How to travel to a place that just had a natural disaster?
Last Wednesday night before I left for the Philippines, I had a think about if I should really be going. Considering that they were just hit 6 days before by Typhoon Haiyan aka Yolanda, I got on my flight with mixed feelings.
It may come as a surprise that our ultimate tournament in Manila scheduled for the weekend right after the typhoon didn’t get cancelled, but I’m glad that I at least was able to bring clothes and money to donate to people who are recovering. The tournament organizers rallied all tournament goers to bring donations of food, clothes, supplies, and of course money. There were teams and players coming from different parts of the Philippines, Singapore, China, USA, Canada, Australia, Taiwan, Japan, and probably other countries that I’ve missed. One Singaporean team gathered about 450 kg of donations to bring over! I’m not sure how much was donated in total in the end, but will update here if/when I find out.
I was happy to come and play ultimate and help out by donations, but then I also felt conflicted because I’m a foreigner and visitor during a critical time. In addition, I’m going to their country for my vacation while many people are mourning and picking up the pieces. They are still trying to figure things out in the aftermath. How can I continue as planned knowing this?
In short, I can’t. I couldn’t possibly ignore that the country is dealing with a crisis. But does that mean I should cancel my flights or change my flight to return early? I’m not sure.
I knew I had to be culturally sensitive to their situation, but I also didn’t know what to expect. When we got here, I realized that everyone doesn’t stop living their own lives. Yes, there is still a lot that needs fixing and there are a lot of people suffering, but in parts that weren’t affected, people are continuing on the best that they can. The places I’m visiting on this trip were not affected directly by the typhoon. Many people were very much affected by the storm, but there are also many who were not and have to continue on because that is the only thing they can do. They are still fishing, farming, leading tours, driving buses or jeepneys, working, laughing, joking, and generally just living.
Maybe there are people who would have canceled their plans. Maybe the clothes and money I brought are too minimal to really make a difference, but isn’t it still worth it to try? And wouldn’t it be better for their economy for me to continue as planned and be a tourist? Is a stable economy, which in this case depends heavily on the tourism industry, really that important right now or only if you are viewing things in the long term?
I’m slightly more than halfway through my trip now, and I am glad that I came. Maybe my contributions both to the economy and to the relief efforts are really minimal. But I think if everyone thought like that, I would like to imagine that there would then be a big difference felt by the country and the people here. Donations are not just for the material things, but also for a sense of community coming together for a common cause. Many households in certain parts of the Philippines rely on the tourism season for their livelihoods at least partially, and if fewer people came because of the typhoon, that may mean a tougher year for many families. These might seem like weak reasons to some people. But at least for me, coming here and meeting people here who have continued living their lives after the typhoon, I think it is probably enough for me to be happy that I didn’t cancel.
I would not have come with nothing to give. That is for sure. I collected clothing and cash donations from friends and colleagues, and made my own contributions. I would not feel ok with myself if I didn’t. But then there is the question of have I done enough? Is there even a tangible “enough” to strive for? How can I get there?
But I also feel this way whenever I visit a country where most of the people are living in poverty. How can I show up to their country with my money and nice things and travel around as if nothing is wrong? I can’t. I’m constantly aware that I’m different in terms of status. Sometimes I even feel a bit ashamed of that. These are still questions that I debate with myself each day that I’m here. I think we’ll never be able to reconcile these types of feelings and thoughts, but having them is a sign of being human and being able to relate to fellow humans. If that is ever lost, then I might as well put myself in the same category as a rich jerk who lives and travels with a sense of entitlement.
I haven’t figured this all out yet, and maybe I can never truly justify this vacation to myself. But, the Philippines is still beautiful, the place and its people! The kids still play and laugh in the water on the beach just in front of where I’m staying. The dogs still bark in the early morning, and the roosters still cock-a-doodle-do to their hearts content.