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A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Yearend blues

BUTUAN CITY (MindaNews/31 December) — I had planned a leisurely week after Christmas Day and before New Year’s Day 2015.  I refused to accept any invitation for a talk, a meeting or a full seminar, thinking that after a trying and tiring year, I deserved a one-week break.  That much-awaited break would include an excursion to Siargao Island which I have never visited, time for leisurely chat over coffee with friends in the cities of Surigao and Butuan, flying off to Cebu to attend a wedding of a dear friend and then flying off to Pagadian to spend the New Year with relatives and friends.

The break I dreamed of turned out to be a nightmare.  Once more a storm with a woman’s name – Seniang – was the culprit creating havoc impacting the lives of thousands of peoples.

Leaving Davao City at the crack of dawn on 27 December on the 10-stop bus to Butuan, there was no comprehensive weather advisory predicting a storm with a landfall somewhere in Surigao and elsewhere in the Visayas and Mindanao. Late that afternoon, at the pantalan in Surigao City, those in-charge of a boat going to Siargao had no idea that a storm was coming and planned a trip to the island early the following day.  That night the rains came and we thought this was just monsoon. Watching television that evening, our hearts reached out to those in Malaysia and Thailand whose villages were submerged in high waters owing to floods caused by heavy rains.  We had no idea that in the next 24 hours, the same scenes would unfold across Butuan City.

With the heavy rains, the trip to Siargao had to be cancelled; a major disappointment as the chance to visit the island may not arise in the near future.  We tried to appease our disappointment by going to the best beach outside Surigao City for a swim.  Dark clouds hovered and there was intermittent rain.  Strong winds made swimming unpleasant so all we could enjoy was the seafood served in a local restaurant owned by a Korean couple. (Rice served to us, however, was uncooked; consequently, the cook got a public scolding by the Korean woman. We squirmed in our seats with this kind of behavior of a foreigner to a local citizen.)

We left for Butuan, arriving at the convent of the Missionary Sisters of Mary (MSM) at Baan at dusk. We still wondered if the weather was the result of a low pressure area somewhere or a storm was actually on its way. The rains persisted and,  that night,  all of Caraga would hear the howling winds which lasted most of the following day, 29 December.  In the morning, news was that Butuan City was under Signal No. 1, but the winds got stronger by mid-morning.  One could see the coconut and other tall trees dangerously swaying in the wind. A mahogany tree in front of the main building fell down, parts of the roofing were blown away and the garage where the Sister’s vehicle was parked collapsed. Clearly it was no longer Signal No. 1.

And for the first time in the 56-year-old history of the MSM Sisters, waters entered their main building flooding the chapel, the offices, sleeping quarters on the first floor and the main refectory.  The sisters waded through mid-thigh-high waters as they went about their activities that day worrying if the waters would still rise as rains continued to pour.  By mid-day as electric lines were falling down, power was shut off. Telephone lines were no longer working; fortunately the signals were still on, so it was possible to use cellphones.

I was supposed to fly out of Butuan that afternoon at 4:15 PM on the 5J 224 Cebu-Pacific flight to Cebu City.  As expected, all flights that day were cancelled.  We had no choice but to enjoy the sisters’ hospitality while providing us a chance to have a bonding with practically all of them as they were gathered for a General Assembly.  Then word came that parts of Butuan City – especially those near the great Agusan River – were flooded and the people were evacuating to safer grounds. In  the city’s downtown area, some people were walking through waist-deep waters.  Buses to Davao and Surigao could not pass through highways as there were places flooded by overflowing rivers or rendered impassable by landslides.  Clearly, we were stranded in Butuan City.

Early 30 December,  we woke up thanking the heavens that the rains had stopped and the winds had moved elsewhere. We rushed to the Bancasi airport hoping to catch a flight to Cebu while texting the friend who was getting married that the greater chance was that we would miss her wedding.  There was mayhem at the airport as hundreds of stranded passengers fought to find a space in the various queues that started to form at dawn.

The good news was that both PAL and Cebu-Pacific flights were being resumed, although their arrival in Butuan were much delayed. Those who were booked on 30 December flights were first to be accommodated. The bad news was that the rest of us, who missed our earlier flights, had to form a long line for rebookings. The airport was packed and with only a few personnel to deal with this extraordinary flow of frustrated passengers, the frustration hit feverish levels.  One was afraid someone would go berserk and I did prepare myself for that eventually by making sure I was out of harm’s way.

The line was the best teleserye locale at this very moment.   One heard a whole range of dramatic monologues as the passengers’ narratives broke one’s heart. A young Korean man in his mid-twenties (a tourist or investor?) demanded to be on the next flight to Cebu as he was to leave on a plane to Singapore on this very day.  A Pinay OFW had the same demand; if she could not connect to her flight in Manila to Kuwait this very day, her strict boss will fire her and her children will be forced to quit school.  Another Pinay OFW – speaking in Tagalog so the stewardess will take her more seriously even as anyone can detect that she is Bisdak – pleaded that her foreigner boyfriend will abuse her if she does not make it to their date on time.  An elderly Pinoy cried as she begged the stewardess to put him on priority list of chance passengers as he could not miss the funeral of a beloved grandchild. And a couple from India (or Pakistan or Bangladesh?) speaking in that quaint accent with heads moving left to right insisted that they had to be placed in the priority list of chance passengers since they had a family gathering they could not miss.  And then later, I watched a whole barangay of Papua New Guineans (mostly male with a few women) join the line and wondered what were they doing here? (tourists or working with a mining firm?).

I thought to myself:  I had not realized until now that Butuan City has leveled up towards becoming a global city with all these foreigners mixing with the locals.  One expected it in Cebu or Davao, but not Butuan.  Time to be updated as to the movements of peoples in Mindanao, especially as ASEAN 2015 is upon us in just a few days.

Even with these interesting sidelights, one would not wish to be  stranded inside the Bancasi airport  as New Year’s Day approaches.  As I sit patiently at some bench inside the airport watching the global scenario unfold I figured out one lesson  that I should take to heart, namely, next year, stay at home during the break between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  This scene could happen again and again and again, as no one can predict the convergence of nature’s wrath with human beings’ foibles and limitations.

My wish for 2015 – to have that one-week break with the world spinning nicely with nightmarish incidents kept at bay!

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI), and author of several books, including the recently launched “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw)].

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