Friday, April 11, 2014

Death on the Chico

We were finally in Cagayan Valley after three years of planning. We plan yearly "more fun in the Philippines" trips basically to acquaint our children (okay, and ourselves too) with the beauty of our country.

 early morning flight

As if coordinating the schedules of three families was not challenging enough--we also needed to make sure the weather was perfect for white water rafting. If it was too dry, like in the summer, there wouldn't be enough water in the river. During rainy season, excess water makes the river unpredictable. 

"The river has a perfect swell this week," Anton emailed us, "but just in case it changes, there are still many things to do up here for you and the kids." We booked our flights to Tuguegarao on his go-signal.

Anton Carag is an old friend from our high school (partying) days.  He grew up and went to school in Manila, then lived in the States for many years. After all that, he finally responded to the stirrings of his soul and settled back into the family's ancestral home in Tuguegarau, Cagayan--his late father's hometown.

Passionate about extreme outdoor activities, Anton pioneered the first-world hobby of white-water rafting in the north, the neighboring Chico river being the ideal site for such an adventure.  He talks about the river the way one talks of a beloved. After a few hours of catching up, covering many decades of not seeing each other, we are convinced he is where he belongs.

By 5:30 the next morning, Anton is knocking loudly at our doors--"Wake up guys! Breakfast in thirty minutes!"  It has been raining the whole night, but the river is at optimum level.  We have to be at the start of our river trail by 8 and we're about an hour's drive away.

Our city kids have mixed feelings being woken up so early, but are also excited about this new adventure.

Facing each other on the jeep, we keep ourselves entertained watching the teenagers play hand games. The adults continue catching up and the younger ones are just thrilled to be in a jeepney (at least in the beginning).

We're halfway there and it hasn't stopped raining. But we're told the river still has a good swell.

We pass a couple of groups of men gathered by the side of the road pointing across the river.  Some guys on the street shout towards our jeep. I finally ask one of Anton's men, the one with us on the jeep, what is going on.

"I think they found the body of the boy," he says in Filipino.

Body?! What body?! What boy?!

Apparently the day before, a local couple and their son were crossing the river--the boy on a small banca being pulled by the couple walking in waist deep water--something they do everyday. 

But yesterday they miscalculated the river's current and were swept away!  They had been missing since. 

Anton hopped off the jeep and huddled with his men. We got out too and looked across the river trying to see what they were pointing at.

We didn't realize it yet but by this time, Anton had decided to abort our trip so his men could use the raft to recover the body from the other side of the river. 

Anton's men are trained in search and rescue/recovery and as soon as the decision is made, they go into full-recovery mode. The raft is inflated quickly, his staff and a few other men make their way across the river. With presence of mind, Anton sends over a big duffle bag to use as a body bag. We now are in the thick of a recovery mission, watching with everyone from the road across.

Anton has taken charge. He is coordinating with the mayor, the barangay police, and all the people who have gathered.

They all know each other--a community working together--or so we thought. Later that evening, Anton revealed to us the intricacies of tribal feuds, and told us that the group gathered here were all from different clans. But that's just one of his many interesting stories (that kept us up late at night). 

Meanwhile the jeep took us to where the raft  would pull up, body bag in tow. We stayed a respectful distance away not wanting to get in the way. 

While waiting in the shed, the gravity of moment sank in: family swept away by the current, boy recovered, couple still missing, tourists trying to raft down the river.... one of these things is not like the other. How could we even think of having fun at a time like this? 

Loud wailing interrupts our thoughts. We are told it's the grandmother who has come to the riverbank on the news that her grandson was found.

Obviously we are in no mood to raft now. We need to change plans anyway since Anton's men and his rafts are needed by the mayor today.

The government doesn't have rescue rafts available at a moments' notice, but Anton is a homeboy and is naturally generous with his staff and equipment. It's the Filipino value of Bayanihan: in a disaster, everyone helps each other with whatever resources they have.

We finally drive back to the house, an hour away, in a somber but reflective mood. We should stay away from the river, at least for today, as a sign of mourning and respect.

October 2012

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