(In which our supposedly indefatigable protagonist remembers the experience of being on Kennon Road en route to Baguio city during the July 1990 earthquake. Apologies to those who might be offended by this piece’s light treatment of the tragedy.)
No, it’s not the online role-playing game.
It’s more like the meaning of — and I say this literally — my existence.
Twenty years ago, I could have done a favor to my enemies, past, present, and future.
I could have died, leaving many entities sad, not least of which include my future creditors whose call center agents have my number on speed dial.
Yes, I could either been buried under tons of rock, trapped inside a crumbling edifice, or swallowed up by the earth during the 1990 Baguio earthquake.
Instead, I lived, proving to one and all — friends, foes, felons, and freeloaders — that life is unfair, people live and die without any reason whatsoever, and I could yet be a prospective contestant on Survivor: Baguio City, Earthquake edition.
God — or whoever the hell is up there — may have had a special plan for me, details of which I will disclose as soon as I tune into the 700 Club (and that may take some time.)
On the afternoon of July 16, 1990, I was on a Baguio-bound bus with V., the girlfriend of my friend, confident that both of us would reach the Philippines’ summer capital by four in the afternoon.
At that time, V. and I were both Manila-based sophomores at the University of the Philippines in Baguio City and we were looking to catch our 4:00 to 5:30 PM Political Science 114 class taught by Professor Athena Casambre-Rood.
We never arrived.
When the earthquake struck, our bus was nearing Camp 2 along Kennon Road, considered then and now as the shortest but the trickiest route to the City of Pines.
Sleep proves elusive
Minutes after our bus left the stop-over in Urdaneta, Pangasinan — a mid-end restaurant called Villa Fernandina — I decided to catch some shut-eye, even if we only had an hour or two to go until we reached our destination.
Sleeping was the best option available to me at that time.
The small TV set and VCR lodged at the center of the bus was showing whatever remained of the Jean Claude Van Damme movie, whose plot nor protagonist failed to catch my interest.
Although I brought a cheap paperback — I forget now whether it dealt with Kurt Vonnegut’s chronosynclastic infindibula or Robert Ludlum’s Carlos — reading proved difficult.
The bus swayed to the curves of Kennon Road, making it hard to focus on the printed word as rendered on newsprint using a font no bigger than my brain.
The only other activity available to me involved making the moves on my traveling companion, an effort that would be viewed in bad taste, then and now.
Which is not to say that the thought never entered my mind.
On the contrary, it occurred to me with a numbing regularity.
After all, I was the first one to ask V. out, the first in my series of unsuccessful, amateurish attempts to get some serious action during my teenage years.
However, she later chose to date J., my college buddy, driving me to drink and desperation and turning me into — at that time — the world’s youngest amateur pseudo-philosopher who eased pain and heartache by ingesting various substances, alcoholic and otherwise.
But on that bus to Baguio, when I felt that I had an opportunity to steal a kiss or — better yet — cop a feel, my pretensions to being a gentleman and a good friend won out.
I didn’t make any advances before, during, and after we stared death in the face.
The earthquake strikes
All my romantic notions disappeared as soon as I attempted to sleep.
Not long after, romantic thoughts were sublimated by snoozing, pea-sized pebbles came raining down on the bus windows, in what appeared to be a miniature landslide.
The occurrence supposedly indicated that the earthquake had started (or so someone told me much later).
However, since we were cruising along, no one onboard felt any of the tremors of what would become one of the country’s strongest earthquakes.
I saw it but I ignored it.
Extended travel time on a bus was far too precious to be spent awake, a belief that I hold to this day, disaster or otherwise.
But sleep would not be possible until hours later.
Ten or so minutes into the trip, the bus lurched and made a complete stop, interrupting whatever passed for my reverie.
As soon as the door opened, the conductor jumped out, animated by what appeared to be an overzealous urge to reach the scene of the action.
From my window seat, I was able to figure out what the disruption was all about.
A boulder the size of a small planet crashed into another bus that was in front of us, splitting the vehicle into two.
The accident precluded road travel to and from the scene, unless you were riding a small vehicle (i.e., a bike, a tricycle, or a motorized piece of luggage).
Immediately, improvised stretchers — made up of nothing more than a blanket whose corners were tied up on both ends of a stick — started shuttling between the carnage and the road’s shoulder, presumably a safe spot.
Safety was relative.
Powerful aftershocks rattled our location, confusing volunteers who transported survivors.
Was it prudent to place survivors along the road shoulders, which in turn, might leave them unprotected from large falling rocks? Or should they be allowed to seek refuge inside structures — such as roadside neighborhood stores, which in turn, might collapse with another tremor and are no match for large, falling rocks?
No one knew.
However, that didn’t discourage the volunteers from helping out.
They proceeded with their heroic, thankless tasks and I just watched them, an otherwise healthy, able-bodied but nevertheless helpless college student.
From the bus window, I saw a victim’s bloodied arm hanging from one of the makeshift stretchers. I drew the curtains and sat tight, deciding that I had enough action — such as it was — to last me a year.
To this day, blood — whether in amounts big and small, imagined or otherwise — makes me dizzy, an unexplained predisposition.
This explains my lifelong aversion for slasher films, horror movies, and similarly-themed TV shows, despite their awards and critical acclamations (i.e., True Blood, Dexter).
But that, as they say, is another story.
A night inside the bus
Common sense (or whatever remained of it) prompted me to stay inside the bus at that time.
It helped prevent a fainting spell, which would have compounded the disaster and bring embarrassment to my companion and myself.
While my sense of sight was shielded from the developing tragedy outside, my sense of smell wasn’t.
The bus’ open door welcomed fertilizer fumes inside the vehicle’s interior which were released when the earth split open. Throughout the afternoon and night, the strong scent — akin to the mixture of warm soil and heavy rain — came and went like aftershocks.
At certain times during the night, the odor engulfed the cabin, its intense earthy smell a reminder of what lay beyond the fragile shell of our bus: death and devastation.
Before nightfall, some of the passengers decided to proceed to Baguio, mistakenly thinking that the city was intact.
They had the surprise of their lives when they arrived.
The city was disconnected from the outside world, accessible only by helicopters.
And since the earthquake damaged the city’s power and phone lines, the only forms of communication possible were through carrier pigeons, smoke signals, and mental telepathy.
Singing, clapping, and shouting were also available but were disallowed for fear of waking up the neighbors.
Mobile phones first made their inaugural appearance during the days after the earthquake, arguably their first in a Philippine disaster relief operation.
However, since V. and I had no access to such technology and neither of us were clairvoyants, we chose to wait it out for the night.
Manila was four or so hours away and we barely had any idea what the trip back, let alone traveling conditions, would be like.
So we were fated to spend the night inside the bus.
The only other accommodation available was a makeshift eatery — a simple affair composed of a G.I. sheet tethered on a four wooden poles covering a long table and a bench.
It was staffed by people whose hospitality we were already unwilling to test.
With nothing but goodwill, the staff was prompted serve us supper, using up more than their monthly reserves of food, patience, and Tagalog phrases.
As we wolfed down our meals that night, tremors broke out more than once, interrupting our impromptu dining experience. These aftershocks forced us to run to the middle of the road, with the mistaken notion that it was safer than being inside the shack.
During one powerful aftershock that lasted five seconds, I waited for V., ran outside, stumbled, and nearly stabbed myself with a spoon.
After two or three times of playing earthquake hide and seek, we finally managed to finish our supper.
With nothing else to do, we boarded the bus, settled in our seats, and tried to sleep.
Despite our exhaustion, sleep wasn’t easy, thanks to the occasional aftershock and whatever remained of the Van Damme movie.
Here comes the judge
Early the next day, V. and I chose to go back to Manila, a decision that would later prove prudent.
Radio reports aired at that time indicated that among the cities badly damaged by the earthquake were Baguio, Cabanatuan, and Dagupan.
As we retrieved our luggage, the driver and the conductor both bid us a safe trip, telling us that they were duty-bound to stay with the bus.
V. and I walked along Kennon until we reached an area that was served by tricycles in a peculiar, ad hoc fashion.
These tricycles ferried passengers up to a point where the road was blocked by rubble.
As soon as travelers walked to the other side of the rubble, another set of tricycles plied the route until the next roadside blockade.
Drivers on both routes charged us P25 apiece, worth roughly $1 at that time. (A dollar in 1989 is worth $1.79 in 2010, which makes the fare P45, going by my own estimates.)
After traversing both routes, we reached Rosario in La Union, where we got on a regular Olongapo-bound Philippine Rabbit bus.
Since we were too stressed to travel to Manila, we decided to get off at Urdaneta in Pangasinan, where J.’s dad — and my companion’s prospective father-in-law at that time — was a judge.
We arrived shortly after lunch, when our host was finished with his duties for the day.
Pleased by his two unexpected visitors, His Honor decided to drive us to Dagupan, which was an hour away.
With very little explanation, the judge — who at that time was already nearing retirement age — motioned us to the used but nevertheless elegant golden brown Opel Rekord.
With a single hand gesture, he ordered us to climb inside.
We did as we were told since we were in no position to disobey, let alone risk being charged with contempt.
During that late afternoon drive, we saw a stretch of highway ripped asunder, rendering it unpassable.
Blocks of concrete lay scattered on the brown earth, jumbled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that would take months to repair.
Beyond the rubble was a clear and undamaged stretch of highway as far as the eye could see.
The Opel Rekord, the pride of German automotive engineering, could have crept along the uneven road.
However, I no longer recall whether the rubble discouraged us from proceeding to the Dagupan.
What I can distinctly remember is that the disaster sharpened my sense of being alive.
As we drove back to Urdaneta that afternoon,
I relished that sensation, the feeling of security and safety, while on the front seat of a roomy, mid-sized sedan, a cool wind blowing into my face.
It was unforgettable.