A Filipino breakfast in the teeth of Typhoon Lando.
By Benjamin Freeman
Light / Dark
Water tickles my ankles. Wind hammers against the windows. Bang. Bang. Bang. A break for breath before the hammer starts again. Pete stirs on a bed two meters away. I try to block out the memory of signing a waiver. Pete puts his feet down on the floor.
He stands up, quickly moving his bag from a chair to a bench.
“You check on the surfboards?”
Pete walks toward the door to the balcony. Bang. He steps back. Everything rattles.
“Is Holly asleep?” I ask.
“I think so.”
The building shakes and there’s a shriek. I wait for a flash of lightning. Nothing. I crouch beside my bed. The windows whistle. I could be standing on a platform as a train flies by. But I’m not. I’m in Baler, a small town on the east coast of the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Outside is a typhoon, Typhoon Lando, of which I’ve been told three things: It will meet land in Baler, it may cause a tidal wave, and it will shut down the roads back to Manila.
Macoy, a middle-aged Rod Stewart fan who drove us here, delivered this information on the seven-hour journey north from the capital this morning. He was noncommittal about potential damage or duration.
I search for my phone. No reception. The water splashes as I walk back to the bed.
Before the storm, in the afternoon, we stride past the hotel’s empty pool with surfboards. A member of the staff stops us.
“The police aren’t letting people on the beach.”
He points at a row of cops in bright-blue polo shirts watching the ocean from the dirt walkway. By the time we reach the rivermouth, we can see the police moving. By the time we jump in the water, we can hear them yelling. Six-foot sets march toward us and we paddle, struggling against the sweep and slow-moving beasts.
There are four teenagers sitting out the back on yellowed surfboards, one with its nose completely missing. They hoot and yell us into waves between their own. We spend 90 minutes battling the current before returning to the shore. Sprinting through the back streets, we’re able to avoid the police as the clouds grow darker. We laugh at the extremity as a rooster crows.
When we wake up, the apartment is shin deep in water, and we talk through the pros and cons of opening the door. It boils down to this: We can go outside. We don’t know what’s out there.
After some back-and-forth, we decide to open the door. The side of our hotel is on the ground. A collection of the hotel’s staff is gathered round the metal guard, roughly the size of a bus.
“Has it gone?” I ask one of them.
He points north across the millions of trees that make up the province of Aurora.
“Is there anything we can do?”
“Wait for breakfast. We’ll bring it to your room. Just fruit.”
Wood is strewn everywhere and people move between the remnants, picking up various parts of their homes. I try not to look at anything or anyone for too long.
On the black-sand beach, Pete is pushing ahead and out of sight. Until he isn’t. He’s running back at full speed. Holly and I stop.
“Waves,” he says, then points and breathes. “Down there.”
“Let’s go check it.”
“No. Just get the boards.”
We stride back to the hotel. Pete’s at the edge of hyperventilation. I ask him if he wants to eat or have a sip of water.
He tosses the board bag into the water on the floor. Holly and I are frozen.
“You sure you’re good?”
“Yes. Come on.”
I take a few pieces of pineapple on the way out.
It’s firing. Pete has his head in his hands. It’s about 5 foot, maybe bigger on the sets, and there are A-frames rolling in continuously. The ocean is the color of clay.
“Try not to open your mouth,” Pete says.
Holly, early in her surfing journey, elects to stay with our stuff for the first hour while we figure things out. There are six guys in the lineup, and we walk out along a shallow bank for about 50 meters. The water is warm and each step is eased into. We break up the dirt in the water, cascading sediment out in tiny waves.
The left is slightly hollower than the right. On my backside, with a 6’6″ single-fin, I struggle to take off directly into the barrel, a necessary line in order to make the section. On my way back out after one failed attempt, I watch Pete stroke into one of the more solid sets, jam his back foot down, and grab his rail. He emerges seconds later and spots a tree trunk drifting into his path. He jumps straight off, hitting the water like the weight on a fishing line. The trunk floats by and Pete reappears. The locals don’t speak much English, but they raise two and then three fingers to indicate how often this wave breaks. We take this to mean every two to three years, when the rain is significant enough for the rivermouth to break open.
“How lucky are we?” I ask.
No one responds.
After a few hours, we’re thirsty and wrinkled. I struggle to come to terms with the fact that barrels can be so certain. Standing on the beach, we agree it’s time to go get water and shower. The sediment has started to bake onto our skin. Dogs run around us on the way back, and we make comparisons to other waves we’ve surfed or seen. We talk fiercely until we reach the families on the street. Then our heads go down.
We’ve been moved to a room with a dry floor. The restaurant is open, and we watch news about Typhoon Lando, reported internationally as Typhoon Koppu. So far there are several fatalities (later totaled at 62, with 82 injured and five missing) and many people displaced (approximately half a million). The roads out of the province have been closed, and there’s no information as to when they might reopen. I ask the hotel staff how much food they have.
“Enough for three or four days.”
I flick through photos of waves from the day.
We walk into town the next day. The waterway feeding the rivermouth is racing to push the town into the ocean. We stand on the bridge and watch. Large chunks of houses and dismembered tricycles race by.
Some of the stores have reopened. One of them is renting motor scooters. We take three and drive up the coast toward a reefbreak nestled in mangroves we’d seen online.
At the entrance to the mangroves there’s a man at a desk. He’s selling packets of chips, biscuits, and Coca-Cola. He gives a thumbs-up as we park. The dampness of the vegetation punctures every breath. We push through the various sticks and leaves and insects, looking for some kind of exit.
“We should leave markers on the way back so we can find it when we have our boards,” says Pete.
We stay in the mangroves, sinking further and further until we finally make a clearing. There’s no sign of swell and no sign of a reefbreak. We stand there, defeated. It is, however, beautiful. Holly walks ahead, up to the rocky outlook that offers a view back over Baler. The sun is shining and the trees stand tall over the hills. The only sign of destruction is the dotted streams of smoke coming from town. When we get back to the scooters, the man offers another thumbs-up and a Coca-Cola. There’s a fish on the desk now and the sun hits its skin, giving the illusion of a rainbow.
The surf gets smaller over the course of a few days until it’s not breaking anymore. The roads out of the province open. We sit in the hotel restaurant and drink pineapple juice until Macoy arrives, hurtling through the lobby, wearing a neon-blue T-shirt and camouflage pants.
Once we load the boards and bags into Macoy’s van, he stops and calls us over. He pulls out a flip phone and shows us a photo. It’s of him sitting cross-legged on top of a fridge. The water is up to the freezer. There are books on his lap.
“Macoy, what happened?”
“Very much rain. I sat for seven hours, waiting for water to go down.”
“You sat on the fridge?”
“My family go to safe place. I stay. Protect the house. Fridge gone. Clothes gone. All I have is books for kids.”
He looks up from his phone and smiles.
“Are you finished with your juice?” he says.
He shuts the phone.
“Okay, let’s go.”
“Young Turks” plays as we pull away from the hotel. Macoy taps the steering wheel fiercely. I sink into the seat as we ascend the hills, grit between my teeth. I don’t know whether it’s pineapple or sediment.
[Illustration by Oriana Fenwick for The Surfer’s Journal]