Saturday, December 29, 2012

Super Typhoon Pablo/Bopha

I have a confession to make: when I decided to study environmental migration for my PhD, I only wanted to study other people's experiences, and not to experience it myself. Perhaps this desire, this sentiment makes me culpable of academic voyeurism, a fascinating subject in its own right, but not the one I want to elaborate in this post.

Here, I want to share some excerpts from my field notebook. This notebook (series of notebooks, actually) goes with me everywhere. It's where I jot down the unusual and mundane things I see, hear, taste and smell, the thoughts that run through my head, and occasionally the emotions I experience over the course of an interview, tour or other experience. The jottings are mainly descriptive. They jump around from one idea to another, often without proper segues or grammar. The field notebook is an essential research tool. It's also one of the first items that was packed in my emergency evacuation bag. 

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December 4. 2012
12:35 pm 
I am lying on a dorm bed in the Marigold Hotel - ironically the very same hotel I visited last week asking to speak with management about their Typhoon Sendong experiences.

Ada is finally napping. Jacob, after a very long bout of crying, is also asleep. April is calling her husband to check if he's left their home for the safety of the Nestlé compound located on the other side of the national highway on higher ground away from the seashore. The Ates (literally 'older sisters' but used here as a term of respect for the hired help who care for April and Ejay's boys) and baby Elmer are sleeping on two single beds pushed together in the corner of the room. The three older boys are tearing up and down the halls, into and out of the room. Tito Frank is out on the balcony watching the storm.

Frank and I talked a lot about what to do yesterday. Looked up every weather website we could find. Diligently read up on typhoons. Calculated contact time with Mindanao and with CDO. Discussed the hazards most likely to affect us: typhoon, storm surge, flooding. Debated which details to divulge to our families and when to share them.

Frank cooked dinner while I packed our evacuation bags.
  •          All our medications, vitamins and first aid kit
  •           Important papers
  •           Camera and charger
  •           Field notebooks
  •           External hard drive, laptops, voltage regulator
  •           Diaper bag and toiletries
  •           Infant life jacket
  •           Baby carrier
  •           A change of clothes
  •           Some food and water

Most of the remaining non-essentials are stowed at Uncle’s two-story house next door. The stroller, shoes and car seat are placed on high shelves. Unopened cans of San Mig and Red Horse are moved to the top of the wardrobe – the last place to be flooded, should flooding occur.

He made pad thai with lemon grass and okra. It felt like our final supper. Before putting Ada to bed, I played with her, read Eric Carle stories, sang songs and cuddled. It felt like some cheesy disaster movie: young foreign couple with a baby travels to an exotic tropical country where they succumb to some inevitable misfortune. The penultimate scene before the calamity strikes captures a slice of a happy family routine.

The main event should hit around 2 pm. It's raining harder now. There are big gusts of wind. The girls I saw playing baseball on a first floor porch earlier this morning have left. The occasional cab, motorella and motorcycle drive by. Otherwise, the streets are eerily deserted. Corrugated sheet iron roofs threaten to cave in or fly off. Papaya trees bend in the wind.

We wait.

There's nothing we can do at this point. Except pray. And write. And wait. The knot in my stomach is gone. It was there yesterday afternoon and evening and night. Maybe it's time, or maybe it's the fact that we're on the fifth floor or a solidly constructed building. Or because there's nothing we can do at this point.

The boys are back in the room. They jump into and out of the wardrobe, whispering just loud enough for everyone to hear, but quiet enough for them to pretend they're quiet.
"Shhhh, they can hear you." the oldest cautions his younger brothers.
"Do you want to play outside?" asks an authoritative adult voice.

Last night was long. We drove from hotel to hotel to hotel. First, we tried the hotels on high ground near the airport: Prycegas, Korseca and Condotel. Booked solid. Then, we tried the clubhouse at Xavier Estates. It's not exactly a hotel, but it has a roof and it's located on high ground. The next option was to go downtown - lower ground but multistory buildings. Hotels were full, full, full. Finally, one with an empty dorm room.

In the room are eight single beds. Each is covered with starched white linens, not the mismatched assortment of bargain sheets that cover typical dorm beds at budget hostels. Air con. Cable t.v. Two enormous wooden wardrobes. It’s the swankiest dorm room I’ve ever entered.

It was after midnight when we finally checked in. Ada was wired. I was exhausted. Frank paced the halls with her. Brought her outside to the fire escape, but the city lights only revved her up more.

Not much sleep was had by anyone that night. The babies took turns crying. Babies sense trouble. April was constantly on her mobile, checking in with her husband, father and hired help who stayed at the compound.

I had wild dreams.

The rat. Ada wakes up crying. I reach my hand over to comfort her. A large dark rat scuttles along the bed frame in the space between Frank's mattress and mine. It dives down as I pull Ada in close. She screams. Loud. I shift again and the rat resurfaces a little farther down the bed. I silently curse dirty, grungy hotels. I pat Ada down, like in a first aid secondary survey, trying to identify where the rat has bitten her. I don’t find any blood or tender spots. She feeds then snuggles into the crook of my neck. Frank pushes our beds even closer together.

Several hours later I shift positions. Shadows dance. My hands are a puppeteer. The rat was me; my hand motions its scurrying. Daylight, even with an imminent storm, brings calm.

3:00 pm 
It's still raining - a constant, steady downpour. The eye of the storm has passed us, along with the strong winds. It's not the super-typhoon that has April on edge; it's the rain in the mountains of neighbouring Bukidnon province.  The mountains are the water catchment area for the rivers and creeks of Tablon, where we live, as well as the tributaries feeding into the Cagayan River.

An ambulance topped with a rubber boat (the white water raft kind) drives by. Sirens blare. Though huge puddles cover the roads they are still passable. Cars, vans, motorellas and taxis drive by. The visibility of the distant mountains waxes and wanes.

I am crouched in the doorway looking out onto the road, enjoying a rare cool breeze, listening to the rain. Two children dash across the street. Two people drive by on a red motorbike. The passenger holds up a purple umbrella to shelter them from the rain. Off in the distance at the unfinished Paseo Del Rio hotel is a white crane. The rain begins to let up. People begin milling around near the wall of the Capitol.

6:20 pm
Normalcy returns with surprising speed. The brown out ends. Street lights switch on. Street vendors bring out their stalls. Stores and eateries re-open. Karaoke microphones crackle.

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Super-typhoon Pablo (international designation Bopha) has largely spared Cagayan de Oro City. A lucky break for one of the cities hard hit by last year’s Tropical Storm Sendong. Unfortunately, news is emerging about the devastation of Pablo on parts of Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental. 

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