Many visitors want to see my study, if only to see the desk or the room where my columns and lectures are born. My library is usually off-limits because it resembles ground zero—a direct hit from a storm or earthquake. Clutter is natural for me, it suggests physical sloth and mental activity. On the other hand, a clean and organized desk projects the opposite.
The recent floods reminded me of two pictures by Charles Wirgman in the 1857 Illustrated London News showing how people coped with a flooded street in Manila: men rolled up their pants, women pulled up their skirts, umbrellas were opened. In areas where road turned into stream, people switched from vehicles with wheels to bancas. While pictures are supposed to be worth a thousand words, I needed the Illustrated London News text for a quote to be used in today’s column, but the transcription is tucked away somewhere in my files to be found later when I have no need for it.
Filipino painters also documented the habagat or its effects in charming but little-known works like one by Fabian de la Rosa in 1919, who painted a man waist-deep in a Manila flood. Fernando Amorsolo, nephew of Don Fabian, is better known as a painter of Philippine sunlight, whose images of rice fields and sensuous, smiling maidens captured the mood of the prewar “Pistaym” (peace-time) Philippines. He also painted a woman walking against rain and wind, her location given away by the Legazpi-Urdaneta monument in the background. De la Rosa and Amorsolo were professors in the UP School of Fine Arts, like Dr. Toribio Herrera who painted a more violent scene of a woman struggling with an umbrella blown out of shape by storm and rain.
Habagat (southwest monsoon) is wind that brings heavy rainfall that results in floods during the wet season. Amihan (northeast monsoon) brings cold air to our shores from the Christmas season to February. These winds have been known to us for centuries. These winds were known to Chinese traders as early as the ninth century when they traded porcelain, remnants, if not surviving whole pieces, of which have been found in almost all archeological sites in the Philippines. Chinese junks sailed from Guangdong and Fujian to the Philippines and Indonesia during amihan sometime around March, and returned around June during habagat. Spaniards in the 16th century also knew about these tradewinds but called them by other names. Governor-General Francisco Sande sent a report to Philip II from Manila on June 7, 1576, that read:
“…there are two general seasons (in Filipinas), the dry season, (when) the BRISAS, as they are called, blow from the southeast to the north, finally blowing directly from the north; while in the other or wet season, the VENDAVALES blow from northwest to southwest. Thus during these two seasons, the winds blow from every point of the compass.
“…coming from Nueva España [Mexico], from the east towards this western region, the BRISAS would help; while the VENDAVALES, especially the usual one, the southwesterly wind in the channels of these islands would impede the progress of the ship… it is quite clear and evident that by the end of May and middle of June the VENDAVAL begins here from the west and blows strongly night and day. Now if for any reason it should cease for a moment, it would only be to burst forth again with renewed vigor. Such a period of quietness is called here CALLADAS (silence). The BRISA begins in November and lasts till the end of May. Between these two general seasons two others exist, called BONANZAS (‘gentle winds’) which last from the middle of March to the end of May, and comprise also part of September and October.”
Filipinos of my age remember Bonanza either as an American TV series about cowboys in the Wild West, or a theme restaurant on Edsa that served roasted calf. History enlarges our vocabulary and our understanding by telling us about gentle winds between the cold season and the rainy season. History also teaches us perspective by making us relate the present flooding not just with previous ones like “Ondoy” and “Milenyo” but with documented storms all the way back, beyond memory, to the 16th century. History teaches us to see how we cope with disaster and how much of our reactions are rooted in our time and experience. Digging a bit deeper makes us understand why things are the way they are.
Didn’t pre-Spanish Filipinos, like other peoples of insular Southeast Asia, build their houses on stilts? This was done to keep dry and safe from wild animals. When the Spanish came and brought a different type of architecture the bahay kubo remained above ground; even the bahay-na-bato kept the owner of the house and his things safe from floods on the upper floor. The Spanish introduced the wheel, roads and bridges to connect lands separated by water, when our people were actually connected by water. They didn’t need a bridge or the wheel because water was their road and bridge. Even names like Tausug (tau—people, sug—sea) or Tagalog from Taga-ilog (from the river) are rooted in water. The names of places also evoke water: Cebu from Sugbu (shallow water) and Pampanga (from pampang or riverbank).
History is not confined to old books and documents, it means being able to read the past in the events of the present. Floods can be read as history lessons to make us realize that things don’t have to be the way they are.
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