By 1pm, lunch is finished and we pile our dirt-crusted selves back into the jeepney and drive to an elementary school across town. Many of the classrooms are flooded and torn apart, but school is still held in the remaining usable spaces. Every day the kids play around rubble, rusted nails, and barely standing walls. We move desks, bag broken glass, and break-down timber to clear out the school yard, while kids sing our names and giggle in groups around us.
One of the teachers brings out a bag of tuna salad sandwiches and insists we take a break. I happily consume three. A young boy shyly carries over a tray of mismatched glass cups and pours us all warm soda. I take a few quick gulps and watch the kids play while I uselessly wipe the beading sweat from my face and arms.
The constant smiles and warmth from everyone make it easy to forget I’m in a disaster zone. People have come to us crying with relief and thanking us for our help. But, I have yet to encounter someone who was angry, despite being the victims of a disaster that has robbed them of their homes, jobs, and stability. Their single goal seems to be to rebuild their lives and remain unflappably positive while doing it.
An hour before we are supposed to finish for the day, we head to the street outside the school building. Smoke is rising from several trash burn piles as children play on the half-roofed basketball court nearby. The remaining wind-torn tin clings in a frozen wave on the exposed beams.
Our team leader tells us to begin bagging the garbage on the street that is too wet to burn. Baby diapers, spoiled food, and rotting paper all mingle in hard-to-shovel foul soup.
A Filipino woman in a long dark skirt walks over to me and offers to help. She holds the bag while I dump in piles of garbage. Several of the young boys put down their basketballs and pick-up shovels. Soon the street is full of people. For nearly an hour in the smoke and the sun, we bag wet garbage side by side.
Just before five, the jeepney arrives to take us home. For the ride back, I climb on the roof of the truck and squish myself between the dirty wheelbarrows. We drive through the city and then out along the coast.The sun is already setting over the water and an ocean breeze provides the day’s first break from the pulsing heat.
At base camp, the we unload the tools for the final time and I make a make a hasty retreat to the showers. I wash the sweat out of my hair and scrub the dried dirt off my arms and legs, my cuts protesting with tiny stings.
I change into a t-shirt that has been drying on the roof all day – it smells like sun and soap, and finally so do I. I head directly for the dinner line, scooping out rice, fried eggplant, and some sort of squash.
The evening meeting begins at 5:30. Assignments are described for the next day, announcements are made, and at the end everyone scrambles for the whiteboard to add their name to their preferred team.
I go to lay on my sleeping bag, begging for a quick nap, but someone is already campaigning to head out for drinks. I sign out of base camp and make the three minute walk to our bar – the collection of plastic tables under generator-powered bare bulbs on the corner.
We are the only Westerners there. Buckets of beer are ordered. A whole rotisserie chicken is purchased, chopped, and put into a plastic bag in the center of the table. As everyone grabs pieces, the beer bottles become greasy, and all discussion revolves around how this is “the best chicken I’ve ever eaten.”
Just before our 10pm curfew, we pushed back our chairs, pay a dollar for each beer we drank, and head slowly back to base. The hum of the industrial size fans is the only noise coming from now-darkened ballroom. I use the light of my cellphone as a flashlight (that’s pretty much all it’s good for here) to find my pajamas and quickly change in the bathroom.
I settle onto my sleeping bag in the stagnant, no-fan middle of the room and immediately begin to sweat. I am hot, still hungry, and exhausted.
I can’t wait for tomorrow.