Karl M. Gaspar/CSsR
Not having heard what the weather forecast was for the weekend of June 21, 2008, I thought it would be wonderful. I was in Iligan City that week and looked forward to returning home to Davao by the afternoon of Saturday, to catch up with a Board meeting of an environmental NGO in a place called Sanctuary in Maa Hills.
Since it was opened to the public a few years ago, I have always loved traveling through the Narcisco Ramos Highway connecting Zamboanga del Sur, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao and Cotabato before reaching Davao. Having traveled this route during my childhood years, I missed it badly when traffic disappeared from this route owing to the troubles from the late l960s through the l970s-1990s. When it finally opened again for passenger vehicles, I gave up going towards Western Mindanao via Buda-Cagayan de Oro, preferring theRamos highway despite friends’ well-meaning warnings that this route could be dangerous.
It is dangerous alright but not in the sense that my friends alluded to. They meant, of course, danger in terms of the possibilities of kidnapping, being caught in a rido crossfire, finding oneself in the midst of skirmishes between government troops and rebels and the like. For those whose fears are so deeply embedded in their psyche, traveling through the Ramos highway is a form of a suicide. And yet, few of them would have actually experienced traveling through this highway which I would consider one of the most beautiful in Mindanao.
Unfortunately, after June 21, I must concede there is danger along this highway. However, in terms of my actual concrete experience of this wet Saturday, the danger is ecological rather than linked to peace and order violence. Lives are as much at stake in such an environmental scenario as one where high-powered guns could instantly end people’s lives.
Until we reached Malabang, Lanao del Norte that cloudy, dark Saturday morning, I was still hoping no untoward incident would mar our trip towards Cotabato City. However, just as we cruised beyond the town limits of Malabang, the rains poured. Since there had been heavy rains the previous night, it was clear that the highway would double as a river Muddy water flowed freely down the highway which, at various points, was at a lower level than the sides of the road. All waters from the hills and adjacent slopes flowed towards the road.
Inside the van, 24 of us – men, women and children – sat cramped and still as we began to worry that the rushing waters would stop the van from proceeding further. Despite our weight – since the van was packed not just with passengers but also luggage and boxes (including one with chickens!) – the van managed to roll along. The turtle-pace of the trip intensified the suspense as we all worried that the engine would conk out any minute since the wheels of the van were now deep in water.
The more than 30 kilometer distance between Malabang and Balabagan was a nightmare! The rains continued to pour; the waters continued to rise! At some high ground of the highway where we had a respite, there was a lot of debris including stones washed down by the rushing waters. Meanwhile, at some point along the coastal road, one noticed that parts of the concrete cement road were being claimed by the angry waves of the sea. I thought a lot of repair would be needed when the sky cleared up.
Another thought crept into my consciousness when I realized what was beyond Balabagan. I remembered what I had heard earlier regarding a crucial link in this highway which had caused deep, frustrating inconvenience for commuters. This link is in the border of the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao. Barangay Bayangan, in the town of Matanog (in Maguindanao) is located at this juncture. There is a wonderful concrete ark at this border designed along the architectural lines of a mosque. From Lanao del Sur side, one reads what is embedded at the top of this ark, written in English: Welcome to Maguindanao.
Travelling from Lanao del Sur, as the van cruises down the highway on a clear day, on one’s left, one sees a wonderful sight: a small lake surrounded by gently rolling hills planted to coconut. Beyond the hills, there are low-lying mountains with forests. (One is not surprised that there are still forests in this part of Lanao; loggers do fear forests that could serve as hiding places of rebels.) The highway goes down to the level of the lake and proceeds to follow its contours until it goes up a hill.
The horror story I’ve heard earlier was that because this border is situated within a cove, when rains pour, the lake overflows. The highway disappears even as the houses of the people living here are submerged in deep water. The traffic across this part of the road ceases and drivers and passengers are left to their own devices to find out how they can proceed with their travel. As there is no outlet for the waters, people had to wait for days until the waters subside and the road again can be used.
What worsens the situation is that there is no cell site near and around this border. The cell phone technology is no help and one can only know about how bad the situation is in Bayangan by actually being there.
Such was our case that Saturday morning. My only consolation was that I intuited it earlier while we were still cruising the highway from Malabang to Balabagan. I continuously crossed my fingers and offered prayers that Bayangan would not create problems for us and I could make it to Davao City by afternoon.
It was not meant to be and I knew it as soon as I saw the overflow of the lake waters across Bayangan where the houses were now submerged by floodwaters. I immediately saw that young children were swimming across what was the highway as adults walked with waters reaching their breasts. There were about 50 vehicles that got stranded along the highway when we reached the troubled calamity spot. The whole population of Bayangan and the nearby villages were all gathered there despite the rains. There was a lot of activity going around: men willing to push vehicles for a fee, carts being used to transport goods from one side of the flooded area to the other and CAFGUs securing the place. (Naturally, as in other calamity zones, there were enterprising villagers who spontaneously put up stores where food was for sale!)
The rains continued to pour as dark clouds hovered. It was 12 noon but it was quite dark already. Everyone was afraid we would be stuck there for the night. No one wanted to return back to Malabang as the floods there could have worsened. For whatever reason, negotiations to bring passengers across the flooded area – to then take the vans on the other side and proceed to their respective destinations – did not prosper.
I survived the tedious waiting by being a participant observer to the goings on in the calamity zone. I gave up hoping to be in Davao City that day. Once the pressure was off, I could relax and enjoy the sights. Fortunately, there was no risk that the waters would further rise and sweep us unlike in other areas where the rivers swelled and threatened to engulf everyone. Here was humanity on the verge of tragedy and yet asserting their agency in terms of earning a living, making the best of the situation, inter-acting with one another and finding ways to overcome an inconvenient moment in their lives.
Eventually, the drivers found a solution to this stalemate. They tapped on the labor for hire (P10 per person who would push a light vehicle). They found ways to disconnect parts of the vehicles that had to be secured and kept dry, placed them inside plastic bags and transported to the other side on the carts. Passengers also were ferried by the carts across the waters; as the elderly and young stayed inside the vehicles. Then the men pushed the vehicles through the waters.
That was how we escaped the calamity zone. But it took hours of ingenious maneuverings, thanks to the drivers’ sense of tapping on resources that were available. We had to pay P20 each for the additional expenses though. In the spirit of bayanihan, those who didn’t have P20 asked those who had extra money to cover up for them.
That was not the end of the story. Farther up in Parang, we continued to flee the floods as rivers were swollen. We felt like flood evacuees as we inter-acted with those who were actually being evacuated from their flooded homes across Maguindanao. At various sites, there were fire trucks, garbage trucks and other government vehicles on standby to ferry the flood evacuees to safer grounds.
I thought we would make it to the last van leaving Cotabato City for Davao City late that afternoon as we entered the town of Sultan Kudarat before 4 PM. However, when we were near the Simuay River, another calamity zone rose in the horizon. Earlier that day, the river got swollen and overflowed through the rice fields and across the low-lying areas of Sultan Kudarat. Traffic stood at a standstill as people resorted to riding on bancas to get across.
There was no way we could get a van in Cotabato City. On our side of the rode, there were no vans or Weena buses that would travel to Davao City. Our only hope was to catch a van in Midsayap. A few of us traveling together from Lanao del Sur found a van to Midsayap. Along the way, there were still people fleeing the floods fearfully as one saw the waters rising from Pigcawayan all the way to parts of Midsayap. Our van barely made it to Midsayap. There we were told that the last van for Davao had left an hour earlier. It was already past 5 PM.
No use resisting what was to be our luck that day. Midsayap was to be the place for a well-deserved rest for me that night, thanks to the OMIs.
Early the following morning, I left on a van for Davao City. Reaching the city, I glanced at the newspaper headlines. Typhoon Frank had caused destruction across the country!