Almost Drowned


The typhoon was forecast to have left the Philippines already, and those of us on the beach house in Zambales wanted it to be gone so we could go on a swim.

I was with a group of workers from the Bureau of Plant Industry in Baguio City, technicians and field workers from the RP-German Fruit Tree Program. We visited the citrus and mango plantation of the Benguet Management Company in Iba, Zambales the previous day. When we were at the BMC plantation, the weather seemed to have cleared already, though the skies were slightly overcast. After concluding the field trip, the group decided to spend the night at the beach houses before leaving for Baguio in the morning.

(photo courtesy of http://www.freefoto.com/)

When we reached the beach, it appeared that the typhoon has not yet left, for the sea was very turbulent, and it was sheer lunacy to tempt its frenzy by venturing a few feet into the surf. Nevertheless, as is often the case among the foolhardy, some of the locals in Zambales and a few of our group did taunt the tempest by going into the water, ignoring the winds and the rain that it flung in sheets at the puny humans desperate to enjoy a day at the beach.

Unable to enjoy neither the sun nor the water because of the lingering storm, we had to entertain ourselves with an impromptu party with typical Filipino gaiety and abandon: eating, drinking and general frivolity. As the party wound down, we tried to look for space in the small beach houses to park our sleepy heads. Those who had the sense to sleep earlier had the more comfortable spots, and those of us who had to empty every liquor bottle could not find a good place to nurse our developing hangovers when finally we ended the party in the wee hours of the morning.

And so it was that I had a hangover, was sleepy and was hungry the morning after, when the group was supposed to travel to Baguio after breakfast.

The storm by then seemed to have dissipated already, and many in our mountain-dwelling group were in the water, finally fulfilling the reason why we went to the beach: traipsing in the now-calmer waters.

I jumped in, too, joining those who swam past the breakwater. We were probably in the water for a half hour when I noticed that most of the people were out of the water already, and those remaining were making it to shore. The reason, I found out later, was that they felt that the sea was again acting up, becoming more turbulent. I did not sense the same thing, either because past the breakwater the sea was calmer, or I simply did not have the horse sense to feel it.

I decided to linger a little bit more, trying to wash away my hangover with the cold sea water.

By the time I decided to follow the others to shore, the waves were already so high that I was unable to swim over the waves to shore. No matter how I tried, I was sucked in by the surf, ending up farther from the beach.

I tried, repeatedly, the fear of drowning giving me unknown stamina and strength to keep trying. But it wasn’t enough, and I felt the fatigue in my arms and legs. I also felt the beginnings of stomach cramps. To regain strength, I floated about, and then tried again, and again, to fail utterly.

Those on the beach noticed my predicament, and I saw them running about and shouting, gathering in groups and pointing at me. Later on, I found out that the locals were not so optimistic that I would survive, as the sea was becoming more violent by the minute. These same locals were reluctant to bring out their outrigger boats to rescue me, fearing the sea themselves. They were ready to give me up for dead.

Friends were thinking of contacting the Americans at Subic Naval Base (this happened before the American bases were booted out from the Philippines) to organize a rescue, but Subic was far away.

So there I was, floating in the sea, with the people on the beach looking like ants. I was probably just a small dot in their eyes, bobbing up and down on the waves like a wayward piece or flotsam. They probably thought all was already lost.

They say that before death, life flashes before one’s eyes, and in the few minutes of eternity in the water, I recalled my past, asking life’s big questions of myself.

I was so tired that many times my arms and legs were not able to keep me afloat. Yet I continued to swim towards shore, to be carried away into deeper water again and again.

It was providential that we had a big German by the name of Klaus Luedtke with us then. Alerted by co-workers of my predicament, Klaus plunged into the water, reaching me in record time. He got ahold of me, and I continued thrashing about, trying to help him get to shore. Klaus told me to stop kicking, since I was interfering with his strokes.

When I stopped swimming, the fatigue that I refused to acknowledge earlier got to me, and I could no longer move a muscle.

(photo courtesy of http://www.freefoto.com/)

And Klaus, who must have been swimming worse waters in the North Sea in his native Germany, made short work of bringing me to shore, where friends helped carry me.

They set me down on the beach, where I lay like a beached whale, totally unable to move. I felt like I was floating above my inert body, above the friends crowding around, massaging my body, trying to loosen the muscles and get them to move. It was an out-of-body experience that until now mystifies me.

Eventually, they carried me into the beach house, where I continued to lie prone, trying to will my aching muscles to move. When I was able to stand up, it was with an effort, and they had to half-carry me to the car that was going to bear me home.

I treasure the experience, not for its horrors, but for its lessons: to respect the elements, to treasure friendships, and to be more conscientious of one’s actions and their consequences.

If not for my German friend Klaus Luedtke, I would not be around to tell this tale.***

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