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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #1121023
Mary visits Bacolor-- the town hardest hit by Mount Pinatubo's eruptions

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The Land Mount Pinatubo Devoured

         Unbeknownst to most people in Central Luzon who previously had never heard of Mount Pinatubo, the volcano's seismic activities began early in 1991. A team of vulcanologists from the United States and the Philippines worked together to closely monitor the volcano from the United States Geologic Service Center at the U.S. Clark Air Force Base in Angeles City. At that time, although tensions were brewing between the U.S. and the Philippine governments over the renewal of the US military bases in the country, the theater of life was at its jumbled simplicity. Then Mount Pinatubo wreaked its havoc all over and the area was never the same again.

         Wasting no time, my tour of the once fertile and lush grounds of my native province of Pampanga begins immediately with my brother Johnny--my tour guide--the day after my arrival in the Philippines. The town of Bacolor, near my hometown of Angeles City, was the epicenter of devastation where eighty of its population of three hundred fifty thousand has migrated elsewhere; the remainder has either perished in the disaster or remained and survived it all.

         Looking down at the submerged homes with only the rooftops jutting out of the lahar-covered landscape conjures up images of a lost community that we are only accustomed to seeing in National Geographic. Some of those homes still contain many of the priceless possessions that had been collected for years, or probably even handed down through ancestral bequeaths.

         This must be how it looked like in the beginning of time when the earth was still being formed by volcano eruptions."

         Bacolor, which is situated at the edge of Mount Pinatubo, was a very progressive and populous town before the volcano erupted. It was originally the capital of Pampanga for almost two hundred years; also, it was once the seat of the Spanish government or the capital of the Philippines.

         Known as the "Athens of Pampanga," it was the birthplace of many prominent men and women who excelled in the arts, literature, education, law, government, culinary arts and other fields. A series of lahar avalanches that took place after the eruption had forced many residents to migrate, move to Manila and various other cities and resettlement centers. I remember dreaming about studying art at the town’s distinguished Don Honorio Ventura Memorial College of Arts and Trades, where many of the nation’s accomplished artists received their education and training. My father’s death put an end to that dream.

         Johnny and I walk down and hike a deep canyon carved out by Mount Pinatubo’s eruption. He calls my attention to the structures protruding from the eroded walls of lahar and debris. It’s such an eerie atmosphere. I feel as if I am in a twilight zone.

         "There it is!" Johnny shouts, pointing to a church steeple with a white cross on top sticking out of the ground. "It’s what’s left of San Guillermo Church!"

         The historic church, one of the oldest churches in the province, is one of the things we’ve been looking for since we started touring the area. Because all the paved roads have been buried in tons of volcanic mud and debris, it is hard to locate any of the historical landmarks with which we have been familiar around the town of Bacolor.

         "Wow," I say, shaking my head from left to right, disbelieving the sight before me. It’s incredible. What was once a three-story-tall church has been reduced to its bell tower and spire standing in the middle of a death valley. "This is awesome. It really gives you a true perspective of the destruction, doesn’t it?"

         "Yes, it does."

         "I once attended a wedding here of a very close friend of mine," I say. "And I’ve heard that Pa once stood as a godfather to a child baptized in this church." I felt a jab inside my chest. There are times when the sudden remembrance of our father still brings a jolting wrench at my heart. I was always Pa’s daughter; everybody in the family thinks that I over-idealized him; not that they think there’s something wrong with it, they just think that it’s misplaced, and that it should have been Ma on top of that pedestal.

         "Really? But did you know that my first born was baptized here?"

         "Ana? No, I don’t remember that."

         "Of course, you wouldn’t. You didn’t come home for the occasion even though you were one of the godparents."

         "Sorry. It was around Christmas, and that’s the busiest time of year at the store."

         "I understand. I was just giving you a hard time. How’s the store doing?"

         "It’s doing great on our second year at the Forest Fair Mall, which is truly spectacular and beautiful. The developers really spent tons of money on it. It’s the second biggest in the country. The anchor stores are all New York and Parisian style. This might be Rob’s long waited dream come true. He deserves it."

         "Terrific. What would you do with all that money?"

         "What money? We don’t have it yet. You have no idea how much it costs to build a store."

         "Well, when you do, don’t forget about us. Wink. Wink."

         "Same goes for you, brother," I say, hitting him again on the shoulder.

         "Aww!" he screams, as if it hurt him.

         "Let’s hike closer to the church," I say and I start running."

         "You said hike, not run. "I have weak knees, you know."

         "C’mon, you’re only twenty-six."

         "Twenty-six going on forty-six. I’m not athletic like you."

         He runs to keep up with me anyway, but out of breath when he catches up with me at ground zero.

         We find wood scraps pile up on the ground of the churchyard, as if there’s some willful destruction of property going on. Noticing my reaction, Johnny explains that Father Tayag, San Guillermo’s parish priest, has authorized the retrieval and recycling of church materials for the reconstruction of the church.

         "At first, there were some vandalism," Johnny says. "You know how it is. It happens everywhere. Some just want souvenirs, some sell it for profit. I’ve read a story where as Father Tayag was surveying the scraps that scattered everywhere, he picked up some of the wood that must have come from the floor and ceiling of the church. An idea came to him. What if Bacolor’s famous artists now living in Manila and elsewhere, could recycle and create something out of the church’s wood? The tireless and ingenious priest immediately contacted some key people. To make a long story short, some of the artworks produced using the church’s wood are now on exhibit at the Filipinas Hotel, and also at other hotels and other commercial buildings in Manila. As I understand it, they’re selling well, and selling for a lot of money.

         "That’s incredible. A lot better and more profitable, I suppose, than relying solely on contributions from his parishioners."

         "Oh, it would take years before the church is rebuilt if they relied on donations from citizens alone."

         I throw him a semi-furtive gaze. "You know so much about this. Are you involved in the creation of some of these art pieces?"

         "Me?" he exclaims in surprise. "No, no. I am not good enough to be considered for the project. These are world class artisans."

         "What do you mean you’re not good enough? You’ve sold a lot of paintings in your heyday as an artist."

         "I haven’t painted since I started my used car business. That’s five years ago. "Plus, I am not a distinguished product of artsy Bacolor."

         "Well, I’d like to see the art show sometime."

         "At Filipinas Hotel? Sure. Whenever you’re ready."

         I pick up a small piece of wood and examine it. "When was the church originally built?"

         "I think sometime in the late 1570’s."

         "You think this is the original wood?"

         Johnny takes the piece of timber and runs the flat of his palm over it, studying it very closely. "If it is, it’s remarkable. There’s no sign of decay. A little damage from lahar, but other than that, this is high quality wood. What I would give for a large size piece of this lumber and use it as wood canvas for an oil painting."

         Noticing my brother’s dreamy expression, I take the material back from him. "I knew you still have the heart of an artist in you. I think you should keep this scrap with you as a reminder of this poignant moment. Whenever you start getting bored as a rich used car entrepreneur, go back to this wood and start painting again."

         "I wish it were that easy. I am not as good as you."

         "Of course, you are."

         "No, I am not. I can never paint a portrait without copying from a picture and without using a grid."

         "You’re an excellent artist, brother. We just approach the process differently, that’s all."

         "Nah. You’ve always been a natural. Everybody knows that."

         A voice from behind us makes us turn our heads swiftly. It’s a man of the cloth.

         "Well, let me settle that argument then," says the priest.

         "Father Tayag!" Johnny exclaims. "Are we trespassing?"

         "No, you’re not. Glad to have you here."

         Johnny offers to shake the priest’s hand. "My name is Johnny. This is my sister Mary."

         "Glad to meet you both. First time to see the church . . . or what’s left of it?"

         "My first, father. I just arrived yesterday from the States."

         "Are you from here?"

         "No, father. From Angeles. My brother lives in Mabalacat. He owns PBJ Enterprises there."

         "Ah, yes. I’ve looked at your cars one time. I think I spoke with you then."

         "You did, father. I’m impressed you remember."

         "I almost bought one of your Hondas. It’s a good thing I didn’t because a day later, a rich parishioner donated one of his cars to the church."

         "That was nice," Johnny says.

         "I am most interested in your conversation that I overheard earlier. If you want a big piece of wood from the church, I can make that possible."

         "Oh, you don’t have to do that, father," says Johnny. "I’m sure you need all the wood you can get from the church for your fund-raising."

         "I’m not giving it to you totally free. I’ve seen your work hanging in your office. You are very good."

         "Thank you, father."

         The priest faces me and says almost apologetically: "I’ve not seen your work, but if your brother says that he thinks you’re a better artist than he then I believe him. This is what I propose to both of you. I will give you the board and you paint something on it, anything you want. We exhibit it, and if it’s sold, which, I am sure it will, we split the proceeds – seventy-five percent for the church, and the rest is yours. How about it?"

         "But father," Johnny hesitates, "I haven’t painted in years. And if I could, I would even give all the proceeds back to the church. But I don’t think I will be able to deliver."

         "And I’m only visiting, father," I say. "I will be leaving in a few weeks."

         The priest ponders our arguments. He takes the wood scrap from Johnny, looks around the desolate grounds and says in an attitude of a sermon:

         "Today, Bacolor is a ghost town and may remain so for years. Someday, people will begin an exodus back to their beloved town and start a new life. They will pave the roads to recovery and rebuild our churches, the schools, hospitals and museums. There will be many more fund-raising events sponsored by big and small firms, humanitarians, and prominent citizens who’ve made it big in their respective professions. Already, only six months after the big bang, the few businesses that survived Mount Pinatubo’s fury, especially the gift shops and other retail stores, have been experiencing an economic boom because of the many tourists who come to tour the spectacular devastation, like you. Nearby, a notable hotel that suffered only minor damages on its property is now having an art exhibit featuring the works of various Bacolor artists who’ve been living in various resettlement areas. I am confident and hopeful of a bright and prosperous future for this town. Yes, someday, Bacolor will experience an incredible recreation and resurgence, and will once again stand proud of its people and illustrious history."

         Father Tayag pauses and searches our souls with his deep brown eyes.

         "Wouldn’t it be wonderful to watch San Guillermo rise again from the ashes of lahar and regain its grandeur? And to think that you could be a big part of all that."

         Johnny and I are dumfounded. Who can ever say no to a man who could deliver a spontaneous sermon like that? But then, maybe it wasn’t spontaneous at all. I wonder how many times he has recited the speech to his congregation, or his prospective donors.

         "Well, you think about it. When you’re ready, come and see me. My temporary office is at the Sto. Rosario Church. You know where that is."

         With that, the priest bids adieu and walks away. Johnny and I stare at each other in awe.

         "Oh, by the way," the priest says without stopping in his track. "It’s the original wood. It dates back to 1576."

         Johnny and I gasp in unison.

         "That’s it, I’m in." Johnny declares.

         "Me, too."

(End of Chapter Ten)

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