Venturing into the unknown: Tacloban, Philippines

A journey to remember 

All Hands Volunteers

I was lucky enough to get a place volunteering with All Hands, helping them rebuild communities after super typhoon Yolanda hit Letye back in November 2013. The project is based in the city of Tacloban on the western coast of Leyte which was just a short flight from Cebu. However, in true backpacker fashion, I decided not to fly as I wanted to save a little money so I was going to make my way by land and sea. The ferry from Cebu to neighbouring Ormoc was fairly simple. I caught a 100 peso taxi ride to the ferry terminal and looked for the first (and cheapest) ferry that afternoon which happened to be Ocean Jet. The ferry was over half an hour late leaving which didn’t really phase me as I was in the Philippines and therefore on Filipino time, but this delay meant that my ferry arrived at the same time as the Supercat ferry creating an influx of passengers at the port.

Leaving Cebu City

I checked the travel instructions I was given by All Hands and headed past the mini buses put on especially for Ocean Jet passengers like me towards the local bus station knowing this would be the cheapest way to reach Tacloban in north west Leyte. I looked out for the local Velmer buses heading in the direction of Tacloban but found just one packed to the brim with people which departed shortly after I arrived. There were people everywhere and as I tried to get a sense of what was going on I was approached by a young Filipino woman called Charry who was on her way to her house which happened to be just minutes from the volunteer base. Charry explained that there was an unusual number of people wanting to travel from Ormoc to Tacloban and that we would have to wait for the next available bus.

One of the many treats from a Filipino bakery

The next public bus was nowhere to be seen so we decided to walk to the mini bus station to see if we could get a Duptours or Grand Tours van (mini bus). Both hungry, we picked up some cinnamon rolls and Spanish bread from the bakery on the way. The mini bus station was just as busy as the bus station but we put our names down for the next available bus which we found, was a two and a half hour wait. We couldn’t possibly wait that long as it was getting late and I was due to arrive at the base and Charry’s family were waiting for her. Like many families in Tacloban, Charry and her husband were unable to get a job after Yolanda so one of them has been forced to find a job in another part of the country to support the family. Charry is lucky that she has managed to get a job with Fitness First in Cebu but it means she only sees her husband and children once a month. Many families have been affected like this, which highlights that is isn’t just the initial physical devastation, such as damaged houses that has occurred as a result of Yolanda.

Charry and her two children

Although we had our names down for the next available mini van, Charry and I decided to head back to the bus station in the hope that a local bus would arrive so we didn’t have to wait two and a half hours for a van. Each bus that pulled in was met by swarms of people including us, trying to pile on in the hope that it was going in the direction of Tacloban. Unfortunately we had no luck in the madness but it was an experience to say the least. The next hour or two was a bit of a daze as I tried to grasp what was going on by trying to understand the Filipino language being spoken. The next thing I knew we were being ushered up the road with a group of mainly young Filipinos, a lady with a baby and a couple of elders too. I wasn’t sure what was going on but I followed Charry and it turned out she had organised a private van to take us and some other locals the two and a half hour journey to Tacloban.

Devastation left by Yolanda

The private transfer was far more expensive than any of the other transport options but by this point I just wanted to get to the volunteer base before midnight. Seventeen of us, including a new born baby piled into a small 12 seater van with no aircon whatsoever. It was no doubt one of the hottest and most uncomfortable rides of my life, but I was kept entertained by Charry who told me all about her family and life in the Philippines. She told me about the day super typhoon Yolanda hit and how her daughter was swept away by the storm surge and was forced to hold on to a palm tree for hours until the water level had dropped. Her stories were unimaginable and I couldn’t wait to lend my time helping other victims.

Thank you to the family who live here and let us use their loo

The journey was a memorable one with us all squeezed in the back passing the baby round trying to stop it from crying. Around an hour in we stopped on the side of the road for a toilet stop and peered into a nearby house to ask if we could use their loo. It felt weird walking in to some strangers house just to use their toilet but they were ever so friendly. As we walked back to the van the public mini bus we had our names down for passed us which meant our journey was not only double the price but it turned out to be the slower option – typical!

Me and Charry at the random persons house we stopped at on route to Taclobcan

We finally arrived in Tacloban and Charry was kind enough to get a trike with me to the All Hands base even though it was past 10pm, her family were eagerly waiting for her and it was her 30th birthday. We swapped Facebook details and went our separate ways and arranged to meet again that week for dinner. It ended up taking me 11 hours to reach Tacloban from my hostel in Cebu but it was a day I will never forget. If you plan on making this journey you shouldn’t encounter the same problems as me, as I believe it was only busy as children were returning to school that week so parents were making their way back from Cebu with vital school supplies. If you do run into trouble then just take a deep breath, grab a box of Dunkin Donuts and maybe a KFC and put your name down for the next available Duptours or Grand Tours mini bus. Good luck!

Living life, loving travel,

H x

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