In early March, my colleagues and I were met with slight showers and heavy rain clouds on an afternoon flight to Tacloban City. Such an odd weather in the early months of summer, we all thought. I suppose that there is still some sense of foreboding when it rains in this provincial town, as we all still recall the torrential typhoons that have passed through this countryside over the last years.
Undeterred by the gloomy weather though, we still decided that we would see as much of the region as we could. Hence, we then drove towards the majestic San Juanico bridge to Basey, the long-span bridge that connects Leyte to Samar.
At San Juanico Bridge, we all stepped out to admire its immense length with its wide orange-colored poles and cables stretched out as far as one could see. We were all honestly awed by the sight. Crossing San Juanico bridge brought us to the seaside town of Basey, Samar.
Basey is a quiet, seaside town that is best known for keeping the cottage industry of abaca weaving to create intricately woven colorful banig (mat). Our driver then parked in front of a weather-beaten wooden house and told us that this was the best place to go for abaca mats. Skeptical at first, we all went inside.
And, what a surprise it was when we climbed onto the second floor where lay hundreds of beautifully crafted banig baskets, handbags, purses, and sandals! As we leafed through piles of woven bags and mats, we could only admire the craftsmanship that went into each piece. In fact, each piece was worthy of being on display racks in any home interiors store in Manila.
How ironic it really is that such artistry remains unnoticed and the artists themselves stay humble and simple. We felt a bit distraught while haggling for discounts as we could tell how much labor went into weaving the banig. By the time we headed back to Tacloban, all pleased with our new banig baskets and mats, dusk was upon the skies.
The next morning, the bleak clouds finally gave way to bright sunny skies. We then drove through the paved roads of Alang-alang in Leyte. Badly devastated by Typhoon Yolanda past a year since, we could still deem the roughly cut tree stumps and some still damaged homes, and a make-shift day care center along the main road. When we walked into the children’s day care center we were tasked to visit, we were met with shy smiles and curious glances.
As I waited across the road for the children’s class to end, I looked back at where I came from and was truly awed by the scenery around me. I thought this would have made for a wonderful subject of an Amorsolo painting, of vast rice fields of verdant green, a carabao resting under the shade of a mango tree, against a backdrop of children happily running along a running river.
Unfortunately, against the picturesque charm of this scenery lay a stark reminder of what poverty is and how real the people’s struggles are to earn a living. At that moment, I felt so disheartened to be in a place blessed with such beauty in nature, yet its people lacking in so many basic things we take for granted. What contrasts there seems to be.
There may still be remnants of the devastation wrought upon by typhoons in Basey, Tacloban, and its nearby towns. But somehow, people have carried on with their lives—weaving their colorful mats, planting and harvesting the fields, and raising their families despite the odds.
What paradox there is indeed it seems—of why people remain in such poverty amidst picture-perfect nature and unique artistry.