Even though Boracay was in the eye of the storm, this island did not suffer the major damage neighboring islands experienced. Worst hit – and the area most of you are likely seeing and hearing about on TV – was in Tacloban located in the province of Leyte where the majority of casualties occurred, roads are impassable, communication is cut off, hospitals are overflowing, airport is closed and relief goods can only be brought in by helicopters or boats. That island is to our east, and the storm hit there with tremendous winds and tsunami-like surges of twenty-five feet. Most of the deaths were caused by drowning when the water, driven by strong winds, rose from the sea and scooped everything within reach and washed it away.
Fortunately for us, for this beautiful tiny island and for its remarkable residents, the storm lost momentum by the time it reached us, and because communication has been lost here, you were hearing and seeing the disaster reports of the hardest hit areas before we could get news. Here, electricity is still off on the entire island and not expected until Friday; diesel fuel for generators is limited because roads on the mainland are impassible to tankers so only minimal amounts are being transported to our island; and the smaller of the two major water supply sources is inoperable because of damage to the lines. On the bright side, we are comfortable, have plenty to eat and drink, and intend to remain on the island for several more days even if it has meant making some concessions like taking invigorating cool-cold showers and opening our doors to the somewhat humid ocean breezes instead of using air conditioning. We were thrilled to find a data provider with fairly good service so we can communicate again; but we have limited hours when we can charge our devices. This is like being in an episode of Gilligan’s Island, enjoying this island paradise of coconut palms and pristine tropical waters, but wondering with each day if it will be the day we are rescued and island life is fully restored. Imagine how the story would have changed if Gilligan had found a data plan.
We were up early the morning after the storm, expecting to take photos of the disaster. What we found was the typical debris from trees and branches, and residents already hard at work cleaning up, sweeping, removing reinforcements from restaurants and shops, opening their businesses as though it were just another typical day on the island. There actually wasn’t much to photograph.
The approach of the storm itself was quite an adventure. Of course, we had no idea when we arrived on the island Tuesday afternoon that a storm was expected, much less a super typhoon. After all, by November, typhoon season is over! So when a housekeeping staff member at our hotel brought an emergency lamp to our room on Wednesday, Jay got on the internet to see what type of storm was brewing. Our first impulse was to flee, but we were told by a staff member that the storms usually flood Manila and wouldn’t we rather be stuck in paradise than stranded in the Manila Airport or worse yet, at the Manila airport hotel where one night’s stay had been enough! We decided the staff member was right and we were going to ride out the storm. On Thursday morning, the day before the storm, we decided it would be smart to leave because the predictions weren’t sounding any better. We packed in a flash and got a tricycle ride to the jetti, but by then we were too late. The coast guard had already suspended ferry service from the island, leaving only three small private boats and about 1,500 people already in line, hoping to hop one of those before all service was terminated. We asked an official if there was any other option off the island and he told us a tricycle driver would know where to take us to hire a helicopter. We didn’t have a chance with that, either. All helicopters were already stored in safety. That morning brought images of being on the Titanic with not enough life boats. Luggage in hand, and resolved to making the best of the storm, we headed back to our hotel where we were cheerfully welcomed. Where Wednesday night on White Beach had been active and lively, the atmosphere on Thursday night was more subdued. Restaurants and shops were open but protected with exterior weather reinforcements, there was no live music on the beach, but there didn’t seem to be fewer tourists, either. We enjoyed a nice meal and headed back to our hotel.
Friday morning started out beautiful. We had an early breakfast, then decided to stay near the hotel because the storm was expected to arrive around noon. By the time we headed across the road to the beach front, the sun was already hidden by clouds. Around noon, the wind picked up, and not too long after that, a light rain began and electricity to the island was turned off. At 3:00 PM the wind REALLY picked up! Eyes glued on the storm, we watched the ocean, swaying palms and flying debris from our hotel windows and balconies. It was a wild experience watching it all unfold. Fortunately I didn’t see roofs flying, buildings sliding, or vehicles being tossed or I probably would have lost it. As the winds picked up and the debris from trees flew, my heart would skip a beat, but once adjusted to that level of intensity, it didn’t seem so severe, until the power of the storm strengthened to the next notch. From our room, we watched a family hunker beneath a cement shelter outside our hotel, and seemingly unconcerned passers by, out and about on foot or on scooters throughout the duration of the storm! We learned later that one of the hotel staff members walked home during the worst of the storm because she feared for her family who lived in a house on a cliff. After four hours of rain blowing into our room through doors and above windows, the winds calmed, and as gracefully as the storm arrived, it was gone.
Tonight we will make the ten minute stroll to the beach front to enjoy one of our favorite times of the day. It is so beautiful sitting on the beach at night with the balmy breezes, the moon working its way to full, dining on fresh prawns the size of small lobsters (thanks to the local fisherman), and enjoying live music as we sip on our wine. Our thoughts will turn to the hard hit neighboring islands, but we will focus on celebrating life and the wonderful people in our lives.
One of the best parts of our travel adventure has been the people who have touched our lives. Sometimes there is only enough time to make a brief connection, but it is enriching and inspiring. A recent example is Juvy, the young entrepreneur whose boat (his livelihood) was threatened by the storm. We had the pleasure of seeing the celebration in his eyes the morning after the storm. The photo of his boat framed with that perfect rainbow reminded me of the rainbow after Noah’s flood. Grace, a staff member at our hotel, lost her family to a typhoon on one of the islands five years ago. She was petrified when she learned we were in the path of a super typhoon. Even so, she bravely remained at the hotel and checked on guests periodically to ensure our comfort. With very little sleep that night, she met us at breakfast with a bright smile and look of relief. When the storm started at noon on Friday, the owner provided complimentary club sandwiches and beverages to guests. We were told later that he likewise provided for the displaced family taking shelter under the concrete foundation. The next morning he personally informed us that he would not be charging room rental for the night of the storm. We told him that we were more than happy to pay for the safety and comfort he provided us, but he wouldn’t hear of it. We just keep meeting people that WOW! us.
Boracay is truly a little paradise – and it’s only one of over 7500 islands in the Philippines! One of the reasons the Philippines just had to be one of our stops was because of a man we knew in Asheville who had Alzheimer’s. He passed a few years ago, but for the five years we knew him, he would repeat the story of being stationed in the Philippines during World War II. He repeated it almost verbatim every time we saw him, sometimes twice in a single visit. During each account, he would express how much he loved the Philippines and how he dreamed of returning. Seeing a minuscule part of it for ourselves, we can understand his enchantment with these islands in the South Pacific. For whatever reason, we have been gifted with a most unforgettable visit.