From Dust Till Dawn

 

High road to heaven?

When a volcano blows up, after the dust settles, you can expect some rather spectacular scenery. So the setting for one of the most powerful eruptions in history ought to be a show-stopper. With my Gallic trio aboard, we bundled into our trusty Toyota Vios, and went way further than Hertz Car Rentals had bargained for. After a twisty, coast-hugging, jungle-piercing journey across Bataan, we drove down the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Highway, with dramatic views of Laharland and the Central Luzon countryside whizzing past us at 110 kilometers an hour. Unfortunately, the minimum speed limit made it impossible to properly appreciate, much less photograph. When we exited at Concepcion, one town away from the Pinatubo Spa in Capas, Tarlac, we were still blissfully unaware that although we already stood in the shadow of the volcano, its crater was still a whole day’s adventure away.

After a bewildering circuit for an hour through sprawling Capas town, we pulled into the spa with relief, an hour later than the recommended crater trip cut-off time. It took some frenzied cajoling and solemn promises not to dawdle to convince the crew to take us on. By then, it was a race against the sunset, since we couldn’t be caught up at the crater by nightfall. So off we went on what our guides described as their fastest trek up, ever.

The 4×4 gods must have decided to smile down on us as we were assigned a none-too-pretty but seriously reliable beast of a vehicle for the climb. As we rambled through the tricky dunes of rock and ash, we came upon several fancier but not-as-brutish vehicles that were literally stuck in the mud. One even called out to us for help, but there was no stopping our advance. All’s fair in love and lahar.

The landscape, which via the transformative effects of time, weather and plant life, may have begun to look less otherworldly, but the sense of being in a former blast zone was just as eerie. The silver lining to our late start is that we had missed the heat of the day, which meant we only had the dust to deal with. But then rumbling forward through the random streams and puddles dotting the course would splash us clean with sulphur-y water.

After bugging our guide every few minutes asking “Are we there yet? Are we going to make it?” the ash flats finally gave way to the ascent. The driver even turned off the engine, refilled the water tank, and waited for the thermometer to go down to make sure our steed was primed to climb.

Ashen peaks unique to Pinatubo

With more of rough lurching than smooth coasting upward, by the time we broke through to the plateau, it felt like we had cleared the next level of heaven. Delicately sinuous ash formations alternated with lush jungle, the haunches of pillowy clouds. Various sections of the expansive crater resembled prairies, aeries, savannahs, fjords and coves in the sky, evoking an ashen, floating fairyland, with the small community of resilient Aetas its enigmatic guardians. We zigged and zagged around jagged mountain ridges that thrust sharper, and forded flowing waters that grew clearer, the closer we got to the source. If not for our rush, every turn would have seen us getting off, slowly sighing, and capturing the panorama with innumerable digital snaps.

Upon reaching the 4×4 parking area, we wasted no time dilly-dallying and zoomed straight up the path to the crater lake. This gash in the volcano’s heart presented a lost world of fresh green and crystal streams, no ash here, but maybe some fairy dust. The trail was surprisingly easy, and we set another record by speeding up and across in what could have been no more than 13 minutes, spurred on by the dying of the light.

Sunset over the lahar-scape

So there we were, our raison d’etre a mere hillock beyond, panting and breathless. But that was not a moment to catch one’s breath, when it had just been taken away by what was there to see. Random, frenzied impressions synapse around my brain as it tried to make sense of the imagery and sensations – water, air, earth and fire – here the elements have collided to birth something achingly, beautifully primeval. It was an experience that exhumed deeply buried ancient tribal memories of great catastrophes and barely comprehensible upheavals. We were at the scene of where the earth had once done her worst, rebooted the cycle, and now presented her creation in all its living glory.

Dusk falls on our dune buggy

One could rhapsodize forever, struck dumb by the sight, the rarefied atmosphere, or just the stress of the ascent. But alas, we had less than 15 minutes to do our orgy of touristic admiration. At least we were treated to one event most visitors, save those who spend the night, don’t get to experience – dusk on the crater. On our descent we gave chase to the sun, and it was then I thought that this must be what vampires feel, but in reverse, when the shifting light could literally draw the line at life and death.

Not-so-raging bull at the end of a dusty day

Safely back down on the lahar-laden flatlands, we realized that, however harried our trek, there still was no such thing as unfortunate timing. It was magic hour in the shadow of the volcano, and along with the sun and sky, it set out to put on a show that would blow us away. Blazing light licked at the peaks and valleys of the caldera, and glowing like a radioactive ruby, Sol bathed Terra in the colors of her fire. We stopped to pay homage, all shaky with relief, appreciation, and anticipation. We had paid call to Pinatubo, and she had deigned to welcome us. We tendered no sacrifice, yet she had offered us safe passage.

 – text by Jude Defensor, photos by Olivier Milan, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2010

 

A Haven for Heritage

As a travel writer, one can get used to everything being laid out for you just so. The press junkets and familiarization tours are all programmed to maximize what the sponsors and organizers would want you to see and experience, and then bank on their hopes that you actually write about it as positively as possible. All well and good, we all need to take a living. But when each stop is just another item to be ticked off on an itinerary somebody else thought up, what happens to the sense of adventure, of discovery, the thrill that comes from cleverly figuring out how to find that special place?

Those were the questions I was asking myself as I and three French first-timers to the Philippines were driving around twisty mountain roads in the near dark still tens of kilometres away from where we hoped to end up. As we curved around yet another tricky stretch, dodging goats and barrio lasses, one of my wards asked half-jokingly, half-nervously: “What if after all this, we get there and it’s not very nice?”

But I get ahead of myself. Tasked to tour a friend of a friend and his friends around during the year-end holidays, it was up to me to formulate our game plan for a road trip. I decided to go for broke and look for a destination that was unique, off-the-beaten-path, and one I had never been to before. I already had a pretty good idea where.

Like a city of myth, secreted away from the madding crowd, shrouded by the mists of time, I’d heard snatches about and caught glimpses of the legendary Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar. Scooped by various websites and blogs, and even showing up as background scenery for the local production of Zorro, these tantalizing teases whipped me up into a must-go-there frenzy. This road trip was my opportunity, and I was gonna seize it, and I didn’t care if I had to drag three unsuspecting foreigners with me to satisfy my selfish whim.

One of my first beats ever as a writer was on architecture and design, and I was drawn to Philippine heritage architecture in particular. So knowing about a whole village composed of authentic 18th-19th century Principalia Mansions and original Bahay na Bato (Stone Houses), painstakingly restored and arranged around a cobblestone plaza and streets had me rabidly frothing at the mouth. Fortunately, I had fellow archi-enthusiasts and shutterbugs in tow, so they were keen on the adventure as well. I booked a room for four at the nearest deluxe resort, the rambling Montemar beach club, utilizing it as the starting point for exploring the region, and squeezing some R&R in between.

And that’s how we found ourselves in the dark, on the road, tracing our route on the map, hoping to get to Bagac in time for dinner. Mt. Samat, the supposed can’t-miss landmark to lead us to our destination, loomed to our left like an imposing black bogeyman. Thankfully, Montemar’s house restaurant El Meson just had its menu and wine list overhauled by respected chef consultant Ed Quimson, so we were properly sated and sloshed before turning in for the night.

After breakfast the next day, we decided to take advantage of our Bataan base camp and spend some time on the beach and in the sea. Though not lily-white, Bagac’s beach sand is fine, clean and algae free, and the clear water had just enough wave action going on to make swimming interesting. Swim out far enough though and you’ll be treated to an even more intriguing sight, the dome of the dormant Bataan Nuclear Power Plant surrounded by lush tropical rainforest. This prompted a few jokes about radioactive fish, but being the world’s top consumers of nuclear energy, my French companions were nonplussed.


For lunch we explored the center of Bagac town and decided to tuck into a simple meal of noodles and sandwiches in a small kitchenette right by the plaza. Barring the Burger Machine cart, it was our only option in the area, but a taste of hearty, down-to-earth local fare was just what the tourists hankered for. But the quaint shop fronts and modest homes of Bagac hardly prepared us for what we were next to see.

Now, beyond the physical effort of getting to Bagac, however scenic, what appeared to be the more insurmountable obstacle to gain access to Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar was the seeming tight cordon around it imposed upon by its developer and management. From when I first thought of paying a visit to the site, letters, messages and phone calls flew at an increasingly furious pace between myself and various people in charge of different departments across two separate companies, just so I could guarantee my entry into this restricted area. There came a point where I almost surrendered and decided that no place would be worth the trouble, and another point where I imagined us having to sneak into the site like a Franco-Philippine impossible missions force. So when we finally hit the property’s gates, I was bowled over by two pleasant surprises.

Light streams through capiz windows in the U.P. School of Fine Arts building

One, despite our rather surreptitious arrival, the staff on-site were very welcoming. Our guide Mao, gamely toured us around the compound and even opened up some houses up for us to explore, offering some information about the development. Two, all the fuss was more than worth it, gaining a thumbs-up, even in its unfinished state, from my travel-jaded companions. This was a destination that was truly unique, beautifully thought-out, and exquisitely executed. If they can pull off the finishing touches, and all signs point to that coming to fruition, then not only Bataan, but the entire country, will have a resort that will put us on the must-see maps.

Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar goes beyond the warm beaches, watersports, and charming country scenery that most Philippine resorts are content to offer. By bringing together this unquestionably stunning collection of heritage structures and ensconcing them in an equally dramatic setting, mastermind developer Gerry Acuzar proves himself a genius, with a passion bordering on madness. But if this is insanity, then we need more crazily passionate people taking on projects like this. Whatever you may think of the resort’s concept, it is definitely not uninspired nor mediocre. They really went all the way with this, and it shows, from the intricate details to the big picture postcard-perfect view. What started as a lone vacation house has blossomed into a 400 hectare complex complete with a deluxe hotel (housed in a recreated Escolta building), plus villas, shops, a bar and restaurant, all carved out from the gorgeously gilded heritage halls and homes that Acuzar has personally plucked from the cream of the country.

As supervised by Mexico-trained restoration architect Mico Manalo, the painstaking reconstruction of each heritage house, at least 14 by the time of our visit, with several more (and a chapel) in the process of being scoped out, is not some slapdash uprooting and pastiche job, but a careful, respectful integrated preservation effort. Once seen in situ, it’s easy to dismiss his detractors and accept Acuzar’s rationale for relocating these heritage treasures. With the government or their former owners unwilling or unable to properly safeguard these endangered structures from the ravages of time and greed, their best hope for survival is really behind the safety of Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar’s fences. What he did was not a rape, but a rescue. Even the modern elements and fixtures that they unavoidably have to incorporate have been carefully designed or cloaked to harmonize with the architectural tenor. Anachronisms are avoided unless necessary. This devotion to authenticity can clearly be seen in the transplanted School of Fine Arts from Quiapo, the centuries-old columns have been left un-repainted, retaining the patina of age, while the new columns replacing damaged ones have been moulded from the originals and accurately display the original colors albeit in bright new enamel.

With the late afternoon sun slowly setting down into the sea, the lengthening shadows and warm light altogether cast an eerie glow on this enchanted village. As it was, with nobody around except for our small party, a few construction workers and random townsfolk who had wandered in for a stroll, we couldn’t help but imagine ourselves as temporal travellers stuck in a time warp, or ghosts come back to haunt the remains of their days.

text by Jude Defensor, photos by Olivier Milan, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2010

Converging on Capas: The Bataan Death March Memorial

Bataan death march memorial

Bataan death march memorial (Photo credit: Jeff Youngstrom)

The Second World War remains an abstract concept for most young Filipinos. We learn about the facts and dates from books and classes. We may look at some pictures, browse a museum exhibit, or at best pay a visit to a historical site. But it’s an entirely different matter to actually meet a war veteran, someone who has lived through hell and more. To be in the presence of these warriors and survivors is enough to make history seem real in a way that words never could. Their bodies may be frail, but their spirits are resilient, burning with a fierce pride that cannot be extinguished by age nor neglect. Today they fight a different war, the battle to keep their legacy alive. Taking up the flag of their cause is the Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor (DBC) Foundation, a group founded in 1952 and sustained by those who took part in those legendary battles and their descendants, all without financial support from the government or dues from its members. As the original members dwindle in number due to the inevitable, the struggle to maintain the group’s fervor mounts.

The DBC has been most visible in organizing regular activities and gatherings for its members. At these events, old comrades reconnect, reminisce over their adventures and ordeals, and pay tribute to the fallen and departed. Their activities climax during the yearly commemoration of Araw ng Kagitingan or Veterans’ Day in the Philippines, every April 9, the anniversary of the surrender of the combined US and Philippine forces to the Japanese in 1942. During the week-long tribute to war heroes, the veterans and such notable officials as the President of the Philippines, the US Ambassador, and Japanese Ambassador visit the various shrines erected around the country in honor of those who fought, suffered, and sacrificed their lives.

Remembering Capas

One such memorial is the Capas National Shrine (Paggunita Sa Capas) in Capas, Tarlac. The area of the shrine originated as a cantonment center for military training of Filipino youth in 1941. On July 15, 1941, on orders from US President Roosevelt, it became a mobilization center for the 71st Division, Philippine Army, USAFFE. After the fall of Bataan, the camp was transformed into a POW Camp in mid-April 1942. Renamed Capas POW Camp, an estimated 60,500 Filipino and American POWs were marched here, sick and dying from disease, injuries, and maltreatment. By July 25, 1942 an estimated 30,000 had died here. The camp became part of the Clark Air Base Military Reservation, and then was turned over to the Philippine Government on April 9, 1982.

Wall of names at the Bataan Death March Memorial at Camp O’Donnell (Photo credit: ReverendMungo)

A proclamation by then President Corazon Aquino in December 1991 kicked off the conversion of the site into the shrine it is now. Built and maintained by the Philippine government, the shrine stands as a monument to the Filipino and American soldiers who died in

Camp O’Donnell at the end of the Bataan Death March. Encompassing 54 hectares of parkland, 35 hectares have been planted with rows of trees to represent each of the fallen. Last April 9, 2003, a new memorial wall of black marble and a 70-meter tall obelisk were unveiled. The memorial wall is engraved with the names of the Filipinos and Americans known to have died there,  as well as statistics about the total numbers of prisoners and deaths, and poems extolling peace. The wall is divided into three segments to represent the Filipino, American, and Japanese people. The obelisk’s soaring height is meant to signify all those groups’ great desire for world peace. The tall black structure stands as the shrine’s centerpoint, towering over the grounds of the former interment camp and visible from the entire Capas area. A small monument built by an American group calling themselves the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” honoring the American war casualties, a museum, and meeting area also lie within the area.

English: Battling Bastards of Bataan Memorial ...

English: Battling Bastards of Bataan Memorial at Camp O’Donnell, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Lay of the Land


On the way to and from the shrine, one can follow the path delineated by the Bataan Death March Markers. The final mileage markers of the death march are located outside the shrine, at kilometers 111, 100 and 109. Each marker was donated by a private individual or organization and is listed on the rear of the marker. The front indicates the mileage of the death march, with 0 km being the start at Bataan.

The Esplanade is a wide paved walkway extending from the shrine’s main gate to the central obelisk area, with a line of flag poles stretching on either side. It is reminiscent of the Mall in Washington DC, except that in this case the obelisk is black with striking carved flourishes instead of plain white. Surrounded by lush greenery, the dramatic lines and perspectives struck by the various monumental elements create an atmosphere of both serenity and majesty.

To the east of the Esplanade is a field containing a replica of a POW Camp constructed for the 2003 dedication. The replica includes two guard towers and a prisoner’s quarters building. To the west is the nature park with rows of trees planted as living memorials and also to promote environmental consciousness. A few kilometers from the shrine itself is the new Camp O’Donnell which now serves as one of the headquarters for the modern-day Philippine army.

Underneath the obelisk at Bataan Death March Memorial at Camp O’Donnell (Photo credit: ReverendMungo)

One of our guides around the shrine was Defender Atty. Rafael Estrada, Founder and First Supreme Councilor of the DBC, a survivor of the prison camp and a highly respected driving force among all the veterans. He proudly toured us around the garden planted and tended by the DBC Foundation, nimbly crossing the hanging bridge that dangles over the river from which he and his fellow prisoners took their water. “We owe this river our life,” he stated, pointing out that after the memorial, the bridge is the most visited spot within the shrine. Veterans and survivors come to Capas to look back at an unforgettable period in their lives and bring with them their children and grandchildren to make them better appreciate our current freedoms. Generations have been raised with an ever-fading memory of the war, and it takes a trip to monuments such as these to put history into sharp focus. From around 50,000 survivors after the war, the DBC can now muster only around 400 at each get-together. But even when these hardcore old-timers have been laid to rest, awaiting the low clear reveille of God, the DBC is sure to keep soldiering on, for generations to come.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2007

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