“Linog nasad daw sa Japan”, is how a talkative taxi driver greets his dried mouth passenger still adjusting to the chills of dawn air. After finding out the destination, Pier 3 please, for the first trip to Tagbilaran, he rattles on more details like a cheerful morning newscaster.
A 7.1 magnitude earthquake has hit the east coast of Japan, about the same magnitude to the one that has just hit the island of Bohol.
The shake, unseen but never quiet, has once again chosen Fukushima where the infamous 9.0 magnitude monster hit in 2011. The one that triggered a tsunami. Brought down a nuclear plant. And left in its path 19,000 casualties.
19,000. The number is easy enough to say. Just as it’s as easy to tally Bohol’s own 170. Or its 80,000 now-displaced families.
Even Japan, in its statements, downplays it by saying they have gotten used to such magnitudes.
But Bohol hasn’t.
On the fastcraft, a fellow passenger is undecided who to worry for more: her relatives stuck in the impassable areas of Clarin, or a brother whose boat is stationed in Tokyo for the weekend.
Two wounded animals. To hold on to just one, or none, is intolerable.
To hold on to both, demanding in their helplessness, surprisingly, is comfort.
Holding on. It becomes a coping mechanism, at least for those in Tagbilaran Port where water and food supplies are hauled as early as 6:00 AM.
With an injured Departure Area that now leans towards the sea, Tagbilaran is a busy mix of those in uniform, port men with heavy carts and shirts with corporate logos, ready to put the brunt of their CSR funds to a wounded island.
Overhead, helicopters are flying in and out, filling the air with a whirring sound, the noise of restless movement. Similar to a crack. The vibration of glass.
“Lahi man ang earthquake diri gud. Diba didto sa Cebu side to side man? Diri kay up and down jud.”, comments a volunteer.
While Cebu is near enough to be an empathizing friend, it also has adequate distance to be objective, to be “unhelpless”. The same can be said for Tagbilaran, incurring a mere gash compared to all the open wounds in Sagbayan.
Always, Signs of Hope
The closer to the epicenter though, the more there is a falling of some sort, a distortion in way of life. Balilihan has renamed itself into “Ali Ihan”, so says its market signage. Pews from deconstructed churches are brought outside, with a parishioner or two kneeling, praying even at scorching midday. And its municipality hall has been installed with a more natural ventilation system, a huge hole on the facade sliced with chairs and other innards sticking out.
But always, signs of hope.
A truck, Helping Hands Mormons it says, passes by the narrow road of Balilihan, enough to fit one, followed by sacks and sacks of rice.
Most roads are better now. Construction debris are everywhere. What the earthquake has left behind – cracked asphalt, rows of toppled trees – have now been replaced by cement mixers and construction workers that continue to connect bridges even after work hours.
Immediately after 7.2, another volunteer explains, it took about 6 hours to reach the epicenter from Tagbilaran, now it has normalized back to 2. Despite its narrowness and patches of dirt, trucks sand V-Hires with “Bangon Bohol” signs rush in and out.
Reaching Catigbian, another municipality, the V-Hire Driver, Allan, points to some sinkholes, collapsed parts that bring with it trees and other unfortunate life back underground.
With his dark humor, Allan shares anecdotes with such wryness, I wonder later which really happened and which he made up. In Catigbian, he narrates, a sinkhole swallowed three houses whole. Fatefully, people were out at that time. But coming back from a basketball game, and seeing his mother grieving from the loss, a son asks unfazed, “Ma, giunsa diay nimo atong balay?”.
Allan has learned to laugh despite. Used to his role as tour guide, he points to newly-built mansions, American-type homes with new paint, that have collapsed completely. Three-story residences have crumbled into one, and what once were balconies have now become makeshift patios leveling the ground.
Then, a few yards after, he points to shacks still whole and unmoved.
“Awa, mas nindot ra jud ning simple o.” as if somehow to say, only build what you need.
Oh, but Allan, who’s to know about these things? Disasters never ask permission, I wanted to say. And they’re almost always is unequivocal in their ruin. Social status? What is that to an earthquake?
A Tent City in San Agustin
The Sagbayan landscape speaks of brokenness. So much that it need not be introduced, this piece of land where the quake rippled from.
Hills, once geometrically perfect mounds, now look like half-eaten Peanut Kisses. Its newly-exposed limestone gleam in the heat. And brown flakes that once coated its surface, the very reason for its distinction, now take on a fragility despite its size.
At town centers, most commercial buildings are down. It has become a whole strip of rubble, unrecognizable where one ends and the other begins.
Sagbayan has 24 barangays. A good number are more mountainous, less accessible. San Agustin, where people are already lined up ,waiting for the new batch of relief goods, is easier to get to. Its Elementary School is unscathed.
While classes are still out, most residents like Alicia, a matronly-50 year old teacher still bringing with her school papers to check, have pitched a tent on their formation ground. She leaves her husband behind in the mountains to watch over the house. It is better this way, she says. He guards the residence. She gets the relief goods.
It is not the things her husband is mindful of. But perhaps the familiar routines of a home. Where he puts his coffee, his slippers, his hat. The exact intensity for the door to close. Or perhaps that bend going to the kitchen. Familiarities the homeless can no longer go back to. Yes, the husband chooses the familiar. Alicia chooses what’s safe.
In Sagbayan, they are no longer one and the same.
Alicia is not alone. San Agustin has turned into Tent City with tarps of yellow and blue, still smelling of chemicals. It is the safest option, so people relay. Functional. Easy. But most of all, light, so that even when it topples, the hurt is trivial, closer to none.
Even residents with sound structures choose to camp outside. The underlying context being they are still too afraid to go back to a house made of concrete and wood, nails and glass. Anything that could hurt.
It is a hot afternoon in the barangay with short drizzles in between. While waiting for their turn in the line for relief goods, I overhear two women talking. One worries about how to haul her three bags home, each with 2 liters of water and a can of sardines. Enough for another day.
Her daughter, the one who was supposed to help, was still in the cemetery, trying to fix the resting grounds of the husband she buried just two weeks ago. With the constant aftershocks, the cement has given way, exposing the coffin.
The quake excused no residences. Even those in their final homes.
Grasping Second Chances
For the living though, 7.2 has become a test of which to hold on to. Which to let go of too, surely. But as those who have lost far too much in a matter of 20 seconds will tell you, holding on is more instinctual.
Like in the case of Charity, a mother lining up at a free medical mission. “Naglaag man gud ko pagkahitabo.“, she says, going to a neighbor’s house for snacks and tsismis. With her is her 9-month old but three of her other kids, she chose to leave with her 70-year old mother at home.
As soon as the shake started, she ran as fast as she could, thinking of heavy dividers and high cabinets. things that could trap or topple. She found them, her kids and the mother, still inside their house, unable to move.
“Dugay-dugay sad sila kagawas oi.”, she says narrating to me while waiting for doctors to tend to her sick child. Whether she says this with regret or relief is unknown.
But when second chances are given, the only thing to do is clinch it tightly, hoping something is done with it, in time.
At end of day, in another world, the one made of images and anecdotes (Facebook, in other words), earthquake posts continue to crop up. There are appeals for help, bad pickup lines and pouring photos of devastation.
Sitting inside a tent however, taking a photo of a father and child with an automatic need to expose the moment, I realize how the digital world falls short, and will always fall short, to sensation and a sense of place.
Facebook will not feel the plight of having to go six houses away to relieve yourself. Or the ache of bad back from hunching in a tarp. Or the coldness of a cement floor. Or having three meals straight out of a can.
But really, this is short of chastising, a shove in the mouth. And it might be me, more than it is Bohol. Because what Bohol more of is, is an acceptance of some sort.
“Hala, bago jud nga tarp gihatag ninyo sah.”
“Daghang Salamat jud sa pag-anhi ha. Layo-layo pa baya tong byahe.”
“Ai, sa unsa ra gud inyong mahatag. Di man mi mamili.”
It takes a certain distortion , a visit to Bohol, to realize all these things that can hardly be imagined in the confines of the comfortable. A decent toilet. A bed. A hand to clasp. All things worth holding on to.
And to bear the tremors of loved ones all at once in your arms.
To have the ability to choose what is familiar and safe at the same time.
To still feel. For all things struggling and in need.
For that, only gratitude.