dumalag

     In honor of all the good that was done amid the horror of Super Typhoon Haiyan.

 

     The deadliest storm in history hit the Philippines on the eve of my sister’s birthday. One year ago, Marian Abigail, who was turning 11, was chatting with my mother on her tablet, describing the crack of thunder that heralded the coming storm.

     My mother was in Brownsville, Texas, more than 8,000 miles away. I was even farther, stationed as a reporter in the U.S. Virgin Islands, literally on the other side of the world.

     “Nay, indi kami dri ma iwan ah (Mom, we’re going to be fine),” my sister said.

     My mother, unassuaged, told her to stay close to her father and head for higher ground. That was when the power lines went down, and what followed was by far the longest day of our lives.

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A NOAA image of Supertyphoon Haiyan as it made landfall. The city of Tacloban lies directly under the eye.

     When I first saw a satellite image of super typhoon Haiyan, I remember thinking, That can’t be right. All I could see was a massive, angry whirl of reds and greens over a region of Southeast Asia, and peeking under the whirling canopy was a familiar piece of landform.

     Wait, I realized in horror, That’s the Philippines.

     There was enough media coverage of the typhoon to keep the more than 10 million overseas Filipinos updated. CNN and most other networks provided live coverage. Weather channels tracked the storm’s northwest path across the hemisphere. We saw images of Tacloban City, now alien and unrecognizable, that bore the brunt of Haiyan’s rampage.

     But none of the news networks told us what we desperately needed to know: how our loved ones were.

     On the morning after the storm surge, mom and I tried to make contact with our scattered family one by one. Some were in Manila, some in Roxas, a small city in the the Visayas, and some, including my sister and my father, in Dumalag, an even smaller town one hour outside Roxas City.

     We tried cellphones, landlines, texting — all in vain. A communication vacuum blanketed the entire province.

     In desperation, I turned to the only way to ask for help from as many people as possible: a Facebook status update.

     Posting “HELP” on Facebook felt very much like running wild on the streets, begging strangers for aid. But a growing fear that my loved ones may have been lost in the deluge threw composure out the window.  On Nov. 9, at 11:49 a.m. EST (close to midnight in the Philippines), my Facebook status update was a plea for information, followed by the names of all my family members.

One year ago, after Supertyphoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, I posted this plea for help on Facebook. The response was overwhelming.

One year ago, after Supertyphoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, I posted this plea for help on Facebook. The response was overwhelming.

    Three minutes later, Epi Oquendo, a kindergarten classmate I had not spoken to in 20 years, sent a message saying her folks in San Jose, a tiny barangay in Dumalag, were alright. She did not have news of my sister.

     At 1:40 p.m, Bem Forteza, a high school classmate, sent a private message saying there was cellphone reception near the old bridge.

     At 3 p.m., Bisell Ann, an old churchmate, commented on my status, saying she could have her sister Lalaine, check on my father and sister. Lalaine’s phone was working, apparently.

     At 5:57 p.m., my brother Archelle, checking in to say his family was fine, saw Biselle’s comment, asked for Lalaine’s cellphone number, and called her with directions to my sister’s location.

     This trend went on for hours: friends and cousins and distant relatives posting updates, tagging each other on the most remotely relevant information about families and homes.

     It turned out we weren’t the only ones. Days after the storm, my news feed was a stream of panic, anxiety and cautious hope. A Kuwait-based Filipino was looking for his father, a fisherman last seen with his boat near the shore. An overseas Filipina was searching for her parents and three children in storm-battered Leyte province. My high school classmate Erik Villan could not contact his family, nor get on a plane from Manila to Roxas because there were no flights.

     For days after Haiyan swept across the nation, Facebook became a virtual bulletin board, a lost-and-found corner for overseas Filipinos desperate to know their families were safe.

      The responses were overwhelming, and incredibly pertinent. My cousin Lexie Villar, whose smartphone was still working, traveled half of Capiz province, taking pictures of streets, landmarks, and homes, and uploading them one after another. Updates from the Philippine Information Agency were shared from wall to wall. A video taken by someone who drove around one town after the storm with a camera went viral.

     It mattered little that majority of the posts had nothing to do with our families. Every piece of information we received  — photos of the  town plaza or a familiar street, instant messages, descriptive emails —  lifted the blackout bit by bit. Like pieces of a horrific jigsaw puzzle, details began falling into place, skewed but nonetheless present.

     The long wait was eased by my people’s signature humor. In our search for family members, one of my old friends said:

     “Ga hinibi lng kodi kagina sa Manila… teh mayo kay na tawgan ko sila naghim os buot ko…bisan wla na kmi balay… hehehehe (I was crying here in Manila. Good thing I was able to contact them; I feel better. Even though our house is gone. Hehehehe.)

      Then he used the word “keri,” a Filipino colloquialism that’s difficult to translate, and one I’ve almost forgotten. I believe it came from the English word “carry,” used in contexts of moving forward in spite of obstacles, as in carrying on.

     “Basi ma contact ko naman karun dai nanay.. eh pa check ko sila didto..eh ping taka di dayun.. ang importanti wla casualties nga natabo… ang mga balay lng wla na.. KERY dyapon ah. Hahahah (I might be able to contact my mom…I’ll have them check on your folks then I’ll ping you…What’s important is there are no casualties…Just the houses gone… But still, keri. Hahahah).

      And that pretty much summed up how many of us felt.

     Two days after the storm, I knew that every member of my family was safe. Thanks to Lexie’s photo updates, I even knew which parts of the ceiling still remain in my childhood home, and that only half of my aunt’s roof had collapsed.

     It truly was the longest day of our lives, and for those who still haven’t found answers, that day stretches on.

    But on that dark day, this virtual world was inundated by waves of something other than randomness and irrelevance. On social media, I found comfort in the words of friends, awe of the Filipino’s indomitable strength, and profound pride that even at the height of worry for his own circumstance, the Filipino’s bayanihan spirit, the communal unity we frequently tout as a national value, remained intact.

Cover photo courtesy of Ging Green. 

Note: After the storm, I’ve received unsolicited help from Virgin Islanders with big hearts. The $1,100.00 raised went toward buying school supplies for children in a devastated rural elementary school.

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     I regret I did not get to know Lola Mansing, my fraternal grandmother, very well. She recently passed away, but I can’t even remember what she and Lolo Tibô looked like. For most of my life, my mum had been separated from my dad, rest his soul, and somehow that meant my brother Archelle and I rarely saw our fraternal relatives. The last visit I remember, I was but four or five.

Buntog Station. Photo Courtesy: Rudyard Florida

Buntog Station. Photo Courtesy: Rudyard Florida

     The Fales lived in Buntog, the part of Dumalag that lies in the path of the old railroad. Up until the early 1970s, under the Marcos regime, the “Burban” and the “Diesel” made stops there as they chugged across the Western Visayan provinces.

     Uncle Benjie said he used to take the trains to nearby Passi to buy pineapples. The busy railroad infused Buntog with life and energy, my mother recalled, making it the most prosperous barangay in Dumalag.

     Then the trains stopped running.

     It’s been decades now since the railroad ceased operations. The trains are long gone, along with much of Buntog’s former bustle. But the tracks stayed intact, and they were put to good use by Filipino ingenuity.

My drawing of the 'biring' from memory. October 27, 2014.

My drawing of the ‘biring’ from memory. October 27, 2014.

Buntog residents built small vehicles — called biring — designed to traverse the train tracks. Made almost entirely out of wood or bamboo, a biring was nothing more than two crude benches on top of a five-foot-square platform. The whole contraption sat on metal wheels not unlike those of trains.

     Passengers got on the biring from the main road, right across Erning’s batchoy place. As soon as a biring had enough passengers, a lone driver would push the vehicle along the tracks, aided by a pole and the laws of physics.

     Needless to say I loved riding the biring. I remember hurtling through the tracks — no walls, no seatbelts, just the wind whipping my hair, rushing coolly against my face. The countryside whizzed past in a blur of greens. I could feel the wheels grinding against metal under my feet, the rhythmic tak-a-tak, tak-a-tak, tak-a-tak as they hit the places where the metal tracks joined. The grinding would die down to a whine as we slowed to drop off a passenger, and I would grab my seat against the change in inertia, careful not to lurch forward or get thrown off.

     There was only one track, which meant we were on a collision course with any biring headed in the opposite direction. In such cases, one biring would have to relent: its passengers would get off and the more muscular folks would help the driver lift the whole thing off the track, then lift it back on again once the other biring had safely passed.

     My grandparents’ house stood just off the tracks. I remember walking across a small rice paddy behind mom and several uncles, grabbing my brother’s shirt so I didn’t fall off the narrow, elevated mud trail.  On the other side was a familiar two-story structure made of concrete and wood.

     The living room was at ground level, with some wooden stairs rising from the center of the room to a square hole cut into the second story floor.

     Lolo and lola gave me my first grown-up drink in that room — a type of wine made from coconut flowers called tuba — that my mother would never have allowed under normal circumstances. It came out of a piece of bamboo that was cleaned out and turned into a receptacle.

     I liked tuba; it was sweet and tart and deliciously forbidden.

     Chickens roamed the backyard. They must have had other poultry and livestock, but I don’t remember. My grandparents told me I could chase the chickens, and I could keep whatever I caught. In hindsight, I think it was a ploy to get rid of me so the grown-ups could talk, but hey, I had a blast chasing yellow chicks while fending off angry mother hens.

     My Papa Pedro, who’s actually my uncle, owned a biring, and he’d treat us to the best joy rides. The tracks were elevated where they cut through rice paddies. In some areas, the packed earth had crumbled, leaving the tracks hanging over thin air in a slight dip. It made a perfect makeshift roller coaster track, and that’s exactly what we did. My mom, who was stuck with the grown-ups, would have been sufficiently freaked if she saw us riding the biring at warp speed across that dip, screaming our lungs out.

    My mother now tells me I’d forgotten the best bits: crossing a deep stream on a bridge made of nothing but two bamboo poles latched together, splashing on the banks of that stream when it’s swollen and muddied by rain, and riding the biring splayed on the floor because there were no benches. She said my grandfather took me to ride his carabaos — water buffalos — and that my grandmother affectionately called me Nene Apple, and my brother Nonoy Cheche.

Lola Mansing. Photo courtesy: Delfa Avelino Dorado

Lola Mansing. Photo courtesy: Delfa Avelino Dorado

So even though I didn’t know Lola Mansing, she left me some solid, rocking memories. Through her, I remember how our Buntog family always made us feel welcome and loved. If we could have that much fun with them on a brief visit, I wouldn’t mind riding the biring express to their houses again someday.

Cover photo courtesy of Rudyard Florida.