Siargao Island was a tropical paradise before Typhoon Rai hit it a week before Christmas last year. The island is home to Gladys’ family, a bunch of lovely kind-hearted people who are devout Catholics. Gladys works for me, officially as my Personal Assistant, although we have never met in person. Her office is in Cebu but I have never been to Cebu. She assists me in my business which is located in Adelaide but she has never set foot in Australia. That is the power of the internet. She can carve out a nice career and support her family from the comfort of a room in her flat over 5,200 km away from me assisting me in my work. She has been doing that for over seven years. Isn’t that amazing?
When she told me she had lost contact with her family for four days, it was gut-wrenching for me. It would have been a lot worse for her. Four days is a long time to not know if your loved ones are alright or not. Are they safe? Are they bleeding? Bones broken? Is her young daughter OK? Is anyone dead? A worse thought that is best left unsaid, is anyone alive? All she could tell me about her hometown is only gathered from the news. I got more details about the devastation from the internet than from her. Facts on the ground were scant as they were without electricity in the aftermath of the storm. The sandy beaches were no more. A popular destination for surfers and sun-seeking tourists, it was a paradise lost after the storm sliced through the archipelago and zeroed in on Siargao. The devastation reminded me of some scenes in the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’. Smouldering remnants of wooden huts, smashed coconut trees, some left standing, recoiling with fear, others littering the beaches like used match sticks strewn in a heap of rubbish. Adults with empty stares hunched in despair, ignoring naked children bawling their eyes out. The images cleverly used by tourism gurus – that of thatched holiday huts and exotic night clubs and bars, swaying coconut trees in the idyllic cool setting of a beach paradise, bronzed well-sculptured hunks and long-haired blondes with hourglass bodies covered by the skimpiest bikinis – were all wiped out by Rai.
Thankfully, Gladys was able to board a ferry from Cebu to find her family unhurt a few days later. She did not share any horrendous stories that my imagination had pictured in my mind. The groaning houses breaking up into smithereens, roaring of the gales, shrieking of the sea, lashing of piercing rain, the tossing of corrugated iron sheets and shattered glass like out-of-control missiles in the air. None of that. Gladys did not witness death, not even the impalement of a bird by a broken branch or a twisted carcass of a village dog under a messy clump of broken palm leaves. Her mama’s bangaray (convenience store) was left mostly standing, and luckily the much needed stock in such desperate times were salvageable. “We are so heartbroken,” Gladys said, regretting that in their province, insuring their properties and businesses was not a “popular” thing to do. She reminded me of my own father who also did not believe in paying insurance premiums to protect his business and house from unforeseen disasters. Insurance premiums are a waste of money in good times, I suppose. Why throw away hard-earned money to bet on a bad event? Maybe Pa believed in the power of positive-thinking. Just believe that bad things won’t happen and they won’t happen? See, insurance is therefore superfluous. Or, maybe he was superstitious. If you think something bad will happen, it will happen. If you think you need insurance, then you will surely meet a disaster that requires compensation. Pa was lucky – in the end, he proved insurance money was dead money. I haven’t been so lucky. The hundreds of thousands of dollars I have forked out in my lifetime will unlikely be recouped. It is rather safe here in South Australia – after all, Adelaide is the home of the Clipsal switch which was invented by Alfred Gerard in 1920. All new houses require safety switches to be installed, so the incidence of fires caused by short circuits are rare these days. God is often described as loving and kind, yet there are, in insurance parlance, acts of God that are not insurable. There are two main fault lines in Adelaide, but our insurance policies do not cover us for earthquakes, acts that are not caused by humans and therefore presumably, only the vengeful God can be held responsible for. In the Bible, God did throw tantrums when he was displeased with humans but luckily so far, God does not throw typhoons at us here. I should reconsider my policy on insurance. The payouts from my insurance policies have been so minuscule it does feel I deserve to be an object of ridicule should I persist in paying these exorbitant premiums.
Gladys sent me good news today. There is a ray of hope after all, after Rai. Things are looking up for her family. They have got back their lives on the rail again. Her dad had worked hard to clean up the mess left by the storm; the photo of him on his way to collect water from the village well showed he was far from being a doddery old man. Despite the calamity around him, he still wore a sugared smile of calm and confidence as he posed for the camera with his bright blue bucket. His white t-shirt had a big hole on the front and the ragged sleeves told me they had seen better days. His old pair of sandals barely covered the dry grey mud that had caked onto his tired feet, but the deep lines on his forehead had vanished and a glimmer of hope had replaced the doubt and fear in his eyes. Gladys told me an anonymous person helped them with a sum of money to rebuild their damaged house on the day the photo was taken. The donation was a sum equivalent to six times her monthly income. The aid was enough to repair their battered house with a brand-new corrugated tin roof and the smashed timber walls are now solid stone blocks. Her mama’s convenience store abutting the left face of the house now has a concrete floor and is rebuilt with new roof trusses. The walls are solidly made of stone blocks and cement built on a strong foundation, giving the building a sense of permanence and purpose, a world apart from the humble wooden hut that was an excrescence foisted on their wooden house.
It is a nice way to end this story by sharing with you how Gladys and her mama celebrated their luck, coming out of the disaster caused by Rai relatively unscathed and wholly intact. “The children and my neighbours send you a thankful message,” Gladys wrote to her anonymous benefactor. “May God bless you and your whole family even more,” she added. My normal utterance of “urghh” to earthlings will be toned down for an extended time, having witnessed the kindness and goodwill shared in her neighbourhood. I wanted to tell her the bloke who extended his hand out to help them surely would not be expecting any special favours or recognition from God but refrained from doing so, in case my insensitive words came across as sour grapes. It wasn’t the time or place to be questioning whether God would bless someone even more for simply doing the right thing. After all, it would not sound like the right thing to do if the kindness he showed had an ulterior motive of benefiting himself. Is helping others for our own selfish reasons (to earn God’s favours) truly helping others? For me, self-serving altruism is exactly what an urghhling would do, performing altruistic acts as a guile to help oneself gain a benefit from God. But after Rai, it feels like there is a ray of hope for the people of Siargao. For them, it is irrelevant to contemplate whether altruism that is self-serving is indeed a good deed.