ofel, a relatively small storm, was making its way through Manila and our pilots were doing their best to skirt around the edges. I admit that I experienced a certain thrill at the word “typhoon”. Living in the landlocked intermountain west, I’d rarely experienced any natural phenomena more severe than an occasional tremor caused by the geologic activity in Yellowstone National Park. Even tornadoes are rare. The thought of a genuine storm was invigorating.

It was raining when we landed and I breathed a sigh of relief as the pilot announced, “Welcome to Manila!” The passengers (most of them Filipino) applauded. I did too, simply happy to be on the ground. Eagerly, I grabbed my bag and several minutes later made my way through the maze towards customs. Outside, the rain continued to fall in sheets as palms waved in the breeze. We were at the edge of the storm and in no real danger.

The next few days were wet. The pool outside the visitor’s center where I was staying overflowed and I watched with interest as the chlorinated haven took on a distinctly fishy smell. The streets were flooded too, though mostly at the corners and caused little difficulty for our drivers. I commemorated the event with a photograph of myself dancing in the rain. Two days later, we heard the news that 24 had died in the storm. I didn’t feel like dancing anymore.

Disasters are not infrequent in our world… yet something changes inside of you when you feel a connection to those affected. There is something transformative about having been to a place – having held a hand or seen a smile, listened to a story or tasted a carefully prepared meal. You begin to feel a connection not to people as part of the human race, but as individuals. You begin to process news about their misfortune with deeper love and greater understanding.

Fortunately, having actually visited a place is not the only way to experience a meaningful connection. Our willingness to hear the stories of the individuals affected by a disaster can help us develop a comprehension that statistics alone can never give. Numbers may show us immensity, but people show us intensity. As we listen to a father weep for his lost son or hear the story of a woman searching for her missing parents, we begin to connect in a very intimate way. Faceless people groups don’t have stories; individuals do. Though the circumstances of their losses differ from our own, the tales of grief are not so foreign. Each of us has also wept for those we love or experienced the depth of great personal loss. In this, we can feel their pain.

While not all of us will ever have the opportunity to travel to the places affected by disasters, each of us can make a difference. 7,250 islands make up the Philippine archipelago. Of these, over 700 are inhabited, home to nearly 98 million people and 181 different language groups. Nearly all were affected in some way by Typhoon Hiayan and many now need our help. The question is: will we respond to that need? Will we see not a faceless nation, but grieving individuals? Will we be the ones to make a difference?

Click here to read stories of Typhoon Haiyan’s victims and make a difference in their lives.


Typhoon Haiyan: Do You Really See? November 21, 2013

A trickle of water ran down the mountainside: the collective sewage from the squatter community. The smell was not what I had expected. Piles of rotting garbage (mostly rags and inedible kitchen scraps) lined the muddy road, home to large colonies of roaches. Dogs roamed freely, emerging unexpectedly from amidst the stalks of the banana trees. Mangy tan beasts, it was difficult to tell one from another. It was as if a single mongrel had sired a thousand offspring, then sent them to multiply throughout the island.

Houses stood on either side of the trail. Each one a feat of ingenuity, assembled from scraps of metal and often no larger than a couple of phone booths set side by side. Built to shelter as many as eight people, it was a wonder that anyone found room to lie down at night. I stopped for a moment, watching as a young girl, perhaps no older than four, crouched beside the runoff, doing her best to scrub a slightly rusted frying pan.

It was not the first or the last time I would see such a site in the Philippines. I would soon visit other places, passing the rice fields of subsistence farmers – their only hope for continued survival. I would watch as a men and women carrying their entire inventory of goods pounded on the windows of our vans, hoping to sell enough to afford a decent meal. And I would watch as a trash-collector floated his home-made raft down the Pasig River, removing recyclable material from the tangled water lilies to earn enough to feed his family.

These were the poor. And everywhere I went, I was treated as though I were wealthy. Indeed, with an income exceeding $11,456 a year, I was well aware that I was among the richest 16% of the world population. It was a lesson in poverty which begged the question, “Do you see? Do you really see?” It wasn’t merely about recognizing that poverty existed, or even about feeling sympathy for those trapped within its unyielding grasp, but about empathy. It was about feeling the need so deeply that without a thought, I felt compelled to act.

In this nation of nearly 98 million people, over 33 million live in poverty – making less than $385 a year. The figure is staggering. So what happens when the poor become even poorer? When everything they have gets blown away and there remains not even an opportunity to replace what was lost? Do we understand what it means to have a year’s crop fully destroyed without any hope of recovery? Do we recognize just how deeply the loss of a “few trinkets” is felt by a street vendor?

Perhaps the question is not one of wealth, but of responsibility. When our fellow humans are suffering, do we turn away? Do we feel pity, but do nothing to come to their aide? Do we throw a few dollars in their direction as a salve to our conscience? Or do we see? Do we really see?

Do we grieve with a mother who has lost her child? Do we experience the helplessness of those who have lost their homes? Do our stomachs ache with those who are starving? In the wake of disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, do we see? Do we really see? Do we recognize our own ability to make a difference in the lives of those who are suffering? And more importantly, will we embrace the challenge to do just that?

Click here to read more about the needs of Typhoon Haiyan’s victims and make a difference in their lives.


A Step of Faith: Travel in the Philippines November 7, 2013

Filed under: Philippines,Travel — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: ,

Stepping into oncoming traffic is counterintuitive.  An act reserved for lunatics and the deeply depressed, it seemed an ill fit for a reasonably happy and successful human being.  Yet the voice behind me kept urging me forward.

It wasn’t that I didn’t trust our tour guide, but rather that I wasn’t sure I trusted the drivers with whom I would be sharing the busy road.  Traffic in the Philippines is not like traffic in the U.S.  My first journey into the melee had left me with an abiding sense of doom – a deep certainty that I was about to die.  This was not the sense of death expressed in a phrase like, “It’s so fluffy, I’m going to die”, but rather the sort of conviction which left one gazing heavenward, commending their spirit to the hands of a loving God.

Devoid of lights and nearly equally devoid of signs, traffic in Manila seemed to communicate primarily with horns.  My knuckles turned white as I watched two-lane roads become five-lane roads.  Motorbikes with sometimes upward of five passengers wove in and out as drivers struggled to insert their front fender into the lane, claiming a spot in the meandering flow.  It was chaos unlike anything I’d witnessed before.

It wasn’t until several days into the trip that I realized that these horns gave each driver a voice which could not be compensated for by bright red octagons or yellow “merge” signs.  I began to hear order among the cacophony.  A simple beep to indicate, “I’m in your blind spot.”  Beep Beep for “I’m passing”.  Beeeeeeep.  “Get out of my way.”  Bip.  “Thank you for getting out of my way.”  It was a polite system based more on the relationship between individuals (none of whom sought an accident) rather than upon the rigidity of law.

Still, all of that knowledge had been gained from within the fortified confines of our diplomatic van.  This was different.  Stepping into the flow unprotected by steel seemed foolhardy.  One distracted driver could spell my doom.  It could all be over in the blink of an eye.  Yet the voice behind me urged me on.

In one great gutsy moment, I took the step.  What followed was amazing.  The oncoming driver stopped.  There was no blare of the horn, no frustrated expression, just a smooth, calm cessation of motion.  And as he stopped, so did others until traffic was at a halt all the way across the road.  It was as though the sea had parted before us, granting us safe passage to the opposing shore.

In a brief moment, I wondered whether this was how Moses felt when he stepped into the Red Sea and watched the waters part before him.  Both his step and mine had been counterintuitive.  Steps of faith often are.  Yet without them we would miss so much of life: the joys which follow a walk down the aisle and the pronouncement of the words, “I do”, the sense of fulfillment which accompanies a successful business venture or the completion of a college education, the wonder of discovery and the marvel of accomplishment.  Indeed, one might even argue that life, itself, is a step of faith.  Only with courage will we succeed.


Bucket Flush and a Full Moon June 20, 2013

Filed under: Philippines,Travel — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: ,

I stretched out flat upon the cool, white tiles of the veranda and tucked the sheet in around me.  This wasn’t where I’d planned on spending the night, but then very little of what had happened during the last day had been a part of my plans.  I was on a journalistic adventure on the Philippine island of Luzon – a whirlwind tour of everything Filipino – and I was sick.

Not just ordinary sick, mind you, but an “everything-inside-of-me-has-turned-to-mush-so-please-don’t-block-the-bathroom-door” kind of sick.  That this was the result of wheat consumption was undoubted.  Our American guide had been doing her best to convey my dietary needs to those whom we encountered, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the fusion of the Tagalog word “walang” (without) and the English “wheat” was really going far enough to explain that I had Celiac Disease.

Either way, the damage was done and I now found myself in a lovely little resort hotel which, according to the website, boasted hot and cold running water and flush toilets.  That this was a minor exaggeration became evident the first time I’d turned on the shower.  Cold water dripped from the faucet… then dribbled… then dripped some more.  Beneath the tap, sat a bucket which caught the excess gray water and it didn’t take too long to realize that this was the “flush” for the toilet.

Growing up in the northern U.S., I had never encountered a “bucket flush” before and it was with some distinct interest that I took a crash course in what appeared to be an art form.  It worked something like this: in order to flush the toilet, you have to hold down the handle and literally throw the water from the bucket into the bowl.  If done properly, this forces the contents of the bowl into the pipes and gravity then draws everything down towards what I presume was a septic tank.  (I was honestly too sick to care.)  If done improperly, i.e., with the wrong amount of force or at the wrong angle… well, you got a mess.

I had been up and down all night practicing the procedure and had just finally started to drift off to sleep when my travelling companion (worn out from fear that the gecko which had invaded our room might drop on her in the night) began to snore like a chainsaw.  I stuffed a pair of earplugs in and covered my head with a pillow, but to no avail: it was like trying to sleep with a construction crew.  After what felt like an hour (but was probably only ten minutes), I gave up, tore the sheets off my bed, and headed out onto the veranda.

It was actually quite cool out here and, surprisingly enough, relatively bug-free.  I tucked myself in, placed my hands behind my head, and gazed up at the sky.  The moon was full and the equatorial stars blanketed the blue velvet. I listened attentively to the tropical birds housed nearby while, in the distance, I could hear the waves of the West Philippine Sea lapping the rocky shore.  It was a world of wonder so very different from my home and filled all at once with things so foreign and so familiar.  It was as if the world had ceased its turning, leaving me there alone in the moment.  And I could feel it: the joy of discovery that had brought me on this trip to begin with.  The sheer wonder of a bucket flush and a full moon.


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