Hell in Manila

Migs Bassig writes about the hell in Manila.

(To donate or volunteer, visit the Google page for Help for Ondoy Victims.)

Last Saturday, a tropical storm struck Metro Manila. Its name was Ketsana, locally known as Ondoy. Its effect was less cute – much. The morning of that day, I looked out at our garage, flooded over a foot high with rainwater. We were in darkness; there was no power. Candles were lit. Appliances were unplugged. The dogs – Brutus, Martin, and Nole – swam for their lives and climbed the wooden bench near the washing machine. Mitzie lay on a floor rug inside the house. While I prepared instant Pancit Canton and romanticized the idea of a candle-lit eighteen-peso breakfast, the radio crackled news of what was happening out there. You know the works: statistics, traffic reports, news from affected neighboring provinces, forecasts, commentaries, statements from officials, number of families displaced, number of people missing, number of people dead. I finished a Hemingway – one of his worst, but his worst is still better than most others’ bad novels – while waiting for the rain to subside, and for electricity. Hours passed. More candles were lit. A magnificent boredom ensued. When night came, the dark grew more treacherous. You opened your eyes and you saw the same thing as when your eyes had been closed: blackness, with tiny, almost imperceptible moving grains, like people in a rally.

I woke up Sunday morning still not knowing how lucky we were. Heavy rain still beat the crap out of our area. At eleven in the morning, still without electricity, my cousins, siblings, and I all decided to troop to a friend’s house in Barangay White Plains at the east side of Quezon City. We needed to charge our mobile phones; we were also to meet another cousin, Johnny, who was visiting from Los Angeles. The taxi ride on the way there made my knees weak. We passed through Quezon Avenue, Araneta, New Manila, Greenhills, Santolan Avenue, EDSA, and Katipunan. There was always mud; it was either black or brown. At E. Rodriguez Avenue, there was an ongoing operation; it seemed that the floods had displaced the community of squatters who used to live by the creek below. My brother Josemaria took pictures: debris litter everywhere, plastics, fallen trees, car parts, piles and scraps of wood and iron sheets from houses ravaged by the storm, men carrying things, trying to sort out what looked to be a hopeless disorder, women weeping, waiting. Again on the radio, something was said about a month’s worth of rainfall having poured down on Manila in six hours; something about Ondoy leaving eighty percent of the city under water; something about Cristine Reyes, the actress who had posed for FHM and whom I had previously not heard of, seeking refuge and waiting to be rescued from the top of her roof in Marikina City, an eastern Manila suburb, while cars were swept away and commuters waded through flood waters or hung calamitously onto car tires and telegraph wires and feeble branches of trees.

“The traffic yesterday was unbelievable,” Lourdes, my sister, said. She had earlier that morning come home from her office in EDSA Central Station – how exactly, I didn’t know – in time to join us. “EDSA Santolan was an ocean. Even Arroyo was forced to take the MRT to Camp Aguinaldo, or so I heard. The trains were packed. Infinitely worse than Spanish sardines in a can.” Eugene, my cousin who works in Cavite, a province just thirty kilometers outside of Manila, knew perhaps just how unbelievable and infinitely worse it had been. It took twelve hours to get from his office to our house in Quezon City. “From one in the afternoon to one in the morning,” he said. “The bus didn’t go for stopovers, man. No food, no drinks, nothing. Twelve hours! Shit, I could have gone to Tuguegarao to see grandma.” We did not hasten to correct Eugene that Manila to Cagayan took thirteen hours by bus, because that ride would have had three stopovers.

At White Plains, more stories were told. A taxi driver’s brother had no way to get home and so he walked from Ayala Avenue to Monumento – the equivalent of eleven MRT stations and about fifteen kilometers. A treadmill floated its way to a cousin’s friend’s house in Fairview; this same cousin's friend's new Nissan Pajero floated out. The elegant two-storey home of the Ortiz family – friends of father – in Santa Mesa Heights, and where I used to spend Sunday afternoons drinking coffee and writing and reading, was submerged in water; Mr. and Mrs. Ortiz are in Australia; their driver and his family, who had all looked after the house, managed to swim their way to safety. Once my mobile phone was charged, a message came in. It was from my friend Pong who was making sure my family was all right. Heroes Hills, the Quezon City subdivision where he lives, I heard wasn’t spared, either. When I began asking other friends and relatives where and how they were, Teresa, a colleague of mine, told me that she was accepting donations for a new house and a new car. Kirby, meanwhile, a writer friend based in New Manila, contemplated making use of his inflatable raft. “Sister’s in New York. Brother and mother are on their way to Prague. Father is going to Hong Kong. Me? Stuck at home, writing about cars and watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother… In-fucking-sane… Flood has subsided somewhat, though, and I don’t see rats floating around anymore.”

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