It was very early as we made our way to Guiuan Port. We had to be there on time to board a boat to Homonhon, a solitary island located between the Desolation Point peninsula (Dinagat) and Guiuan (Eastern Samar) in Leyte Gulf – an area badly hit by Typhoon Haiyan.
Renowned as the first stop of the Magellan Expedition on March 16, 1521, Homonhon is 20 kilometers long with a population of just 600 inhabitants. While not all of the more than 7,000 islands that make up the Philippine archipelago are inhabited, the sheer quantity forced humanitarian organisations to prioritise which areas were most need of aid after Typhoon Haiyan hit in early November, affecting more than 14 million people across multiple islands.
Despite the many challenges faced, Plan did not forget tiny Homonhon – we were the first relief organisation to reach the island and, in coordination with the World Food Program, made preparations to deliver food to the islanders on December 19, 2013.
We were at sea for three hours before the island came into sight. It had once been covered with coconut trees but the storm had destroyed everything in its path. As we neared the island the captain of our ship told us it would be impossible to dock as the water was too shallow. We called to a solitary old fisherman close by and asked if there was someone with a boat big enough to carry our load of rice to the island’s pier.
“This is the last pamboat we have left,” he said. “All the others were torn apart by the typhoon.”
This island depends on fish for its survival. “Six hundred people and only one boat to search for whatever they can in the sea,” I thought. And there were no more coconuts either.
Despite this awful news, the man began to row with all his strength towards a locally-made catamaran half a mile away, bringing it back to us. With smiles on faces, all hands available started to transport rice sacks from one boat to the other.
I boarded the remaining pamboat with my camera to capture the combined effort. You should’ve seen the smiles when the rice arrived at the Homonhon pier. Walking to the shore, I saw that the old fisherman was right, all other pamboats were destroyed. Not to be deterred, the locals had ingeniously used the surviving boat motors to produce electricity for the destroyed village and men were busy repairing the less damaged boats.
We sped up the delivery as news came that a storm was approaching. Someone yelled to me that we should depart as quickly as possible, so I grabbed my gear and said goodbye to the locals.
As I turned, I found a fisherman standing in front of me offering seashells as a gift. “Thank you,” he said, with an unforgettable smile.