Punta is so remote I often feel only typhoons know it
By Leticia M. Subang
Inquirer News Service
The author is a former reporter of Business Day. Her children, who were vacationing on Panaon Island, survived the landslides that killed more than 100 of her relatives. -- Editor
IT IS difficult to describe how much Punta, a village in the remote municipality of San Francisco on Panaon Island, Southern Leyte, means to my family.
I take my three children there regularly just so they will know the value of keeping one's family ties intact.
In 1976 we were there to honor my grandfather's only request -- that no matter where we were at that time, we would gather together in Punta on his 80th birthday.
In 1999 we were there to celebrate my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. And we started planning for my father's 80th birthday in November.
Punta, 1.5 kilometers away from the town center of San Francisco, is where we hold our clan's regular May reunions. We wanted to have such reunions every two years, but with 2004 an election year, we decided to hold the next get-together in 2005. Relatives who had migrated to the cities and overseas have promised to start saving for the trip home.
But there is no more Punta to go home to. Most of the clan's elders are gone. As of the last account, only three of the elders, all first cousins of my father's, survived the deadly landslides.
Today, my husband Joy de los Reyes and I will be in Punta. (This is the first time that my whole family will spend Christmas there. Normally, my parents would visit us in Manila during Christmas, after which they would have their medical checkup.)
Our children -- Antonio Isabelo, Aida Corazon and Jose Socrates -- had gone ahead and arrived there last Friday. (Antonio and Aida are both Philippine Science High School students; Jose is a Grade 5 student at the Ateneo de Manila University.)
I had arranged for a van to take them from Tacloban, passing Hilongos to collect their two cousins and my father's two-year-old great-grandson, who were coming in from Cebu and then proceeding to Liloan, where my sister Rebecca was waiting. She had just arrived from Canada with her French Canadian husband for a three-week vacation.
As the road between Liloan and San Francisco was already impassable by then because of the continuous rains, the group proceeded to San Francisco by pump boat, an hour-long trip around the island.
Little did we know that an hour after the children arrived in San Francisco at 5 p.m. on Dec. 19, tragedy would strike.
Relatives tried to call me Friday night but I was beyond reach as I was working overtime on a book project. They were hesitant to call my cousin Eddie, who drives for us, because they did not want to tell him that his parents, nephew and niece were missing.
Power was out and, consequently, phone lines were down in San Francisco. It was a call from my aunt in Davao that jolted me early Saturday morning. Then another cousin in San Francisco thought of turning on his generator so relatives could call out.
And that was how I received an eyewitness account from my cousin Ricky, village council chairperson of Punta.
The extent of the devastation started to become clear to me. Soon, relatives working in Metro Manila were calling me, and I spent the whole day repeating the grim story Ricky had told-that at least 80 members of our clan may have died in the landslides.
Our death toll, as relayed to me early yesterday morning, is now over 100.
PUNTA is so remote that I often feel only the typhoons, which never fail to visit it every year, know it exists.
Life has never been easy in Punta, a village of subsistence farmers and fishermen as well as artisans -- skilled carpenters and masons.
They are not rich but they will never go hungry. They often have fresh fish every morning, and the extra catch is brought to the town center to be sold, with a portion set aside for my father who lives there.
As in many other villages of San Francisco, the residents of Punta are mostly children and the elderly. Many of the able-bodied have left to seek better job opportunities elsewhere, just as my parents did in 1949 when they decided to try their luck in Davao.
Some chose to stay, like Ricky, one of the clan's best carpenters, and Ismael or Maying, the lead fisherman.
But most of them never fail to come back in May, when San Francisco's fiesta is celebrated on May 15 and Punta's on May 19. It is during these times that cousins, who would have remained unacquainted, get to meet.
While May means fiestas and more visitors, I prefer to go home to San Francisco with my family between March and April, the peak of the fishing season when the sea is calmest.
We have been spending the Holy Week there for several years now. It is a time when the moon is full and, according to the common wisdom, when sea urchins are at their juiciest.
My children have spent happy days snorkeling in Punta, like I did when I was a kid myself.
Much of the corals along the shores of San Francisco were destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s when dynamite fishing was routinely employed.
This was how Albino, one of our neighbors, lost a leg. "Ma-Albino ka," the elders would often warn those who continued with the destructive practice.
But not in Punta. Its people have preserved the corals, knowing fully well that these are where the fish breed.
I still remember the hours I spent with my father just watching the fish weave in and out of the corals, just as I cherish the delight of my son in seeing a baby octopus changing its colors as it swims by.
Several years ago, San Francisco was declared a protected area. And we have noticed that the corals had started to regenerate.
BUT I don't think my children will still be able to snorkel in Punta's waters this Holy Week. There will be no Lolo Pater and Lola Pering to prepare the lunch they will eat on the beach.
Tiya Melia, who often looked after my children when they were there, and Manong Maying, who supplied our daily dose of kinalaw, will have relocated by then.
And there is nowhere we can wash away the salt after swimming for hours in the sea. The water-impounding pond that the villagers built is gone.
There the women used to gather every morning to wash their clothes and exchange gossip. The water, drawn directly from the mountain, was soothingly cool and clean.
Punta is reputed to have one of the best sources of water in San Francisco. But the mountain, the source of Punta's water that nourished the people who lived there for generations, also became the cause of their death.
The Panaon Institute, the high school in the town center, will have to look for another principal to replace my cousin Renee Subang Paug, who perished together with her family that night. She was one of my playmates.
Some of the Subang kids will not be present at the school graduation. (Being a big clan, we had children in almost all the elementary school levels, and we were always updated on who finished the school year with honors.)
But at least my cousin Eddie is assured that his parents' bodies have been found. The municipality has prepared a mass grave for the dead.
On the shoulders of Ricky, the clan's village chief, lies the responsibility of organizing the survivors.
Ricky has helped many of his cousins build their homes (and that includes our own in the Fairview area of Quezon City).
When we spoke on the phone Saturday morning, he sounded incoherent at first, apparently still in shock at seeing so many of our clan members buried in the mud. But as I coaxed him to identify the dead and the missing -- for the benefit of other relatives living in Manila -- I knew that he, together with our other cousins who survived the ordeal, will carry on.
And when I called again last Sunday, I was told that Ricky had gathered his workers and started mass-producing coffins for our dead.
Hopefully, Ricky will soon be rebuilding his own home. Once we have buried all of our dead, we will have to start helping one another reconstruct shattered lives-the children who have been orphaned, the parents who have lost their children.
For the whole families who died together that night, I take comfort in the thought that nobody among them has to live through the trauma.
This is indeed a tragic Christmas for us. But I am confident that this clan will rise above the tragedy.