It was by chance that Queenmelo Esguerra found herself on the island of Siargao in late 2021. Stuck inside her Makati residence for months because of the lockdowns, it seemed serendipitous that her housemate, Dr. Quincy Raya, invited her to join a trip to the country’s surf capital. Dr. Raya and his team were going to bring vaccines to the island and there happened to be an extra seat on the plane. Melo took it as an opportunity to enjoy a much-needed respite from a restricted city life.
“The moment the plane landed on the island, I felt freedom,” recalls the former TV producer. She didn’t realize how much she missed being in the outdoors until she took in the sea breeze and saw people moving freely. The plan to stay only for the weekend extended to a week, which was stretched to a full month. Until she finally decided to stay—leave her Makati apartment and live in Siargao.
To people who know Queenmelo, the decision to move wasn’t entirely surprising. Apart from always sporting fabulous kaftans and big, bold eyewear, she is known to happily move from one place to another, never staying in one city for too long a time. She describes herself as the queen of reinvention. “My passion is my compass. I don't plan my life, to be honest,” she tells ANCX. “I just move with the flow.”
After leaving her job as a producer for GMA-7 shows like “Wish Ko Lang” in 2008, she has since lived a peripatetic lifestyle. She was in London for a while, and then Paris. Friends would see her walking the streets of New York one time, and then she’d be in a red carpet event at Cannes the next. But in 2020, like the rest of the world, she was forced to stay put.
The Siargao trip proved inspiring. Spotting a couple of nice huts by the beach sparked a vision of starting a private dining slash bar operation in the island. She would invite her chef-friends from different parts of the world to come and cook, and she would entertain. “It was really a beautiful idea for me,” she says.
Melo was set to launch her business December 20 in time for the holidays, and she’s already lined up chefs willing to come to the island. Her family was supposed to be her first guests. But then a devastating disaster occurred December 16. Typhoon Odette struck the island.
Odette and destruction
Siargao was among the areas placed under signal No. 4. Aware of the storm’s strength, Melo opted to evacuate her villa two days prior to Odette’s landfall to stay at a friend’s place. At that time, she was with her best friend Sebastian Gayosa who came to visit her in Siargao.
“When you talk to the locals here, they were not worried because they're used to big waves, heavy rains and winds. No one expected the gravity of the typhoon to be that strong,” Melo recalls. “The locals evacuated only on the day of the typhoon. Most of them evacuated to schools and gymnasiums.”
At around 4AM on December 16, Melo got an SMS from French businessman Chris Bariou updating her that the storm has intensified and told her she can stay at his place. But without a car in the island at that time, Melo’s mobility was limited. She thought the safest and smartest option was to take refuge at a nearby fire station. Go where the rescuers are.
Melo and Sebastian reached the Siargao fire station at 6:30AM. Around lunchtime, there was no way any of them can get out. “Mabilis ang pangyayari,” Melo recalls. “The yeros were flying already and landing on the lawn. I saw a gazebo flew. Coconut trees were uprooted—they were flying off the air before they land on something. [The storm] was really strong.”
Melo was incessantly shouting her prayers as she was witnessing everything from the second floor of the fire station.
The typhoon, which raged for about four hours, only subsided at around 5 in the afternoon. On the news the next day, reports said it left an estimated damage of about P20 billion in Siargao alone.
Rush of emotions
After the storm, the whole island looked like a warzone. It’s famously lush, green landscape turned brown and forlorn. Most houses and evacuation centers were wrecked. Melo stepped out of the fire station to check on her friend Chris’ house and she was relieved to find it was still intact. It was there that she and Sebastian took shelter that evening.
Melo felt a rush of emotions while walking thru the wreckage the following morning. “When you see people you know, maiiyak ka na lang,” she says. “There's still fear, there's trauma. But you’re also thankful that you and the people you know are still alive.”
The huts she was renting, where she was to host her private dining soirées, were flattened by the typhoon. “Yung isa talagang ubos, zero. The other one, may kaunting natira sa walls pero wala na yung bubong.” She found some of her belongings strewn together but already in another location. And thankfully, she says, she was able to save some of her clothes.
The following day, seeing many still had no means of getting food and no access to clean water, the owner of Siargao Town Center, Ken Shaw, suggested Melo organize a food relief operation. Ken bought all the food he could possibly buy from an island grocery store and had Melo prepare hot meals for the hungry island folk.
“Seeing that many people were falling in line for food to eat awakened my consciousness to do more,” says Melo. She had worked with Kawa Pilipinas before Odette, so she was easily able to facilitate the relief operation. They previously distributed food to communities severely affected by the pandemic.
Four days after the typhoon, Melo was able to fly out of Siargao and spent Christmas and New Year with family in Cagayan de Oro, her hometown. “Parang back to normal na agad for me because I needed a break,” she recalls. “But I was also preparing for how to come back and help.”
Time to rebuild
On January 5 the following year, Melo returned to Siargao with a truckload of construction materials. “My high school classmate offered trucking services for free, so my brother and I filled it up with construction materials—not thinking whether we’d be able to get donations or not,” she says.
Their initial plan was to rebuild only 10 homes, but thanks to many more people who provided financial aid, she and her brother ended up rebuilding a total of 60 houses.
“I chose my beneficiaries the way I chose my subjects in ‘Wish Ko Lang,’” she shares. “The ones who were most vulnerable like the elderly, those whose homes were really devastated, and those who have done heroic deeds and saved other people [were top priority].” Melo and her brother did not only provide the construction materials, they also shelled out for labor cost.
Almost a year after the terrible storm, Siargao has picked up the pieces. “Tourism is back,” Melo tells us, smiling. “One thing good about Siargao is that the sense of community is very strong. Ang daming tumulong. And that's another reason why I was moved to help because I've seen so many people helping.”
With the typhoon now behind her, Melo’s eyes are set on Siargao’s future. In the hopes of doing something more sustainable for the province of Surigao del Norte, Melo has initiated a farming program that could help provide livelihood to its people. Together with Nicolo Aberasturi of DowntoEarth—a farm trading company based in Bukidnon which promotes regenerative agriculture—and Leo Faustino, who works with the Global Peace Foundation, she organized a farming community in Barangay San Mateo, in the municipality of Burgos.
“We helped rebuild houses there, and parang ang gaan-gaan ng feeling ko with this community. I felt that everybody wants to help,” he tells us when asked why he chose to help the particular barangay.
The local government has also been helpful in identifying idle land and talking to landowners. Melo and company provided not only seedlings to farmers but training, too, in cooking and making a business out of their produce. “We talked to the local chefs to teach the farming community easy-to-prepare meals. That way, they also get to serve healthy meals to their families.”
DowntoEarth will also train the farmers how to handle their finances—to make sure their businesses will move forward. “One hundred percent of their revenue are theirs,” offers Melo. “We’re not getting a cut.”
So far, 38 families are farming with the use of the practices Melo and her partners taught. “With these 38 families, we hope we can inspire more people to follow.”
Melo’s plans may not have turned out the way she initially wanted them to, but she’s not complaining. Currently, she has a branding company called TMG, which does consultancy for companies and organizations to strengthen their ESG (environmental, social and governance).
“I'm trying to live with this Japanese philosophy called ikigai [which means your 'reason for being.’],” she says. “I'm trying to achieve that balance and living with things that I'm passionate about.”
Her hopes for Siargao go beyond post-typhoon recovery, but for its people to preserve the island’s natural glory. “I hope that mindful travel will become the norm here,” she says. “As locals and tourists enjoy the beauty of the island and what the island has to offer, I want them to be mindful of how they can also give back.”
Photos courtesy of Queenmelo Esguerra