Surviving Super Typhoons
Happiness is the sag of heavy insects clinging hungrily to a mosquito net.
The warm glow of a blood meal just inches away drives them mad while I sleep soundly beneath. The click click of legions of hermit crabs climbing and falling on rocks, holding secret meetings in antennae-twitching languages. Outside, the hiss of sand swallowing an endless supply of moon-driven waves. Gifts from a salty, alluring mistress who has been feeding, adventuring, and claiming men for millennia.
A new day arrives and I find myself accidentally on Negros – an unexpected island visit in the geological heart of the Philippines. But more on that later.
The sky and sea compete for who can become more bluer than blue. A paling gift of penance from a goddess with blood on her hands. The breathtaking beauty hardly hides the grotesque power behind this sunny smile. I’m angry at her.
In fact, Mother Nature’s mood swings are beginning to scare me. As I lay here and watch trillions of sun diamonds shimmering on the surface, grim men just 60 miles away are slinging typhoon bodies into mass graves. No time for individual funerals when the tropical sun comes knocking and the queue for the afterlife is 10,000 long. The contrast is disturbing. While tourists all over other parts of the Philippines complain about toothpick umbrellas not matching their colorful cocktails, people are looting and fighting for relief water. Water.
A Fateful Decision
Spending even a single night in a grungy city when you’re in a country with 7,000 islands is turmoil. Sleepless torture. Even the torrential rains hammering Cebu City weren’t enough to wash the urban grime of smashed dreams away.
Malapascua, my planned destination, is a tiny island; you can circumnavigate it in under three hours with bare feet. No cars. No shoes. Whimsical electricity. Just happy wanderings from tree to tree, admiring which of the coconuts are ready for drinking. Thresher sharks with their pretentious tails were waiting for me to try my first dive in the Philippines.
I never made it to Malapascua.
Rough seas sent sailors home to money-worried wives. No ferries were running. The warty reception lady in Cebu delivered the blow with ease, hoping I would stay another overpriced night. She’s the type who would tell a six-year-old that Christmas wasn’t coming. Santa Claus broke his neck sliding down a chimney in Russia.
I took the news about the same as the six-year-old. But desperate for an island, quickly pulled out my map and got to the ferry terminal – the Philippines’ busiest. I grabbed a two-hour boat to Bohol Island. The closest piece of floating land with boats and coconut dreams still running. Dire whisperings of weather were muffled with optimistic rugs.
My decision not to go north and try to hire a fisherman’s boat to Malapascua was fateful. Thanks to the largest typhoon to ever make landfall, the island is now a tangled mess of trees and insurance claims. Destruction hits like a hammer on eggshell islands. Instead, I found myself going east. Cardinal directions are often the strongest determiners of fate, both in life and love.
With incoming weather, and not knowing a single thing about Bohol, I didn’t want to proceed directly to the jungle. Instead, I sweated two kilometers to town with my pack and caught transport across the bridge to Panglao Island, the tourist epicenter of the area. At least there I would find infrastructure and Wi-Fi, or so I thought.
Panglao wasn’t my idea of an island paradise. Far from it. While the island itself is polite, palm-lined, and idyllic, Alona Beach is a microcosm of tourism hell, comparable to Boracay, Koh Samui, or Phuket – minus the sun-weathered prostitutes. Flopping white bellies keep beer-drinkers from seeing that they shouldn’t wear socks in sandals. Families plod from one grumbling to the next along an overpriced, overdeveloped beach. The sad sand does its best to cheer up money-slingers.
After considerable effort, and well after dark, I found a decent room up on the road. The restaurant next door, the only interesting diversion, was adorned with a US Army Airborne flag and manned by some interesting characters straight out of Hollywood. We became friends.
A Special Forces First Sergeant – with more tours and stories than one man can carry – along with his well-traveled wife and a mad-yet-bright Vietnam Vet named Wild Bill, literally a cowboy – an adopted Native American from Texas. He had a cowboy’s backslapping laugh and was living indigenously in a forgotten place. I know, I saw his bamboo home hidden in the banana trees.
The First Sergeant was an experienced traveler, both with and without a weapon, and even a chess-playing philosopher – having received a degree with lots of majors. The greatest warriors in history were also great philosophers.
These were the types of guys who don’t just boast about close calls, they compare bullet wounds. This was the Major Leagues for scars and adventure, so I kept my mouth shut.
You carefully choose the types you want near when things go wrong, before nature throws a steaming shovel into the proverbial fan. Particularly when the fan is soon to be blowing winds at 195 MPH. These people would be the ones standing on the rooftop shouting profanities and taunts at the Devil himself.
Yolanda Comes Knocking
I woke up in a sweat. My upstairs room was draining me faster than organs could absorb. The fan above me had long since stopped turning, and something was certainly different about the air. Strange noises clanked and clambered from downstairs. Crashings. My arm hairs, the first indication that survival may be for breakfast, were at attention. The sink tap produced a tired groan; there would be no water to wash away salty dreams.
It has begun.
After all the talk, the gossip, the hype, the buying batteries for hungry torches, the stocking of drinking water, the murmurings, the checking of weather maps, the tying things down, the Facebook brags, Typhoon Haiyan – known as Yolanda in the Philippines – had arrived.
We were already under a Signal 3 warning, only an hour or so from the demarcation north for Signal 4. Being a newbie, I had no idea what this meant. A handful of pale and nervous people understood. Meanwhile, around the world, excited meteorologists on the brink of orgasm were jumping and shouting about super storms and big trouble blowing in like madmen-driven 18-wheelers without brakes.
When I flung the door open to my room, I could definitely tell that something was afoot. My arm hair twitched optimistically. The hallway swirled with action; papers and leaves gusted here and there. I made my way to the open-air restaurant downstairs, which required going outside, and I could see trees bending to maximum capacity, as if made from rubber. The old tree across the street was already uprooted. Rain came in spurts, but the wind reigned king.
I couldn’t look away.
It was a constant noise. And it seemed to go in an endless circle. The howl of the wind, trees bending to survive, furniture shifting slightly, ketchup bottles migrating across tables, crashes from objects falling, the sounds of a mild chaos building – but nothing really to be too worried about.
It really wasn’t that bad.
We waited. I assumed that what I was watching was simply the buildup, and for the first time in days of weather talk, adrenaline made me jittery. My clutched coffee cup trembled uneasily. With no power or news, we had no way of knowing if this was just the first of Haiyan’s death-slinging tentacles or if the worst was barreling down. With every bite now days, I often wonder if I’ve taken more than I can chew.
And then it was gone. The sky even became blue.
Not really knowing how typhoons – super or not-so-super – work, I suspected that this was some kind of trick. Like the lull in the tsunami waves that brings survivors out of holes only to pounce on them with even greater ferocity. Screw that. I held my ground.
But no. The worst carnage I saw was a Chinese couple – valiantly fighting up the street in the wind for unknown reasons – have their umbrella shredded to a metallic skeleton. They threw it and ran for cover.
That was it. Just a matter of kilometers, cardinal direction, luck, prayer from family – it all seemed so unfair. Coconuts were flying like 155mm shells and a 45-foot-tall storm surge was claiming nice people only a couple hours or so away while I sipped coffee and wondered when the power would come back on. There were even deaths in Cebu from where I had just come. I regretted my malice at the guesthouse woman, who on a whim, may have saved me from having to see typhoon statistics.
I guess if you’re just going to narrowly miss a super typhoon while sitting on an island, dodge the most evil one in recorded history. The 13th named typhoon of 2013 was a murderous bitch, but she only brushed past me on the dance floor, her eyes set on someone else.
Seeing the Aftermath
The following day, the weather was spectacular. Yolanda had moved west to threaten other poor people and eventually hit Halong Bay and Hanoi, a place I just visited weeks ago.
I hired a man’s motorbike and took to the island roads, intent to survey the damage. To be honest, it was hard to find. I was a carnage hunter in search of hard-to-find prey.
The main city on the island had lost their cockfighting arena. Roosters celebrated temporarily. Corn crops were bent to the ground. Banana trees, the ever-so-useful wimps of the jungle, were down everywhere. But you can knock them down with a glance anyway. I saw the oldest church on the island in shambles; it collapsed on top of the Ghost-Buster-car-style Hurst, but that had been a victim of the powerful earthquake in October.
The worst indication of the future was seeing the enormous pylons that carried electricity and even more valuable connections to loved ones over to my island. Down in the water; an electrician’s nightmare. It was a sign of things to come. No messages in or out. But that didn’t matter; there would be no boats for days as aid was inbound and the scattered puzzle pieces of life were dug out.
The island began to stink. Literally.
I’m not sure if it was the collective smell of hundreds of unwashed bodies. Or if it was the seafood and other edibles dependent upon fragile refrigeration. It smelled something like the decay that lurks inside of garbage disposals.
With no power or running water for days, things got dirty. Staff couldn’t wash hands before handling food, or afterward to remove the raw chicken and pork juices. Toilets couldn’t be flushed. Dysentery would surely be on the radar. Lanterns and candles burned. My concrete room sucked the sweat out of me in the still darkness. It was as if Yolanda had stolen the breath of the island to keep her tentacles lashing. Not a single leaf stirred for days.
The suffocating stillness of black nights was maddening.
I washed in the sea with a bar of soap. And ate only pork BBQ sticks, because I could see and choose the meat before it was cooked on an open fire. Roughing it, yes. Did we complain? Yes. But after every complaint I felt like the world’s biggest douchebag. On islands nearby, the collective wail of surviving family members would hang in the air for decades as their loved ones were tossed into mass graves.
Sadness hangs even heavier in paradise.
The worst part? My poor family, and a few friends, suffered far more than I did. The sun was shining down, but with no power to charge devices, no cell service, no internet or phone, getting a message to the outside world was an impossibility. I’ll forever feel guilty about not being able to give them a triumphant ‘Alive!‘ for so many dreadful hours.
Vagabonds are probably punished for their actions in this life by coming back as the mothers and fathers of careless vagabonds.
Fighting Roosters and Big Winnings
The First Sergeant and I decided to take his 4×4 to see one of the island’s favorite pastimes: cockfighting. After driving around Wild Bill’s jungle community, trying to locate a man who cannot be located, we got the scoop on an unofficial fight already in progress.
Some blundering around later, lots of tires spinning mud, and bribing a ‘guide’ with a motorbike to show us where the fight was in jungle backyards, we walked through the muck and mess and into my first real cockfight.
This wasn’t an ordinary street-level cockfight like I’ve seen in Thailand and Indonesia. Forget the pansy, tourist-oriented, government-sanctioned stuff. No, there were over a hundred men milling about with roosters in hand, shouting bets, cheering with triumph, crying with loss – it was complete chaos. The lead curtain separating tourists from locals in Asia doesn’t move easily. And for a short while, it creaked aside and allowed a peek.
The smell of fear, bird death, beer, and feathers clouded the air. Men were making bets the equivalent of a week’s wages. Sometimes more. Victory and failure coursed through nicotine veins. I made my first bet, an illegal one on the side as not to skew the odds, on a large white rooster. The fight began grim, but my white bird rose from the ashes – quite literally – and with shouts of disbelief at the epic comeback, won me some money.
Now say what you want to about cockfighting. Is it cruel? Of course. Nature works in cruel ways. But do you really think the chickens you buy from supermarkets were treated like rock stars before they were slaughtered? At least these chickens have seen sunlight and are treated as celebrities. At least until they get eaten. The winning owner gets to eat the loser’s bird, which is only fair; nothing goes to waste.
But cockfighting isn’t native here at all, it was brought along by a Western European. Ferdinand Magellan, the same disease-delivering explorer who named the Pacific Ocean, brought cockfighting to the Philippines. They really took to the concept; the roosters did not. Later, a great warrior on one of the islands near me got tired of Magellan’s BS and poked him with a spear.
The Filipinos named a fish (lapu-lapu) after the great warrior.
When boats became available, I grabbed a bumpy motorbike-sidecar ride back to the port city and placed myself on a ferry, smiling from ear to ear. Let’s go! Here. There. Anywhere. Just get me a ticket to out of here. The driver recognized me from the cockfight, and assuming I had lost as much money as he did betting against a white rooster, didn’t rip me off.
As luck would have it, my boat was bound for Siquijor, a place I wanted to visit badly anyway.
The Filipino people in these islands are highly religious. And like many people who are poor, they are also incredible superstitious. Siquijor Island is famous for the shamans and healers who live there. As well as the ghosts.
I was warned more than once by locals not to look people on the island deep into their eyes – they can hypnotize you and take your money. So, in a highly Catholic nation, these healers have created a little bastion of voodoo, a last stand of the wicked, on Siquijor Island.
The gray-haired healers are disappearing. Along with working herbal remedies. Young people would rather get lost in Hollywood than mix strange brews. You can even purchase real love potions, and of course, the antidote, should some crazy stalker try to use one on you first.
I’ll keep a vial of love potion handy. You never know when you’ll need one.
My ferry’s engines rumbled to a stop in a puff of black exhaust. We called into Dumaguete, the main port on the island of Negros, to drop off some passengers. But suddenly, with dreamy clouds slothing across powder skies, the engines stopped. We weren’t going anywhere.
A tropical depression, a storm large enough to be named but minuscule in comparison, was chasing after Yolanda. The little bastard popped up on radar and created enough of a stir to shut down all boat traffic.
So, literally unsure of what next, and no plan whatsoever, I found myself walking out of the port without a clue as to where to go, or even the name of the island I was standing on.
I’m well practiced at reading a map while fending off offers from drivers. They prey on the weak. And not knowing where you are is a sure indicator of not being squared away. Show any sign of doubt, such as hesitating at an intersection, or pulling out a map, and the blood-suckers will descend upon stragglers like wolves.
An Israeli couple met in Panglao had mentioned on a whim about a special little place in the south of Negros. I dismissed their recommendation. I had no plans of visiting Negros on this trip. Who knew that’s where I would be standing and scratching my tired head?
I stuffed my compass into my pocket and looked south.
And grabbed a driver to take me to the nearest bus terminal. From there I caught a $1 bus to the south of the island, then caught a spine-rearranging motorbike taxi off road. We bounced along the 11 kilometers through the jungle to Tambobo Bay.
I found myself in permaculture paradise. The little bamboo operation, the only in the bay, was a dream of bamboo huts, fireflies, hermit crabs, geckos, and occasional surprise guests such as the little snake who fell from a tree or the cat who somehow figured out which hut was mine and set up camp on the balcony.
With incredible raw fish to eat, a beach reef for underwater wanderings, and black volcanic cliffs boxing me off from the rest of the world, I’ve decided to wait out this sniveling little tropical depression. But as is often the case with detached little bungalow bays, connectivity with the rest of the world is an easily forgotten myth.