I think that this is just amazing:
Then comes the thunder a’rumbling,
Then comes the lightning flaring,
And then downpours the heavy rain.
But the lightning is my torch, the thunder beats
the cadence of my steps,
And for my walking cane the rain…!
– Traditional Ivatan poem
All over Batanes, the signs came days before the storm. The residents of the northernmost Philippine archipelago — even the ones without radios or televisions — could sense the typhoon’s approach. The hermit crabs began scuttling away from the beach. The moon looked full, but dull. Old folks complained of reawakened aches and pains in their joints. In Uyugan, a coastal town of 1,200 people, a friend called fisherman Alex Ibay with an urgent piece of news: The water buffalo was out.
Ibay, 49, remembered his grandfather’s simple warning about the islands’ severe weather: “Just be ready.” He taught Ibay to look daily toward the promontory called Disiay south of Uyugan, where the island’s main throughway, National Road, wrapped around a cliff. If a lone water buffalo looked out from Disiay over the water — forgetting, for a time, its grazing and its herd — a destructive typhoon was on its way to Batanes, one that would require the islanders’ best preparation. If the water buffalo was not there — if his friends were mistaken — Ibay could relax.
Ibay looked out toward Disiay on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. There it was: a brown water buffalo, unmoving, staring toward the ocean as if in vigil.
Ibay rushed to his motorcycle and drove north to the capital, Basco, the only town in Batanes with internet cafés. There he read that three days earlier, some 1,500 miles north, scientists at the Japan Meteorological Agency already had begun to watch a tropical depression roiling 800 miles east of Manila, the Philippines’ capital. The weather forecast, sent by the JMA to the Philippine weather service, PAGASA, confirmed what Ibay suspected: An ominous blue and red mass spun west toward Batanes. Its international name was Usagi. PAGASA named the storm Odette.
The Philippines has long been at the heart of the Pacific’s typhoon belt. Now, with the warmest decade ever recorded in human history, the seas east of the archipelago have experienced the highest degree of sea level escalation in the world: 60 centimeters, or three times the global average. With more water at the ocean’s surface, pushed by stronger, hotter winds, typhoons are becoming more monstrous. By day’s end, Typhoon Odette, which was rapidly intensifying, would be reclassified as a super typhoon.
Alex Ibay motorbiked from the internet café home to Uyugan. He and his fellow fishermen met near the port and agreed; they would bring their wooden fishing boats ashore, and, using the protective methods of their forebears, cover their hulls with the thick, heavy fronds of coconut leaves. Local officers at Batanes’ branch of the National Council of Indigenous Peoples have given a name to the indigenous methods of reading the arrival of a storm, one passed down through generations: ethnometeorology.
The people of Batanes, like Ibay and his grandfather, are the Ivatans. The Ivatans rarely fear or deny the storm. They have built their lives around their preparation for nature’s unpredictability. They know how to read nature’s messages and have minimized risk by building strong homes, always having a month’s worth of food on hand, and obeying commands to evacuate or remain inside for typhoon warnings. Their history and mind-set show that the people of Batanes are of the storm, shaped by the storm’s demands, rooted to their soil even as strong winds and rains buffet their fates. With lives made near unforgiving waters, Ivatans’ stories of unbelievable survival are far more common than unspeakable tragedies. For the Ivatan people, to die in a storm is so unnecessary, it’s nearly shameful.
Ivatan Laji Poem
Whose face do I behold mirrored
Upon the warm water I am about to drink?
I dare not drink that the vision I may prolong!
If I die, bury me not
At the Cross of San Felix: bury me
Under your fingernails, that I may
Be eaten along with every food you eat; that I may
Be drunk along with every cup
of water you drink.
In the original Ivatan:
Muyin para oinu si tauri a maoiaoanu
Du chinuhat ko a danum oia di ku s’di pachilupa
Ta pakaynaynamen ko a mavuya?
As anu madiman aku, oia ivuvun mo ava yekn
De asked nu kuku mo ta pachisuvusuvuay
Ko du kanen
mo a mahutu as pachidiludilupay ko
Du inumen mo a danum.