Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Under My Feet

The story begins quietly enough. I wanted to visit the Philippines for some time and for many reasons: its presence as the only Catholic nation in the region; the history they share with the US; the natural beauty; the prevalence of English speakers. Our weeklong October break seemed like a perfect time to go.

I want to explore Indonesia of course, but I am trying to cram that in weekends, thanks to cheap domestic flights. Also, my friend in Manila works for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and she suggested Bohol/panglao Island based on its diving and the fact that she would be there visiting project sites. Perfect.

I booked into a groovy little organic bee farm/ resort for my first night. Wonderful food and a pretty spot on the more secluded side of Panglao Island.

Very much what the doctor ordered- a little bit Primo like in its attempt to source locally and grow much of the produce themselves. 

A jarring experience came in the morning when a kitten began screeching under the deck where they served the buffet breakfast. Thinking it was a cat fight/standoff I was considering pouring water down through the slats to scatter the offenders, but a staff member had already hopped the rail to investigate. Peering under the deck, his eyes went wide and he exclaimed, "Snake! Snake!". 

I clambered down to where he was. Sure enough the kitten, now gone quiet, was fully enveloped in the maw of a wild python. The snake was wound into the rocks - I couldn't gauge its length. Thickness-wise it easily matched my bicep. As the only visible remnant of the kitten were two paws and a tail, nothing was left to do but go back to my coffee. 

Word spread. Many of the hotel staff came down for a look. The women mostly shrieked. A few young men picked up sticks or wrapped their arms in shirts, considering methods of action. The other guests were content to look down through the slats for a glimpse of spotted skin. We went back and forth about how to drive the snake out- I suggested hot water, but a worker responded, "That might kill the snake." It was true. Why kill the snake for simply doing what it does to stay alive? 
The coffee certainly tasted a little differently, as did the morning air, considering the dangers of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

We spent Sunday visiting one of the sites Bohol is known for, the Chocolate Hills. Though green from the recent rains, typically these are dark brown, funky lumps, several hundred feet high each. They are old coral deposits that mounded and then were worn away by water as the sea receded. The structure of these is quite loose as can be seen later.

Then we headed down to my diver digs on Alona Beach, stopping briefly for Joanna to document another well known site, Baclayon Church, built of coral in 1726 by the Spanish. The Spanish influence is palpable everywhere, and there were times I experienced a wave/hallucination that somehow I had been transported to Central or South America. 

In the room at the base of the tower, there was an older woman giving, of all things, foot massages. She had an Italian customer on whom she was working. Though the rickety wooden stairs up the tower were officially closed, I talked her into letting me ascend. I made my way with the flashlight app on my phone, staying on the edge of the steps. The masseuse got nervous, worried about getting into trouble, so I settled for a look out of the third floor, arched windows. I asked Joanna why they had not capitalized on this tower, fixing it up and charging a fee to ascend.

Tuesday I was scheduled for a 'refresher' dive class, since I had not been diving since Thailand in May 2012. Class was in the afternoon. I rented a scooter take Joanna to the airport to catch her flight back to Manila and work. Twenty minutes into riding, sunny day, perfect temperature, grooving on the countryside and all the sights along the road, moving at about 80 kilometers per hour, I got that terrible feeling of a flat tire. The bike went all squishy and squirrelly. 

Shit, could I have two flats? Damn that rental place...I eased off the gas, slowed to a crawl and did my best to get a look down at my front and rear tires. Hmmm. Nothing there to see. I had just experienced a back flat on a scooter taxi in Jakarta and I was sure this had to be it. Still, everything seemed fine. My imagination? 

Anyone who has ridden motorbikes ofteb knows that uncertainty- particular road surfaces- like grooved pavement- cause it. There is a metal bridge in NYC I especially hate for the way it causes the tires to float.  On a bike that rubber to road connection is everything, tickling the edge of the subconscious as you corner, brake, and accelerate.

I resumed speed- wrote it off to a potential acid flashback/mental anxiety creation. Moments later I turned the corner and came up on this:

People screaming, crying, wandering dazed.

Here was the same church the day before when we stopped in to use the WC.

Somehow my disbelieving brain did not yet connect the wobbling of the tires with the collapse. Because I had not felt an earthquake, the church had simply collapsed on its own, a defect of time come to pass. 

We drove around the side, asked if there were any people needing help. Approaching the structure seemed beyond foolhardy. I couldn't hear any screams from inside. I thought about the kitten. 

 Joanna had a plane to catch and by then there were plenty of other people, including police, who had come onto the scene. We rode on across the bridge into Tagbiliran; with each passing meter the reality of what happened crept across my imagination.



In a very poor country where many buildings are dilapidated or only partially constructed, it can be hard to tell where natural disaster leaves off and poverty begins. By now my feeble brain was digesting the bike wobble with the entire city being on the streets in shock. What to do? Even the police seemed dazed. Who to arrest? Where to start?

It wasn't until we reached the airport (which was relatively unscathed) that I got my first full account from an English speaker- well, an Australian speaker- of what had happened. She was an EMT worker on holiday from Melbourne, about to buy her ticket when the shaking began. Experienced with stress, she was ready to wait it out. Everyone else had a different plan. She said the security people ran out first, followed by everyone else. The shaking lasted 42 seconds in total, registering 7.2 on the Richter scale.

As my feet hadn't truly felt this, I continued to feel a measure of remove. A two inch cushion of air between my world and those around me. Since the terminal wasn't damaged much, I thought all would be back on track within a half an hour or so. Joanna would be on a plane. I would head to my dive class.

The first big aftershock was an appropriate slap across my silliness. I was standing between two parked cars which lurched violently enough so that their shocks and springs rolled and bounced. Everyone raced back from under the shade of the buildings.


Then about five more in the span of the next 35 minutes. Pandemonium. The mayor declared the airport open. The guard I told this to said, "The mayor isn't here is he?" Word of numbers of dead began rolling in. A ticket agent from Zest air took the role of making announcements. All flights cancelled. Ferry terminal closed. People began bitching about their connections in Manila. People would drift back to the shade, the world would shudder, everyone would race back out under the hot sun.

It was time to go. We hopped on the scooter. Joanna wanted to go to see the Baclayon church, as someone said it had been damaged as well. We headed ten minutes south, ducked the scooter under the police tape blocking the road, under the downed power lines.

What to do or think? Built in 1726. Gone in 42 seconds. I stood next to an ancient Filipino woman. She couldn't have weighed more than 70 pounds. She was shaking her head, teary-eyed. I put my hand on her shoulder and said how sorry I was. I leaned in to hear her soft voice. "So strong. So strong." I wondered at what she was getting at. She pointed and said, "Mary. So strong. Nothing can take her."

I was focused on the destruction of these old hand-built houses of worship laid to waste. If there was a message, it seemed to me that someone might not be so happy with the religious powers that be. Here was a woman of faith, finding only a message of strength, a way to persevere. A life of poverty putting setbacks into perspective- interpreting the world differently.

Here was my tower.
In the foreground is the wife of the Italian who was getting a foot massage the day before. He had scheduled an appointment for  both of them for that morning. We wondered if the masseuse might be dead under the pile, but he was sure she was not, since his appointment was for an hour post quake.

The news that night relayed photos from the Chocolate Hills.

You can see the same bell in the background of a photo I took 24 hours before the quake.

It turns out that for whatever reason, the tiny resort town of Alona Beach where I was staying was shaken but not stirred. We had power thanks to a German resort owner well prepared for the worst. Within 12 hours we actually had internet and were back on the grid.

Joanna's flight was rescheduled for the next morning, but with the president and the accompanying entourage of mucky-mucks, secret service, and army generals in their helicopters and private planes, we waited for hours and hours of unannounced delay.

Joanna's final comment before boarding the plane was, "I guess I will have to request more money than I thought." 
Making light of a situation that had claimed hundreds of lives, and created billions of dollars of destruction. What else was there to do? 

I went back to Pangalo, did one day of diving, looking up through each of the ensuing aftershocks, some measuring as strong as 5.4, seeing what was overhead, considering as each commenced if I should get off my ass and head towards open air. But none lasted longer than 5- 8 seconds. Strangers got used to looking across tables, giving a shoulder shrug- That was a big one, yeah? 

I got drunk with a German resort manager who was DJing what he called a 'survivor dance'. Trying to get out of under the stress of waiting, of not understanding how to process the experience. 

Sometimes the shudder would be purely in my mind. I could not separate the world beneath my feet moving from an internal momentary swaying. There came a certain uncertainty in the earth being a fixed platform. It was all in flux, all an illusion.

The obvious lessons were here- about everything being luck and timing; about living in the moment because at any given moment even the most permanent of structures and notions can fall into dust; about the brain's perception and the connection to social expectations and group think. The earth round? No way. That big snake thing will eat me? No way.

There was the embarrassing delight in the being there- in making the New York Times, of having a story to tell and a few pictures to show. 

Of course with the telling comes the frustration, the confirmation that no experience can be shared. Really? Wow! Glad you're okay... Hey did you hear about Sally? She's slept with Joe!

But here I am, trying to tell you about it, for what its worth.

“Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” 

Why is that? Because if I am telling it, it is past and gone? Or because you weren't there and I miss you as well?



  1. Hi, I really like your article. I will keep coming here, Merry Christmas

  2. Im glad to read you again. Thanks for this post.
    Best for you Buddy!

  3. Great Post and Nice Article.All of the photos are so good.Really I like this.Thanks for sharing.