Sunday, February 8, 2015

THE ISLAND

I jumped off the boat and landed with a splash, the shallow waters swirling around my ankles.


The boatmen carefully navigated our vessel into a small bay which was sheltered from the open sea as I breathed in the beauty of my surroundings. It was mid-morning and we had arrived at Malawing - one of the many small islands in the northern archipelago of the Phillippines. 


Beams of sunshine pranced off crystal clear aquamarine waves. Greyish stone cliffs arose sharply from the ocean with sparse boughs and weeds awkwardly protruding in a haphazard manner. The shore lay before us in welcome, a blissful stretch of unadulterated pure golden white sand as far as the eye could see.

We were there on a disaster relief trip. Typhoon Haiyan had wreaked devastating damage throughout the region. Regrettably, the worst inflicted areas were also the ones with most difficult access. The route from Malaysia to Manila (flight), Manila to Cebu (flight), Cebu to the New Tribes Mission base in Coron (jeep), Coron to Bueno Vista (jeep), and finally Bueno Vista to Malawing (boat) had taken us a total time of roughly 20 hours.



Led by our local guide, we began our trek towards the town - if you could call it that. The houses were hardly more than huts ; four planks placed at right angles to each other with zinc sheets plonked atop as a roof. Most had been destroyed by the typhoon, but a lonely few stood about here and there.



We soon attracted the attention of the children on the island. They trailed along with our group, innocently curious towards this bunch of strange people in their midst. 




Reaching the site where the rebuilding was taking place, we were informed that we would start by levelling the ground. Grasping shovels, we set about the laborious task.




Hours later, the team called for a breather.



I made my way to a nearby cove, eager for a dip in the water to douse the fury of the blazing summer sun. I spent a good half hour sitting amidst the rocky pools enjoying the strong sea breeze before I decided it was time to return.


As I headed back, I stopped by a small hut. Inside was a young girl holding a baby. She smiled at me briefly, then started nursing the child whom I'd first assumed was her sibling. Later, a local woman told me that the girl was only 13 years old. 

From other conversations that day, I learned that the only thing that the natives cared for was basic survival - living off the sea and whatever sparse vegetation they were able to grow on the brutal conditions of the island, growing old, and passing away for their children to continue the harsh cycle.





There was no money or currency to speak of. Groups of men fished while the women farmed. Catch and harvest were distributed equally amongst all. Most would never leave the island.



I still think about the girl, her large round eyes listlessly vacant with a baby suckling her breast.

What about purpose beyond satisfying a man?
What about the world and everything it beholds?
What about the life beyond that speck of an island?

But it would be foolish, perhaps even callously insensitive to enquire.

So I held my silence.

While incidents like these make me reflect and realize how incredibly fortunate I am, they also carry a tinge of guilt. Guilt that I was borne into the world to a more favourable set of circumstances, thus leading to wider possibilities and brighter opportunities. Not that I did anything to deserve it - but by mere sleight of fate.










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