Note: This is going to be a long story.
When I visited Siargao in 2018, there were so many things I didn’t do; surfing, renting and driving a scooter, partying, and swimming with the stingless jellyfish. Compared to my friends, I had a boring experience, who ticked all these things and came home with amazing stories to tell. Despite my lack of “interesting stories,” I loved Siargao and the overall vibe of the island. I have always wanted to go back, and I almost did mid-2021, but due to the pandemic, the trip was canceled. As soon as the restrictions had been lifted, I immediately rebooked my flight. This time, I told myself, I would have a different story to tell. What I didn’t expect is just how different that story would be.
A day before my flight, I saw the news that there was an incoming typhoon in Mindanao, and one of the areas that would be affected was Siargao. Of course, I wasn’t happy about it; my flights had been booked, all my hotels were paid for, and my manager approved my annual leaves. This would be my ultimate year-end vacation, and I looked forward to it. But like everyone else, I underestimated the typhoon and even took the fact that Philippine Airlines didn’t cancel the flight as a sign to go ahead and continue the trip.
I know how ugly typhoons can get in the Philippines; we get an average of 20 typhoons per year. And let me tell you that each one is never a fun experience, not when the power is out for the entire day, not when our homes get flooded, not especially when some of us need to be evacuated when things get bad. Yet, I wasn’t particularly bothered by the news of the impending arrival of Typhoon Odette. Looking back, I deeply regret not listening to the news.
I still remember Typhoon Ondoy, one of the most devastating typhoons that hit the country. I was at home back in Sampaloc. Our dilapidated house took the beating, our walls made with plywood were soaked in the rain, and the flood had entered our house downstairs, the water level reaching my upper leg. When we used the toilet, we couldn’t flush it down because even the water level inside that toilet had gone up over the bowl. We were soaked and dirty and couldn’t even wash our hands. It was horrible, and it was just one of the many that we’d weathered all those years that I was living there.
My typhoon experience had “improved,” if I could call it that, when I moved out of our house and lived in other cities. I didn’t experience getting flooded again; even if the power went out, I didn’t feel so miserable because my place was not damp and dirty. I really thought I’d left those miserable days behind until I went to Siargao.
I had a smooth direct flight from Manila to Siargao. It had started to rain, and the contact person from Lampara Siargao where I was supposed to stay, texted me about evacuating all of their guests to the Tropical Temple. Lampara is located by the beach area, and that’s the last place you want to be in the middle of a typhoon.
Tropical temple is beautiful, especially its lobby area. The ceiling is high, with a shape and design reminiscent of a temple (probably because it’s in the resort’s name). They put me in a dorm room with 10 capsule-type beds after learning that I was sent by Lampara.
There were two girls in the room with me named Jade and Ella. They are college girls; one is taking up Medtech, the other Pharmacology (if I remember correctly). At first, I thought they were also guests from Lampara, but they said they’d been in Siargao for a couple of days and had stayed in another hostel before moving to Tropical Temple.
After settling in, I went outside to find a place to eat. The road has no lamp posts, so I used my phone to light the way. I could hear the croaking of frogs from the other side of the street and prayed that I wouldn’t stumble into one as I have this unreasonable fear of these slimy creatures. I reached the restaurant that the hotel staff recommended, but it was dark and seemed closed. So I walked back to where I came from and decided to go to bed with an empty stomach.
The next day, the deluge has come. I was still able to message my friends and use the Internet at around 7 in the morning in the lobby, and that was the last time I was able to do so. At around 11:00 a.m., the power went out. The rain had been pouring nonstop, and it started to flood the lobby. We could hear the wind howling and the sound of things breaking and falling. I kept checking my phone, willing the network signal to return, but it didn’t.
There was no running water, so we had to collect rainwater so dark it looked like a carabao had bathed in it to wash and flush the toilet. I was getting paranoid that the water had flesh-eating bacteria, but I had no choice but to use it. It was one of those rare moments I wished my menstruation was irregular because this was the worse time to be having a period. This played a huge factor in my mood and stress level. I had zero energy to socialize, and I was very annoyed at the other guests who seemed to be taking things in stride while the world was burning.
All of a sudden, the dorm rooms were filled with people as they moved the guests who were staying at the villas. The private villas were more exposed to the elements, so to keep everyone safe, they had to sit out the storm with us in the shared rooms.
A small flood had seeped into our room from the door and the rainwater leaked through the light fixtures on the ceiling. My fellow guests started working together, cleaning the floor with mops and their feet. I, on the other hand, sat dejectedly on my bed. I felt so powerless and hopeless, burdened with thoughts of people back home. I wondered if they knew what was going on with us right that very moment and are they worried. I had no way of telling them what was happening, which was amping up my stress.
That night, I had difficulty getting some sleep from all the noise the other guests were making. I wish I could be like them, making friends and laughing at the situation we were in, but I couldn’t get myself to do it. I was worried about many things, and all I wanted was for the storm to be over.
The damage that Typhoon Odette had caused was a lot worse than I’d thought. When I checked the lobby, I was horrified to see all the broken pots, glasses, and furniture. The diamond glass fixtures by the entrance had collapsed. That’s when it dawned on me that the vacation I had been looking forward to these past few months was no more. The only consolation is that none of us were hurt.
We heard from the resort staff that all roads were unpassable. Fallen trees, electric posts, and other infrastructures were blocking the road. So I stood outside, wondering what I would do. I was supposed to transfer to another resort that day. Do I go and find it, or should I stay at Tropical Temple?
The staff and the male guests opened the huge concrete slabs that were covering the well so we could get clean water. I was so happy when they opened it because I didn’t get to shower the day before. I chatted with one of the guests, a tall guy who talked in Taglish while fetching water. We used a small gallon tied to a rope that we had to throw at a certain angle so it would be facing down and start collecting water when it hit the water below. If you don’t do it this way, the gallon would just float on its butt, and you’d have a hard time tilting it over, and it won’t catch some water.
I managed to fill up three pails to use for bathing. I heard the same guy saying that bathing was the best feeling ever after he was done showering. In my head, I was like, “100% yes, especially in this situation.”
After that much-needed shower, I dressed and went on a mission to find Palaka Resort. I heard all homes and establishments had been greatly affected by the typhoon, but I wanted to see if Palaka Resort fared better than Tropical Temple. I left my two suitcases and only brought the essentials, e.g. wallet, phone, and laptop.
With no mobile data to rely on, I went at it blindly and just asked people along the way for directions. I had to cover over 1.8 kilometers on foot under the midday sun. I started the journey around 10:00 a.m., stepped over fallen trees, ducked under electric cables, and stopped to take photos and videos every now and then.
Everything—homes and businesses—was destroyed overnight; it was such a depressing sight.
My heavy bag was straining my shoulders and back, adding to my misery. Tired and hungry, I approached a family hanging out in front of their house on the side of the street. They told me that Palaka Resort was still far from where we were. I moved under the shade and muttered under my breath that I needed to take a little bit of rest. I told them I had been walking for almost 2 hours and kept losing my way. Apparently, there’s another place called Palaka, and some people mistakenly gave me that direction, adding to my travel time.
The mother suddenly instructed her daughter to drive me to the resort with their scooter. I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d passed by other residents who had motorbikes, including this guy whom I talked to for directions, but they never offered to give me a ride. I even saw the same guy after half an hour of walking; he was already at home and clearly drove his way there. I know it was not his responsibility to give me a ride, but it would have been nice if he did. Anyway, the girl with long, orange curly hair started the scooter, and I rode behind her. Five minutes later, we reached this property with concrete walls and wide wooden gates. This was it; I’d finally reached my destination.
Apart from the fallen palm trees and the collapsed ceiling in the kitchen, Palaka Resort was pretty much intact. I met the other guests, two couples named Louie, Audrey, Laiza, and Mark. The staff was nowhere to be found, so they took it upon themselves to assign me the remaining available room upon learning that I was booked at this resort for two days. The room was spacious, with a king-sized bed and its own bathroom. Nothing was destroyed in the room, but there was a small pool of water on the ground left by the typhoon. I picked up a mop to dry the floor so I wouldn’t accidentally slip on it.
Mark took me back to Tropical Temple via a rented scooter to pick up my luggage. We both realized just how far I had walked, and to be honest; I don’t even know how I did it when the weather was hot that day. My skin had even grown darker; so much for getting a tan without hitting the beach.
I had a more comfortable place to sleep at Palaka Resort, but unfortunately, it doesn’t have a well like Tropical Temple. We had to walk a couple of minutes to another resort; there was a well where Audrey, Laiza, and I collected water so we could shower.
Around 9:00 p.m, we went out to meet some of their newfound friends who were having a drink outside their hotel. The moon was so bright we didn’t have a hard time seeing our path. The last time I remember seeing a moon this bright was in Romblon over a decade ago. But not even the beautiful moonlight can lighten up my mood. I went to the drinking sesh feeling spent and stressed that I refused to drink when they offered it. Instead of explaining that I didn’t want to pee all the time, which is not ideal considering the lack of water, I lied and said I don’t drink alcohol. Thankfully, they didn’t push and just let me sit with them as they chatted and drank shots of gin.
My snarky side had let out a little bit when they mentioned that an attorney ordered them to kill the bonfire earlier that evening. I made a comment about where in the law did it say that having a bonfire is illegal. It was good that I wasn’t there when the attorney approached them because when I’m in a foul mood, I cannot control my temper. I might have said something inappropriate or rude if I had been there.
When Mark and Laiza decided to call it a night, I went back with them to the resort. It was completely dark, and we only had candles as our source of light in our rooms. I’m used to traveling alone, but it was the first time I wished I wasn’t. I was so lonely and envied the couples because at least they got each other to rely on in a desperate situation like this.
A strange noise kept pulling me back to consciousness as I fell asleep. It was a weird clicking sound, and I wondered where it was coming from. I let my eyes roam inside the room but didn’t catch anything unusual. I shrugged and thought it might be coming from outside, so I went back to sleep.
I woke again to a dark room feeling all sweaty; the candle that was my sole source of light had been extinguished. I got up and tried to relight the candle several times, but the fire kept dying. I realized the wick had grown so long that it was drowned in melted wax. It meant I had to cut it, so I got up from the bed and fumbled for my scissors inside my luggage.
Suddenly, I heard the same weird sound that had been rousing me from sleep all night. I caught a movement from the corner of my eyes, and when I looked down, I saw something huge crawling against the wall. I jumped to my bed in terror, not knowing what it was, until my eyes adjusted to the dark. And then I realized what it was; it was a huge fudging crab!
What the hell was a crab doing in my room?! I’d expect to see a frog, a gecko, even a snake but a crab?! Did the typhoon sweep it from the sea to our resort? Is it a would-be dinner that managed to escape the pot?! I don’t know; all I knew was that I sat on my bed and watched it crawl sideways, with its claws making that clicking sound like it was telling me not to move until it completely left the premises. Moments later, I let out a small laugh; man that was an interesting encounter.
The next day, I and my fellow guests plotted a plan to exit Siargao. Mark and Laiza were supposed to fly back home that day, but we didn’t know the situation at the airport.
Louie and Audrey talked to some people they know while I walked with Mark and Laiza to find the LGU office to obtain some information. On the third day, the mobile signal was still out; nobody knew what had happened to us. My new friends were worried about their families, who were most certainly sick and worried about them. I thought about my family and friends and wondered if they were looking for me. My family, in particular, is so used to not seeing me regularly and not knowing about my whereabouts I could be dead somewhere, and they’d be none the wiser. To be honest, this isn’t their fault; I’m not very open about sharing my business with them.
The LGU building was closed, so we asked locals for information. It’s hard when you want to get news and updates but have no way of getting them. All we were hearing was second-hand information from different people, and the only way we could confirm them was if we went to the place ourselves. It was like we were back in the early 90s when mobile phones and the Internet were not widely available yet. Now that I remember it, I’m not sure how we were able to live back then.
My return to Manila was scheduled for the 24th of December, but given the situation, there was no way I’d stay there until then. The other group that the couples met during the storm seemed to be taking the situation much better than us. We even saw them buying groceries, and they planned to surf that day.
We heard there’s a way to leave the island via boat in Dapa Port. To confirm, Mark and Louie drove there with their scooters. The girls stayed behind to cook food and pack our belongings. We were hoping to leave General Luna that day. I wasn’t very keen on spending another night at the resort in the dark because, most probably, I would go all emo again like the night before.
The boys returned around noon with some food to cook. They said that the port was filled with people trying to ride the RORO and that everything was chaotic. Still, it was our best chance to leave the island because the airport was damaged and non-operational. We weren’t sure if we would succeed, but we were all willing to give it a shot. So we asked Mang Ernie, the resort’s guard, to help us find a van to drive us to Dapa Port. Fortunately, he found one and said that the driver was asking for payment of 500 pesos per head.
We left after lunchtime and traveled for about an hour to reach Dapa. The port was empty, with no sign of the crowd Mark and Louie saw earlier. According to the locals, the Coast Guard didn’t allow the use of RORO as it had also been damaged by the typhoon. Where the tourists went, we had no idea. Suddenly, we didn’t know what to do. None of us wanted to go back to General Luna; we had a good bed to sleep on at Palaka Resort, but returning takes us back to square one. At least at Dapa, we were a step closer to leaving the island.
We all agreed to stay at Dapa and find a place to spend the night. The boys took care of it; they would get off the van and ask some people. The first few places they approached couldn’t take us in until somebody told them to check out D’Islanders Ville Pension. It took a while before the boys were able to convince the manager to let us in, and once she did, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Her only condition was not to tell anyone that they were accepting guests.
Given the situation at that time when tourists were desperate to find a place to stay in Dapa, we understood why she made the request. And so we never told anyone about it; I only mentioned this to convey my gratitude to the manager. I didn’t get her name, but I’m so thankful to her for accepting us. She didn’t ask us to pay even when she gave us a room to stay, allowed us to charge our devices (they have a generator), and let us collect water so we could shower. May God bless her.
With little sleep, we got up at around 1:20 a.m. and prepared to leave. The moon was bright, and we followed the road stud lights to reach the port with our bags and luggage in tow. Some local men were by the port gate, and we approached them to ask for information. They said no ship was scheduled to travel that day; they suggested that we take the small boats that could take us to Surigao City.
We were standing for almost an hour when a man approached us. He said that he had a boat that could carry 40 people and that the fare rate was 500 pesos per head. Other people were waiting with us at the port during that time, and we encouraged them to join us to fill up the boat. Just like us, it wasn’t hard to convince them to give it a go; we all wanted the same thing anyway, leaving Siargao as soon as possible.
We followed the boat crew to the docking area, where we saw two boats, one of which was already filled with passengers. We were able to board the second boat and let me tell you, they filled it to its full capacity, not giving anyone legroom. They even loaded two motorbikes, one of them was even placed right in front of me. At first, I was annoyed that I had to sit in front of this bike because I couldn’t stretch my legs, but it turned out to be a blessing. When I got super sleepy in the middle of the journey, I used it to rest my head on to catch some zzzs.
The boat ride took 2 hours, but it felt much longer. When we finally reached Surigao City, people were so happy that some had even started to clap. It was such a relief that finally, we “escaped” Siargao.
We found a van that could drive us to Butuan Airport; we paid around 800 per head. We shared the van with this other group of tourists that we met on the boat. It took another 4 hours of travel, but we were sitting more comfortably this time.
When we reached Butuan, we finally got the network signal we’d all been waiting for. I thought I had already breathed a great sigh of relief when we reached Surigao City until messages started coming through. To my surprise, my friends had been looking for me, even those I didn’t expect would care. I was completely touched and responded to every single one of them. My family, on the other hand, as expected, had no effing clue what was going on, lol.
At Butuan Airport, Laiza and I went to the Philippine Airlines office to rebook our flights. I was given two options; pay an additional amount of over 10,000 pesos to get the one remaining business class seat and fly that day or wait until Tuesday, but I won’t have to pay extra anymore. I barely touched my pocket money for this trip because, obviously, I wasn’t able to do anything other than experience the typhoon, but 10k is a lot of money, I could have used that for something else.
However, my will to go home was stronger than the will to save money, so I grabbed the chance and just paid for it. This was the first time ever in all the years I’d been traveling that I bought a business class seat, and it wasn’t even because I wanted it. But what the hell, if it could take me home the soonest, then I guess it’s worth it.
They say tragedies, disasters, and other unfortunate events make for a good story. As a writer, I should be chasing them as they provide easy writing materials that evoke readers’ interest and emotions. But writing about these stories from memory and experiencing them are two different things; the latter can be so traumatic you wouldn’t wish for it to happen even to your worse enemy.
I could never forget that profound feeling of desperation and isolation that I had in those four days. Never have I felt so helpless, so agitated about my situation. And seeing all the destruction that Odette left behind and the miseries on the faces of Siarganons during that time weighed heavy on my heart. We Filipinos are no strangers to natural disasters, and the world knows us for our resilience. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder, are we resilient, or is this value something that we’ve been forced to have given the number of disasters we face each year?
Why, despite having a minimum of 20 typhoons annually, the Philippines remains ill-prepared to weather the storm. Shouldn’t we know better now? Shouldn’t we strive to make our homes and other infrastructure able to withstand such common weather phenomena? What are we doing as people, and what is the government doing other than launching relief operations every time? Forgive my ranting, but I couldn’t help but vent my frustrations because we never seem to get better at this.
Ways to help
Let me take this moment to encourage you to please send help. Below are the links to some of the organizations actively working to provide relief operations.
I still don’t know the meaning behind experiencing the typhoon, maybe there’s no profound reason, and I just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. All I can do is share my story, which, as you now know, is sadder and so different from what I had planned.