Early one morning, after two days in the tourist city of Vigan, I got in a small motor bike rickshaw and travelled to a small guest house on the coast.
It wasn´t far, 15 kilometres or so.
Before long, we left Vigan behind us and motored down narrow pot holed roads with open fields and small houses on either side. There were was almost no traffic. The sky was a blanket of grey.
We came to a small town called Santa Catalina. ‘Santa Catalina’: a vestige of The Philippines origins as a Spanish colony.
There was a single main street, houses and shops either side and a large church. There were few people about.
Finally we neared the coast.
There was a strong wind blowing off the sea. It was good to breathe fresh air again. Then the sea came into view. I’d had ideas of going for a swim but I at first sight, I knew that was completely out of the question. Big ocean swells broke far out to sea, reformed and broke again and again, forming a series of wild, breaking waves which pounded the beach violently.
With the sound of the waves filling the air, the rickshaw turned left and drove down a long drive and pulled up a large open dining area with wooden tables and chairs under a large sloping thatch roof. There was a middle-aged man seated at one of the tables talking to a couple of young Filipino tourists. Besides some of the place names, another surviving remnant of the Spanish era are people’s names and as far as that went, you couldn’t get more Spanish than ‘Carlos Fernando’.
Carlos got up and came over to the rickshaw and introduced himself.
He was a thick-set man in his ‘60’s with a head of dark hair greying at the edges. We made small talk and then he showed me to my room. As I plodded along behind him, with my heavy rucksack on my back, I took in my surroundings. The place was a lot different to what I had expected. There were four rectangular dwellings in a row with painted concrete walls and a sloping thatched roofs. Each of them was divided into two small, separate apartments. They were set on a ridge, almost like a large dyke. On the ocean side of the ridge, was a worn, pitted, concrete barrier wall, obviously built by the local authorities long before the guest house was built in order to protect the immediate inland. And I could see why.
On the left side of the ridge was a view of lowlands dotted with shanty houses and fields.
In the distance, behind the houses and fields, was a mountain range.
I settled in quickly. The sound of the crashing waves was relaxing after the busy traffic in Vigan. It was impossible to swim so I began doing long walks through the surrounding countryside.
I had all my meals at the restaurant. During the 3 days I spent there, I spoke at length with Carlos. He was a personable and intelligent man and even by Filipino standards, he spoke fluent English. And he liked to talk, though he was also careful to respect my privacy. When I was eating for example he was careful never to hang around in the area. If I wanted to talk, it was up to me to take matters further and I usually did, because I enjoyed to talking to him. One of our first discussions was about the controversial Filipino Prime Minister, Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte had an unsavoury reputation with the international media because of his war on drugs and in particular, the free hand he had given the police to arbitrarily execute drug dealers. To be sure, there was a good deal of hypocrisy in this western concern with human rights, a concern specific to The Philippines but missing in the case of the other Asian nations where policy towards drug users and dealers was equally as harsh. Carlos was quick to point out why so many Filipinos were sympathetic towards Duterte:
‘Organised crime gangs are a big problem in The Philippines, something westerners cannot understand. People fear that our country will degenerate into another version of Mexico, a de facto failed state which is now run by the drug cartels and their private militias. We have had generations of incompetent and corrupt leaders who did nothing about organised crime and meth amphetamines. Filipinos voted for a ‘strong man’. Duterte is not from the upper classes. He is a man of the people. Besides declaring war on the drug trade, Duterte also sacked thousands of corrupt police and bureaucrats. He has publicly criticised the Catholic church and that resonates with a lot of young Filipinos. He has also mounted a national campaign against teenage pregnancy.’
We began talking about climate change when one evening, after returning from one of my long walks, I mentioned that I´d originally hoped to do some ocean swimming but had obviously come to the wrong place for that.
He said somewhat ruefully:
´If you´d been here five years ago, you would have found a perfect place to swim.’
With the air reverberating to the sound of crashing waves, it was difficult for me to imagine this.
But apparently it was so.
´Until about 5 years ago the seasons were predictable. Between October and March was the cool season. The days were clear and sunny and the ocean was as still as a pond. I grew up here so I know the place well.
See that boat over there?
He pointed to a small aluminium boat lying upturned at side of the dining area facing the open landscape and mountains. I’d seen it in passing but not given it a second thought.
´It originally belonged to my father. In the cool season, he took me and my brothers out fishing. You could see the fish swimming around the boat and you could see the ocean floor, the sand and the reefs and the seaweed. The last time I went out on that boat was three years ago.´
The weather we are getting now in the cool season is more like what we used to get between April and September: that was the monsoon season, there were drenching rains and high winds and big waves.´
From what Carlos told me, it seems as if this weather pattern was, until relatively recently, almost as regular as a clock. It was a natural seasonal rhythm which defined the lives of the farmers and the fishermen. It was also a natural rhythm which Carlos Fernando had set store by when he and his wife established their guest house.
By Filipino standards Carlos Fernando was a rich man. Qualifying as an engineer in Manila, he worked for some time in various islands in the Philippines before getting a job in Saudi Arabia.
‘I could have emigrated to a western nation, like my brother who settled in the U.S. and my sister, who’s in Germany. That wasn´t for me. My brother and my sister will never come back to The Philippines to live, they’ve married non Filipino partners and have families. My wife and I were born and grew up here and we never wanted to live anywhere else. So I went to work in Saudi Arabia. The pay was good and every year, I came home for 3 months. I came home for good in 2011. I had saved a lot of money. It was then that my wife had this guest house built. The seasons were still normal then. Our plan was to attract foreign tourists. Most of them came to The Philippines between November and March and Vigan was becoming popular because of its historic centre. We had a good spot here. Not far from Vigan and there was a long beach where you could go swimming, snorkelling, fishing and walking. It took two years to build the guest house and well, by the time it was finished, the seasons had started to change. It wasn’t just here but all over the Philippines actually. At the time of the year when it was meant to be calm and sunny, we got high winds, big seas, and sometimes even typhoons. During the monsoon time, we didn’t get much rain, which was bad for the farmers. We haven’t had good rains here for two years now.
Most of the tourists we get now are Filipinos. Filipinos cook their own food and bring their own drinks. So we don’t make much from the restaurant. A few foreigners come, but what can they do here? You certainly can’t swim or take a boat out. So our dream didn’t materialise. But life is good. We have a fine home in Santa Catalina, we know a lot of people here and have a lot of time to talk. Our children have good jobs and are married and have children and they often come to stay with us. We´ve got a big house and plenty of room for them all. We’re happy with our lives.’
There was something quintessentially Filipino in this philosophical attitude to life.
Reflecting on the story Carlos told me, I thought of the summer in Europe, where I had been, and the summer in Australia, where I was going. The summer in Europe was the the hottest on record; this record had already been broken several times during the previous five years. In The Netherlands, the world´s classic water land, there was a drought. Australia was in the news because it was experiencing the hottest summer on record; like Europe, its record had been broken several times during the previous 5 years.
Everywhere I travelled I heard the same story, whether I was talking to villagers or city dwellers, hotel owners or farmers: the weather has gone crazy, nothing is like it used to be.
During my tortuously long bus trip along the heavily populated coast of western Luzon, I had concluded that the combination of over population and poverty which is so commonplace in developing nations was the major obstacle to any idea of combatting global climate change.
Carlos Fernando took climate change seriously, hardly surprising given how it had affected his business, but he had a very different perspective on the matter than me.
‘If anything going to be done about climate change, it has to come from the developed nations. In The Philippines….we don’t have the luxury of trying to combat climate change, even though its effects have impacted on our country with devastating effects. We have our hands full dealing with drug cartels, corruption and poverty. The Catholic church has done nothing to help us. It has refused to recognise the problems and it continues to offer empty promises of life hereafter. The priests are as bad as the mafia dons. Rodrigo Duterte is a symptom of our desperation, not our foolishness.
You in the western countries who can afford the luxury of talking about issues, of sitting in judgement of us, but what have you done about climate change?
Nothing! Talked! You’re good at that. The change must come from you not us. Only you can solve the problem. But so far, nothing has happened.
‘Politics’ I said.
It sounded like a glib response to his broadside and well, it was.
In the developed world I pointed out, the reactionaries, led by the likes of the Murdoch media, had waged a shrill campaign against what it called ´the climate change hysteria´.
‘Yes, politics’ he mused.
‘You condemn our politics but yours is no better. ‘
With the likes of Fox News in mind, I had to agree with him there.
Carlos though, had been an engineer. He was interested in matters technical.
‘My friend, there’s more than politics involved. There’s technology.’
‘You know, like you I saw Al Gore’s movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ – in Saudi Arabia.’
‘Saudi Arabia?!’ I quipped, stunned at the notion that the Mecca of fossil fuel exporters would ever allow a movie like this to be shown.
‘Ah! Not shown to the Saudi people’ he explained, ‘shown on the private cinemas for the skilled foreign workers. We formed an elite within the ranks of the foreign workers. We lived in luxury quarters and one of the perks was a private cinema. Saudi Arabia is an apartheid nation. Foreign workers are a caste kept at a long distance from the Saudi people. At the lower rungs of the caste are Filipinos without a higher education: servants, chauffeurs, cleaners…..but irrespective of where you are on the ladder there are very strict rules about going anywhere outside your boundaries.
The Saudi authorities wouldn’t have known what Al Gore’s movie was about. Wouldn’t have had a clue. The main thing was that there was no sex, no naked women, no criticisms of the Saudi regime. That’s how ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ flew in under the radar.
After seeing that movie, I really thought that the oil and coal industries were doomed. Once the western nations focused on developing alternative forms of energy, everything would change. I was wrong.’
Technology. That was his concern.
‘Solar energy? Wind? You could cover all our mountains and all our farmlands and all our islands with solar panels and windmills and maybe you could generate a half of our energy requirements, that is, if the typhoons don’t destroy them in the meantime.
‘We’ – he changed now to ‘we’ – we are dabbling, dabbling! We need a breakthrough in green energy but its nowhere in sight.’
Yes indeed, Carlos Fernando caught an inconvenient truth there.
We – it was we, not ‘they’ – were in this mess together and we were dabbling.
Looking the other way whilst the planet underwent profound changes.
None more dramatic than the metamorphosis of calm blue seas into a wind- swept chaos.