Where 518 Inmates Sleep in Space for 170, and Gangs Hold It Together

The New York Times

MANILA — For some inmates of the Manila City Jail, making the bed means mopping up sludgy puddles, unfolding a square of cardboard on the tile floor and lying down to sleep in a small, windowless bathroom, wedged in among six men and a toilet.

On one recent night at the jail, in Dorm 5, the air was thick and putrid with the sweat of 518 men crowded into a space meant for 170.

The inmates were cupped into each other, limbs draped over a neighbor’s waist or knee, feet tucked against someone else’s head, too tightly packed to toss and turn in the sweltering heat.

Since President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent antidrug campaign began in 2016, Philippine jails have become increasingly more packed, propelling the overall prison system to the top of the World Prison Brief’s list of the most overcrowded incarceration systems in the world.

In the Manila City Jail, sleep is the most precious commodity.

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bombings in Sri lanka

I covered the immediate aftermath of the coordinated bombings in Sri Lanka that targeted churches and hotels on Easter Sunday 2019, killing over 250 people. I arrived in Colombo on the evening the bombings occurred and filed fives stories in six days during the breaking news phase. My reporting led the program at PRI’s The World.




Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte makes his own rules. His war on drugs has led to the deaths of thousands of alleged drug users and dealers. His violent rhetoric and rape jokes have shocked people around the world. Yet he’s hugely popular. Reporter Aurora Almendral delves into what made him the leader he is today. Her investigation starts in his hometown in the Philippines.

33 minutes

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Brazen Crocodile Preys on a Philippine Town: ‘It Was Like He Was Showing Off’

The New York Times

BALABAC, Philippines — On the November day when Cornelio Bonite disappeared, a crocodile was spotted in the water with a human arm clasped in its jaws.

“It was like he was showing off,” said Efren Portades, 67, a watchman in the town of Balabac, a marshy island community in the Philippines near the sea border with Malaysia, who led the search for Mr. Bonite, a 33-year-old fisherman.

The month before, another crocodile — or the same one, for all anyone knows — had grabbed 16-year-old Parsi Diaz by the thigh after she jumped into the bay for a swim. She escaped.

The year before that, a 12-year-old girl had been attacked while crossing a river. A few months later, that girl’s uncle was ripped in two.

And more dogs and goats than anyone could count had been snatched from Balabac’s shores.

Some people were ready for revenge.

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duterte’s luster dulls as rice prices soar in philippines

The New York Times

MANILA — Through controversy after controversy, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has always been able to count on his appeal among the nation’s poor. But soaring prices for staples like rice are starting to alienate that vital base of support.

During his presidency, Mr. Duterte has clashed with cherished institutions like the Roman Catholic Church, made jokes about rape and led a brutal war on drugs that has left thousands dead.

But he now faces deepening discontent in an area that particularly affects the urban poor: the price of food.

The country’s inflation rate has hit a nine-year record — 6.7 percent — after climbing for nine consecutive months, the Philippine Statistics Authority said last week. That situation is bad enough that on Tuesday Mr. Duterte ordered restrictions dropped on the importing of rice, ending a decades-old protectionist policy administered by the country’s National Food Authority.

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The Kill List


NBC News

Winner, Overseas Press Club of America Award for best international reporting in the broadcast media, 2018

In the Philippines, thousands have died in the government-induced slaughter. It is in the closeness and intimacy of the camera — as it traces the ligature marks along the wrists of a bullet-riddled corpse, capturing the ebbing tears of a family as they gradually accept that the body they hold will never wake up, and filming the nervous laughter of a drug addict as he asks a police officer not to be killed  — that the complex issues of crime and state play out.

Filmed one year after Duterte assumed the presidency, we gained unprecedented access to the lives of survivors and policemen, and considered why Duterte’s bloody rampage continues: from the normalization of government-inspired brutality, the narrative of righteousness that undergird the killings, to the validating effect of President Donald Trump’s unequivocal support of the Philippine president.

The documentary shows how citizens of a country are willing to compromise their morals for what they’ve been convinced is the greater good and sheds light on an ongoing human rights crisis, serving as a cautionary warning on a dark side of the human condition.

22 minutes

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The New York Times

MANILA — In Alvin Ocampo’s 18-year-old jeepney, the dashboard is held together with yards of peeling electrical tape. The only concession to Manila’s stifling heat is a fan screwed to the ceiling. And unless you count the padlocked metal grate in place of the driver’s-side door that Mr. Ocampo installed after a gang of glue-sniffing teenagers robbed him of a fistful of pesos, the vehicle has no safety features to speak of.

Nevertheless, on a recent Friday afternoon in December, scores of passengers climbed aboard Mr. Ocampo’s jeepney, one of thousands of locally produced passenger trucks that are icons of Manila’s traffic-clogged and pollution-choked streets.

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NBC News

I produced and directed this short documentary about Nakajima, a Japanese man searching for companionship and found love in his sex doll. In this story I found the universal emotions of loneliness and longing for companionship that underpin a seemingly deviant lifestyle.

4:55 minutes

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The New York Times

MANILA — Every morning before dawn, Rosario Perez checks to make sure her sons are still alive. The three brothers, all in their 20s, sleep at the houses of friends and relatives, moving regularly, hoping that whoever may have been assigned to kill them won’t catch up with them.

They are not witnesses on a mob hit list, or gang members hiding from rivals. They are simply young men living in the Philippines of President Rodrigo Duterte.

“How could I not send them to hide?” said Ms. Perez, 47, after peeking in on two of her sons and phoning the third. “We can barely sleep out of fear.”

Nearly a year into Mr. Duterte’s violent antidrug campaign, in which more than 4,000 people accused of using or selling illegal drugs have been killed and thousands of other killings are classified as “under investigation,” fear and mistrust have gripped many neighborhoods of Manila and other cities.

Residents are cobbling together strategies to hide and survive. Many young men are staying indoors, out of sight. Others have fled the urban slums, where most of the killings occur, and are camping out on farms or lying low in villages in the countryside.

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in duterte's philippines, having a beer can now land you in jail

The New York Times

MANILA — When six plainclothes policemen, hands gripping their holstered guns, charged down the winding alleys of the slum where Edwin Panis lives, he didn’t imagine they could be coming for him.

Mr. Panis, 45, was drinking beer with friends near his shack on an embankment overlooking Manila Bay. A stevedore and neighborhood security officer, he hardly fit the profile of the drug addicts and dealers who have been targeted by the police since President Rodrigo Duterte took office — a bloody crackdown that Mr. Panis, like many Filipinos, supported.

But in moments, he and his three friends were under arrest, hands cuffed behind their backs. Their offense: drinking beer in public.

“The war on drugs has become a war on drunks,” Mr. Panis said bitterly, days after his release from an overcrowded cell.

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a transgender paradox, and platform, in the philippines

The New York Times

MARIA RESPONDO, Philippines — Angel Cabaluna dusted makeup onto her thighs, styled her hair in loose curls and applied smoky eye shadow that glittered on her lids.

As this hamlet of cornfields and concrete houses prepared for festivities honoring its patron saint, and as some people gathered in prayer, Ms. Cabaluna, 20, was primping to compete in an annual transgender beauty pageant.

“This is our passion,” she later said.

Dominated by conservative morals taught by the Roman Catholic Church, the Philippines is also one of Southeast Asia’s most tolerant countries toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. And lawmakers are taking steps to ensure national legal protections that would penalize discrimination against them.

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in the philippines, dynamite decimates entire food chains

The New York Times

BOHOL, Philippines — Nothing beats dynamite fishing for sheer efficiency.

A fisherman in this scattering of islands in the central Philippines balanced on a narrow outrigger boat and launched a bottle bomb into the sea with the ease of a quarterback. It exploded in a violent burst, rocking the bottom of our boat and filling the air with an acrid smell. Fish bobbed onto the surface, dead or gasping their last breaths.

Under the water, coral shattered into rubble.

The blast ruptured the internal organs of reef fish, fractured their spines or tore at their flesh with coral shrapnel. From microscopic plankton to sea horses, anemones and sharks, little survives inside the 30- to 100-foot radius of an explosion.

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Rodrigo Duterte, Scorned Abroad, Remains Popular in the Philippines

The New York Times

MANILA — Virgilio Mabag figures there is a good chance that his meth addict brother will become a casualty of President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly campaign against drugs in the Philippines.

“I told him to prepare himself to die,” Mr. Mabag said.

But Mr. Mabag, 54, who runs a neighborhood volunteer association in a sprawling Manila slum, still enthusiastically supports Mr. Duterte, saying that his policies will make the country safer and more orderly.

“I’m delighted,” said Mr. Mabag, who was wearing a Duterte T-shirt. “This is the only time I’ve seen a president like this, who says exactly what he wants to say.”

The rest of the world may have trouble understanding this, but Mr. Duterte still commands ardent support in the Philippines.

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National Geographic Magazine

AS SOON AS Rick Medina saw the body slumped onto the curb on the evening news last November, he knew it was his 24-year-old son, Ericardo. The corpse — dumped on a quiet avenue in the Philippine capital of Manila, with his back to the TV cameras — could have been anyone. But a father knows.

The next morning his daughter Jhoy, 26, went to the morgue. Eight bodies were lined up on the floor, covered in sheets or in body bags. They all died the same way: their heads bound in packing tape, then stabbed multiple times with an ice pick to pierce their lungs. She refused to believe one of them was her brother until she unzipped the final body bag. Jhoy wanted to scream. Instead, she froze.

Ericardo’s body was dumped with a cardboard sign labeling him a drug user. According to his father, Ericardo never touched drugs; Jhoy says he’s dabbled in it. Either way, his killers meted out a final punishment without due process.

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On Patrol With Police as Philippines Battles Drugs

The New York Times

MANILA — Officer Kathlyn Domingo walked through a maze of narrow alleys, ducking under jumbles of electrical wires and hanging laundry to the open doorway of a flimsy two-story house made of found wood and rusty nails.

Tough, earnest and carrying a .45-caliber pistol with a pink grip, Officer Domingo, 30, patrols one of Manila’s most destitute slums, Santa Ana. Last month, I spent a night on patrol with her and some colleagues, to see, from their perspective, the Philippines’s deadly crackdown on drug dealers and users.

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The New York Times

Gen. Ronald dela Rosa, chief of the Philippine National Police, knows the value of a public display of remorse. He has been forced to apologize more than once.

He was wrong, he acknowledged before the Philippine Senate as TV cameras rolled, to have trusted undisciplined policemen who killed a small-town mayor suspected of dealing drugs, as the mayor lay defenseless on a jail-cell floor.

“I cannot blame the public if they’re losing their trust and confidence in their police,” he told the Senate panel, accepting a tissue from the dead mayor’s son to wipe away his tears.

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Heroes of the philippines

National Geographic Magazine

RECUERDO MORCO WAS 22 when he first saw snow. Wrapped in four layers of coveralls and parkas, he looked up into the swirling sky as huge flakes settled onto the deck of his cargo ship.

He carved his girlfriend’s name into the snow and circled it with a heart. Recuerdo had grown up in the Philippines on a tropical island rimmed with white sand and coconut palms. Standing on the cargo ship slicing through the icy waters near the Arctic Circle, snowflakes tickling his face, was a dream come true. “I’m really here,” he thought.

They pulled into the port of Kemi, Finland, in the wake of an icebreaker, jagged blocks of white peeling off the sides of their ship. Recuerdo stepped ashore and went on what he calls the “seaman’s mission”: find the nearest shop and buy a SIM card so you can call your mother.

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The New York Times

MANILA — Jhay-ar Tumala remembers sitting in a pew in Manila’s Quiapo Church, holding a sealed envelope with his H.I.V. test results, and praying. He was 19 and had been having sex since he was 15.

“I didn’t know anything about H.I.V. or AIDS,” Mr. Tumala, 23, said last week. He does not remember reading about it in the papers or learning about it in school. And he had used condoms only intermittently.

The envelope contained bad news.

His story is not unusual, and that may also mean bad news for the Philippines.

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The New York Times

MANILA — When Lizel Torreras, 35, became pregnant with her third child, she mixed a tincture of bitter herbs and mahogany bark, a home remedy said to induce abortion. Her husband, who worked as a garbage scavenger, did not make enough money to buy a regular supply of birth control pills, much less raise another child.

“With just two kids, we were already struggling,” she said. “The children were going to have a hard time. We might not have been able to send them to school.”

But after three attempts, Ms. Torreras, a churchgoing Catholic, could not bring herself to drink the potion.

Like millions of other women in the Philippines who have no access to contraception, Ms. Torreras had the baby. Then another one.

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A Last Holdout on Divorce, Philippines Tiptoes Toward Legalization

The New York Times

MANILA — Lennie Visbal last saw her husband, Joel, 13 years ago. Even then, she said, “it was like looking at a stranger.” But since divorce is not possible in the Philippines, Ms. Visbal can’t escape him.

“I’m in limbo, I cannot move,” Ms. Visbal said. “Every time, there is a reminder that I’m legally attached to him.”

The Philippines is the only country in the world, aside from Vatican City, where divorce remains illegal.

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The New York Times

BUSCALAN, Philippines — She wakes up every morning at dawn and mixes an ink out of pine soot and water. She threads a thorn from a bitter citrus tree into a reed, crouches on a three-inch-high stool and, folded up like a cricket, hand-taps tattoos onto the backs, wrists and chests of people who come to see her from as far away as Mexico and Slovenia.

The woman, Maria Fang-od Oggay, will finish 14 tattoos before lunch — not a bad day’s work for someone said to be 100 years old. Moreover, she has single-handedly kept an ancient tradition alive, and in the process transformed this remote mountaintop village into a mecca for tourists seeking adventure and a piece of history under their skin.

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The New York Times

CLAVER, Philippines — The Philippine mining town of Claver is busy with bakeries, fruit stands, pool halls and karaoke bars. In the mountains nearby, bulldozers cling to treeless slopes, scooping out red soil and leaving gaping pits. On the horizon, cargo ships wait to bring nickel ore to China.

Many here are afraid that none of this will last.

“If the mines go, then the jobs are gone too,” said Jayson Reambonanza, 31, who drives a dump truck for one of the area’s many nickel mines.

The Philippines, which exports more nickel ore than any country in the world, is in the midst of a wide crackdown on mines accused of violating environmental protection laws.

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KCRW's Unfictional & The Groundtruth Project

Winner, regional Edward R. Murrow award for news documentary, 2017

While covering Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, amid the destruction that killed thousands and displaced millions, an aid worker told me a truth about disasters that haunted me long after I left. First comes the humanitarian aid, she said, then come the human traffickers.

Two years after Haiyan, I went to Angeles, a notorious, crime-ridden red light city to spend time with sex workers driven to the trade after the typhoon. The reporting was a feat in gaining access and trust. The resulting story is a sensitive, nuanced portrayal of the interplay of disasters, trafficking, sex work and poverty.

I conceptualized, reported and scripted this radio documentary with funding from a Groundtruth Climate Change Fellowship.  

28 minutes

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Death rituals help restless spirits find peace in the Philippines

National Geographic Magazine

“We can’t move on unless we see her,” Tudo’s aunt, Nancy Dinamiling, said. “Unless we see her corpse, we can’t believe it’s true.”

Back in Umalbong, a group of Tudo’s cousins held a ceremony that blended Roman Catholic prayer with Ifugao ritual. Gathering in a circle, they ritually slaughtered a pig and prayed that Tudo’s spirit would help searchers find her body. On the seventh day of prayers, Tudo spoke to her cousins through a seer, a woman who served as a conduit between the living and the dead.

Please find me, Tudo implored her cousins. I’m hanging on a post; I’m missing a foot. My cousin doesn’t have a headI screamed for my motherI died slowly. I started praying the Our Father. Before I finished, I was taken.

The next day at the landslide site, a backhoe operator dug into the soft earth and pulled up a pink blanket that had belonged to Jasmin Banawol, the pastor’s wife and Tudo’s cousin. Family members dug out her body. As foretold in the ritual, she had been beheaded by the force of the landslide. A few days later, they uncovered Tudo’s corpse.

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The New York Times

PALANAN, Philippines — There is no road to Palanan.

The town, 190 miles northeast of Manila on a stretch of rugged Pacific coastline, is separated from the crowds and chaos of the rest of the Philippines by a three-day trek through tropical jungle, a seven-hour ride on a wooden pump boat or a 25-minute flight on a three-seater Cessna.

Cloistered in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, Palanan’s farmers cross fields on the backs of loping water buffaloes. Children in plaid uniforms walk to school along beaches of white sand. A few motorcycles with sidecars, brought in on boats, rumble through the carless streets of the dusty town center. Carved canoes slide down broad rivers, and narrow outrigger boats bob along the shore.

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PRI's The World

It didn't work. I visit a neighborhood struggling to deal with the drug problem, with no resources and little government support. The resulting rehabilitation efforts fell short, and their neighbors turned up dead. 

5:09 minutes

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PRI's The World

After Rodrigo Duterte became president, I was among the first foreign reporters to cover his bloody anti-drug campaign. I spend the night on the crime scenes at a time when people were still struggling to make sense of the massacre unfolding in Manila. 

5 minutes

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Vice News

Duterte is a controversial figure who has risen in popularity by billing himself as an anti-establishment outsider who would upend traditional Philippine politics — an everyman who offends polite sensitivities, but is attuned to the frustrations of people deeply disaffected with politicians they view as more interested in enriching themselves than addressing the needs of Filipinos. That's helped propel him to 33 percent in polling released last week, ahead of Mar Roxas, supported by the current administration, with 22 percent.

It would be easy to compare him with another presidential candidate who has risen to the top of the polls by saying outrageous things, Donald Trump. But not even the American tycoon can match Duterte for the shock value of his statements. Trump, for example, never threatened to personally kill anybody. Duterte had no problem doing that.

During a rally on May 1, 2016, the mayor of Davao rambled affably into a microphone, dropping lines like, "They must stop fucking the Filipino."

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BBC World Service

Mosha is the first elephant in the world to have a prosthetic leg. She lost her leg after stepping on a landmine on the Thai-Myanmar border, but an orthopedic surgeon called Dr Therdchai Jivacate came to the rescue and created a prosthetic leg for her. I visit Mosha at the elephant hospital outside Chiang Mai, where now lives for naps, circus peanuts and stealing candy out of her mahout’s pockets.

5:55 minutes

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Rediscovering heritage

Monocle Magazine

Once a colonial city of art deco and beaux arts buildings, Manila was heavily bombed during the Second World War. Few buildings survived and much of what remained was torn down in favour of large scale developments as the city's population swelled to an estimated 12 million. Manila went from being the 'Pearl of the Orient' to a traffic-clogged, infrastructure-poor city saddled with a protracted housing crisis.

Yet the Philippine economy is growing at at a fast rate and Manila is in the midst of the property boom that goes along with it. More than 480,000 sq m of office space was built last year, including seven new commercial projects in the CBD in the fourth quarter alone. Residential properties are also on the rise. While most developments in the city tend to be towering skyscrapers a few developers have parked the bulldozers and are instead finding value in Manila's heritage buildings.

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the mastermind

The Atavist

I contributed reporting in the Philippines for this investigative series and book by writer Evan Ratliff about a vicious international crime boss whose dealings spanned the globe from his base in a leafy compound in Manila. Many of the most dramatic murders, heists and characters happened in the Philippines. With persistent and tenacious reporting, I tracked down witnesses, prisoners, murder case files, crime scenes and government agents, uncovering previously unknown characters and events.

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PRI's The World

The slums of Tondo are the most notorious in Manila, and Ana Lisa Loste lives in the most destitute district. Her house is down a long road, permanently muddy from the black goo that drips out of garbage trucks, past the part of the slum where scavengers sort through glass bottles, right where the smell of rotting trash meets the stinging smoke from a field of crude charcoal kilns.

The Philippines has one of the highest birth rates in Asia, and most of the population growth has been in the poorest families who can least afford birth control — or children. In Tondo, people are painfully aware of the irony in this. Around here, it’s not unusual for a woman to have eight or ten children.

5:27 minutes

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BBC World Service

Jose Canoy was twelve years old when his family decided that he would no longer do well in school. Jose is autistic, and his family had to accept that, unlike his siblings and other kids his age, Jose would never memorize the planets in the solar system or write an essay on history. But the Canoy family did not want him to stop learning. They opened the Puzzle Café in Manila, Philippines, as a place for him and other young adults with autism, to learn practical skills, and continue to thrive. Today, Puzzle Café is run by Jose’s older siblings.

9:36 minutes

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sleeping with the enemy: a martial law love story

Esquire Philippines

When the Philippine dictator Marcos fell, my stepfather, heir to the military dynasty that protected Ferdinand and Imelda's power, escaped into exile with them. My mother — a journalist who saw her brother and husband jailed for political dissidence, her nephew shot through the chest at a protest rally, people she knew killed and tortured — cheered in the streets. Today, they're the sweetest couple you'll ever meet. It's a story about politics during a dramatic chapter in Philippine history, and finding love in the time of exile.

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PRI's The World

More than 6000 people died in Typhoon Haiyan. Thousands of bodies were never found or identified. Four months after the storm you'd expect a person might start to accept that his missing loved ones have died. But it doesn't always work that way. I follow a team of cadaver dogs as they search for remains of the typhoon's victims.

5:27 minutes

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NPR News

After the Typhoon Haiyan cut of path of destruction through the Philippine city of Tacloban, I follow the "disaster garbage man," a waste management specialist working to turn rubble into jobs. 

5 minutes

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i visited tacloban soon after typhoon yolanda hit


[...] The next day we drove into Tacloban just as the sun was going down, in an ambulance with the curtains drawn. Everyone was peeking out of the windows, not talking as the scenes of destruction got worse and worse. Before we got to Leyte, the island where Tacloban is the capital, we already felt bad. We’d seen the footage and heard the reports. But actually being in the presence of the destruction is much different. It never ends. It’s not a minute-long video clip before the newscaster switches to a different story. There were piles of rubble covered in mud on either side of the road. There wasn’t a single house that wasn’t damaged or completely destroyed. Coconut trees and cement lampposts were snapped in two. This coast was in the direct path of Typhoon Yolanda, and the few people left were living in the rubble of their old homes, starting fires for light, and waiting for someone to show up with food or water.

Shev was the only one who hadn’t heard from her family. The last time she heard from them was at 6 AM on the day of the typhoon, when her mom texted to say they were fine. That was four days ago, before media started reporting death tolls at 10,000 and she caught a glimpse of her house on some aerial footage. Nothing was left except the cement floor. Shev didn’t look out the window. She pulled a blanket over her head and put her face in her hands.

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PRI's The World

Immigrants from countries as far flung as Nigeria, Mexico, the Philippines and Poland share a common ingredient. They all use Maggi, and they all insist it belongs to them. I talk to cooks from immigrant communities around New York City about how Maggi reminds them of home, and upset a few people by revealing where it's really from. 

4:54 minutes

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