My cellphone went wild this morning – sounded like a maimed animal trapped in a dark cave. It was the alarm for a reminder I had set over a year ago, around the time I visited my family back home after the Ondoy floods. Today is the birthday of my youngest sister’s first son. I tried to phone them to greet him, but the line was bad probably because of the super typhoon that had just wreaked havoc in the region. I wanted to share with them some good news, but had to hang up.
Today also marks the day I took my first international flight in 1994. I thought the flight was going to be cancelled because, just as now, a powerful typhoon had just dragged its vicious winds and heavy rains across the country. I went to my old university that morning, hoping to bid farewell to any unfortunate being I might bump into. Classes had been called off. It was mostly working staff who were there picking up huge branches of trees strewn across the campus roads, shaking their heads at uprooted trees that were older than them. Roots pointed to the brewing clouds.
I didn’t know I, too, was being uprooted that day. I didn’t say goodbye to friends properly. My best friend drove me to the airport doors, he wasn’t even allowed in. I pretended not to be afraid.
A few hours after takeoff the plane caught up with the departing typhoon, so the shrimp dinner that was hastily served by rattled flight attendants said Hi to me a second time. Singapore Airport was cold and mostly empty after midnight when the plane landed. In transit for over four hours, dreading the longer haul, I stupidly spent sitting not that far from huddled countrymen who were on their way to hard labour in unwelcoming kingdoms.
I did not know how fortunate I was. Or what really awaited me that October 1994. South Africa was a country in the midst of transforming itself and I was merely an alien, just as uncertain of what lay ahead.
Today I also received word from the director of the publishing house back home which recently accepted my two manuscripts. She sent me snippets of what the reviewers had said about my poetry collection in English. I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe what they thought of my work.
Then at the same time I felt like I was on my own. That very moment I truly was. It would be an hour before I was to see my wife and share with her the good news. And the only friends I managed to get hold of were online ones — one in Phoenix, Arizona, and the other in central Cape Town.
Somehow all those years in between came rushing back. Suddenly, memory.