*Check out Part II of the story here*
I awoke to sunlight flooding around the gaps between the mattress and the window. I pushed the mattress aside, and looked at the powder-blue sky. It was a perfect day.
Our group felt drawn back to the Lazy Dog, so we packed our bags again, unsure whether we were going there as guests, or going to help with the clean-up. We had no sense of what the damage was like outside.
In the streets, the locals were already out and cleaning up the debris. Power lines and palm trees had toppled and a few roofs had collapsed, but it wasn’t the Armageddon we had been readying ourselves for.
We found the Lazy Dog was similarly unscathed. We reunited with the other 2 members of our group, and the 8 of us hung around the B&B, hungrily receiving the scraps of information that the staff could give us: The storm had struck a few islands at full force, but lost steam before hitting Boracay. It miraculously reached Boracay at low tide, explaining why we had been spared the flooding that other islands had experienced. No one had died on Boracay, but 1000s had died on other islands – no one knew how many exactly. There were still no boats leaving for the mainland and the airports were closed.
I felt weirdly relieved to hear that there was no way off the island. If Boracay was my captor, then I had full-blown Stockholm syndrome. Here, I knew I had food, shelter and people who cared about me. With no wifi or phone access, we couldn’t get an accurate idea of what was going on throughout the rest of the country. The rumors indicated that it was bad – really bad. If Brent and I left, we risked launching ourselves into a far worse situation.
I heard rumors that some people were finding cell signals, and I knew I should be trying to find one too. We were supposed to be back in Japan in less than 2 days. I needed to call airlines and bus companies to rebook our journey, and find out if we could recover the hundreds of dollars we had lost. I needed to tell loved ones that we were ok, and give our employer an estimate of when we would be back. I had been powerless against the mob at the boat dock, powerless against the typhoon, and now I felt powerless against the informational blackout on Boracay. Instead of taking action, I found myself slumping on my sweat-soaked mattress, gazing into the distance with a hundred-yard stare (since I hadn’t really been through enough trauma to call it a thousand-yard stare).
When I wasn’t staring blankly at the guestroom ceiling, I sat around the tables at the Lazy Dog, talking with our group. Our friendship felt like the only thing I could be sure about in that moment – the only thing I could rely on. It had been a long time since I had talked with a group of people free of distractions. With no cell signals and no wifi, there was nothing to do besides talk. When the sun set, we lite candles and talked more.
The following day, I tried to convince myself that I was ready to fight the centrifugal force that seemed to be keeping us on Boracay. The rumor of the morning was that the boats to the mainland were running again, and one of Boracay’s two airports had re-opened. I dragged myself down to White Beach, in search of wifi or a phone or any concrete information about how to get off the island.
Down on White Beach, the debris had been cleared, and touts urged me to sign up for tours and activities. Aside from the continued power outage, it was as if nothing had happened at all. I couldn’t decide whether to feel admiration or distain. It was certainly resilient – Boracay had literally picked up the pieces and moved on within 48 hrs. of Typhoon Haiyan. What other choice did people have? At the same time, 1000s of other people in this country were facing the worst days of their lives and a small shift of the wind could have put all of us in their position. How could so many people just shrug off those statistics?
I hauled myself around for hours looking for wifi, as one shop owner after another regretfully told me that there was no wifi “because of the typhoon”. Yes, I had heard about the typhoon. Eventually, we managed to scavenge a cell signal and book a ridiculously expensive flight to Manila for the next day. We heard that the storm had barely touched Manila, so we could make arrangements to get back to Japan from there. I hoped it was true.
The next morning, we hugged our group goodbye and promised to meet again. Travel friendships tend to fade, but we all had a sense that it wasn’t the last time we would see each other. Brent and I squeezed hands on the ride to the boat dock. We weren’t sure what to expect there.
We reached the dock, and I saw 3 empty boats bobbing innocently in the water. It was hard to believe that this calm setting was the same place where we had been swallowed by hundreds of terrified people only 4 days earlier.
On the plane ride to Manila, we saw our first glimpses of the destruction as we passed over the islands below. In Manila, we watched TV for the first time in days: dead bodies, starvation and looting. I talked to friends and family at home and told them how lucky I felt – it seemed like what I was supposed to say. It’s true, I was lucky, but what I really felt was guilty, confused, and completely lost.
Now that we’re back in Japan, I feel like I’m still looking for a way to sum up the whole experience – to understand it. I feel ashamed each time I tell our story because I think about the people on the truly devastated islands, and I feel like I’m comparing a fender-bender to a multi-car pile-up; a paper cut to an amputated arm. We were touched by fear, but not by death – not even close. In some ways I feel changed by the experience, but even that feels narcissistic when I see images of countless people collecting the bodies of loved ones. I lived through Typhoon Haiyan, but I also don’t know the first thing about it.
*A special thanks to the team at the Lazy Dog B&B for bringing the Typhoon Team together, and giving us a place to call home when we needed somewhere to feel safe.*