Hurricane Holdup

While in Donsol we had booked a tour of some of the country’s best caves near a city called Catbalogan on the island of Samar, but unfortunately unforeseen circumstances prevented us from making it there for Emily’s birthday. After leaving Donsol we caught a series of tricycles, jeepneys, and buses to a city of ill repute on the southern tip of Luzon called Matnog with the intention of catching a ferry to Samar. Our Lonely Planet guidebook advised against overnighting in Matnog at all cost, but didn’t specify exactly why so we were sure to arrive before lunch and went directly to the pier. After paying the departure fee we were informed that ferries were not running and that nobody had any clue when they would start again. When I queried the staff why this was everyone shrugged and told us we would need to ask the coast guard, who had an office around the corner. We made our way there and a giggling man informed us the ferries were all on hold due to an approaching typhoon. That region of the Philippines was on Signal 1 notice, meaning typhoon or tropical storm landfall was likely or imminent within the next 36-48 hours. We looked around the departure building and saw local families sprawled all over the dirty floor that looked like they had been there for months. Deciding sleeping next to them wasn’t for us and that we didn’t want to find out why Lonely Planet was so adamant that you don’t spend the night in Matnog we reluctantly went back to the bus station. After a characteristically Philippino lunch of mystery meat and rice we rode all the way back to Legazpi. The bus ride was strange not in that it was packed for the first few kilometers, but that soon we pulled over at a random spot in the jungle and almost all the local folks got off and onto a second bus. I asked our driver if we needed to get off as well but he assured me we didn’t and we took off, playing leap frog with the second bus for 20 minutes or so. Soon a hose blew in the engine compartment and we sat on the side of the road again while the driver and conductor messed around with it while oil pooled and leaked off the highway under the bus. They got it fixed before too long and came back on board covered in oil up to their shoulders. During the second half of the bus ride people kept getting dropped off at the side of the highway and by the time we arrived in Legazpi we were the only passengers left.

We had a hard time getting much information about the typhoon that was headed our way and because we were unsure how bad it would be we went directly to the airport to see if we could get a flight out before the storm hit. We found the offices shut down and the entire place pretty well deserted so we got a room at the airport hotel hoping they would open in the morning and we could get a last minute flight out. The next morning dawned wet and windy, and although flights were still operating they were prohibitively expensive. We still couldn’t get much information on the storm, the only news on any TV station or news website was about the Pope, who had come to visit Tacloban, the city devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, during which around 6000 people had died. Ironically he had to cut his visit short due to the approaching typhoon called Mekkhala, and left partway through his speech. No ferries were running and the flights got cancelled in the afternoon so the only option would have been to bus all the way to Manila; about a 14 hour trip. With the Pope heading there after Tacloban and an estimated 6 million people attending his speech we figured trying to move around the city or find accommodation would have been a nightmare. We resigned to wait the storm out in Legazpi, a little ways away from the coast in case of a storm surge. We moved to another hotel that had a restaurant and spent a couple of nights there. Unfortunately this coincided with Emily’s birthday so we spent it quite boringly sitting around the hotel eating cheap Philippino ice cream that soon made us both quite ill. Luckily the hotel was nice and we had a toilet in our room.

We were a bit uncertain and concerned about how things would turn out and how bad the storm would be but all the locals seemed to be conducting business as usual, with taxis and tricycles streaming past and hassling us whenever we went outside despite the storm. I think it was something reversely akin to when Ireland or southern England gets a skiff of snow and the whole place shuts down. When Canadians hear that they tend to think it’s a bit silly. We were concerned that infrastructure would be damaged by the typhoon and we would be stranded for a week, but it appeared that these low category typhoons are pretty run of the mill in the Philippines and everybody just treats it like we would a bit of a blizzard at home. After several changes of direction the typhoon ended up directly hitting us as a Category 1, the weakest category of full-fledged hurricane. The worst of it passed in the night and when I went to look outside in the morning branches were down and the streets were all under water but there was no major damage. Still it was fairly rainy and windy so we spent one more night there before catching the ferry to the neighbouring island of Masbate.

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