One week before I was gearing up for my two-month trip to the Philippines, the country was smacked by the strongest typhoon to ever hit land. Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Yolanda) made landfall on November 8, 2013. I was in my rental apartment in Pattaya, Thailand, glued to the TV. I watched, along with the rest of the world, as the storm slowly wreaked havoc on the central Philippines. As Haiyan island-hopped its way through the Visayas region, it appeared that the storm’s eye was headed straight for Boracay – the island paradise where I was due to arrive in a few days’ time.
As I watched the horrific news coverage I was near tears. The death toll predictions skyrocketed each day and were estimated to be in the tens of thousands. The major city of Tacloban in the Eastern Visayas was leveled. There were images of bodies piled up in the rubble. And hundreds of thousands of displaced survivors desperately roamed the streets.
With recorded winds reaching 195 mph Typhoon Haiyan walloped the Philippines and ended up claiming more than 6000 lives. And it was obvious from the beginning that the situation was going to be dire. That week I received frantic emails from family and friends urging me to cancel my travel plans. And although Aaron and I are seasoned travelers, we were unsure of how to approach a situation like this. It felt odd to be concerned with our travels when Filipinos were dealing with such an unimaginable situation.
That week we went back and forth about whether or not we should go. Was it safe? Would everything be destroyed? Would we be getting in the way of aid workers? We didn’t want to be foolhardy and travel to a disaster zone. But we also didn’t want to miss out on the chance to visit a country we were so passionate about seeing. We made our best efforts to get up-to-date information, but since much of the Visayas was without power or cell coverage it was difficult to get any news about what the situation was like on the ground in Boracay, or anywhere for that matter.
As the storm made its dramatic exit out of the western Visayas it veered south sparing Boracay from taking a direct hit. In the days after the storm, a few tourists found a way to get back online and based on their sporadic tweets, which urged that everything was okay, we made the decision to go ahead with our travel plans.
We landed at Boracay’s Kalibo airport at 11pm on November 15, seven days after Haiyan. It was dark, and as we took the 90-minute drive from the airport to the ferry terminal it was tough to gauge the extent of the damage. In the scant moonlight we could make out the silhouettes of downed trees. Candles flickered inside the homes we passed by, indicating that residents were still without power.
During the short ferry ride from the mainland of Panay to the tiny island of Boracay, we remarked on how odd it was that we couldn’t see anything around us. We had no idea what to expect. When we finally arrived at our hotel we heard the hum of a generator. Considering Boracay is the number one tourist destination in the Philippines, the fact that it was still without power definitely concerned us. And the idea that we were literally in the dark about the extent of the damage was also disconcerting. That night we had no idea whether or not we’d made the right decision to travel to the Philippines one week after such a major storm.
After a 20-hour travel day from Pattaya to Bangkok and Manila to Boracay, Aaron and I were starving. So despite the late hour we went on a mission to 1) find some food and 2) survey the damage. As we walked through the dark and muddy back alleys of Boracay we saw absolutely no one and heard nothing (aside from roosters crowing in the distance). It was a little eerie given Borocay’s reputation as a hardcore party town. After a few minutes we reached the beachfront. As we strolled along the sandy walkway that runs parallel to the beach, our spirits were immediately lifted. There was music. There were tourists drinking cocktails in rustic beach bars. Families were still out and about. And vendors were hawking jewelry and snacks.
If it weren’t for the lack of power I would have had no clue a major storm had passed through this island just a few days prior. And the fact that there was no power didn’t seem to bother anyone. Some bars and restaurants were powered by generators, while others were illuminated by candles and lanterns. Aaron and I walked around, taking in the lively atmosphere. We found a great (albeit expensive) 24-hour Mexican food restaurant where we ravenously scarfed down some delicious breakfast burritos. We were so excited about finally being in the Philippines, there was no way we were going to sleep. So we bought a couple of San Miguels and plopped ourselves down on the beach. We sat under the star speckled sky. We listened to the din of tourists chattering in the bars and the waves lapping at the sand. And we toasted to our next adventure. Although we couldn’t see what the beach actually looked like, we already felt like Boracay was paradise.
The next morning we woke up eager to finally catch our first glimpse of not only the Philippines but Boracay’s world-famous White Beach. I remember telling Aaron that I didn’t want to get my hopes up, that I didn’t want to be disappointed because there was no way Boracay would live up to all the hype. But it did.
The second I walked onto that beach it was love at first sight. And I knew that we’d made the right decision to travel to the Philippines. This was the most beautiful beach I’d ever laid eyes on. The water ranged from a transparent blue to the deepest shade of sapphire – with every hue of blue in between. The sand was as soft as fine as sugar. And lush palm trees lined the beachfront. This place exceeded my wildest expectations. And it is, without a doubt, the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been to.
It was hard to imagine that I could be in such a perfect place when the Philippines was coping with such a horrific natural disaster. We flirted with the idea of volunteering but the country didn’t need inexperienced volunteers. We wanted to help but we didn’t know how. And as we came to learn – during the two months we spent traveling through various disaster zones – the best thing we could do was to spend our tourist dollars to support the Filipino tourist industry and the small business owners, who inevitably suffered from typhoon Haiyan. During the seven months I backpacked around Southeast Asia, the Philippines ended up being my favorite country. And I can’t express how happy I am that I didn’t skip it.
Stay tuned for more about Boracay and my two months in the Philippines!
Note: Even though Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in November 2013, many tourists still avoid traveling in the country. The typhoon had a devastating impact on the islands of Leyte and Samar (which are located far to the east of Boracay). The Philippines is a huge country consisting of over 7000 islands – and only a small percentage of it was impacted by the typhoon. Since Haiyan, the Philippines is still suffering from a dramatic decline in tourism. Please don’t be deterred from traveling in this beautiful and wonderful country. I’m living proof that it’s perfectly safe!
Have you ever been faced a natural disaster while traveling? How did you handle it?
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