A Category Three Christmas
It's not letting up, I thought.
The wind screamed and wailed, bending the thin walls of our beachfront cabin with every gust stronger than the one before. It had been getting worse all night, this damn weather. I'd been startled awake hours earlier by the ear splitting sound of palm trees being whipped into a frenzy, their branches cracking, and it had now become clear the tropical storm we were told to expect had turned into something far more sinister.
Grey dawn light nudged its way in between the wooden slats. The “charming” rustic cabin we so eagerly rented two days before no longer held such appeal. Oh for some bricks and mortar, I thought. I'd never wanted a wall more in my life.
I turned in bed to look at C, deep in his phone in the early morning gloom, “Christ, aren't you worried?”. He didn't look up. “It'll pass, we're fine” he replied absently.
We definitely were not fine. Another howling gust blasted through the left wall, the bamboo rain covers flapped helplessly. I got out of bed and tentatively looked outside. The sea, just a few metres away, was unrecognisable. What yesterday had been calm and blue was now a raging boiling beast. Huge breakers reared up and plummeted with such force I could have been looking at the Atlantic, not the calm tropical waters of the Tablas Strait. It twisted and rose with the wind, facing off against an old foe.
I jumped as the door flew open sending soaked wind racing into the cabin, “Hey!” cried C, the sheets of the bed flying on to the floor. That's when I noticed Mandy, the sprightly South African owner of the resort, running down the beach towards us. “Merry Christmas!” she called brightly through the gale and horizontal rain. “I'm asking all the guests to come over to the restaurant for some brekka. Do you want a cappuccino?” she screamed, though only a few steps away. Is she blind? I thought. Armageddon is upon us. “Sure!” I smiled.
We arrived drenched and barefoot into the restaurant without walls, just a few wooden beams holding up a barely there roof. Mandy and her team passed around Champagne as we all watched the roof of the kitchen building rip away and fly into the swell. “Bloody hell,” I muttered to C as I took a gulp of bubbles, “this is bonkers”. We exchanged nervous glances with our fellow travellers across the fallen Christmas tree. “What would you like with your eggs?” Mandy was going around taking breakfast orders wearing a Santa hat.
A wardrobe from one of the cabins floated past on a huge wave.
The Filipino barman we had chatted to the night before sat down beside us soaked, wrapped in a towel. “That German guy there just had to rescue me from the staff dormitory through the window. The doors have collapsed.” We looked in the direction he was pointing and saw the long building resting at a peculiar angle, like someone had shoved it from one end. “Are you ok?” I asked concerned, “Oh yeah” he smiled, “The German turned up with a waterproof pack of supplies and got me out really quick!”. German efficiency just when you need it, I thought. “We had another typhoon at the beginning of December too, this one is worse though”. My heart jumped “so..this is a typhoon?” , another gust tore the roof off one of the cabins. “Oh yeah, it was upgraded to a category three last night.”
I was seeing for the first time what weather is truly capable of. Growing up in England the worst we got was the odd gale or maybe half an inch of snow that brought the country to a standstill. We had lived in the Philippines for a year now, an island nation known for being the most dangerous in the world to live when it comes to natural disasters. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons – Filipinos lived at the constant mercy of the elements. Two large earthquakes had happened since we arrived, one killing more than 20 people, buried under buildings while shopping and sitting in classrooms. News like this was always tragic, but sadly expected in a country crisscrossed by fault lines.
We sat shaking and cold as the staff busied themselves trying to maintain a level of calm impossible in such a dangerous situation. The family who were staying in the cabin next to ours sang to their toddler while he played with a bauble from the tree. He was unconcerned by the noise and chaos, his parents less so.
A huge crash from behind. We all turned to see the rear end of the restaurant's roof collapse. The wooden beams at the back of the room suddenly buckled and the wind tore through the new space. We all leapt to our feet, “Move everybody move!!” screamed Mandy, finally throwing off her calm facade. C grabbed my hand and we all ran barefoot onto the beach as the roof caved. Immediately we were pummelled by flying sand that tore at our bare skin. Tree branches skimmed past our heads while sheets of dense rain flew into my eyes turning the world blurry.
We ran, blindly. Starfish and coral lay strewn across the beach wrenched out of the ocean by the wind and waves. I struggled to stand against the gusts, hunching down with every one, eyes shut and heart pounding. C grabbed my arm and pulled me along. Coral split my bare feet.
We ran and ran, but I had an idea of where we were heading.
There was just one other nearby property on this tiny peninsula in a remote part of one of the remotest archipelagoes in the Philippines. A villa owned by an Aussie guy who rented us a motorbike the day before, I could picture where it was through the squall. Stopping and starting as the wind nearly blew us off our feet I peered through the rain and could make out the palms of the villa's front lawn. Everyone was up ahead. I couldn't hear a thing but the wind and an occasional scream from someone. I had never been so frightened.
C dragged me by the arm turning sharply off the beach onto grass. It felt blissful on my battered feet. Finally we saw the porch. Bricks and mortar. A roof. In tact. The relief washed over me as I saw the Aussie and his family standing there with towels, seemingly waiting for us. “Thank you!” we all seemed to cry in unison. “Of course, take a towel, head inside” he replied, his two little kids staring up at these bedraggled strangers invading their home. “Alright?” C asked me, panting with hair sticking up in all angles. “Yeah” I replied tearfully. It had all been a bit much and it wasn't even 9am.
We stayed there through the storm. Watching it pummel the land and completely destroy the resort we had just escaped from. Spirits lifted by hot tea and the heady knowledge that we were all finally safe, we started to calm down. Mandy sat in tears on the porch having just watched her livelihood disintegrate before her eyes. It would turn out she wasn't the only one who would lose everything.
The storm raged for a couple more hours then disappeared as quickly as it had started. The wind suddenly died, the rain eased off and finally the sun broke through the pitch black sky. The sea resumed its calmness, reverting back to a tropical bath tub with no hint of its tumultuous alter ego.
We drank and tried to laugh about the day's events that evening and all fell into various beds just after sun down. It had been quite a day.
The next morning was glorious. The sun beat down onto the total devastation, the air still and heavy over fallen trees and buildings. We walked along the beach to the remains of the resort to try to find our belongings. Shoes were the first thing on my mind. But we were surprised to find a huge line of children waiting along the beach. It turned out that every year Mandy hands out Christmas presents to the local children and the box that contained this year's gifts had miraculously survived in tact.
The children waited patiently for their gifts, skipping and running in pairs once they received them. Wrapping paper was strewn everywhere, excited kids bending over their new toy trucks and dolls, running them along the sand and playing. “Merry Christmas!!” a few of them called out to us as we passed. “Merry Christmas!” we smiled.