Photo by Ibrahim Mushan

The Woman Who Owned the Sea

I AM STANDING on Yolanda Beach. The edge of the world. One edge, anyway. East of the Philippines, where the island of Samar meets the Pacific. Samar, a sound like the local word for “wound,” an island named after pain.

Pacifico, Magellan had said of the great ocean, and in describing it gave it a name. El Niño, South American fishermen had said as the ocean warmed, the infant Jesus blessing Magellan’s fleet with fine weather before the doldrums that suspended them between east and west, nearly killing them. His heart bursting with the thrill of arrival, Magellan didn’t know he would never return home.

The beach is as perfect as a postcard: blazing whites, soothing blues, the scene fringed with green. It is midday, and I have come to see the tidal pools. Little blue fish swim in one, trapped until the tide returns. They touch their mouths to the limestone beneath my toes. Even with nowhere to go, they search for food, busy with the business of survival.

A woman approaches. “Where are you from?” she asks me in Waray, the language of this island, which I don’t speak. When I murmur a greeting in Tagalog, the language of the capital, her smile opens all the way. Now that she knows I’m from Manila, she switches to Tagalog with English effortlessly woven in. “I take care of this place. Make sure people don’t litter.”

I nod along, add some words of sympathy. Tagalog is the language of my father but not of my mother, though both call themselves Filipino. Among these 7,641 islands, you’ll find 183 living languages. Although the official languages of the archipelago are Tagalog and English, my godfather, a cultural researcher, explains that language when spoken becomes a dialect, rooted to the place where it lives and to the people who speak it.

As we pick our way across the tidal pools, the woman’s attention is drawn to flashes of color scattered across the reef: plastic sachets that once held the basic needs of a day—shampoo, instant noodles, laundry detergent—the extent of most Filipinos’ sense of the future. In a country more water than land, plastic is very useful; it keeps things dry, separate. The Philippines is the third worst plastic polluter in the world, though much of it comes from somewhere else, exported here by countries with a surplus of products. The woman gathers the debris and stuffs it into her own plastic bag.

“All of this is my land,” she says. I smile halfway, trying to keep the incredulity from my face. I take in the sprawling beach behind us, pools and limestone formations the ocean has made both smooth and jagged through repetition. “Everything got eaten by the sea.” She points up at the cliff. Deep cuts score its face; broken rocks lie at its feet. And right on the cliff’s edge, the woman’s house looks out over property lines that washed out with the coastline.


THE PATIENT WORK of erosion, overtaken by a single, violent moment. In place of a gentle hill, rubble. Boulders strewn across the cove; one the size of a car, a bus, a house. The woman tells me they came from the sea, carried in by a storm surge taller than the coconut trees. Yolanda Beach was once Jagnaya Beach, before it was renamed after one of the most powerful typhoons in recorded history landed here.

The tide rewrites a place. Whatever the tide brings, it displaces what could have been, submerges what once was. Continuing westward, Magellan agreed to help the king of one island unseat the king of another. The tide was low when he and his crew arrived on Mactan. Unable to land their boats, they waded ashore in their heavy armor. Their retreat was just as awkward. With the boats’ artillery out of range, the captain stayed behind to help his men escape. His body was left on the shore, riddled with bamboo spears. Magellan didn’t last a month in the islands, but his discovery of them began a colonial history that spanned more than three centuries.

The midday sun bears down upon our black-haired heads, and the blinding white beach burns like an afterimage. We duck into a cavern, the incoming tide echoing against its walls. I ask the woman if she’s had many visitors. She nods happily. Foreign relief workers. Filipino businessmen. Important people. She’s proud of this popularity, but then her mood darkens. “The government wants to take the beach back,” she says. “They say it belongs to them. Others want to turn it into a resort.” I watch a cluster of sea urchins waving their ink-black spines in the rippling light. “I cannot sell this land. It belongs to my family. I only take care of it.”

As we walk back across the sand, she stops, holds up her hand, and nods in   a way that in the Philippines can mean many things. See you. Beats me. Go ahead. Help me. “Please come again,” she calls out. I forget to ask her name.

The tide has almost fully returned. Mountains become rubble. Boulders turn into sand. A beach can tell you its story if you know what you’re looking at. The battle between existence and erosion. A scar constantly reopened. But what you see depends on what you have in mind: an ending, a beginning, a never mind, a possibly maybe. Ideas are the patterns you make from what is and what isn’t.

I’d like to dip my feet, I decide. I hold my slippers in one hand and walk into the sea.



Subscribe to Orion Ad

Nicola Sebastian is a Filipino writer, surfer, and National Geographic Explorer. Born in Hong Kong, she is interested in “islandness,” both as space and sensibility. Her work has been published in Orion magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, Bellingham Review, VICE Asia, and CNN Philippines. Nicola graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, New York, where she was the managing editor of the Columbia Journal, and taught fiction writing to undergraduates. She lives in La Union, Philippines, where she cofounded Emerging Islands, a coastal-based arts-for-ecology collective that tells island stories. She is also working on an ecological memoir on disaster, discovery, and the Philippines.