I’ve been in the Philippines nearly a month now, supporting our emergency response to Super Typhoon Haiyan. I’ve learned a lot on this trip, but one thing I will carry with me is being able to count to eight in Cebuano. I did not learn it because I read it in a book or used language-learning software. I learned it by placing eight bags of dried noodles into larger plastic bags – hundreds and hundreds of times: Ousa, duha, tolo, opat, lima, unum, pito, walo.
The eight bags of noodles, combined with other food items, were enough to feed a family of five for five days.
The other day, I went to Sacred Heart Church here in Cebu, where staff and volunteers have been packing food and non-food items nearly every day for the last month. I’ve stopped in before, but this time I wanted to thank them and help with packing, to experience what they were doing for us. Of course, I had no idea what I was in for. The labor – packing and moving combined food items weighing about 90 kilos (200 lb.) – is especially tough here, where the temperature and humidity are high. Sheets of sweat ran down my face within minutes.
My colleagues, Joel and Martin, were with me that day, and after an hour or so of heavy lifting, we settled into other work: packing rice, sardines or noodles into the bags. Eventually we found our niche, taking noodles from boxes (thousands of boxes!) and placing eight bags into a small plastic bag. Joel and I worked as a team – as a machine, really – while Martin packed canned sardines into other bags. We were moving quickly, so we counted aloud to make sure we were putting the right number in each bag.
Joel soon fell into his native Cebuano, and a game of sorts was afoot. Soon enough, I would learn to count in Cebuano, but only to eight. There were many laughs as I tried to first remember, then sound the words out and slowly develop mastery. After a couple of hours, Martin said it was time for me to go; the others had already worked well past quitting time but would not leave as long as I was there.
Sorry and a bit embarrassed, I got up slowly. The work was harder and more monotonous and dirtier than I had thought. But now I can count to eight in Cebuano, and the story of how I learned to do it is one more memory that helps restore me when the work of providing relief gets me down.