It was in 1991 when the world witnessed the fury that was Mt. Pinatubo. I was in the 5th grade then, back in Cotabato City, when we were told by our school teachers to bring in relief goods that we can donate for the people of Pampanga, Zambales and Tarlac who were devastated by the volcanic eruption.
Mt. Pinatubo then was a symbol of destruction, death and despair. The ash falls, overflowing lahar, buried houses, lost communities, and people in seemingly constant evacuation were the images that I remember of that time.
The Pinatubo eruption was considered the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century and maybe, the most destructive. Total damages were estimated to have reached more than $7 billion, plus environmental and atmospheric impact like speeding up the depletion of the ozone layer.
18 years after, the volcano has again become dormant but signs of its collosal power remain. That’s what we saw during our recent trip to Pinatubo.
Nilo, Luis, Ghian and I left the Victory Liner terminal in Cubao two Saturdays ago at 4:30 in the morning. Destination: Capas, Tarlac. Travel time: at least two hours. Bus fare: P150 (I got less P30 thanks to my old school ID).
We reached Capas a few minues before 7am. We were to meet our tour organizers, Tan Tan and Derick of RH500 Expedition. We waited for the duo to arrive at McDonald’s fronting the Caltex Capas station. There we had our second breakfast (coffee only for me- i still smell of beer from last night’s; first breakfast was in 7Eleven Cubao).
The duo arrived on the dot. It was our first time to meet them. Tan and Derick are in the same team as Carlos Pocholo Jorolan, my contact from Manila whom I haven’t met yet. He was referred to me by Weng Rivera of PBSP in the most serendipitous manner.
Anyway, we were off to Brgy. Sta. Juliana after a few moments of intermission (by Luis who had an urgent transaction in the toilets of McDo). Three of us got in on a really crampy tricycle (P300) that took Derick and the trike driver some time to agree on the price. Luis rode with the duo in their Vitara.
It was a long 20km+ ride to the jump off point, mostly highway then a concrete sidestreet. Road condition is good though. As we arrived, we saw 4×4 vehicles lined up on both sides of the narrow street. To our right was a sari-sari store that sells barbecue pork, hotdogs and innards. The private parking area is beside the store. In front of them (to our left) is the Pinatubo Spa Town compound where Derrick arranged our requirements for the tour: the ride and the guide. Our food, including that of the driver and our guide was already prepared by the awesome duo. (Tour Package was P1,800 per person).
I lost track of time henceforth. We hopped on our assigned top-down truck, took some pictures with the duo, received last minute instructions from them and away we go.
The Crow Valley is a wide white desert plains surrounded by hills formed by hardened ashes on both sides. The road is unpaved and uneven, which explains why we need the 4×4 in going up. Our guide told us that the valley used to be the shooting range of the US Air Force. The ride was exhilarating, going from fast to slow to very slow and back to fast as the driver carefully navigates the truck across sand dunes and rocky streams (that still turns into lahar flows during rainy months which is why trekking is only open from November- April, i was told).
Our 4WD stopped in what looks like a parking area for other trucks that came before us. Our trek officially started on this site. It was a very long walk to the crater thereafter, but it was a surprisingly gentle walk- no steep, slippery slopes. We were fascinated by the Mordor-like landscape, imagining Gollum to suddenly appear. Our excitement went down a little after a while because there is not much change in the scenery. It is the same powdery white sand (or ashes) in its various formations punctuated by small brooks where you can see tadpoles swimming about. No sign of life except for weeds, but sadly, not the five finger type. The remaining excitement mainly comes from the anticipation of what else is beyond these ash walls.
After two hours of walking, we reached a point that looks very much like the parking area we left behind earlier except that the trucks were twice as many. Our guide told us that these people went up via Skyway, a short cut paved and maintained by an enterprising foreigner who runs a spa resort. Trekkers pay toll fees for use of the skyway. D-uh. (That’s for the local government’s failure to maintain the road).
From the Skyway drop off area, it was an uphill climb to the top. We saw indigenous aeta children playing around and gamely smiling to locals and foreigners and their cameras.
The trail became crowded with people going in and from both directions. Trees, flowers and lush vegetation appeared. The brook sounded louder. Our trail met the stream and they became one. Finally, life forms other than our own.
We reached the top of the mountain that is the wall of the crater, only to go down again to reach the lake. The water was blue green and icy cold. There were people swimming, boating, eating, resting. I found it hard to reconcile that the furious Pinatubo I remember is now the Pristine Pinatubo that I see. After destruction, creation. After rage, calm. After death, now comes growth. After all, Pinatubo loosely means ‘allow to grow’.
We stayed at the bank of the lake to eat our lunch and take a rest. Nilo took a nap. Luis has turned solitary. Ghian and I took a dip into the silent water and pestered the boatman for not agreeing to take us to the other side. The hot, humid day became cloudy. Rain started to fall.
Going down, we were all drenched by the rain. I had my eyeglasses on and how I wished then that manufacturers would put wipers on them, for these kind of adventures. After a while, my stomach got upset, due to our late lunch, missed breakfast, and beer from last night in reverse order. To top it all, painful blisters hounded my feet.
But I did not mind. I learned something real and practical from Pinatubo: that nature heals itself, that indeed there is a natural cycle of ups and downs, comforts and discomforts, life and death…and life again.
(With apologies for the cluttered layout)