Sept thru November – 2013 This is one page per month devoted to the more personal experiences related to my life in the Philippines. I’ll toss in some photos & video links as needed for emphasis so.. no telling what you’ll encounter here.
— Henry ‘Reekay’ V.
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[11/18/2013] — Despite my absence here at the main site for the last two months, it has been an exceptionally busy and productive period with the LBTSea Video Channel over on Youtube. So much has happened that I now find myself awake since 5am, having some tacos for breakfast while still trying to wrap my mind around the reality of being in Southern California on a chilly morning with the heater on.
“Huh? Did he say Southern California? Tacos??”
I guess I should back up to late September and start from there.
So there I was, just minding my own business.. (which is when weird things usually decide to invade my daily schedule.) .. when I got a phone call and found out that my Mom (back in California) had been losing weight. Too much weight. Something was wrong and I aimed to find out what it was. Now, perhaps you can relate to this, but my Mom is a worrier. In addition to that she doesn’t want to worry me or anyone else about her. So, she kept it to herself whenever I’d check in on her over the phone that she’d been losing weight. But that was only symptomatic that something else was up. She’d already lost her own Mother several years ago to leukemia, only to be followed up by losing her husband of 34 years to cancer two years after that. A year later is when I decided to move to the Philippines, and it was only a few months after I left that the dog then died. So, after I’d been overseas for about six months, I guess the strain of it all was finally coming down to bear. But it was probably the added family issues with my brother that finally pushed it all over the brink resulting in her loss of appetite and weight loss.
Once I had finally pieced all this together I knew it was time for me to fly in for a prolonged visit. I had planned to wait until February, for her 80th birthday, but this new info demanded that I get myself there to cook up her favorite dishes of mine and get her out to see some of the local sights in Southern California. I normally don’t believe in the hocus-pocus of “signs” and such. However, the morning before finding any of this out I had been at the fish market early one morning and saw the most peculiar thing.
I had just parked my scooter and was dealing with my backpack when a Filipino man passed by on the sidewalk wearing a t-shirt with a customized print. It said, “Happy 80th Birthday, Mom!” As I mentioned, my own Mom’s 80th birthday was coming up and at the time I just kinda marveled at the coincidence. So, when I got the news later that night about my Mom, I didn’t hesitate in my decision to book a flight in.
I still had some local things to take care of first so, upon letting my Mom know I’d be coming in for the holidays in time for Thanksgiving, mid-November.. she immediately began to eat healthy again in anticipation of my arrival. I also asked my three sons and one daughter to make an effort to call or visit more often.
Now that I had that in place, along with a return ticket to get me back to the Philippines at the end of February, I suddenly had a list of things to get done during the six weeks prior to the flight.
I had checked in with the Philippine Bureau of Immigration (BI) and they told me in Bohol that extending beyond 16 months would not be an issue if I simply brought in a copy of my plane ticket in a few weeks. Well, by the end of October, when I went to the BI it was now a different story. Several different stories, in fact. One response I got was that I could only get a 16+ month extension from Cebu. Then I was told (by the same clerk) that I would need to get it directly from Manila. After I gave her my subdued “WTH?” expression, she then said, “Go to the Mactan Airport and get your extension there.” So, just to clarify I said, “Okay, so the day of my flight I go to take care of this at the immigration department of the airport, right?” To which she replied, “No. Do not go to the airport. Go to the Cebu BI and get your extension there. Unless they tell you to go to Manila.”
Well, a trip to Cebu was on my itinerary anyway since I planned to accompany my new friend, Jovan, to the airport. (More on Jovan some other time.) I figured I’d pack enough clothes for a few days and if going to the Cebu office went bust, I’d fly or boat to Manila from there since I had the time. My flight was for the 15th of November, but my existing extension was going to expire on the 8th. So all this hassle was due to a 1 week difference in time.
I arrived on Cebu with Jovan at my side on the 31st of October. The problem now was that the BI might be closed the next day due to the November 1st, 2nd celebration of All Saint’s/Soul’s day holiday scheduled for that weekend. She was a good sport about it and accompanied me to the BI prior to me taking her to her flight at the airport which wasn’t until later that evening. With a bit of waiting and filling out some short forms (and handing over about $75 for another 2-month extension), I got my extension and didn’t even have to plead my special circumstances. It went smooth as pie. Or cake. Or.. well, it went smooth and I even got my Re-Entry Permit taken care of as well. So now, with ticket and necessary docs in hand I was all set for my flight.
And then all hell broke loose on the island.
In retrospect I recall now what my Mom always told me growing up, “Be thankful, it could have been worse.”
It all began with the 7.2 earthquake that rocked Bohol early one morning at around 8:15am. I’m not much of a morning person so I was sound asleep when it hit. But when it seems like you’re lying on a flatbed truck going down a country road at high speed.. you wake up pretty fast. I managed to make my way to a large, wooden wardrobe I have in my room and stood inside of that, holding to the sides so I didn’t get tossed out, as the quake violently shook everything in the house.. including the brick walls. I was sure the house would cave in and was braced for it, but it held solid amazingly.
Growing up my whole life in Southern California, I knew to expect aftershocks so once the initial quake died down for a moment I went outdoors to the front yard away from the house. Sure enough, less than a minute later the aftershocks came. And they kept on coming.. for three weeks. Over 2,000 aftershocks although they were smaller as time went on. Even so, my neighbor came to my fence and was fairly terrified at the whole experience. They’d had little earthquakes over the years, but even I had to put this one on par with the big Northridge quake we’d had in central California years ago.
Once I got my bearings I checked and.. no electricity. I took a quick shower and figured I’d get on my scooter to shoot some video around town as I made my way south to the tip of a nearby island, Panglao, in search of some electricity for the day. You can check out those videos here. By the end of the day I found myself at Alona Beach keeping an eye on the shoreline for any indication of a tsunami.. but all was okay. I found out later the quake had centered about 25 miles from my house, in central Bohol. The quake was truly historic. For one thing, it literally cracked the island from one end to the other. Starting south from Maribojoc going north to the shore past San Miguel there is a crack in the island now that is about five feet high in some places. In addition the shoreline along the west side of the island rose enough that it permanently pushed the shoreline back about 500 feet.
Across the Philippines, historic Spanish churches which had survived over 300 years of earthquakes tumbled down with major damage as they succumbed to this 7.2 event. As if that weren’t enough, even the famed Chocolate Hills which have been standing in pristine condition as smooth, domed shapes across the central valley of Bohol.. even several of those suffered huge cracks which led to landslides of up to 15% of its side simply sliding down off its face.
Grocery stores took three days before they opened again. Immediately all businesses shut down and despite me wandering all over the island in search of food, very little was to be found. A few fruit stands and one or two bakeries is all that I could find. At home I had some oatmeal and was able to heat some water using a small, sterno-cooker since there was no electricity. Eventually the water stopped pumping as well.
So.. that kept me busy for a while. And then just as we were kinda getting back to normal there was word that a super-typhoon (Yolanda) was on a direct path for Bohol, set to arrive in four days. As if that weren’t enough they said the barometric conditions would actually speed up the winds to record levels just before it hit the coast.
The more I kept an eye on it online the more I realized this was not ‘just another typhoon’ that is common to the Philippines. On average perhaps 20 typhoons pass through the Philippines per year, but most are a Stage 1 or 2 which amount to lots of rain, some flooding in certain areas up north and intermittent loss of power. But this one was a Stage 4 for typhoons and a Stage 5 for hurricanes. We were told to brace for wind gusts of up to 235 miles per hour. Even the sustained wind speeds of 150 miles per hour were bad enough to anticipate. And it was heading directly to my island of Bohol.
With several hundred, if not thousands, of people still in tents on Bohol from the earthquake this was truly a worst case scenario. Even me with my brick house had to think about abandoning it to seek refuge at a coral bluff in the jungle near my home. There was no guarantee the house would survive these winds. But these people in tents out in the open.. the typhoon would just scrape them off the ground. This was really, really looking bad and 24 hours before it arrived to the island I was truly getting more than just a bit concerned about the situation. I was beginning to feel the impending sense of a huge disaster about to arrive without mercy. I looked one last time online before the power went out and the typhoon was heading straight for us. Meanwhile my good friend, Jovan, told me she’d been praying very hard for the storm to avoid these people on our island. She was utterly confident it would not hit us. I have to admit, I had my doubts. It was coming at us like a giant train that nothing could stop or divert. The tracking on the satellite image showed that Super-Typhoon Yolanda was on a direct course for us for the last three days with no intention of diverting its path. As you can see from the projected path, it was going straight for Tagbilaran, only 2 miles from my house.
And then, amazingly, 8 hours before the front of the storm was to land at our shores of Bohol.. the storm veered it’s way North at just enough of an angle that we were only hit with loss of power, water and 50 mile per hour winds with heavy rains. The people of Bohol out in the tents had been spared. What was a guaranteed massacre had been redirected and was now on its way toward Leyte and Tacloban north-west of us. The storm wasn’t about to just fizzle into a vapor. It was coming in strong and continued its furious path across the Philippines and chewed up everything in its path. Much of the electricity for surrounding islands comes from Leyte and we were all suddenly thrown into darkness.
Life got very primal after that. Again, food was in short supply but this time I’d stocked up after the quake and had all the water, simple foods and fuel for my scooter I needed. Once the sun went down, darkness was everywhere. No street lights anywhere on the island. As I rode my scooter and stopped along the bridge that stretches between Bohol and Panglao late at night, with the exception of perhaps a few dozen generators lighting a few hospitals and homes.. the island looked as dark as it did when it first rose from the ocean long ago. There was no sound of a bustling city downtown. No glow of city lights on the clouds overhead. Just darkness and the sound of waves hitting the bridge supports. Faint silhouettes of fishing boats bobbed slowly in the dark waters below. The stars could be seen in full magnificence, cut across the horizon only by the black shape of the hills across the island.
For over a week there was no electricity out in the province area where I lived. Twice the water was pumping through for a few hours but that was about it before going dry again. I had water reserved for both bathing and drinking so I did okay. Those with families were having a much harder time. I had plenty of candles so my home was filled with an amber glow each night. Evenings were quiet and with no power I simply resigned myself to an hour or two of reading by flashlight each night my copy of, “The Rum Diary” by Hunter Thompson to pass away the time. If I still could not sleep then I would ride out into the night just for something to do and had the entire city to myself. No traffic at all as I cruised down the dark streets after 10pm. No streetlights, nothing to light my way other than my own headlight. It were as though everyone on the planet had simply vanished and I alone was its sole inhabitant. After riding around an hour or so in the balmy, warm air I would then make my way home and get some sleep.
I made the best of it though. One day I even managed to make fried chicken and fries with a bit of planning. The freezer had defrosted the day before so either I cooked that chicken or watch it go to waste. Most days were overcast so swinging in the hammock lost a little of its usual allure. During the day I could go to the ICM Mall once it opened up again. They ran generators so I was able to at least pretend things weren’t so bad as I walked about with the thousands of other local residents who had likewise come for some sense of normalcy and routine at the mall. Going to the net café meant waiting for up to 90 minutes for a computer to open up. Everyone was going there to get online and let family members know they were okay. Everyone was fairly civil, there was no sense of panic once the storm had passed. As word got around about how brutally hard Leyte, Tacloban and Bogo had been hit.. we knew that Bohol had dodged a major bullet. We had food available, no water or power but compared to those other areas we knew we had to be thankful that it had not been worse. The very mention of Leyte or Tacloban and people became somber. It was enough to ache one’s heart and bring tears to the eyes as we learned more and more how devastating this storm had been upon them.
That was the state of things as I packed my things on the 14th of November to catch the flight I’d arranged to visit my Mom in California. I felt both fortunate and terrible at the same moment. By midnight that evening I’d be on a plane taking me back to a place where there were innumerable luxuries like electricity, hot water and accessible food. Later that night as my plane accelerated and pulled off the island of Mactan, I looked down at the island below and off into the dark distance where lay Bohol and I felt terrible. I was leaving what had become my home and the thought that it was only temporary for the holidays didn’t ease the pain much. My friends were down there. People that I care about. In general they were okay and had made arrangements to get what they needed now that the city had mobilized to bring in water trucks and intermittent power. But even so, I felt guilty with every mile that passed.
Eventually as we began to approach South Korea I resolved myself to figure that there was enough in place that the people I knew and cared about were going to be okay. A bit inconvenienced, but they’d be okay compared to those in the harder hit areas. I got online in Korea at the terminal and checked in on several of them but several had no access to power or internet yet. Finally after a few days in California I was able to make contact with them.
It’s been a busy two months. Much more has happened and I’ll try to update more on that in the next articles. I plan to do more writing now that I cannot do as much video for the time being. I will be doing some video updates from here in California though. Both the American and Philippine military have arrived in the worst-hit areas to distribute needed food and shelter so I feel much better for the people there now. Roads have been cleared and people are being reunited with their family. It may take anywhere from months to even a year before the power and reconstruction can be brought somewhat back to normal again.
Little by little, one day at a time, life goes on.
Henry ‘Reekay’ V.
Author: Reekay V.
Since 2012 I’ve been traveling through various islands of the Philippines as a full-time Expat and spent 1999 living in Vietnam.
Share with me my ongoing adventures of life in the Philippines. Hopefully you find my observations helpful in your own adventures.