When I woke up, I didn’t wake up to the sights and sounds of cataclysm; in fact, outside of the van was peaceful, tranquil beneath the sounds of tricycle motors and children playing.
“This is the church,” Julius announced. Hours ago, on my tour in the Pampanga province of The Philippines, my tour guide had asked me if I wanted to see the church half-buried in a volcanic mudflow – definitely, invoked the geologist in me. Yanking the sliding door and stepping into the dusking light, the San Guillermo Parish I found looked more like it’d shrunk, or sunken into the brick-paved earth underneath it.
Was that the spacial illusion making me giddy, or was it the heat?
Julius leading the way, the path we took to the church’s rear and back garden was a series of truncated thresholds, pillars and ceilings; then, the building’s exterior: a outer façade submerging into the grass line, yet frozen in time.
Nausea. The soil under my feet disintegrated into quicksand – or so I was hallucinating.
The dirt under the grass was ashen grey. It was fine-grained, unmistakably pyroclastic tuff: mineral material spewed out of a volcano eruption. That I held between my fingers was flung out of nearby Mount Pinatubo when it erupted in 1991; when the climatic event took place, it coincided with the arrival of Typhoon Yunya, which mixed the volcanic ash with the rainwater it brought and composed slurry lahar – a mudslide entombing and flattening surrounding settlements.
Though a pocket of lahar residue clung to the slope of Pinatubo wouldn’t reawaken until four years later. One morning in October, heavy rains waterlogged the deposit and spurred it flooding into Bacolor like fluid cement.
After two waves of mudflow, the lahar swallowing Bacolor before solidifying stood over six metres high.
Where I stood wasn’t a viscous ground that sucked in everything, edifice or lifeform, dwelling on its surface; rather, it was Bacolor’s 19-year-old floor level.
The cemetery behind San Guillermo appeared suspiciously vacant – a mere couple dozen crucifixes and gravestones dotted the field. Flattened triangles marked the once mausoleums; their former foundations would’ve been encompassed by the tombs now concealed by an extra layer of burial.
Only the recently departed occupied a visible commemoration.
We re-entered the building, following the lahar’s path – even the interior of San Guillermo wasn’t spared. The elongated windows along the church nave, ones standing twice of human height, were reduced as much on the inside as I found them outside, where only the rounded arches upon the pinnacle remained. The roof, the distressed wooden beams suspending faux-candle chandeliers, hovered overhead to impose a claustrophobic vertical constriction.
But not a feature within – not the terracotta-tiled floor, wooden benches, effigies and decorated alter – suggested the disaster had ever happened. The renovations since, salvaged by dedicated locals, restored and ornamented the dwarfed structure until it was again worthy a centre of Catholic worship and crowning glory of Bacolor.
Today, even as the spectre of catastrophe haunted in every dimensional misfit, San Guillermo Parish is a symbol of Filipino persistence; and in case the meaning was lost in too immaculate a restoration effort, the galleries within the church’s museum displayed paintings and photographs of this building towering two storeys taller, during the lahar flow and immediately after, the barren landscape and ‘sunken’ interiors.
Julius recalled his friends weeping after the disaster happened.
The first lahar wave submerged the ground floor of their lavish Bacolor manor; they saved any possessions saveable and lived on upstairs – until the next mudflow took out their first floor and flooded the loft.
When they returned from evacuation, once the ground had desiccated, they found nothing but the hilts of their roof protruding out of a new ground level.
“My friends just cried and cried,” my tour guide reminisced. “They were wealthy people, but they lost everything inside the house. ‘What do we do?’ they asked; but how would I know? It just happened, money can’t solve it, so everyone, rich or poor, would just have to live with the consequences.”
And it appeared they did.
The town of Bacolor wasn’t a post-disaster dilapidation feeding off pity and tragic poignancy, the way I discovered it.
Apart from the monumental indications like San Guillermo Parish, all signs of Bacolor’s burial were hidden from plain sight; even the loft conversions, however little room spared and transformed into bungalows and garden patches, were mostly replaced in the town’s scenery by newer homes, renewed lives – though still visible if you look out for the triangular remains, the contours of roofs suggesting they used to be more upheaved buildings.
Even as we drove off from our fleeting visit, the statement wouldn’t cease resonating in my head until I drifted back to sleep: Bacolor was a success story, a victory against climates and geology so volatile they rob properties, lives and will to live when people least expect it. 19 years after the lahar drowned Bacolor, it’d rebuilt itself despite the tears, the wreckage, the haunting memories.
Bacolor gave me another reason to admire the Filipino people: how they must remain servile to their unpredictable, ever-changing environment, yet always end up taming and dominating it by sheer indomitable spirit.