Growing Up In Tropical Islands (translation)


Original work

As a child, I thought of typhoons as a time of peace. In 1981, Samar was hit by typhoon Dinang. I was in Grade 5 at the time. We were renting the second floor of Mana Peping’s house somewhere in Sona Kwatro in San Roque. It was a beautiful old house; its walls and floor were made of wood.

On the night before Dinang made its landfall, the whole family– my parents, my three siblings and I, and a cousin who was staying with us – slept together in one area of the house.

The house had three bedrooms. We stayed in the middle room that night. “We will stay here because this is the safest,” Tatay, my father, told us. It was the safest because of its location: it wasn’t directly facing the street and the house next to us, that of Man’ Cresen’s, was partially covering it.

As a child, I always considered it a big problem whenever it was katkakaturog, the time for sleeping at night. The nights were different during those years. Since there was still no electricity in San Roque, only the sound of a battery-operated radio could be heard at night. By 6:00 o’clock, we would stop playing outside. “Get inside. It’s getting dark now!,” Nanay, our mother, would always tell us.

At exactly 6:00 o’clock in the evening, the radio drama entitled Zimatar, Ang Munting Prinsipe would start. After thirty minutes, there would be another drama. From these tales I first heard about the world of the hari and reyna, of the engkanto, and of other mythical creatures. At eight o’clock, a dog howling and a woman screaming who sounded like she was frightened by a vision could be heard in Gabi ng Lagim, another radio drama. While listening to the radio, domestic activities continued: eating supper, washing the dishes, cleaning the table, sweeping the mumo, i.e., grains of rice dropped on the floor, and preparing the beds. As the radio and the petromax lamp were turned off, a kerosene lamp that served as paagahan – a nightlight – was lit. It was a signal that it was time for us to go to our respective sleeping spaces. After the sound of the radio had died down, I would start hearing the kamingaw sa kagab-ihon, i.e., the silence at night. Eng-Eng’s laughter – she was a witch on the radio – would stick to my mind for a long time.

I would force myself to close my eyes, so I wouldn’t see the slow-moving shadows created by the nightlight. I would move closer to my younger sister and hide under the blanket, so I wouldn’t feel the wide space between me and the ceiling. I would cover my ears with my hands, so I wouldn’t be confronted by the eerie quietness of the night.

Typhoon Dinang hit San Roque around midnight. Nanay woke us up from sleep. The wind was strong. There was heavy rain. The floor where we were sleeping was wet. We moved over to the other side of the room and huddled together for warmth. Tatay lit the petromax, so we could see where we would be moving. The two bedrooms and the rest of the house were wet as well. “Let’s go there,” said Tatay while holding the petromax and pointing to one particular part of the house.

One by one, with our parents guiding us, we slowly stepped down the stairs and on the stair landing – the only part of the house that was dry – Nanay spread the mats. Then, I went back to sleep. The following day, I learned that the roofs and sliding capiz windows of our rooms had been blown away by the wind. I didn’t hear any of these conversations the previous night. Whenever there was a typhoon, I was able to sleep soundly at night. At last, I didn’t have to force myself into sleeping. I didn’t have to cover my ears. I was no longer afraid of the dagaw – the shadows – that I was seeing. In my mind, there wouldn’t be any engkanto or impakta who would dare visit me in the bedroom because Nanay and Tatay were with us.

As I was growing up, I was no longer keen on paying attention to details, especially names of typhoons. Maybe it was because I had other priorities during those years.

When I was in high school and college, each typhoon was a time to oversleep and to lie down on a bed the whole day. I didn’t have to attend classes and to walk all the way from my boarding house at Seaside Drive to ULHS in UEP (University of Eastern Philippines). For one or two days, I was able to take a break from taking a tricycle ride from Avenida Veteranos and Salazar Streets to UP Tacloban.

At a young age, I realized that my weekly or monthly allowance could be extended because of typhoons. I once had two board mates who were sisters: Mana Villa and Mana Hera. It was from them that I learned techniques on how to stretch a meager allowance. For example, rice when added with more water increases in volume. It becomes porridge. The result is that the supply of rice and money can be extended to a few more days. If we had extra budget, we added tabliya (native chocolate made from cocoa) and sugar. With these additional ingredients, the porridge becomes sampurado or chocolate rice porridge. It was also Mana Villa and Mana Hera who taught me that aside from milk, there’s another ingredient that can be added to sampurado. “Ato lunupan,” they told me. Indeed: sampurado with lunop, i.e., coconut milk, is thicker and creamier and more delicious. Hence, sampurado has since then become my favorite especially during typhoons.

In 1999, when I was a newly-wed bride, I stayed in a sitio in Leyte. This was located at the foot of a mountain. From the main road, I had to walk one and a half kilometers to reach the community. My husband was a community organizer; hence, he had to work closely with the farmers. We were renting a house near the river, i.e., Tubod River. During dry season, the river was dry because the water supply was utilized for irrigation in the nearby barangays.

The house had two bedrooms. Since neither of the rooms could accommodate two persons, we slept in the living room. A young boy was living with us: he was abandoned by his parents and we were the ones who sent him to high school. He slept in one of the bedrooms. It was a very basic sleeping quarter, and only a curtain served as its door. Any movement and noise outside could be heard from that room. It followed that our activities were restricted and limited.

During those years, my inhibitions vanished during typhoons. There were swinging movements in the living room as the branches of the coconuts lining outside of the house swayed in all directions. There was noise that was as wild as the heavy pouring rain and the strong rushing water of Tubod River.

Everything changed when I became a mother. My own needs were no longer my top priority.

In 2013, it was announced that a super typhoon would hit Leyte and Samar. Typhoons have always been part of our lives on these islands, so it was really nothing new. However, according to news reports, Yolanda would be something far from the ordinary. A day before Yolanda had its landfall, the sky was calm in Baybay. It was a sunny day.

At about 5:00 o’clock in the morning of November 8, it started to rain. There was wind which at first was slow. Then, it was like it was gaining momentum from afar, so it could shake the row of apartments of our campus village. I tried to open the jalousie window so I could see what was happening outside. I could not open it because a strong wind seemed to have its own hands trying to prevent me from opening it. “Nanay, please don’t open the window,” said my eight-year old daughter. I heard a cracking sound from the front yard. The coconut tree had fallen. A big branch of the Talisay tree fell on the roof where the masters’ bedroom was located. In another building, at the Warner’s Apartment, two units were roofless.

Prior to Yolanda, we considered our place safe during typhoons because of its location: it’s inside the university campus where it has a good drainage system, it has many trees which serve as wind breakers during typhoons, Camotes Sea (that’s part of the sea where the school is located) is not facing the Pacific Ocean, and it’s nestled just below Mt. Pangasugan which is considered part of the remaining virgin forests of Leyte. But on that day, water was coming from all directions – roof, walls, windows, door. I had this impression that our surroundings were being crumpled and twisted by Super Typhoon Yolanda. I couldn’t help but think that the world was going to end any moment of that morning. “This is making me crazy,” I was telling myself. No typhoon was comparable to Yolanda. Not even Dinang.

Had Yolanda happened when I was younger, things would have been different. I would have been thrilled. Before, I just wanted to sleep the entire day. Or savor the linunupan nga sampurado (chocolate porridge with coconut milk). Or enjoy the warmth of intimacy. These are no longer true today. While Yolanda was busy wringing our village, I embraced Gasa, my daughter. It was a tight embrace. And a long one.

About the author

Rhodora C. Abalajen

Propesor sa Visayas State University sa Baybay, Leyte. Manunulat at editor. Eksperto rin sa iba pang larangan ukol sa mga saliksik sa wika at literatura.

By Rhodora C. Abalajen