Typhoon Ruby: Raging winds and an overnight community (Part 2)

Typhoon Ruby

As the winds swept in and the darkness somehow darkened, there were many thoughts that were flowing through my head that night. How were the people outside of the evacuation centre? What were my family back in the UK feeling? Was everything going to be okay? The stories of those who had been affected by Typhoon Haiyan were etched on my brain like dark scratchings and it left me wondering if we would be victims or survivors.

By around 10 pm on the night of Saturday, December 6th, 2014, the winds of Typhoon Ruby blustered their way into our communities, finally making landfall in Eastern Samar, the place I had called home for the three months prior to this monumental moment. We had been worried for the whole week what was going to happen, and where the storm would land and a town named Delores, some 70 km away from Borongan City, eventually revealed itself to be the target of Ruby.

The storm was made worse by the fact that it happened overnight. Having no electricity, and only one emergency light bulb to light up our small office room in the evacuation centre, it was easy to build up exaggerated pictures of what was happening outside. I remember re-assuring a friend that the sounds we were hearing weren’t waves or floods, but the sound of the heavy rain hitting the walls of the building sounding worse only because of the extreme winds. Every so often there would be a deafening bang: the sound of a tree being uprooted or a roof blown off a house, but what was going through the minds of all of us was (hopefully) far worse than the reality.

Sustained winds of up to 130 mph and gusts of up to 180 mph thrashed the land that I had come to love and the heavy rain and rising tide threatened the coastal places (such as the house in which we lived) with a serious risk of flooding. There was so much to think about, so many people to pray for, and so much to hope. Yet, for what turned out to be around six hours of extreme winds, what happened inside the room turned out to be far more powerful than what was happening outside.

The room where around 50 of us lay overnight. My "spot" was by the pillow just below the plywood.

The room where around 50 of us lay overnight. My “spot” was by the pillow just below the plywood.

At the start of the evening, our room began with only around ten of us inside. We had pillows for the ground, and torches to see each other with; before the winds it was like we were camping – we told jokes, shared biscuits and chatted about Taylor Swift. However, once the storm took hold, we soon discovered that our spot was prime real estate because the winds of Typhoon Ruby were approaching from the west and our room had no westerly facing windows. So whilst the other classrooms and offices were becoming wet and hazardous as window panes were blowing in, our room (sheltered by a toilet on the other side of our westerly facing wall) stayed relatively dry and safe.

As the hours slowly and painfully passed, people began to gravitate towards our room. When the storm was at its worst, there were probably around 50 of us tightly squished together like the tinned sardines I had been so used to eating in the mornings. After several decades of the rosary, the noise and the bustle of the inside of the room began to quieten. Of course it was impossible to sleep because of the noise outside, but somehow a peace descended on the room and whilst we all were carried away with our own thoughts, there was a silent connection, a silent support, between all of us together.

For those hours, we became a community. It no longer mattered where we were from, or what our culture was, how old we were or what our first language was. We spent the night shifting our bodies so that the next person could take their turn to be comfortable, moving like our own complex weather system spread out on the floor of the middle office. There was an old lady of a considerable age, and a young baby who was barely 18 months old. Faces I recognised, those of my friends, and faces I didn’t.

And in the deepest moments of Typhoon Hagupit I felt strong. Strong, not just because of the optimism and prayer of those around me, but strong because we shared in that moment together. If I witnessed before the typhoon a raw emotion seen in the eyes of families for their children, I now experienced a different kind of emotion that oozed out of all of us, an emotion that expressed itself, definitely in fear and vulnerability, but also in confidence and solidarity. A feeling that we wouldn’t just get through this because we were with our individual families, friends and colleagues, but that we would get through this because all of us were family together.

As the winds began to subside, many began to drift off to catch a moment’s sleep before sunrise. I probably managed an hour or two. When I woke up, people had begun to move back outside to see the damage that had been caused and although the winds were still howling through the gaps in the building, it was no longer dangerous to go outside. As expected, most of the landscape and agriculture of the village surrounding us had been flattened. I saw buildings that I had never seen before because they were previously obscured by trees.

The office which was destroyed after winds blew unexpectedly from the west. The door of the office, which blew off its hinges, lies on the ground.

The office which was destroyed after winds blew unexpectedly from the west. The door of the office, which blew off its hinges, lies on the ground.

None of us were sure what had happened farther than what our eyes could see and in a lot of ways, I could never have been prepared for what I was to see in the following hours and days. But one thing that was not destroyed throughout the destructive typhoon, was the spirit and faith of the people I had shared one of the most memorable nights of my life with. We bonded in ways I had never expected, and whilst it’s probably true I will never see or meet 95% of the people I shared that room with again in my life, I won’t ever forget what they did for me and for each other. It was truly a moving and special experience amidst the terror and anxiety of what could have been a night a lot more terrifying if we had been alone.

This is the second part of my Typhoon Ruby story. You can catch up with part one by clicking here and you can find out what happened next by following this link.

Typhoon Ruby: A week of waiting (Part 1)

“Is this your first experience of a typhoon?” was a common question I was asked in the first week of December at the end of last year. Living in the United Kingdom affords us an amnesty when in comes to extreme weather systems and people were shocked when I explained that there are no typhoons, no tsunamis nor any major earthquakes within the British Isles.

News of an approaching typhoon heading towards Eastern Samar had begun filtering out in the media from Monday, December 1st and in spite of the fact that most people living in Samar have experienced many, many typhoons in the past people were a little anxious about Typhoon Ruby (internationally known as ‘Hagupit’) heading our way.

Following the national news the morning we evacuated - headline reads, "Borongan Residents Brace For Ruby"

Following the national news the morning we evacuated – headline reads, “Borongan Residents Brace For Ruby”

At first I was a little frustrated by this. The little I know about mathematical weather forecasting (not much, I used to snooze in my stochastic modelling classes) is enough to know that medium to long-term weather forecasts aren’t always reliable. We were speculating on a weather system that was almost a week away and the news was even reporting there was a possibility it could veer off entirely and head towards Japan. But the more I spent reflecting on this the more I began to understand that everywhere and everyone was still recovering after Typhoon Yolanda (‘Haiyan’) which completely devastated the country at the end of 2013.

And so I learnt my first lesson of the Typhoon. In order for me to appreciate the circumstances of the people I was surrounded by, I had to forget about what I had learnt at university, leave behind my own arrogance and walk together on the path of those around me. Although I never once felt I knew better than those who had faced storms before, I felt like people were overreacting. But after at least 6,000 were killed during Yolanda, could I really blame anybody for wanting to take this possible storm seriously?

Boarding up the windows at the Training Centre

Boarding up the windows at the Training Centre

As Tuesday turned into Wednesday, and Wednesday into Thursday the news reports began to become more concrete. It was now out of the question it would head towards Japan; Borongan City looked like a good shout to be the place the storm would first make landfall. I had begun to feel scared. It had already been decided after Yolanda that in the event of another typhoon, our training centre would be used as an evacuation base. So we went that afternoon to board up some windows, prune the trees and prepare the place where I normally teach maths to turn it into a place where who-knows-how-many people would take refuge and shelter.

On Friday morning the storm had become stronger, it was slowing down to a snail’s pace (only moving around 7 mph) and was heading straight for Eastern Samar. By that afternoon, I had packed up all my things, moved them upstairs in case of flooding, and we evacuated from our home. In the beginning there were around 300 people there: men, women, children, religious, and of course one volunteer from a small British seaside town named Whitley Bay. More and more people joined us and by the time the storm was due to hit there were around 500 people sheltering in the classrooms, offices and workshops of Don Bosco Training Centre. We even had some furry friends keep us company as some brought dogs, cats, chickens and even their piglets (protecting their livelihoods at all costs!) to shelter from the rain and winds that were approaching.

All packed - preparing to leave!

All packed – preparing to leave!

I was officially an evacuee along with so many others and over the course of the proceeding 24 hours, the same question kept coming up, “Is this your first experience of a typhoon?” Of course I answered with a firm “Yes” followed by an addendum of “…and I’m feeling a little nervous”. What took me most by surprise, however, was just how many were admitting to me that it was actually their first time to evacuate during a storm, explaining that normally everybody just sits at home waiting for the winds to pass. But once again, because of the previous mistakes of those who did not survive Typhoon Yolanda, people were keen not to commit the same ones themselves heeding all warnings to evacuate. I had to admire the humility of those who had been staying in less-than-secure homes during typhoons for decades and all of a sudden listening to advice to evacuate. Perhaps we had all learned a similar lesson throughout all of this.

As I looked around the centre on that Friday night (the night before the storm finally hit) all I could see was an increased sense of vulnerability in all who were there. I recognised a real raw emotion, a kind of survival instinct, that I had never witnessed in people before. All around me mothers were tending to their children and grandparents were sorting out the food for the family. Kids ran around playing, not appreciating what was coming, whilst onlooking parents smiled as the innocence of their children provided light relief for all those who were feeling a bit anxious (myself included).

ruby1d

Waiting.

It was a week of waiting. For six days nobody know how this storm would pan out. Would it be as strong as the news was reporting? Or were the media outlets also being overcautious about their interpretation of the forecasts? With each passing day, I became more worried especially when I was left alone at night with just my thoughts and dreams swirling inside my head. Yet, by the time we evacuated I received a gift that made a lot of this worry disappear.

In spite of the obvious restlessness that swept through the evacuation centre on that dark December evening, people were still very confident about what was to come, and I was massively inspired by that. People would have had every right to roll their eyes at my fear and trepidation; after all, my house, my family and friends, my livelihood weren’t the ones at risk. Everyone and everything I know and love is sitting firmly over 6,000 miles away. Yet people whose homes and livelihoods were in danger still took the time and effort to comfort and re-assure me that all will be well. And in those moments, in the moments that I felt so vulnerable and so sensitive, I felt cared for. It was a gift. And it made me feel strong.

My Typhoon Ruby story is made up of three parts: this one, part two and part three. Thanks for reading!

Roads

It’s been quite a few weeks since I updated the internet about my experiences here in the Philippines. If it weren’t for my Twitter addiction or my Facebook updates, one would be forgiven for thinking I had slipped off the side of the Pacific Ocean.

Since I last posted, I have settled into somewhat of a routine. Each morning I wake up at 05:50, have breakfast at 06:30 and leave for the training centre at 07:15. We travel in our truck passing over bumpy, pot-holed roads (ironically we pass the headquarters of the Land Transportation Office as well as the Department for Public Works and Highways along the way). We bump up and down before reaching our destination at around 07:30. I will spend my mornings (and usually my afternoons) teaching, thinking about my lessons, or scrolling through my Twitter feed. And so it has been, certainly for the weeks that made up September and October.

We come to now, mid-November, and I have recently begun to think about just why I have maintained such radio silence for the last six weeks. The fortnight that surrounded Halloween was particularly tough – I’m not sure for what reason, or why then exactly – but the word that sums up how I felt was malaise, a “general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify.” Why was I feeling like this? And why were things as small as having to change my t-shirt midway through the day really getting to me?

Many travel writers and psychologists have written about culture shock in various articles and blogs. After an initial period of meeting new and interesting people, tasting delicious food and having intense cultural experiences, the honeymoon – as they say – will become well and truly over. And it was. I somehow felt like I had hit the potholes in the road after the smooth surfaces and interesting sights of my first six weeks. I had become to feel frustrated at the culture.

As each day passed, I was finding it impossible to stay energised enough to converse with people speaking in my simplified English and, of course, I was agitated that my language learning was not going so well. I was struggling being the alien whose instinct is to use a knife at dinnertime instead of a spoon or being the stranger in a strange land who can’t fathom what a whole population of 100 million people sees in white rice. My homesickness peaked and I became a little spiritually lost in this wilderness of palm trees and vast ocean.

It’s important for me that I write all of this down. It’s important that I remember how I felt, so I can look back on this and see the road that I have walked; the road that trails behind me as I continue to move forward and walk this path of the unknown. Culture shock is a fairly commonplace problem, and perhaps you have experienced this yourself. I’m not at all sure how I began to overcome it, and I can be confident in saying that I have not fully overcome it: only this morning I found myself a bit shaky after I saw a video with someone talking about hot chocolates from Costa whilst wearing a big winter coat and a bobble hat. (Sometimes the triggers are the most minuscule of cultural reminders.)

But what I have really found useful is to reflect and focus on everything I have conquered in the last three months. I can clearly see the moments of pride and joy paved down behind me like a golden bricked road of achievement; a road which is firmly solid in the ground not at all like the potholed roads of Provincial Jail Road (I’m not sure if this is its recognised name, but that’s what Google Maps calls it). The golden bricks of achievement lay behind me and, for sure, more potholes lie ahead.

And my achievements aren’t great, heroic acts of altruism. Put simply, I have taken real joy and hope from acts as simple as walking into the city to buy crisps or not being (too) bothered when a cockroach crawls along my wall just as I’m about to go to bed. My golden bricks are small milestones in my journey here which may sound silly or somehow mundane to an average Filipino: but they are neither of those things, I am trying to cherish all of my achievements whether great or small. There is a real joy in accomplishing something which is an everyday Filipino practice or custom; a beacon of hope signalling that one day I may begin to feel more confident and somewhat independent in living my life in a new (and let’s face it, still exciting) culture.

RoadsFinally, when thinking about how to overcome culture shock, there is one last thing that I think is important to bear in mind when attempting to live life more authentically in the place that you are. Try to not see your experiences abroad as a stopover in your life. The road that I am walking did not begin in August, nor will it end next summer. My journey started 24 years ago and, God willing, stretches on a long way into my future. I think my advice to anybody living abroad for a temporary, albeit long-term, stay is to not consider this adventure as a trip with a defined beginning and an end.

Viewing the experience in this way puts up barriers. The time becomes a self-contained experience that is somehow seen to “interrupt” whatever path you were taking before you arrived, and upon return home there may be a tendency to not have the experience affect your life and not be wholly transformative as you “pick up where you left off” when returning home.

It is in no way easy.

As I count up the weeks that I have spent here and the months that I have left, I am constantly aware of time. I just hope that eventually, as I overcome more of my fears and begin to fill the potholes in my journey, I can advance to the next stage of culture shock, the assimilation stage where all of these strange, alien concepts (because whilst I firmly remain an alien in this culture, the culture is still entirely alien to me) will begin to make sense. Who knows, perhaps I will begin to crave left-over pork and rice at 06:30, or even use the time we have no electricity to be productive and not for twiddling my thumbs and thinking about home.

Some top tips: Do not be afraid, remember to be gentle, and enjoy yourself. I’m spending most of my energies right now trying hard to do all three.

So what exactly am I doing here?

It has been a little over a month now since I lifted off the tarmac at Heathrow Airport feeling a combination of excitement and trepidation for what was to come. In that time I have begun to begin to learn a new way of life and settle into a routine here in the Philippines.

My tasks here are twofold, put simply: I teach maths and I play the keyboard.

Planning my lessons... or playing on Sporcle?

Planning my lessons… or playing on Sporcle?

The work of the Salesian community here in Borongan is huge and it is difficult to describe the entirety of their work and ministry in just one blog. One of their major tasks is providing vocational education for a number of trainees (aged from around 16 and up) who are looking to take courses in welding and small engine technology. Throughout the afternoon, the trainees will labour in the workshop learning and working on things that I have no clue about at all. But before all of that, the day begins when everybody arrives to the Don Bosco Training Center at 7:30am. There is a morning assembly and prayer time, followed by a spot of cleaning (the building gets dusty, fast!) and a 2-hour teaching period to follow – the students take additional lessons in English, Christian values, computing and of course, mathematics, which is where I come in!

When I arrived, I was daunted by teaching a class of 60 students. I was concerned that I wouldn’t know whether everybody was understanding the maths or that I wouldn’t be able to learn everybody’s names quickly enough. I was also worried that because of my north-eastern accent that my English wouldn’t even be understood. But, with a bit of patience we have somewhat settled into a rhythm and my initial worries are beginning to subside, especially as I get to know the students more.

I hope that my time in the training centre can be fruitful. I hope that I can at least offer a glimpse of why mathematics is a useful skill to have. Many in my class (and beyond!) see the subject in black and white. Maths is boring and difficult. I’m not quite sure how to convince them otherwise just yet – but in time, hopefully everybody will see the relevance of what we’re doing and how they can use their skills to benefit their own lives whether it be for future college courses or in their future careers as business people, engineers or part-time Su Doku champs!

Singing class with the Trainees!

Singing class with the Trainees!

Another big part of the Salesian’s presence here is the Youth Center which is based on the same site as the house I am staying. At present there is a small group of young people of varying ages who gather throughout the week, including students from the local high school and children from the surrounding area. On a Saturday morning we have music lessons where the young people can learn violin, guitar, Filipino bandurria and keyboard – last weekend I was teaching six students how to play chords! Eventually we hope to form a strong group of instrumentalists (including singers) so that we can lead the music every other weekend during the Sunday Mass as well as perform for other occasions throughout the year. I am very much looking forward to going carolling when Christmas time comes! It’s great to see so many young people become interested in playing instruments and they are picking it up fast. I even managed to have a violin lesson myself a fortnight ago; I can play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, the standard song of anyone’s first experience on an instrument.

The construction of the new training centre!

The construction of the new training centre!

I have more activities lined up for the coming weeks, and I’m really excited to be here especially as I am now feeling like I have begun to settle and adjust to life in Eastern Samar. What’s perhaps most exciting is that currently there are builders and construction workers all over the site working on a brand new youth and training centre which means that everything will be contained in one place. I am told that in years gone by there were often between 50 and 100 young people attending the youth centre joining together for a monthly programme, to use the games room and to pray the nightly 6pm Rosary. I hope that by the time all the building work is complete in January there will be more youth flocking to use these exciting new facilities in order that they can begin to grow in fellowship with one another.

I have only been here a short time, and have already been welcomed as a member of the DBYC family. I can’t wait for the months to come and see more people join, or return, so that we can create lifelong memories and share together in the richness of life here in this tiny corner of Southeast Asia.

Maupay nga Patron!

“At the first house, just take a little. Then, at the second, take a little bit more. Repeat, repeat, repeat!” This was the advice given to me by Fr. Julius in preparation for the forthcoming fiesta, a 2 day celebration across the whole city to mark the feast day of the patron saint of Borongan. In this case, we were celebrating the birth of Mary which is observed on September 8th every year.

Maupay nga patron! Happy Feast Day!

Maupay nga patron! Happy Feast Day!

Arriving into Borongan a little over 10 days ago, there were already signs that the fiesta was approaching. Colourful bunting zigzagged up and down each street, banners of local councillors beamed down over roads wishing ‘Happy Fiesta’ to all those who passed under, and I’m told that the city was starting to get busier and busier with each day in the lead up to the weekend. Singing contests and other such events were also held nightly at the city plaza; all of which were being broadcast live to the homes across the city on the local cable TV station Borongan Catholic TV.

When Sunday morning approached, I was energetic and excited for the festivities which all kicked off with the annual parade of the city’s groups, companies and collectives. Our trainees were represented wearing green and grey Don Bosco Training Centre t-shirts, the staff were all wearing pale blue and we all wore straw hats emblazoned with DON BOSCO across the front just so that the crowds we passed could tell who we were (if the two huge tarpaulins with the Don Bosco Training Centre logo didn’t give it away). After waiting over an hour for the groups ahead of us in the proceedings to pass, we joined the back of the parade a little after 8:00am and began walking the route through the streets of the city.

The packed Cathedral during Mass on Monday. It was hot!

The packed Cathedral during Mass on Monday. It was hot!

The sun was blazing in the sky, and everyone was feeling a bit parched. Hoards of onlookers lined the streets, and I was confronted with many stares, giggles and calls of “Hey, man!” due to my white skin making people assume I am American. I think most people were probably wondering who this foreigner was, and were confused how he had even found himself marching in their annual fiesta parade. Throughout many of the experiences I am having out here, I have to sometimes pinch myself; even I wonder how I had found myself marching in their annual fiesta parade.

Following the parade, there was a dancing contest in the plaza with many groups from Borongan and afar taking part. The sun was baking hot, and I have no idea how they managed to dance for so long. The eventual winners came from Cebu and accepted the ₱150,000 (roughly £2,000) prize money, although I am told that this probably would only have just covered the cost of their transport, costumes, training, etc.

The sticky rice!

The sticky rice!

By the afternoon and into the following day, the real spirit of the fiesta became clear. It is traditional for every household in the city to open up its doors and provide a veritable feast for all those who enter. Families will invite friends and colleagues to stop by and dine on all sorts of different national dishes and delicacies. Over the course of the two days, I entered eight different households and ate fresh fish, seafood, meats and more. There were plates of rice, noodles and vegetables, as well as plates full of cake and Filipino desserts. My favourite was the “sticky rice” which was compressed rice held together in a palm leaf which had lashings of a sweet, sticky coconut jam poured over. Delicious!

Fr Al (left) and Br Alex (right) in the home of a Don Bosco co-operator

Fr Al (left) and Br Alex (right) in the home of a Don Bosco co-operator

I was taken aback by the effort each and every household put into the fiesta celebrations. It was clear going from one house to the next that the families we were visiting had different household incomes. Yet, in spite of these financial differences, each put just as much effort into providing delicious food for their guests. The fiesta clearly brings people together, and I was able to take advantage of this as I was soon engrossed in great conversation about Filipino culture, politics, and education, to name but a few of the topics we touched upon with people from all different kinds of backgrounds. From feeling very self-conscious walking in the parade the previous morning, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the welcome and kindness of these strangers. Perhaps all it takes is for one invitation to dispel stereotypes or preconceived notions about the way in which we live, or how we spend our time.

I think our world could take a lesson from this type of welcoming and maybe we should all be challenged to strike up a conversation with the strangers who have moved into our area or offer a helping hand in the street to somebody who looks like they don’t belong. Believe me, from my perspective here in this foreign land, it is appreciated.

I finished the evening of September 8th participating in what can only be described as a national pastime… karaoke! Or, videoke as they like to call it here. As I finished singing what felt like my hundredth song (they kept passing me the songbook and mic, honest!) I began to feel tired and sleepy. It had been a long weekend and I truly felt like I could never eat again. As Tuesday rolled around, I quickly began to realise why exactly it is that the day after the fiesta is also regarded as a day off… I spent the day catching up on sleep and reading my book. What a weekend!