Philippines - Day 4 (Pinatubo)

This is entry #6.
Link to entry #5.
Jolayne is also chronicling our trip here.

We began day 4 (Tuesday) on day 3 in a couple different ways.  First, after chatting with De Oceras about the best way to get up to Tarlac, I decided it would be much faster and lower stress if I could get a ride.  At Jolayne's recommendation, I called Sonia Bognot, our host for the trip and asked if there was any chance at the late moment that she could come pick us up instead.  She readily agreed and we worked out the finances easily.  It wound up saving us probably a couple hours of commute time each direction.  Day 3 also brought an early start to day 4, with us waking up at 330am.  I woke up about 30 min before our alarm when Jolayne texted me to ask if I was up.  I wasn't. Then I was.  But it was just fine.  The night before I had the smarts to put our bottles of water in the hotel's main fridge, so they were nice and cold when I retrieved them the following morning.  Yay.  Cold (clean) water is nectar there.  We took a couple gallons of water, thinking after our experience on Monday that it was going to be super hot and that we'd go through it all very quickly.

Heading back to Mt. Pinatubo was both a fun and important experience for me.  History lesson:
In the 90's, Mt. Pinatubo was only about 10 miles as the crow flies from our mission home in Angeles City.  I didn't arrive until several years after the primary eruption on June 15, 1991, but I still experienced much of what that volcano had to "offer" to its people.  Prior to the eruption, the mountain stood 5725ft tall; not a huge peak but definitely large, especially considering we were on a large tropical island.  After the eruption, the mountain measured 4875ft, about 850ft lower.  The primary eruption shot ash and material tens of miles into the sky, causing a global temperature change across the globe.  In an uncanny coincidence (or was it?), the volcano erupted just as tropical typhoon Yunya made a direct hit on the island of Luzon, creating what many residents later described as an apocalyptic experience; they truly thought it was the end of the world.  Day turned to night, the sky rained down ash, and the fire-and-lightning was truly cataclysmic.  The force was 8x greater than the Mt St Helens eruption in Washington in 1980, which I remember clearly as a child.   
Only 847 people were killed in these events (reportedly mostly due to roof cave-ins).  The USGS had worked with the Philippine geologic agency (PHILVOLCS) to accurately measure and predict the eruption, and it's utterly amazing that more people weren't killed; there were hundreds of thousands in the area.  
However, in the aftermath of the eruption, many more died due to the volcanic mudflows--called lahars--which were made MUCH worse by the typhoon that had settled in with torrential rains.  These lahars lasted many years; every time it would rain, huge amounts of debris would come down from the mountain, clog the various river channels, and cause widespread flooding.  Early lahars also contained pyroclastic material and large rocks/debris, making them even more dangerous.  Nearly every bridge in the area was washed out at some point, many multiple times.  Much of my mission experience skirted these areas, and we also were involved in a major evacuation of San Fernando after yet another typhoon in 1995 completely decimated the area with lahars and flooding.  Entire cities were erased.  These are pix I took while on my mission:






And so it was a special thing for me to go back--into the belly of the beast, as it were--to see how nature had regenerated itself 20+ years after these events.  We were actually going to trek directly into the crater itself!  Our trip was to take us up to the north, around the closest point between the city and the volcano, and descend from the upper side, driving up a flatter, safer, river channel in the Tarlac province.

As an aside to my side note, the US Air Force, which had already scaled back operations at Clark at the end of the Cold War, was working on a hastened its departure of all non-essential personnel just ahead of the expected eruption, in a high-speed evacuation whose script would be proper for a Hollywood thriller.  They left nearly everything behind, and since the turnover was upset by the volcano, what could have otherwise been a constructive and profitable event for the country was instead an opportunity to loot and destroy.  When I was there several years later, it was sad to see how much of the (comparatively superior) infrastructure had been destroyed not by the storms but the people.  One P-day, we ventured in to the old base hospital, which during its peak operation was one of only a couple regional trauma centers outside the US.  It was completely decimated and looted.  Made me sad to see, since it was such a chance to change status quo in that part of the country.  Even the wiring for the airfield's runway lights was looted, as the story goes.  The good news is that if you fast-forward in the story 20 years, key parts of that infrastructure have been restored, the airfield is now a (small) international airport, and the base is used as a commercial, job, and entertainment center for the whole region.  They have huge plans to turn that airport into the main gateway for the whole country, as the airport in Manila is way over capacity and in need of retrofitting.

Back to our main story...

Sonia, who runs a small but extremely courteous tour agency picked us up promptly (and well before sun-up) and drove us about an hour north into the province of Tarlac, where I had only been once as a missionary since it was outside our mission.  We cut through Clark (where we had landed Saturday) and went around most of Angeles City in order to avoid traffic, even at 500am.  When we started out around 445a traffic was extremely light and we made really good time up the MacArthur highway from San Fernando into Angeles.  It made me glad, though, that I'd decided not to stay at one of the swimming resorts on that side of town; jeeping back and forth to De Ocera's would have been a real pain. We popped out the back entrance to Clark into Mabalacat and then drove north into Tarlac to the town of Capas.  The traffic light at the main intersection in Mabalacat was out and it was utter gridlock.  You basically had to just edge your way out and then wait for things to move just enough that you could edge forward, as others are doing that in all four directions right along with you; a real mess.  Most of the way they now have a four-lane rode, much improved from before.  It's supposed to be so that the trikes and jeeps can stay on the outside lanes and leave the inside lanes for those who are trying to go more than mph.  Trouble is, most trikes and jeeps think that keeping right is wasteful (or something), so they stay in the middle.  It makes for a weaving experience, for sure.  From Capas we got onto a small rode that wound up into the countryside to a barangay (neighborhood) called Santa Juliana.  We noticed the temperature was much lower the further out we got. Must have been due to getting out of the city; it was quite lush.  

Along the way we talked about lots of things, mostly in Tagalog.  I translated here and there for Jolayne, but I'm sure it was hard to keep up.  I think Sonia enjoyed the fact that she could go faster in Tagalog with me.  We talked about the trekking and her business.  She used to be in pharma sales and switched several years ago to do the Pinatubo thing.  It's been good for her, though her husband still lives in the states and works to pay the bills.  She and her family operate this business and have been pretty successful.  Though they did lose a visitor a few months ago.  He was in poor physical condition and died while swimming, which is why they recently banned the swimming in the crater.  She also described another incident back in 2009 where several French nationals (and their local guides and rescuers) drowned after being swamped in a storm.  It's funny how you get different points of view from different sources.  Regardless, it was obvious that we were headed into a very inhospitable place in poor weather.  I can certainly understand after watching the havoc this mountain wreaked on the people of Pampanga in the 90's.

We checked in around 6am and signed paperwork, used the bathroom (which they actually tried to charge us to do, and it wasn't worthy of charging, I assure you), and got settled.  As part of our package, Sonia had prepared both breakfast and lunch bags for us, which we put into the jeep with our water and sunscreen.  There were not many trekkers this day; on busy weekends they routinely sell out of permits for the 80 jeeps they have on staff.  I don't think there were more than a 8-10 jeeps trekking this day.  It was actually great; much less dusty than it could have otherwise been.  We were introduced to both our driver (can't recall his name, he hardly said a word) and guide, Audi (probably not spelled that way).  



Our jeep was probably 40 years old and had been well used (and abused) over the years.  It was a little worse for wear but functioned fine during our trip.  It had a roll bar with a canvas cover over the front two seats.  Those in the back were in the open sun.  After paying my P10000 balance ($250), which was quite expensive by local standards but in line with what the other tour operators were all charging, we departed at 630am.  I sat in the front and all the girls and Audi sat in the back.

We then began our trek up about 15 miles through the O'Donnell river.  As I had my GPS with me, I actually have the exact track we took, which is sort of interesting (if you're into that sort of thing).  We started at about 500ft above sea level and finished up at about 3000ft, so it was a continual slope up, though we didn't always notice it.  We were in the lahar immediately upon leaving the pavement at the shoving-off point.  When we finished in the jeep, we hiked up only  another 300 feet up and over the top of the crater, then down 150 feet to the lake itself.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.


On the drive up, the weather was cool and very comfortable, a super-welcome change from the heat of the day before (and only temporary).  It was surreal to think that we were driving up and into a volcano; it really didn't seem like a volcano at all.

And since Pinatubo didn't stick out much higher than any of the other mountains in the surrounding Zambales range, there was no destination on the horizon for us to target.  We basically felt like we were just on a trip through a (lahar filled) river bed.  The water wasn't more than 3-4 inches deep in most places, but it was obvious that the road path changed frequently as the landforms shifted.  We learned later that after nearly every rain, the guides had to go back up the trail and reconstruct a usable road.  Even on our trip, we came upon a section that had washed out (the road dropped off about 2-3 feel due to erosion).

We also encountered a large detachment of US Marines, only recently invited back to the country, to work in coordinated exercises with the Philippine army.  Judging by the size of the camp, there must have been 400-500 of them; we heard that had come in on ships and drove up from Subic.  It was kind of funny to be 8000 miles from home and see all this US equipment, though we didn't see anyone up close.  The riverbed we were driving through serves as a military practice range during much of the year, and on active days is closed to trekkers after a certain hour in the morning.  Then the trekkers aren't allowed to return through the range until later in the afternoon.  The range had large football-field-goal style targets for bombing practice, and if I understood the guide correctly, F-16's routinely flew in to assist with the practice.  That would be a neat site.

Along the drive up, we stopped in a nice shady area for breakfast.  Kristen wasn't at all happy with the cuisine choices (a theme, it had become, for our trip).  Omelette and spam.  It wasn't bad.  When we got to within about 3km of the top, the guide and driver suggested we get out and finish by hiking to make the trip more realistic/authentic.  My kids balked at that; especially Amy, as she had been having knee problems.  So we elected to ride all the up to the top and walk back down a portion of that trail later on our descent.

It was about 8am when we pulled into the parking lot at the top.  It was a richly lush area full of green growth; such a contrast to the lahars we'd driven through on the way up.  As I mentioned, we then hiked only about 1km up a beautiful trail, about 300ft vertically, up and over the crater rim.

The guide told told us that in prior years this was a very dangerous and strenuous journey, as there weren't proper steps constructed into the mountain.  Many people had to pull themselves up on plants and vines, and slipping was a constant danger.  For our visit, however, it was a simple hike.  Once we crested the crater rim, we were treated to a magnificent view.

It was amazing, though on this day the water didn't have that turquoise color that I'd seen in some of the pictures.  On the way down, we passed a large kubo area which was of course staffed by a guy trying to sell me beverages and highly inflated prices.  I elected to have some fun with him and asked if Coke tasted better inside the volcano.  He said for sure it did.  I asked if it was better for me in the volcano.  He said it was.  I asked if it was worth the huge markup.  He said it was.  Then I told him we had our own stuff.  He proceeded then to try to sell me some noodles instead.

We descended the crater to the lake and spent the next couple hours just chilling, taking pictures, and enjoying the place.  There really wasn't much to do, and the kids were quickly bored.  But I think the tour operators want to make sure it's a full-day trip and thus can be sold as an "experience" that merits the price premium.  Formerly, people would go swimming, but it was now expressly prohibited.  The shoreline apparently dropped off very quickly, plus I had read online that water samples tested positive for high quantities of heavy metals.  With the death in the lake just a few months before, we didn't push our luck, and the kids just waded in to their ankles and played.  I could tell they were bored, because even Misha (who hates such things) let Amy and Kristen give her feet a spa treatment with the mud.  Funny.  I spent much of the time sacked out in a nice grassy spot where I could rest and enjoy myself.  It was nice.

Of course, that's because we were in the shade still.  Before long, the shade left us and the heat returned.  We ate our provided lunch of chicken and rice with our fingers, and were treated to another display of Kristen telling us how she didn't like the food.  It was an expectation by this point.

I think it was shortly before noon when we elected to start on our way back.  Our first few steps were extremely steep and took the wind out of us, even for Jolayne and me who are in good shape and from a high altitude.  We commented at how extreme the steps were (and we'd learn more about those steps later).

Back at the kubo hut, we were asked if we wanted to take a picture with Bob Marley.  I replied in Tagalog that that was pretty cool, since Bob Marley was dead. I think they were (again) surprised at my language skills, and we had a fun time volleying back and forth for a few minutes, with them insisting that it would be great for us to (pay to have, of course) a picture with the dead stoner.  Instead we elected to have Audi take our picture at the top of the crater on the way out.  Beautiful sight.

We walked down a couple miles past our initial drop off point, through the lahar-filled riverbed.  Amy rode in the jeep, though I have a suspicion her knee injury wasn't as debilitating as she was leading us to believe.  After a mile or so, her sisters joined her.  Jo made it another half mile or so, but I was enjoying walking through the river and being in such a hostile environment.  It was MUCH hotter by this time, and I think the lahar really amplifies the heat.  Once I got back in the jeep and we got moving, I decided to stand in the back and hold on to the roll bar.  No OSHA rules here, you see!  It was fun, and I got some good video.  We were moving along at a pretty good clip, and it was bouncing us around pretty hard; no seatbelts.

We saw a motorcycle approaching us from behind very quickly, and its rear occupant was bouncing around wildly, nearly falling off.  As they got closer, we could hear them both yelling at us but couldn't make out what they were saying.  Finally we picked up that they were clearing the road for another jeep that was coming up quickly behind.  A man who'd been at the lake taking pictures just moments before had suffered a heart attack on the climb out.  He was in the back of the jeep, getting tossed around violently, as they tried to make the 15 miles as quickly as they could.  We learned later that afternoon that he did not survive.  That gave me a real appreciation for the amazing things we enjoy at home, like life flight.  It also got us thinking once again at how inhospitable this place really was.

Once we finished out our jeep ride, it was about 2pm or so.  We were taken to a guest house, which is just a normal house that's meant for guests!  We were shown to our room and invited to shower up and get comfortable while they finished cooking a full meal of fried chicken, pancit, and, of course, rice.  I stuck my head out back and saw Sonia's father, who was in his 80's, showering the traditional way, with a bucket and ladle.  I struck up a conversation and asked if I could join him, to which he readily agreed.  It was fun to shower the "old" way again, and on such a hot afternoon, it was quite refreshing.  The girls didn't shower fully, but rinsed off their feet, arms, and faces, while inside.

We all enjoyed our meal; it was the first time since arriving that we had a truly native meal that we got to enjoy (the cafeteria experience was a little rushed to be considered enjoyable).   The food was really good, and Jolayne especially liked the pancit.  It was something I turned her on to after we got married, and we made it a few times but it took alot of work.  She learned from Sonia how to make it a little easier, which we'll have to try.  The highlight of the meal, though, was the fresh mangoes!  Yum!  Delish!  Awesome.  Jo and I gorged on them.  They just aren't the same when they aren't fresh.  These were incredible.

After our meal, we joined the family with a little videoke.  Sonia's sister, who sings in a bar, had a beautiful and powerful voice, and we enjoyed a few songs with her.  Viedeoke, as I've mentioned before, is a national pastime here, and this family had a great setup.  Tatay joined in a bit later and serenaded us as well.  It was a fun way to commune and go native for a few hours.  My kids thought I was ridiculous when I joined in on the choruses; oh well.  Good that I can embarrass them on multiple continents.

We said goodbye to Sonia's family and began our trip back to San Fernando.  On the way back we stopped at the memorial at Camp O'Donnell the end point of the infamous Bataan Death March.  History lesson:

Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, they also attacked the American presence in the Philippines.  They had taken over nearly all the Pacific islands by this time, and only the Philippines remained.  General Douglas MacArthur and his men fought fiercely over a three-month period while awaiting reinforcements from the US Navy.  The Navy, however, had been so damaged at Pearl Harbor that there were no ships available which were capable of bringing reinforcements to the Philippines.  A brutal three-month battle followed, and after capturing the Philippine Islands, the Japanese took over 80,000 Filipino and American soldiers prisoner.  This was the largest single surrender of US soldiers in history.  The Japanese were not prepared for such large numbers of prisoners and ultimately commenced a forced march from the province of Bataan, to the south, north through Pampanga and ultimately into Tarlac.  As many as 10,000 died during the grueling 80 mile march, during the peak summer season (similar to the weather in which we visited).  The captors failed to provide adequate food and water, and many terrible atrocities were committed during this time.  The prisoners wound up at Camp O'Donnell, a former US base which was turned into a concentration camp for the duration of the war.  After the war, a war-crimes trial was held for the events that occurred here.  Camp O'Donnell is now the site of the Bataan Death March Memorial, a solemn place.  The camp was not liberated until January 1945.

An interesting side note.  A Hollywood movie, Emperor, is due for release very shortly which describes MacArthur's action with Japan during the period following these events.  During my mission I visited Mt Samat, in Bataan, several times.  This was a large cross-based memorial where nearly 80,000 soldiers retreated for their last battle.  So that was the start of the death march, and now I was able to visit the end.  


It was a solemn place with the names of tens of thousands of soldiers inscribed on the wall.


This time we took the expressway since traffic was bad in the city.  Traffic was remarkably organized on the road; there were lots and lots of signs reminding people that they had to actually follow the rules, that they'd be caught if they didn't, etc.  Looks like they've been working hard to instill that sense of discipline in driving, at least on that road.  Sonia dropped us back at our hotel about 530pm.  We were pretty exhausted by this point, and obviously not hungry, so we skipped dinner.  Our room had not been cleaned at all while we were there.  I even tried giving them the room key on Tuesday and asking that they clean; but nothing.  Oh well; wasn't really a big deal to me anyway.

The kids fell asleep as soon as we got back to the hotel.  I let them sleep an hour or so, and they were NOT at all happy with me when I tried to wake them up.  Angry would be a more appropriate word.  But I knew we needed to make the most out of our short time in San Fernando; there would be time for sleeping later on.  So up they came.  We got back over to the De Ocera's somewhere around 630p.  This night we taught the family how to play Uno.  It was a hit!  At first, Alyssa was pretty reserved about it as I was teaching them all the rules in Tagalog.  I knew I'd be leaving shortly to go visiting the families to whom we were offering assistance, and I wanted to make sure there was something fun to keep everyone entertained (across language barriers) for the evening.  Alyssa and the others caught on very quickly (there's a Filipino game that's pretty similar) and they apparently played for quite some time.

Bishop Lazatin then showed up and I hopped on the back of his scooter to go make some visits.  We visited 6 different families over the course of a few hours.  We spent most of our time in the poorer parts of town.  Things hadn't hardly changed at all in almost 20 years.  I felt like I was a missionary all over again, walking down the dark streets at night with my arm raised to guard my face (holding it out a couple feet in front of me) to make sure that any clotheslines wouldn't decapitate me.  Several of the homes we passed were made out of discarded lumber and signs.  It was great to chat up the little kids, give them high-fives, and to spread some cheer as we told kids they'd be able to afford to attend school.  As the tall white guy, I was quite the visitor, and the kids had no problem checking me out.  A little boy, probably two or so,  was completely naked and just playing outside.  I did wish, though, that he'd had some sort of footwear on; there was lots of garbage (and open trenches).



As we were motoring between visits, I asked Emil if he knew where the Garcias lived; I sensed that we were close, and though I couldn't remember all the streets and areas, I felt like it was the right part of town.  He replied quickly that their home was just around the corner and asked if I wanted to drop by.  I said yes, and we quickly arrived.  As we pulled up, Brother Garcia was just headed back inside.  He looked at me in surprise and in a somewhat astonished voice said, "I knew you would come."  Wow.

A little about the Garcias.  I met and taught brother Garcia in January 1996 while I was serving in the mission office.  San Fernando had become our primary place to go an proselyte in the evenings after we completed our work.  This was one of the busiest (and happiest) times of my mission; we worked nearly every waking second.  Here's an excerpt from my original journal about Ricardo Garcia:
He’s the father of a family who are all members except him.  His wife was even a seminary teacher before she went inactive for ten years.  She was reactivated when Elder Cayaba and I visited them back in March or April after wandering down the wrong street when I knew my directions perfectly well, only to be accosted by Sis Garcia when she saw us (thus beginning her reactivation; just goes to show reactivation hours are not a waste of time—read on.)  When the lahar came in and flooded them out in October, they took refuge at the church here in Angeles.  Brother Garcia recalls that when he entered the church his feeling was quite different from anything he’d felt before; he felt the spirit welcoming him and telling him the church was true.  Not only that, but the members also welcomed him warmly.  From this and several other experiences, Brother Garcia’s attitude of “your church is fine for you, but I don’t need it…” changed dramatically.  When we attended church in San Fernando last Sunday, he and his wife asked if we could begin the discussions.  He is now scheduled to be baptized next Sunday.  He loves his family and really does his best to be a good person.  Now we’re giving him the icing and helping him to frost the cake to make it even better.   
...He was indeed baptized at the end of that month.  They were later sealed in the temple.

On Easter Sunday when we were at church, I saw Sis Emma Garcia and though she was so happy to see me (we had a special relationship), she was really bummed that her husband wasn't there to see me.  He hadn't been attending meetings regularly and had missed out.  Our schedule, as is now apparent, was extremely tight, and I didn't have time to make even one extra visit.  She later told me how bummed they all were that he'd missed out, but that he felt like he'd get a chance to see me.  That we were directed into that neighborhood and that I was prompted to stop by spontaneously was an answer to this family's prayer.

We wound up spending 30 min or so talking about the time when we first met and all that had happened since then.  I got right back into sparring/joker mode with his wife, as we used to play so often before.  But then we got serious and I explained that I knew when I decided to come back that there were people the Lord wanted me to meet; people whom he wanted to remind that he still knew them and their needs.  The Garcias agreed that they were one of those families.  It was a sweet experience for all of us, and I had more than a little trouble keeping my eyes dry.  Truly the Lord answers prayers, even by touching someone 8000 miles away to assist in being the instrument.  Amazing.  I hope Ricardo sees the message for what it was--a tender mercy from above--and that he returns to full activity with his wife.

The lesson I (re)learned from this experience is how significant it can be to discern and then to listen to simple little promptings.  A simple "hey, do they live nearby..." wound up closing the loop on an important experience from many years before.  Love it.

By this point we'd been in the country 3 days and my Tagalog was getting noticeably better.  I wasn't yet fluent, but I was certainly conversant, and nearly as often as I heard a word used in a sentence I could turn around and begin using it again myself.

During our visits, I met several people I'd known from before, which was great.  It was a highlight of the whole trip for me, and I wish that I could have shared the whole evening with Jolayne and the kids.  But there's really no way it would have worked out well.  Jo had Armida text me around 830pm asking how much longer.  I replied that it would be another 30 min, which Jo apparently understood as "he's always late, so that means an hour." Whatever.

Got back to the De Oceras and the nepa hut around 9pm or so (so she was right).  The kids had fallen asleep in the hut, and poor Jolayne looked as though she was asleep with her eyes open.  They were so completely exhausted.  We said a quick goodbye to De Oceras and made our way up to hop a jeep back to the hotel.  I made the mistake of catching a jeep headed to Angeles.  Since it's a 30 min right or so, he wanted to fill it and make the most of his trip.  That meant my sleepy family had to wait quite a while before he was willing to actually get moving.  It took us nearly a half hour to get to our stop.  On the ride, I had my first experience of the trip with gay guys; although it happened regularly to us when I was a missionary.  In the Philippines, if you're gay (it's called bakla), you kind of make it your signature thing.  There's a flamboyance that goes with the lifestyle there, and which certainly calls attention to oneself.  Many of them prefer to cross dress.  There were a couple baklas on the jeep with us, and they were giving me that look (while I was holding a sleeping child).  Kind of awkward, though we did at least manage to have a short little conversation in Tagalog, which I think surprised them a bit.

Walked back to the hotel (another quarter mile) and went straight to bed after another exhausting--but great--day.

Next: Philippines - Day 5 (Traveling to Zambales)

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