When national television began broadcasting news reports and videos of the massive floods Typhoon Ondoy was causing in Metro Manila and its neighboring provinces last Saturday afternoon and evening, Lianga residents, like their fellow countrymen in the Visayas and the other parts of Mindanao, were caught by surprise and simply aghast at the scenes of wanton destruction and human suffering depicted live and in full color on their television screens.
The genuine outpouring of local sympathy and empathy for the victims of Ondoy's wrath was a consequence not only of the obvious fact that fellow Filipinos were at peril and in harm's way in the north of the country. There is also a more selfish and practical reason.
Lianga, despite the often insular and provincial outlook of its residents, is in reality a rather "cosmopolitan" town. When I borrow that term I generously use it to refer to the fact that there is nary a house or home here that has no immediate member of the family or, at the very least, a close relative who is either studying, living or working elsewhere in the country or outside of it. Metro Manila and its environs happens to be where most of the town's diaspora initially go and where, in most cases, ultimately end up.
It is a town that sadly reflects the national reality, where the restless and productive young are driven, like the proverbial lemmings of Norway facing population and food supply pressures, to leave their homes en masse and seek social advancement or economic and financial security somewhere else. To them Lianga is a dead end, a tropical paradise maybe for the young and the elderly but a stultifying prison for those eager to break free and make their own mark on life.
Manila, on the other hand, is at the mythical and magical end of the rainbow of dreams. It is where, if one can stretch the metaphor even further, the elusive pot of leprechaun gold can supposedly be found if one is willing to risk all looking for it. At least that is what the young and the impatient here believe deep in their hearts.
Thus, throughout Saturday evening and the days after, most of the local folk spent many frantic hours glued to their television sets and using cellular phones (the town has yet no telephone landlines to speak of) to try to contact relatives, friends and loved ones in the typhoon affected areas. The questions in their lips and in their minds are the same as those being asked by their countrymen in Manila who are struggling to make sense of the tragedy that has befallen them.
How can such a calamity happen so fast and without warning. What happens now? How can those whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed by the floods recover and face what is certainly going to be a bleak and uncertain future?
My mother has been using the example of the tragic events in the nation's capital to try and dissuade our two household companions who are planning to eventually go to Manila in the near future to search for better jobs and economic opportunities there. One girl has a fiance who is working in a restaurant in Pasig while the other has a brother with a family in Manila.
"Life there," my mother vehemently admonished them, "is often cruel and uncertain. One can go there with the most noble and best of intentions yet end up being crushed, thrown aside and wasted by misfortune, plain naivete and the machinations of evil men. Stay here, work hard and your life will end up better in the long run."
Her eloquence on this matter is sincere and commendable but such arguments have been used here before and with very little success by countless parents and elders on behalf of the countless young souls who have set their sights on making it big in Manila. The seductive lure of that city and its promises are just too strong. So too is the glamor of travel, the call to high adventure and the promise of new and exciting experiences its very name conjures in the mind.
In the end, neither the threat of the rampaging flood waters of another Ondoy or countless dire warnings about the difficulties and dangers of living and working in the concrete jungles and squalid tenements of Metro Manila will not make much of a difference in the continuing exodus of the young and the able here. It is after all in the nature of youth to be intrinsically optimistic, to see opportunities where the old and the jaded only see hurdles and obstacles, to believe in the figment of their own immortality and the conquering force of their own sheer will.
Thus, they will be forever attracted to the flickering lights of that far city in the far horizon, like the salmon are pulled relentlessly to their spawning grounds and like moths helplessly drawn to the open flame.