Ondoy: Manila is Resilient


We are in Quezon City in the Philippines. We are in a beautiful home high on the hills, far removed from the realities of the surrounding areas. I’m in pajamas, and we’re sitting in our air-conditioned room watching a movie in tagalog which features Manny Pacquiao and our host who we’re staying with. It’s early evening on our second night here, which means it’s the night after tropical storm Ondoy (typhoon Ketsana outside of the Philippines). I’m not sure which situation feels more surreal.

The previous day we circled Manila’s International Airport for an extra hour, waiting for a break in weather conditions so we could land. When we cleared immigration and exited the airport, I began to look for Mr. Ignacio, my old karate instructor whom we were visiting. We were an hour late, and I was hoping he hadn’t been circling the whole time. I didn’t end up seeing his car on the road. It hit me then that there were no cars on the road. None. Everyone around was just looking with empty expectations at the road entering the airport.

About 25 people were in line to catch taxis which weren’t coming. That’s when we realized that the rains were worse than we knew. We asked the airport what the situation was, and they told us that the roads leading in and out of the airport were all flooded past people’s waists, and that everyone would need to stay at the airport overnight. Mari and I, still not comprehending the extent of the rains, shrugged our shoulders, grabbed a couple of chairs, and prepared to settle in for the night. One more stay at an airport didn’t really affect either one of us much.

It was 8 hours later, around 11pm, that I heard my name being called on the PA system. I was being paged. It was Mr. Ignacio giving word that he was still, somehow, picking us up. An hour later, he made it through and we finally saw each other. The strongest person I’ve ever known greeted us. He hugged me, kissed me and had such a look of worry/relief on his face that it became clear that this storm wasn’t just a part of the seasonal weather, but something more. As we headed to his home, we learned that most of Manila was flooded, that there was a death toll of about 100, and that it was growing. I looked out of the window of the Landcruiser we were riding in, saw a family walking waist deep in the floods and my heart sank.

So now we’re in Quezon City and we’re doing what you do when you travel to another country to see someone. I get to finally see firsthand the successes of my Instructor (turned actor) as he is recognized in public and as I watch him in movies. I update a man who had a huge impact on my life growing up, on what my life is about now. And Mari ends up knowing me better through these interactions. The time spent has been wonderful and I’m grateful to see him and his family, in spite of the circumstances literally all around us.

The circumstances are devastating. But Manila is resilient. The floods have for the most part receded, and the city is starting to recover. Huge amounts of garbage have been swept from the streets and are piled on the side of the roads, with garbage collectors working overtime removing it as fast as possible. Mattresses hang from side fences as people dry them out and move on. In one area of the city, an underpass remains terribly flooded, and in effect has turned a busy street drag into a massive swimming pool. And locals react accordingly at this bizarre sight. Some stare in bewilderment, others warn of the health risks of the water, but many of the younger ones see it differently. In the midst of everything, they’ve put on their shorts and gone to play in the pool.

Jeff Lee
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