lessons from ruby – ATHENS AT YULE a christmas story

eastwind journals 144


By Bernie Lopez
Permission is granted to re-publish with credits and notification.
Disclaimer – the views in this article are those of the author’s alone.


I make you poor so I can enrich you
I burn your home so you can seek My shelter
I make you sick so you can find My healing
I bring darkness so you can see My light


  • Typhoons, no matter how powerful, are affected by other weather systems. The Northeast Monsoon (local name amihan) pushed Ruby southward, assuring Metro-Manila would not be hit directly. It headed instead for Romblon, then Mindoro.
  • Typhoons which are ‘slow’ or hesitant or stationary are very dangerous because they dump a lot of rain in a particular area, inducing floods, and their winds batter the same area continuously until they move on. The amihan weakened the maximum winds of Ruby from 190 kilometers per hour (kph) to 180. It also slowed down its speed from 16 kilometers kph to 10, or almost half, that is why it lingered longer along its path, bringing more floods and winds. It took longer to go through Romblon and Mindoro. This happened once before right after the Ondoy deluge. Two typhoons affected each other, making their paths unpredictable, but fortunately weakening each other. In a sudden twist of fate, one typhoon weakened into a tropical depression and the other suddenly veered northward towards Japan, sparing Northern Luzon.
  • There were conflicting reports from weather forecasters worldwide. The Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, an undertaking of the US Navy and Air Force, measured maximum winds reaching up to a staggering 305 to 370 kph when it would hit landfall on Saturday morning, a super-typhoon greater than Yolanda. It predicted Ruby would hit Metro-Manila directly, even showing it in a map. It was good Filipinos read PAGASA data rather than foreign forecasts, because if they read the JTWC bulletin, it would sow instant panic. From the onset, PAGASA denied Ruby was a super-typhoon at 190 kph maximum winds, saying super-typhoons start at 220 kph and above, which discouraged panic. From the onset, the PAGASA map showed Ruby’s path would head for Mindoro, which was what happened.
  • The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) had the same high estimates – maximum winds of 212 to 370 kph. It also predicted Ruby would move northwest to hit Metro-Manila directly. The Hongkong Observatory (HKO) had a saner estimate of 205 to 220 kph. PAGASA had it at 190 to 205 kph, closer to reality. Forecasters theorize that perhaps, because JTWC records wind speeds every minute, whereas others every 10 minutes, its predictions tended to be higher for some unknown technical reasons. Some observers suspected that JWTC had ‘geopolitical motives’ in intentionally overstating forecasts, which is highly unlikely. The lesson from Ruby is to stick to our local PAGASA, which gives more accurate and more dependable forecasts, even if their equipment is less sophisticated than that at JTWC. After all, PAGASA has been predicting an average of 20 to 25 typhoons every year. They are veterans in weather forecasts and can do their work even in their sleep.
  • These two weather phenomenon makes us ask the question if the Lord is able to change His mind to send us disaster or not based on our prayers. He can perhaps do so by ‘manipulating’ typhoon strength and path through natural weather principles. Did the Lord move Ruby away from Metro-Manila because of our prayers? Did the twin typhoons after Ondoy miss Northern Luzon because of our prayers? Perhaps we will never know, but we can give the benefit of the doubt that prayers indeed can avert disasters.
  • We were not prepared for the power Yolanda wrought on us. But we learned our lessons. We were prepared for Ruby to the hilt. In fact, we were ‘over-prepared’. Metro-Manila had 3,000 people mandatorily placed in refugee centers. The military was on full alert. But the storm never came to Metro-Manila. Ruby’s lesson is two-fold – 1) always be prepared, whether we are spared or not; 2) make prayers always a reflex when we hear typhoon signals. eastwindreplyctr@gmail.com


I arrived in Athens, named after Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare. I hitched from Bari in Italy, to Dubrovnik in Yugoslavia by boat, slept in the snow (my sleeping bag can take arctic weather) in Skopje, which would later be immersed in the bloody Serbian wars, then down to Athens. Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world, born 11 BC, 3,400 years old. It is the seat of the ancient Greek renaissance, which would influence the next 5 millennia of Man’s history to this very day. It is the melting pot of Jews, Arabs, North Africans, you name it. When I arrived in Athens as a drifting backpacker, I knew all this. But theoretical wisdom is different from experiential wisdom. This story is an excerpt from the book Wings and Wanderlust.



Christmas was around the corner. Last winter, I spent Christmas in the warmth of home in New York because I went back from Madrid to attend the wedding of my younger sister. In Athens, my second winter on the road, it would be my first Christmas away from home. I did not like the prospect. Weeks before Christmas, I knew I would get homesick. I was preparing myself mentally for it. I was thinking I would get drunk with the Arabs so I could forget my loneliness. Or I was thinking I would look for some Filipino seamen in Piraeus where they all were. I didn’t mind spending Christmas on a ship. At least Filipinos around would probably help me get over this feeling.


It was Christmas eve and I was feeling terrible. I nor­mally spent Christmas eve hearing an evening Mass and having a sumptuous merienda cena with the family. Christ­mas was for the family, for the warmth of home. I knew no other kind of Christmas.


I collected money from the Arabs at the hostel, announc­ing a midnight drinking party. Everyone agreed, includ­ing the Jewish girl. The Greeks had this terrible cheap wine called retsina, which smelled like aviation gas. But being Christmas, on top of retsina, I also bought some vodka and gin and mixed them all up for a terrible bash. Arabs and Jews normally did not cel­ebrate Christ­mas but the holiday feeling was in the air in Athens, so we had this grand party at the hostel. Arabs also normally did not drink. Not this bunch.


At eleven o’clock in the evening, we were all pretty drunk. I was depressed and homesick and the Arabs and the lone Jewish girl could see it. They were trying to comfort me. After all, I was the only Christian in the group. I was surrounded by Islamism and Judaism. At half past eleven, I stood up, wobbled a bit, and quietly sneaked out, thinking they would not notice my short absence.


I did not tell them I wanted to go to a church for the midnight Mass, something I had done my entire life on Christ­mas. I walked along in the streets towards the church. I felt guilty that I was going to church drunk but I thought it was better than not going at all. It was my refuge from my loneli­ness, the warmth of church with many people singing carols. The momentary silence of the late evening in the streets after leaving the noise of the party stabilized me. All of a sudden, there was solemnity.


The church was crowded and to hide my being drunk, I simply stayed outside the church beyond the huge front doors. I stayed behind the crowd which was spilling over outside the church. I wanted to receive communion but decide against it. Not in my state of inebriation. It would be irrever­ent. I just prayed and sang ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ with the crowd. Bethlehem was just a stone’s throw away. I felt better.


Almost at the end of the mass, someone elbowed me. It was the whole gang. They followed me to church. They wrapped the vodka and gin in paper bags to hide it. They giggled when I saw them. Instinctively, I felt embar­rassed as church goers might see this bunch of drunken Arabs and a Jew. But then again, I was touched. Friends who did not believe in Christmas believed in friendship. They came to Mass to share themselves with me on this precious day. I was almost in tears. That was the greatest Christmas gift on the road.


I was late for Mass anyway, so it ended soon. We left and were rowdy in the streets, shouting and singing, as we went back to the hostel. They sang strange Arab songs. My loneli­ness disappeared.


“Hey, guys, thanks. I really appreciate it,” I said.


“We’re all in the same boat, Bernie, remember,” the Jewish girl answered. “We’re all away from home. We have to stick together. Especially in our moments of being alone. We are family.”


“Thanks. I guess this is home away from home for all of us,” I embraced her and the guys hooted, pushing us to each other.


I asked for an attendance report. Everyone shouted his/her origin – Tel Aviv, Khartoum, Marrekesh, Manila, Cairo, Dakar, Tunis, I forget the others. Come to think of it, they were more Muslim North Africans rather than Arabs, descendants of Bedouins and Berbers converted to Islam. They were mostly escaping the physical poverty of their North African homelands, looking for jobs in Athens, or going north to Paris or London or Copenhagen. I and the Jewish girl were escaping the spiritual poverty of the affluent societies. Whereas the North Africans were looking for jobs, the Jewish girl and I were looking for ourselves.


We slept at about three in the morning only because there were no more to drink and the stores were closed. Everybody filed back to their rooms. My first Christmas away from home was not bad, only because of friends who were not even Chris­tians. I would never forget that Christmas, this melting pot of religion and culture. That is my Christmas story. eastwindreplyctr@gmail.com


albatrosses like eagles do not flock
you find them one at a time
they embark on long journeys in solitude
migrating from pole to pole with ease
sleeping for hours as they glide effortlessly


occasionally, high up in the stratosphere
there is a chance encounter
two albatrosses glide together
for a brief moment in time
wingtip to wingtip
viewing the earth below
then other albatrosses from nowhere join in


in a sudden thunderstorm
they dive into a tailspin
holding on to each other’s spirit
until turbulent winds taper


on occasions, they spot a green oasis
in the middle of the vast desert
they descend quickly for a precious drink
then they fly up again effortlessly in spirals
catching violent warm updrafts
attaining a thousand meters in 5 minutes
back into the comfort of the stratosphere


then they suddenly part ways without plan
back to solitude
until the next chance encounter
sometime somehow somewhere
when wingtips meet once more
in some forgotten cloud




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