The first time I was caught up in a natural disaster in the Philippines was in September 2009 in the flood known locally as Ondoy. At the time I was so unhappy with the domestic situation I found myself in that I was repeating over and over, “Is this going to be the rest of my life now?” Then one morning I woke up to a lot of rain, and soon the refrigerator was floating a meter high in the kitchen. I told my housemate to turn off the electricity, and not too long after that we were out of there. It later turned out that local officials were afraid the dam would break, so they opened it, flooding a large portion of Manila.
That crisis was simple to deal with because at least to me it was clear we had to get out. By comparison with many Filipinos who had little or nothing to begin with, for us the flood was just an inconvenience, if a major one. (Link) (Link) (Link)
Ten years and a few months later, it was four years and a few months after I had moved out to Tagaytay, a tourist and vacation town on a volcanic mountain—peaceful, clean, quiet, beautiful and far from Manila. On the way home I would feel the bus going uphill, feel the coolness and the greenery and know I was going home. The annual temperatures rarely leave the 70s and 80s. My housekeeper and her husband, Fe and Jessie, stayed with me half the week.
On one hand, it felt good to be a long distance from Donald Trump and the madness he was creating. On the other, I talked with friends on Skype but often felt a bit isolated. A trip to Manila for a doctor’s appointment or a night at the jazz club usually meant a night or two in a hotel. As the Native American saying goes, “I was feeling sorry for myself because I was lonely, when all the time strong winds were carrying me across the sky.”
Then one Sunday afternoon, January 12, there was a noise on the roof which sounded like heavy rain but louder. The sun was out. Fe said it was the sun making that noise. I said it wasn’t. We discovered small, black rocks a bit larger than sand. There was also black stuff that was slippery when wet and dusty when dry. After a friend of Fe’s called saying the volcano erupted, she went outside to take a picture of the cloud of steam and ash.
A couple of hours later there was no power, and since electricity drove the pumps, no water. Fortunately, we had some water saved up because of an earlier crisis when the subdivision developer hadn’t paid the electric bill and we had no running water for most of a month. The containers we had in the bathrooms still held enough for washing dishes and flushing the toilets. Drinking water had just been delivered.
I found it kind of depressing to consider how dependent I’d grown on electricity and modern technology, remembering with nostalgia a time when I was in graduate school, a tornado had taken out the power and I spent the weekend typing a paper on a manual typewriter by candlelight. Then there were times in China when I matter-of-factly brought a bunch of cheap candles to a night class.
More important to me was the question of what to do now. We had no power and my boombox was broken, so no news. Our regular trike driver. Who is probably in his late 50s, said he’d been living here all his life and there had never been real danger. I thought, “Yeah, but climate change. Even before climate change.”
This was Monday, the day after the eruption. Someone said the volcanic island was the danger zone, also Batangas and everything within a four-kilometer radius of the crater, but soon it was a fourteen-kilometer radius. We walked over to the hotel across the street in order to have a coffee and charge are phones. The coffee shop was closed. It looked like the hotel was closed. The guard said we were about eight to ten kilometers from the crater. A big explosion was said to be imminent. What did that mean? Imminent like Trump’s justification for murdering an Iranian politician—like maybe, maybe not, or something that could happen at any minute?
I said to Fe, “We need to leave.”
She said in a sing-song whine, “No ma’am. “You go on ahead. Jessie and I will follow with the cats.”
“No. I’m not leaving without you.”
The fifth or so time we went through this I said, “I don’t believe you. We’re going together.” Anyway, it made no sense, since I was the one with the money and the determination. I walked down the street to ask neighbors what they were doing. One looked at me with a smile and a teasing glint in his eye and said, “Don’t panic.” He did take me around the corner to a man who had a car and made his living giving rides. He said he would drive the three of us and our three cats in carriers. His small car would just about hold us and a suitcase plus cat food, litter box and other supplies. Fe insisted on taking the cream of tomato soup she’d made for me when we couldn’t find the canned stuff. I said, “Fe, that tastes exactly like the canned stuff. Throw it out. We can buy some later.” Filipinos don’t throw away food or much of anything else, so we took it, she sent Jessie on the bus to take it to a relative, and when he arrived the soup was spoiled and they threw it out.
The next day I told Fe I would pack up stuff while she and Jessie found a place for us in a neighboring town. When I went to see about the ride, the car guy was gone. A bunch of guys hanging around asked things like “How much you pay?’”
About this time a friend who lived within walking distance came over and said she’d been unable to message me, but I needed to get out. She said the barangay, or local district, of South Kaybagal was now in the danger zone and North Kaybagal—ours—was next.
Fe messaged that she’d found a place. I told her to take it and come back. But the catch was—in the Philippines, there is often a catch—the room was three feet by six feet, no window, over four thousand pesos ($80) a month and you had to take it for a month, cash up front. It was a closet. Someone wanted to profit from the volcano.
In the meantime, I’d checked with the hotel I stay at when in Manila. They would not take the cats. My friend Greg was calling around and had information on vets who boarded animals at rates that varied from 400 pesos to 1400 pesos per cat per night. (My hotel room was 1500 without the discount.) Greg also called the hotel and discovered that one of the guards would take them for free. The catch was he just meant they could stay in his little house with children running in and out. Not the situation for traumatized pets who are not used to children and might run out into a city they don’t know. One of the cats gets aggressive when frightened, and the other two need daily medication and special food. Greg said just get away from the volcano.
Fe found a woman with a van who drove the three of us, the three cats and the stuff to Manila. Fe had bargained her down to over 4,000 pesos or almost twice what a Grab driver would charge for a round trip. I felt like objecting, particularly since it looked like she was going in that direction anyway, but that would have made Fe lose face.
The reason for mentioning the tension between us is that it showed what kind of denial each of us was in. Fe’s insisting that the problem was not the danger posed by the volcano, but the lack of power and water. Even as we were riding away she was insisting that the fact that electric company was out cleaning the transistors was proof that the danger was over.
Apparently, when volcanic ash comes in contact with the power from the transistors it ruins them. Giving the amount of silica in the ash, I imagine it turns to glass when heated. So not easy to remove, which was probably why the company turned the power off.
I had to look at my own denial in what I’d brought with me. During the flood I had a backpack with my passport and all other important papers, maybe remembering the IAEA crisis in Seoul, when we were warned we might need to evacuate. This time I just had the same stuff I took to Manila for a short stay. But I had no real reason to believe we’d be back soon.
At the hotel we were told about an apartel which allowed animals, a pretty skuzzy place, as it turned out. Fe and Jessie braved the smell of cigarette smoke despite my offer to get them a hotel room. The next day Jessie found a room near their home for my cats, since It wouldn’t do for them to be in the same apartment with their own five cats.
That morning I moved to a condo building owned by a friend of mine, where I have access to a pleasant penthouse with a good view of the city. I found it comforting to be with Manila friends again.
The mayor of Tagaytay wanted the hotels and restaurants and other establishments up and running, but cooler heads in the government were saying those establishments needed to close up again because Tagaytay was still dangerous.
The news was that Tagaytay was not in as much danger as the places down below near the lake, where cracks in the crater and in the ground do not look good. Even so, the danger zone was still fourteen kilometers. I didn’t hear a newscaster distinguish between Tagaytay and the other towns around the volcano.
A few days after we left, we took a Grab back to Tagaytay. I gave the driver twice the usual rate because it was potentially dangerous. The place looked normal. The roofs were back to dark red, not the gray of volcanic ash. The streets were cleaner than when we left. Had it rained or was it the wind? We talked about hiring the people who were cleaning ash off roofs and gutters of the neighbors’ houses to do ours as well.
The power and water were on. I have never seen Fe so happy, dancing for joy. I got less than I’d intended because it looked like we would be back in a couple of days, but still picked up my passport and a USB stick with the latest draft of my novel.
I’ll never forget the sudden burst of joy I felt as I eased myself into my computer chair in my own house, which is such a perfect reflection of me, like a turtle might feel about her shell. My photos and artwork on the walls, my pleasing but eclectic collection of furnishings, my space.
Now, a few weeks before the eruption I’d made plans for an out-of-town weekend with friends. Given the current situation, that seemed a bit much. I already had too many things up in the air. But when Cebu Pacific said it was not giving any refunds because it had already lost too much money due to cancelled flights after the eruption, I decided to go. I had a great time.
Someone mentioned Antipolo as a possible place to move, and I thought, why not. My friend Bob and I had been there when he was visiting me in Manila, the same visit when we went to Tagaytay and I decided to move there. So, Antipolo on a hill where it was cool and not crowded, interesting sites to see, beautiful waterfall, some people I already knew and could socialize with, why not? It would be a bit like having Bob here with me.
I sent Fe a text and she found a house. It all happened a bit too fast. My initial reaction to the eruption was to wait and see what happened, which is why I hadn’t taken much to Manila. But I thought about the very frequent tremors and wondered about living with the worry of what an earthquake would do to a volcano. Then there was the volcano in Legaspi which had spewed out lava and rocks, one the size of an SUV which hit and demolished an old church, as I’d discovered on a trip there. How much did I want to live with that? I was also getting advice from people who saw the situation as a lot worse than I did.
So we saw the house. It was okay, smaller than the house in Tagaytay—Fe and I disagreed about whether all my stuff would fit—but also cheaper.
Directly after I signed the lease I heard that the danger in Tagaytay had been reduced from level 4 to level 3. I felt like an idiot. And of course Fe has made it clear that she would not have moved.
I remembered hearing about the native English speaker who taught at my university in Seoul before me who, the word was, took one look at the student demonstrations with the riot police and the tear gas and hightailed it back to Australia.
People in Tagaytay are asking Fe why. The word “why” of bakit, is often heard here, and it frequently means “that’s stupid, I would never do that.”
So the day after we signed the lease, a friend who’s now a Grab driver took us to Tagaytay. I forgot to take masks and wet towels as we were advised. We didn’t need them. We packed up stuff and contacted movers. The friend and I discussed the decision in detail. He pointed out how much better Antipolo would be in terms of being close to mutual friends and how difficult it might be to live with the uncertainty every time there was a tremor. Also, he said the ash in the air would be very hard on the cats. We agreed that in a year if things had settled down I could move back. The landlord says he’d be happy to see us again.
Fe is still in Tagaytay arranging everything, while I am in Manila out of her way. This is the fifth move she’s organized for me and/or the former housemate. I’m just letting her do it. I will step in when it comes to arranging furniture. She’ll also find an electrician to put an outlet in the bathrooms for water heaters. I’m no fan of cold showers, although the new landlady thinks I should just use emersion heaters.
So now what? I’ve stumbled on the idea, not for the first time, that often there is not a right answer and a wrong answer, but two right answers. Right now I’m thinking we should spend the year getting to know Antipolo and finding a bigger house, maybe in a better location.
February 6 update: We are now moved to a middle-class gated community in Antipolo with the cats and the stuff. The houses are a bit too close together, and there are lots of yapping little dogs, but TV sports events at full volume would be a lot worse. We are close to the Assumption Hospital, which is good, because there were times when I wondered what I would do in Tagaytay after having established, at least to my satisfaction, that five of the eight doctors I saw or consulted in Tagaytay complete idiots. (Link) There is a large mall, which I don’t like that much, but it’s convenient, and I found a message in the fact that the barista at the Coffee Bean and Tea Left recognized me from Manila. They have wi-fi there which is “free” after you buy a card. Yesterday I got a surprise call from a friend who has lived in both Antipolo and Tagaytay.
As Greg warned me for some reason, leaving the volcano would be expensive—this was all transportation costs for people, cats and stuff. The days of my dreaming of travelling the world with two suitcases and a typewriter seem to be over. The new house is $240 a month as opposed to $300—are you listening, America? The new landlady is nice but apparently incapable of replacing a rusty padlock, getting a door rehung, getting the electric strip in the kitchen replaced, dealing with a broken air-con or hiring her own truck to move her stuff out of the house. No, we did not pay for her use of our truck, but it cost us a day. I am keeping a list in case I need it for negotiating purposes later. In contrast, the landlady after the flood was batshit crazy, and the house was both twice as expensive as it should have been and full of the discarded junk from the Korean NGO who lived and worked there before us. When we rented the place, found by a woman who thought it would be good for her Rotary Club gatherings. I was so traumatized that I was still seeing flood mud swirling around me. A year later I panicked when I had my camera bag out and it looked like rain. This is nothing.
Of course it makes a difference if you are living among people who are used to natural disasters. Or as the story goes, you only need one calm person in a lifeboat.
I just talked with Bob in Massachusetts and am feeling grounded. As he said, Tagaytay is lovely but too rural. I am still a city girl, but city like Hamburg, and Seoul—before the pollution got bad again—not Manila. So far Antipolo looks like a good compromise. I have friends and connections here, and my Manila folks and jazz club are not that far away. It’s still green and cool.