Wednesday, July 16, 2014
I wake up to a hot and stuffy room and the realization that I should have paid much more attention to this storm. The power’s off, so no more air-conditioning. My room is like a tomb, with no ventilation. According to the forecast, the worst is yet to come…
Wow, big wind! Am not sure what’s going on outside, but things are really banging around. The windows are made of frosted glass so I can’t see what’s happening — and I’m not opening my door to have a look. The roof is rattling, but seems to be holding. A little scary.
Yay, the power’s back on! Or else the hotel has started a generator. I can’t believe that I didn’t even bother to ask if the hotel HAS a generator. I hope everything’s okay at home… At least I’ve got air-conditioning again, so hopefully I can sleep through the rest of the night.
The power’s off. It’s on. It’s off. It’s on. Damn, it’s off…
I can’t get back to sleep and it sounds bad outside. But not overly bad — fingers crossed…
Still awake. Storm intensifying. Rain coming horizontally now, beating against the windows. Is the storm center still getting closer or is it moving further from us? I wish I had my barometer here — it would tell the story. Power’s still off and no internet, impossible to know what’s going on. Martin not answering my texts.
The sun will be up in about an hour. Life always feels better when it’s light.
Must have dozed off. Woke up because I thought I heard silence. So much banging and crashing that silence is out of place. Unfortunately, must have just been the typhoon catching its breath. Still roaring outside. The power hasn’t come back and my laptop battery is down to 12%.
Not sure what it’s blowing out there because my room is somewhat sheltered from the wind. I’d guess it’s a steady 50 knots, gusting much higher. The rain will be the biggest problem, I think.
Haven’t heard from Martin. I hope all is well at the house!
Am going back to bed with my iPod to try to drown out the noise. How I wish I could find out if we’re now on the backside of the storm…
A definite easing of the wind. Still raining hard. I’m hungry but not too keen to leave my room, which seems to have sprung a leak somewhere. Water pooling on the tile floor.
Just woke up. It’s over! No wind, no rain. I can hear a broom sweeping outside my window. Hurray! Dogs are barking, a baby is crying, roosters are crowing — the beautiful sounds of an ordinary day in the Philippines. From extreme violence to peace — just like that. Such a waste of energy, it seems to me. What is the purpose of a typhoon?
Still no word from Martin.
I hadn’t noticed how hungry I am.
Jesus Christ, what a mess!!!!!!!!!! The city looks like — well, it looks like a typhoon just hit it…
I’m no stranger to Batangas. I know its downtown and residential subdivisions all too well. Though we had separated, I visited my American husband, Edward, here every week for five years. Edward died in Batangas last year. My bank is here. I do my grocery shopping here. I go to the post office here.
Even on its best day, Batangas could never be called pretty – but today is the worst I’ve ever seen it. Streets are flooded, trees are down, traffic lights are unlit. I see no police to direct traffic or represent law and order in a scene ripe for looting and chaos. Yet there is no looting or chaos. There’s just nothing. Almost every store is closed, metal security grilles still lowered.
I walk through empty streets, searching for food and a cellphone signal. Post-apocalyptic. Is anybody out there? There is no choice but to wade through flood water that is cold and dirty, already streaked with oil.
Even in disaster, Filipinos are friendly and smiling, posing when I point my iPod camera at their stricken city. People speak to me, warning me. “Be careful, Ma’am”, they keep saying, pointing at potential dangers. I only know that I’m very, very hungry and I don’t want to talk. The only thing I can think of to say is “wow”.
I feel disconnected, like I’m not even here. This is a problem for me sometimes, flying between continents in mere hours, especially going from rich to poor. My body arrives, but the rest of me takes a while longer to catch up. Right now, I don’t know where I am. I can’t even say that I’m still in Canada, where I’ve been visiting my family. At this moment, I’m just alone, lost inside my head. In limbo. I certainly know that I don’t want to be where I am right now.
I seem to be the only white person in Batangas. I always joke that the difference between a white man and everyone else is that everyone else will walk around a mountain and not mind the trip. A white man will blast a hole through the mountain. Watching white men battle against nature exhausts me. But apparently, all the white men blasted their way out of Batangas yesterday, while I slept in my hotel room…
It turns out that McDonald’s is the only game in town. I hate McDonald’s, but if I don’t eat a Big Mac I’ll have to start gnawing on my arm.
A black and white kitten is meowing on the sidewalk near a pile of debris. A young boy kicks the kitten and laughs. What the fuck is wrong with people, I wonder.
A woman is selling flowers. They are the only beautiful things I have seen today and she must have spent a lot of money on them, but this is a very bad day to be selling flowers.
I don’t want to be here. I want to go home. How many times must these thoughts run through my head?
I’m back in my cell with a full stomach. Going to sleep now, nothing else to do.
Woke up thirsty. Went to the hotel office and bought bottled water and a warm beer.
For some reason, I’ve been thinking about Edward. If Edward were here, things would be different. Edward, a mountain-blasting white man, would have left the hotel room this morning, tracked down the owner of a hardware store, bribed him to open his door, helped him bail water from the shop’s floor, probably would have taught him how to create a syphon to do it more easily, then would have bought a portable generator, which would now be hooked up — and we would all be sitting around The Come Inn in a blaze of lights, drinking ice cold beer. I never saw anything stop Edward, except his death.
I couldn’t be bothered. I’m hungry but too lazy to go out looking for food again. I’ll be home tomorrow. I’ll eat then.
An old lady in the hotel office gave me a candle and matches for my room. It’s a crappy candle, the wick keeps falling into the wax. They’ve stuck the candle into an empty shrimp paste jar and secured it with a crumpled brown paper bag. The melted wax is dripping onto the paper bag, which surely must be a fire hazard so I’ll have to keep an eye on it.
The power’s still off, and given the amount of damage I witnessed today, I’ll be surprised if it comes back during the night. We are cut off from all news.
Still no communication with Martin. No bars at all on my cellphone. I can’t get onto Facebook anymore through my 3G Kindle. The Come Inn is filled with stranded travelers, all of us now running low on battery power. I need to charge my batteries but there’s no place nearby with electricity.
All I know for an absolute certainty is that I am safe in my room, with a wobbly candle for light. I need to shut down my laptop now. Battery at 5%. Will go to bed.
Thursday, July 17, 2014
Got up early, eager to get home. I’ve been away for one month plus two days.
I said a quick and unsentimental farewell to The Come Inn. All in all, it wasn’t a bad place to ride out a typhoon. The roof held and the walls didn’t crumble.
Made my way to the pier, where all the boats were up and running. The Verde Passage was flat calm, impossible to guess there was a typhoon yesterday.
Back on my home island, I hired a jeepney and three porters to deliver my 150 pounds of luggage to our front door.
I walk inside the house and look around. Right away I see what isn’t there. Horror.
“Oh my God”, I shout.
An unsmiling Martin says, “Things have changed…”
To be continued in “Homecoming”.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
I need to get home before the typhoon hits. I’m in a taxi, speeding in a southbound lane on the South Luzon Expressway, en route from Manila Airport to the ferry terminal in Batangas City. I’ve told my driver that we need to get there faster than the usual 90 minute ride so I can catch a ferry to the island of Mindoro, my home of thirteen years, before the Coast Guard cancels passenger boats. Normally I would take a bus, but the taxi will save time. If I can get to the port before the first boat of the day, I’ll make it home. I’m guessing the Coast Guard will stop boat traffic by noon.
I’ve seen the weather forecast and the storm doesn’t look particularly bad, but everyone seems concerned. Even my Philippine Airlines flight left Vancouver thirty minutes early last night and took a short cut, arriving an hour and forty minutes ahead of schedule. “The typhoon is coming this afternoon, Ma’am”, a flight attendant warned me as I was leaving the plane.
But the typhoon ISN’T coming this afternoon — at least, I hope it’s not. I’m a sailor and a navigator, and I know how to read marine weather charts. From what I’ve seen, we won’t be affected until after midnight tonight, so I should have plenty of time to get home.
Goddammit!! I’m stuck in a hotel in Batangas City. My taxi driver was good, arriving at the port before 7:30, but it was already too late. I absolutely cannot believe that the bloody Coast Guard cancelled the boats YESTERDAY!! Yesterday?? Can’t they read charts?? What idiots! There isn’t a breath of wind or a ripple on the water.
So this is it — I’m only fifteen miles from my house, but I now have to sit in this shitty hotel room all day, doing nothing. According to the hotel owner, I’m lucky to have a room. Batangas is full of stranded travelers as unlucky as me.
I have to laugh at the hotel name, “The Come Inn”, where you can rent rooms by the hour. Hey, it’s the Philippines…
There’s a minor chance that I might possibly be able to get a ride on a private outrigger boat, (a banca) through some friends. Though nothing has been promised, a phone call may come. This is what happens when the Coast Guard cancels the passenger boats too early. Everyone hires private boats, which are always smaller and less safe than the regular ferries. I’ve done it myself and would have tried at 7:30 this morning — except that I’ve got more than 150 pounds of luggage to contend with.
The private banca didn’t work out. No one called me, and now it’s too late. I wouldn’t have hesitated this morning, but I won’t chance crossing any later than this. The Verde Passage may not look dangerous, but many people have died trying to cross it in bad weather. The wind can go from 0 to 80 knots in five seconds, and before you know it, monstrous waves are rolling your boat.
There is some confusion as to the path of the typhoon. It’s shifting more to the south, closer to Mindoro, where I live. It drives me crazy that I’m not at home to help prepare. We live in a house on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Even a minor squall is bad at our house.
It’s not easy to prepare for a typhoon — the smallest potted plant can become a projectile, shattering glass doors and windows. My parter, Martin, is texting me, assuring me that he’s got everything handled. It’s sunny and calm, he says. Hmmm…
It’s raining heavily now, though there is still not a breath of wind.
Just checked the latest weather update and the typhoon’s movement has slowed down. It’s now expected to pass near us at 8 tomorrow morning — which means that I won’t get home tomorrow. Bastards! Am still trying to figure out why the Coast Guard didn’t allow boats to run today. The 15-mile-wide channel was like a millpond. I want to be home!
Very heavy rain with some light wind.
I’ve lived thirteen years in the Philippines and four years in Japan. I’ve experienced more typhoons than I can possibly count. When I was new to Asia, I looked forward to them, even hoped they would be bad. But after you experience a direct hit by a super typhoon, you don’t ever want to go through that again. I’ve laid on the floor all night, afraid the roof might blow off — and have heard the wind make a sound that does not seem to come from this world.
I do not want this storm to be bad.
I’m going to bed. I slept very little on the flight from Vancouver last night and I’m exhausted. Who knows what’s going to happen tonight, if anything. I should sleep while I can.
The saddest typhoon for me was eight years ago, in the month of May. The day leading up to it was as beautiful as days ever come. Sunshine, birds nesting in the trees, butterflies seemingly everywhere. It was impossible to believe that a killer storm was on its way. A family of bats lived in my backyard and that evening I watched them fly off at dusk, as they normally did. But they never came home again. The typhoon hit at midnight, blasting the island. Trees fell all night and when the sun rose the next morning, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It looked like a bomb had exploded in our yard. Birds’ nests lay on the ground, their eggs ruined, the parents gone. What struck me the most was the utter silence. It was as though the world was in shock.
Wednesday July 16, 2014
I wake up to a rising wind. A couple of big gusts rattle the roof. I realize that I was so annoyed about not getting home today that I paid no attention to choosing a hotel that would be safe in a typhoon.
Stay tuned for Part 2…
The yellow African lovebird in my photo is now buried under a tree in our garden, killed last week by a thief who crept onto our patio at night, intent on pulling my birds from their cages while they slept. Exotic birds fetch a high price in the Philippines. But really, what kind of person creeps through the shadows and steals birds from his neighbors?? I know who the thief was, ridiculous for him to think I wouldn’t figure it out instantly. The wrong man invited into our home to paint and make repairs, a few days later three of my feathered friends gone. Even more ridiculous to think that accusations could ever bring justice. Not in this country.
Now I could tell you how my life in the Philippines is complicated by the poverty that surrounds me and I could raise the issue of whether poverty justifies lying, stealing, cheating and killing — but that’s not my story, at least not today. Today my story is about the bird who survived, the dead bird’s mate — Lady Grey — and how Lady Grey made me think about freedom.
Lady Grey disappeared the night of the thefts, assumed stolen like the other missing birds. But exactly one week later Lady Grey returned, landing on a fern near her empty cage. Cautiously, Lady Grey edged closer and closer to her cage, even risking the claws of an eager feline predator as she did so. Finally, she hovered near the cage door, and when my partner opened the hatch, she flew inside. Since then, she has been happily singing, dancing, and swinging on her swing — apparently unconcerned that the door is now firmly chained and padlocked.
What boggles my mind is that Lady Grey was free for an entire week, and yet she chose to return to life in a cage. How could this be? Don’t all animals, including humans, yearn for freedom? “Lady Grey, you’re crazy”, I told her.
The obvious answer is that Lady Grey found it difficult to find food in the wild. In her cage, the food bowl is never empty — and that’s a big deal to an animal. Also, Lady Grey never needs to worry about safety inside her cage (except for the thieving two-legged human predator, of course). Bred in captivity, Lady Grey obviously found life in the wild not to her liking.
I pondered Lady Grey’s rejection of freedom. Was she so crazy, after all? Don’t we humans also prefer the safety and comfort of life in a cage over the danger and unpredictability of a life without boundaries? Aren’t we humans also bred in captivity? A child’s life is strictly regulated by parents and educators until he or she attains theoretical freedom at age 18. But do we ever truly celebrate and embrace our freedom? Whether we choose university or a job after high school graduation, it strikes me that pure freedom is rarely our goal. We’re quick to jump at the chance to sit in a cubicle, punching a time card in exchange for a generous paycheck, the males of our species even fastening ties around their necks. Most of us are impatient to exchange our sexual freedom for a permanent mate, with children soon to follow. If the mate dies or abandons us, we are quick to replace them. Mortgages, car payments and credit card debt seal our destinies. Yet most of us are content, if not perfectly happy, to live this way. Like Lady Grey in her cage.
Of course, not every bird would have returned, and not every human embraces economic and romantic fetters. But Lady Grey has made me think about what it means to be free…
I’m discouraged. It seems that almost everyone’s a conservationist these days — until a coyote moves into our backyard; or we need to pour concrete over Asian rice paddies to build subdivisions for the expanding middle class; or when Walmart advertises a sale on cheap wooden picnic tables that no one realizes were made from old growth trees in Siberia. But who can blame anyone for wanting to live a happy life in a happy place?
Almost every day my mood is dampened by a story of humans versus Nature, and there are rarely happy endings for the wildlife involved. My Danish neighbor brags that he hunts elephants in Africa, yet in his spare time he performs as a clown for children in hospitals. Does he show the children his “great white hunter” photos?
In Asia, one can find a tiger on beer bottles and airline logos, but its roar has not been heard outside of a zoo for many decades. In Africa, bull elephants and rhinos are killed daily, shot by poachers whose weapons are poisoned arrows, large caliber bullets and a cunning fueled by greed.
I’m really in need of a happy story right now — and I’m quite sure I’m not alone. I know there are millions of us who care — but is there any hope out there? This is not a rhetorical question — I honestly don’t know. When I wake up tomorrow I hope to be feeling more optimistic…
My favorite photos from my trip to Rome last month. I struggle with city photography but Rome is so pretty that everyone comes home with at least a few great shots. Enjoy!
Are you planning a trip?
After I submitted my anthology essay, “The Rainiest Season”, to the publisher, I literally did not write a single sentence for a year-and-a-half. I thought I might never write again. Had I run out of words? I honestly didn’t know. Rather than worry about it, I picked up my camera and threw myself into photography. I traveled a lot. I spent time in Africa, Bali, India, northern Canada and New Zealand — but did not write a journal. I stopped writing lists of daily chores and appointments and rarely posted on Facebook. My voice was gone. I was creatively mute. I was blocked — and afraid. Would I ever find my voice again?
In late April of this year I felt the first stirrings of words. The words were mine, but not quite mine — as though they were coming from some other place in my mind than where the usual words come from. I was surprised and didn’t entirely welcome them. By now I was lazy and didn’t care to sit down for hours with pen and paper and my laptop. But the stirrings turned into whispers and then an eager voice which wouldn’t leave me alone — and then there was no choice. My voice was back, just like that.
And the stories are coming, so fast now that I need to travel with a pen at all times. I write everything down because the words may stop as suddenly as they started. In six weeks, I’ve written one third of the first draft of a full-length creative nonfiction manuscript. I don’t dare slow down, in case the words stop…
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said , “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” – Zen parable.
We begin our lives as blank slates, relying on our parents and school teachers to teach us what we need to know about ourselves and the world around us. Most of us become adults, never having questioned what we have come to accept as “the truth”. But what if those beliefs are wrong? What if the lessons we were taught as children are actually blocking us from finding happiness?
Do we believe that life is supposed to be hard and filled with problems? That happiness is only for a lucky few? That our jobs are meant to be boring and unfulfilling? That we will never have a lot of money? That money is somehow bad? That we are supposed to put up with people who try to tear us down? That only children can have dreams? That love doesn’t last? That our opinions are not important? That creating art is a waste of time? That aging is a tragedy? That sitting down and reading a book is a squandering of our time? That the world is a scary place?
As long as our cups are filled with negativity, there will be no room for the beauty and wonder and exciting possibilities that the world has to offer.
Let’s get rid of those beliefs that hold us back!
“WE ARE YOUR FRIENDLY POLICEMEN”, read the English sign at my local police station in the Philippines. Blood was dripping from my face onto my yellow sweater. Damn, I thought. These stains will never come out.
“Ma’am, what happened to you?” asked a surprised-looking, but friendly policeman, though I was quite sure this man had shouted a warning at me through a megaphone once, something about jay-walking.
“I want to blotter my neighbor. He tried to kill my boyfriend”, I answered, aware that filing a formal complaint in the police blotter was the correct procedure.
“But your face is bleeding.”
“I know, but it’s only from a bougainvillea. I accidentally ran into a bush and it caught my forehead.”
“You should clean your face. I’ll give you a towel.”
“Look, my neighbor is crazy. He tried to attack Martin with a garrote. Who even OWNS a garrote? He needs to be stopped.”
Our Swiss neighbor had been a menace ever since moving next door, along with his Filipina girlfriend and her five children, almost exactly one year ago. No doubt he had a name, but we knew him only as “Psycho”. During the past year he had pelted our roof and walls with his girlfriend’s clay flower pots, had broken our laundry room window, and regularly awakened us late at night, fighting with his girlfriend and smashing up their house. Psycho looked like a beast, his face red and coarse from a life of drunkenness and not enough vegetables. Fortunately, his eviction would be final in less than a week and the entire neighborhood would be able to breathe a sigh of relief.
The problem was that his violence was escalating. Only yesterday we had watched him make a pile of his girlfriend’s children’s toys — bicycles, hula hoops, dolls, stuffed animals and a basketball — and douse them with kerosene before setting them alight. According to village gossip, Psycho’s rage was triggered by the discovery that the substantial amount of money he had sent from Switzerland to pay for his girlfriend’s mother’s stomach surgery had disappeared. He could find neither a scar on the mother’s abdomen nor any of his hard-earned cash.
“Okay, what is your neighbor’s name?”, asked the friendly policeman.
“I’m not sure, but he’s Swiss and he’s very ugly. He has long, dirty hair and he’s always drunk.”
After only a brief hesitation the cop answered: “Ah yes, we know him. He’s already in the blotter. Ma’am please, you really should clean your face.”
“No, I want everyone to see what he’s done to me.”
“But you said you were cut by a plant.”
Hmmm. This man was no dummy. One by one, friendly policemen gathered around us, eager to hear my story. There is a wariness that comes over Filipinos when a foreigner begins complaining about one of their countrymen. But foreigner against foreigner — this was something they could really sink their teeth into. Everyone smiled at me.
I explained how Psycho had been drunk since early that morning, shouting and screaming inside his house. Late in the afternoon we heard his front door open and slam shut, and the ominous words “I am going to kill you, motherfucker.” I could hear him coming closer to our house, and through the bedroom window saw him holding the garrote. What to do? I shouted at Martin, who was reading a book on our backyard patio. “Watch out, Psycho’s coming!” I ran out the front door to get help, leaving Martin to fend for himself. As our landlady came rushing toward me, we heard Psycho’s girlfriend scream and then the sound of breaking glass. I raced back into the house and grabbed an old 5-iron golf club from the storage room.
The police were listening, curious.
I glossed over the part where I had chased Psycho with the 5-iron. Tomorrow, I’d need to offer to repair the lawn which now had huge chunks of grass and soil missing due to my wild and inaccurate swings. Too bad I had never been much of a golfer.
In the end, Psycho ran off, his hand bloodied from punching it through our window, frustrated because he was too drunk to maneuver himself over our retaining wall. Martin was unharmed.
At the end of my story, the policeman in charge said to me: “Ma’am, why are you here? Sometimes you need to take care of things yourself. Do you understand?” And I did understand. He was telling me that if I wanted to kill Psycho, it was okay with the police.
They drove me home and we lived with an armed security guard on the property until the day Psycho moved out. I would sleep with the five-iron beside my side of the bed for the next three years.
Though I have heard stories to the contrary, I can only say that my experience with the police was a good one. They were indeed, “friendly policemen”…
I visited my grandfather’s grave today. Born 1888 died 1977. Memory of him playing his fiddle in an old Quebec farmhouse in summer, dancing a clownish jig, my cousins and I clapping and laughing, bellies stuffed with our grandmother’s strawberry shortcake. Happiness. A black dog named Teddy asleep on the porch — my first animal love. So many people and pets gone now, alive only in memories and photographs.
My family’s roots grow deep in this area of rolling hills and lakes named by Abenaki Indians: Memphremagog, Massawippi, Megantic, Tomifobia, Owl’s Head. People remember my grandparents. They don’t know me.
Here at my family’s summer cottage, I stand under cedar trees that shaded me when I was a child. Are they happy to see me now? Memories of a sunburned me carefully toasting marshmallows on sticks held over smoking birchwood bonfires, of bats flying across the Big Dipper, of my brother whizzing past Blueberry Island on one waterski. Beside a glassy lake, three generations noisily devoured hamburgers grilled by our fathers and corn on the cob freshly picked from a neighbor’s farm. Echoes of past laughter. Quiet now.
So many changes, some subtle others huge. There is movement in stillness, of course. This is a place I always wanted to escape from, eager to unstrap my wings and fly away into the great big world. Now that I’m back to say hello I find that I am a stranger in these parts. People who changed my diapers now politely treating me like a guest. The girl that was once me, now only vaguely familiar in the mirror, sometimes not at all. Foreign in my own land…