I wake up without an alarm. Unpeeling my sweaty shirt from my skin, I sit up on my mat. My sleeping space is directly in the middle of the giant hotel ballroom I call home with 40 other volunteers. This makes me the least likely target for the mosquitos that attack from the windows every evening, but the furthest from the fans. Seeing the itchy, red welts on the others, I decide sleeping in sweat is definitely the lesser of of two evils.
It is my fourth day as a disaster relief volunteer in the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan smashed into the country three weeks earlier, killing more than 6,000 people and leaving half a million displaced. Shortly after, I canceled my plans to travel through Cambodia and signed up to volunteer instead.
I applied with All Hands, an organization that does deconstruction work in disaster zones – cleaning up debris, pulling down wrecked houses, and salvaging materials for rebuilding. Their project was based in the city of Ormoc, in the hardest hit region of the country.
As I have the upper body strength of a six-year-old, no experience using tools outside of hanging pictures, and define manual labor as taking the time to read all the instructions, I have no idea what made me think I was suited to do this. But I bought a sleeping bag, boots, and a flight to to the Philippines and set out utterly terrified.
I’d never been to a disaster zone, and I’d definitely never wielded a sledgehammer, so I couldn’t begin to imagine what the next two weeks would be like. But it turned out to be one of the single most perfect experiences I’ve ever had.
By 6:30am, most people are in the corridor, making breakfast from a box of bread, jams, fruit, and instant coffee. I grab a seat at one of the white folding tables just outside the ballroom and devour two slices of peanut butter and jelly toast.
Fifteen minutes later, we meet in our teams for the day to load our supplies into the jeepneys: an open-air cross between a van and truck. I’m running a little late and quickly slide on my muddy sneakers. They’re still wet from working in a rain storm yesterday. I take a tentative sniff and groan – the smell is lethal.
Volunteers pile into the jeepneys, wheelbarrows are tied to the roof, and a clattering of hard hats, sledge hammers, and tool boxes rock around our feet as we pull out into the city.
My team is finishing a project at an elderly couple’s home. Lolita and her husband had been living in a hole. Surrounded by the skeleton of their demolished house, they’d slept under a tarp laid across bags of debris and rusted sheets of tin for the past three weeks. Today we’ll set-up a temporary lean-to to provide shelter until they can rebuild their home.
We pulled up to their street and headed to the site. The neighborhood children knew most of us from work earlier in the week and ran into the alley to greet us by name. A few grabbed tools from me and brought them to the site.
When I got to the property, I took a quick scan of the mass of wreckage and couldn’t tell where people might actually be living. But they finally emerged from a pile of debris in the corner to meet us. The deep-set wrinkles around the couple’s mouths and foreheads made me guess they were in their late seventies. It was impossible to imagine my own grandparents surviving a month in these conditions.
Our first task was to take their current “shelter” apart, to give us room to rebuild. I felt a knot at the base of my throat as the woman tenderly rearranged the dirt caked belongings we piled along the edge of the property. Everything they owned had been reduced to fit into five or six canvas sacks.
My team shoveled piles of rocks and mud until the tiles of the former kitchen emerged. A wooden beam was attached the only remaining half-wall. From there we hammered together the frame and then laid wooden beams across the roof to support sheets of rusted tin, reusing materials that had been collected from their destroyed house.
By 11am, we wrap a tarp around the outside of the lean-to, the building complete. Grateful hugs are exchanged and they are able to walk into a shelter for the first time in nearly a month.
Sweaty, dirty shoulder to shoulder, we pack up and head back to base camp for lunch. As we drive down the road, a group of kids run behind us, smiling and shouting our names until we are out of sight.
As soon as we get back, I head straight for the lunch line. I am ravenous and have to restrain myself from piling on as much rice, stew, and vegetables as my plate can handle. There is just enough time to have a cup of sugary instant coffee before we head out to start the second half of the day.
I never thought it was possible to cram so many sights and smells and tastes into a few hours. The memory of work from this morning already feels days old.