Starweek Magazine

The City of Townsville!

- Ann Corvera -

MANILA, Philippines - I would not have known that a city shared a name with the fictitious setting of one of my favorite cartoon programs had my friend not moved here more than two years ago.

Stepping out of the airport, I was waiting to be greeted by the cartoon narrator exclaiming, “The city of Townsville!” I imagined seeing three little girls with ridiculously large heads and eyes leave a trail of rainbow-colored vapor as they dash across the sky to save the day. Obviously, I watch too many cartoons.

And I have apparently lived far too long in Manila, where everything is animated. Townsville, with a population of over 175,000, is as laid-back as can be expected from a city that lies within a coastal region, and so close to nature that just eight kilometers offshore you will find an island that is within a world heritage site.

It fascinates me no end that a few hours’ drive takes you to plenty of national parks and forests with lush mangroves and breathtaking scenery. Amenities are well maintained and walking trails are properly marked. Come to think of it, everything around here is properly maintained and marked – obviously something I am not used to, especially where the road traffic system is concerned.

Camping, fishing, snorkeling and diving are ordinary leisure pursuits. I also learned early on that these activities are as common as the demand for beer and barbecue is. Here, barbecues are grilled sausages while fries are called chips, and “take-out” is to “take-away.” There’s more, but that’s for another story.

One Aussie I met could not be more surprised when I said I cannot swim. But I did proudly say that I had snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef (but not without clinging onto the ropes for dear life).

I did not find Buttercup or Mojo Jojo – of the Powerpuff Girls, for those of you from outer space who do not know this most important piece of information – in the City of Townsville but I sure found Nemo – lots of them.

Of Australia’s 16 world heritage properties, five are in Queensland, according to the regional government site. ‘Nuff said if you are a nature lover, which thankfully I am. But Manila mallrats must brace themselves for a shopaholic shock as what is considered the biggest mall here is the size of one wing of an SM mall.

Friday is not mall time here; it is rush to the liquor store time. On weekends, shopping centers – the two or three major ones that Townsville has – close at 4 or 5 in the afternoon. Weekends are spent on getaways when vehicles hauling boats or camping trailers speed off to the mountains and the seas. That, or families flock to have barbecue in parks or at The Strand, a beachfront promenade that reminds me of Baywalk along Roxas Boulevard, except it comes with amenities.

There is a fair semblance of nightlife in Townsville but a Manileña might find it a tad tame. And then there’s the fact that police conduct regular alcohol-reading checks on drivers.

One thing most of regional Queensland shares with the Philippines is that it is prone to tropical cyclones, and it did not take long before I felt like I was back home – in February.

A week into my arrival, rains followed me around. Instead of seeing a Powerpuff rainbow trail, what trailed me was a cyclone named Hamish. I arrived in Townsville in fair weather but it turned out to be a brief respite from monsoon rains and earlier cyclones that were reported to have flooded two-thirds of the state.

So much for sugar, spice and everything nice.

I wasn’t too concerned. I was too busy getting confounded by driving in left-hand traffic and shedding the Manila style of steering the wheel.

Only when I was left home alone on the day that Hamish was to strike did I wonder if there was some sort of emergency plan I had to familiarize myself with. For over 40 years, my home in Parañaque withstood the strongest of typhoons and my family has been fortunate enough never to be counted among evacuees. But I am still more accustomed to seeing disorganized evacuation of the every-man-for-himself kind.

Several hours away from the forecast landfall, I went to the grocery for a few supplies. People seemed calm; no obvious panic-buying and hoarding went on although I noticed the milk section was nearly bare. I suspected that hoarding went on in liquor stores.

Later, as I watched the dark skies, anxious over how nature’s furious mood would impact on this land foreign to me, a flickering red light caught my peripheral vision. I had left the car headlight turned on. Much to my dread, the battery had gone dead.

I have had a lot of car trouble before in Manila, but there were no shirtless istambays around here to gamely help me. No instant mechanic on street corners either.

And there was no red phone to ring the Powerpuff Girls.

I looked around the compound for help. Luckily, a robust woman and a beefy guy were kind enough to lend a hand. The woman offered to jumpstart the car while the man and I pushed. Nice way to meet the neighbors.

Weather satellite showed the cyclone nearly making landfall, swirling parallel to the coast. But it still caused havoc and battered the Whitsunday Islands, a favorite tourist spot. The compound I live in was apparently on high ground, but not too far off, there were reports of flooded towns.

If floating garbage is a common sight in Manila when torrential rains hit, here it’s crocodiles. Missing persons, including children, were being reported amid fears that crocs got them.

While up north flooding tormented Queenslanders, down south Victorians were getting a beating from bushfires. Being a continent with extremely variable weather and where Christmas is in summer, it was still surreal to see a country coping with nature’s temper in the extremes.

When the weather cleared, I was delighted to see the sun. My delight was cut short when an afternoon walk resulted in my nape getting burned by too much sunlight.

Welcome to Queensland, where one minute it’s raining or hail is battering your windshield, the next it’s hot and humid or I’m popping pimples from a dust haze that had blanketed Townsville all the way from Sydney.

Having quirky weather is the most animated as it can get out here, at least, from the view of someone who is used to Metro Manila’s zippy life. Still, my days in Townsville are saved, thanks to its proximity to all that is green and diverse in nature-friendly Queensland.

The author was a deskman at The STAR before moving to Townsville.

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