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A Lost Dream
Peter I. Galace.  :  Nov/03/2013 01:10:AM
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A single mango tree bearing fruit loomed ahead of me. I looked to my left and right and saw nothing but empty land stretching to the horizon. The sight filled me with pain and sadness. It was November 2000, and this was my first visit to my family’s plantation in the Philippine province of Zambales since June 1991, when the furious forces of nature unleashed by Mount Pinatubo wiped out our hopes and dreams.
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. In the 1980s, my father Mamerto ran a jeepney service at the US Naval Communications Station in San Miguel. My sister Grace managed an insurance agency in nearby Olongapo City and in our hometown of San Narciso. We also owned two schools and office supply stores.
But it had always been my father’s dream to have a family farm. When he leased 205 hectares in the village of Bacsil from the government in 1982, he turned to me, the ninth of ten children, to establish the farm. I went to inspect the land with two men who had worked for the former leaseholder. To get there, we took a 30-minute jeepney ride on unpaved roads to barrio Paite, and from there, hiked another 90 minutes. When we reached the site, I immediately fell in love.
The rolling hills of the Zambales mountain ranges extended several kilometres to the east and the north. The air was filled with the sounds of birds chirping, water gushing from the mountains, leaves rustling in the wind, and cicadas singing. The grass-covered land was dotted with patches of forest clustered around numerous creeks, streams and mini waterfalls. The wide, deep Gorongcorro river had teemed with fish and freshwater shrimp.
Our plan was to plant fruit trees first, then start raising goats and cattle. The trees would start bearing fruit in nine or ten years.
We hired five Aeta families who would live on the land, as well as 20 seasonal farmhands. We bought thousands of grafted mangoes and mango seedlings as well as high-breed cashew seeds and other fruit trees like soursop, wild mangosteen and guavas.
The early years were trying times. At the crack of dawn, I had to be up to mobilise our workers. I learned to move quickly up and down the rolling hills to monitor our progress at clearing, digging and planting.
One year quickly went by and I returned to Manila to study economics at the University of Santo Tomas. Every other week, after my Friday classes, I would return to Bacsil to continue my work. At noon the following Monday, I would take the bus to Manila in time for my early evening classes.
In 1986, we also acquired a 9-hectare lot at the foot of the mountains in Sagat, about an hour’s hike from Bacsil. I made Sagat my second headquarters, and planted more cashew and mangoes. The property was secured with a 1.2-metre-high barbed-wire fence.
By 1991, things were running smoothly and we looked forward to a bright future. Then fate intervened.
In March 1991, volcanologists confirmed that Mount Pinatubo, which had been dormant for more than 500 years, was once again an active volcano. I saw the evidence for myself on March 15 when the mountain exploded for the first time, throwing a cloud of dust and ash high into the sky. Our Aeta workers, who believed that the supreme Apo Malyari god resided in Pinatubo, feared that the deity was going to vent his ire on us. Even as I tried to calm their nerves, I was filled with a sense of dread.
Authorities advised us to evacuate, but after so much hard work, we were reluctant to leave. As days passed, eruptions and earthquakes grew in intensity and frequency, and ash rained down regularly.
Even though we were 10 kilometres west of Pinatubo, we could feel the searing heat of the volcano. Finally, towards the end of April, when breathing became more difficult, we were forced to leave. We gathered our cattle and farm animals, collected important belongings, and left Bacsil. Our workers returned to their homes in barrio Paite while I took a job at a religious institution in Manila.
The volcano finally exploded at full force on June 15, just as Manila was hit by Typhoon Yunya. I couldn’t contact my family in San Narciso, where electricity and phone lines were cut off, so I called my sister’s office in Olongapo City. Her secretary, who answered the phone, was consumed with fear. “Sand is falling from the sky!” she screamed. I advised her to stay calm and not to leave the office.
That night my workmates and I, dreading the traffic caused by the flooded streets and the ash fall, stayed at the office. We were glued to the radio throughout the night. The next day I rushed to the bus station, where I found a bus willing to travel to Zambales.
Normally, the trip took no more than five hours. But with the roads covered with ash and sand ejected by Pinatubo, the bus lurched ahead slowly. Eventually I decided to sleep at a hotel in Olongapo City, and continued my journey the next day.
The closer we got to Pinatubo, the more surreal everything became: rows and rows of collapsed houses, toppled electricity posts and communication towers, crumpled signboards, fallen trees, overturned water tanks – all under a thick layer of ash fall. People, too, were covered in ash as they retrieved whatever could be saved from their crushed homes, and lined up for clean drinking water and relief goods.
When we reached Bataan, about halfway between Manila and San Narciso, things were even more grim. The land, normally dotted with fertile rice and sugarcane fields, was a desolate landscape. There was hardly a tree standing or a leaf in sight.
People wandered the streets aimlessly. Ash continued to fall and tremors occurred regularly.  I finally reached San Narciso, and as I walked along our street, my sister Grace ran to embrace me. Our two-storey house was in shambles. The roof had collapsed into the living room. Furniture and appliances were covered with several centimetres of wet grey ash. Personal belongings were badly soiled.
We spent several hours salvaging whatever we could from the pile of debris: food, water, photo albums, clothes, bedding, even some books.
Around the neighbourhood, people were quietly sweeping the ash fall from rooftops, clearing away fallen tree branches, repairing collapsed garages, or emptying water canals blocked by debris. Whenever another tremor hit, everyone stopped what they were doing. The mood was solemn. As we went about our work, Grace recounted the family’s experiences. At the height of the eruption, Grace, my father, and two distant relatives, Dondon and Noralyn, who lived in our house, debated where to take shelter. (At the time, my mother was in the United States living with my sister, Mary). They finally agreed to sit inside our Ford Fiera jeepney, thinking that if the roof of the garage gave way, the jeepney could still protect them. But they were wrong. When the garage collapsed under the weight of the ash, the roof of the jeepney came crashing down on them. It was a miracle that they suffered only minor injuries.
Many in my town were not so lucky. Just two blocks away, Aurea Labrador, a long-time nurse of former Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon, died of a heart attack, no doubt brought on by the terrifying events. She never had a funeral or a wake befitting her stature.
The grandmother of my friend Joel, five blocks away, suffered a similar fate. The roof of their old house came crashing down and she, along with her grandson Florentino, was pinned by the ceiling and ash. Florentino was able to extricate himself from the rubble and pull out his grandmother. She died a few minutes later.
Four out of five houses in San Narciso were destroyed. Some were saved because homeowners bravely shovelled the wet mixture of ash and sand from their roofs as the eruption raged on. Two weeks after returning home, I finally mustered the courage to visit Sagat. After hitching a jeepney ride, I walked more than an hour, accompanied by our farm supervisor. When we reached Sagat, I was flabbergasted by what I saw.
Everything was buried in about 150 centimetres of ash fall. All that remained of our farm were a few tree trunks and my hut’s shattered roof. The destruction was total and complete. My mind went blank. I couldn’t even cry.
By the time I visited Bacsil a month later, I was prepared for the worst. Like Sagat, it had been turned into a wide swath of desolation. Greyish white sand covered everything, tree branches were scattered everywhere, and only the most stout trees remained standing. There was an eerie calm and the air was filled with the smell of sulphur. I found only fragments of our huts. Everything was gone.
There was a bright side, though. Fortunately, none of our farm workers were killed by the eruption. They had been sheltered in government evacuation sites days before the eruption. But around ten of our cattle had died or gone missing.
After eight years of hard work, my family’s efforts had been laid to waste. I still wonder why it happened, but I can’t find a rational answer. In this world, there are things that we just have to learn to accept.
Eventually, we decided to abandon our farm and not renew the 25-year lease. Seven years after the eruption, my family finally raised enough money to build a new house. My father has since retired and is now in the twilight of his life. My mother, who returned from the US in 1997, died in 2009. My sister Grace continues to sell insurance and has started a business making and selling organic soap.
Like thousands of people from Zambales and the whole of Central Luzon, I had to go elsewhere to find work. I ended up in Manila, where I now work as a consultant of the Fund for Assistance to Private Education and an editor for an online market research company. More importantly, I married Jasmin Nario in 1994, and we now have two bright and bubbly teenage boys, Miguel and Uriel. I can’t fathom why Pinatubo erupted when it did, but looking at my lovely family now, I know that everything happens for a reason.

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