Posted on January 19, 2010

Richard's family consists of 6 sisters, their husbands and offspring. He requested a family trip while in the Philipines over Christmas and New Years. I selfishly monopolized him for a full week in Sangat Island, leaving limited time for other outings. The plan to visit another island was floated, but for this many people to agree on a place, get the free time, obtain plane and hotel reservations, not to mention cost led this idea down the path of unfeasibility.

They could of course just gather at someones house and feast, as they frequently do (they are all skinny, this part I don't understand, and it pisses me off, I always leave Philippines with excess weight, and it's not in my luggage). The consensus was a full day excursion would be more memorable.

Ricard's niece, Trixie (AKA Rachelle, all Flipinos have English names) works for Nestle, and Nestle has team building exercises for their staff (in fact, she is always flying off to some island resort, on Nestles's dime, for some such exercise, I'm hoping Nestle will choose Bhutan for their next team building exercise). One recent team builder was a trek to Mt. Pinatubo.

pino does) is the volcano that erupted with no warning in 1991. Silent and dormant for 400 years, and not even looking like a volcano, just a forested mountain. It was thought to have been awakened by a severe earthquake the year before. It spewed ash as far as Singapore, 1500 miles distant, and covered Manila with inches thick layers of dust for weeks, and buried the surrounding towns not with molten lava, but a substance called lahar. Lahar, a Javenese word, is a mixture of ash and water. It flows like a river of concrete, hardening to cement like consistency when it stops. The lahar buried villages, trapping people in houses which collapsed over them. Over 800 hundred people perished, and thousands needed to be evacuated. The mountain slopes are inhabited by a group of indigenous pre Spanish pre Filipino subsistence hunters/farmers, the Aeta, forced onto the mountain generations ago by the arriving Filipinos, then Spanish who grabbed the more arable flat land. The Aetas maintain the mountain was angered by illegal logging and drilling and thus exploded.

So, disaster site for the big family outing. These days, the hazard is gone and enough of the vegetation has grown back to (hopefully) stabilize the new cliffs exposed by the explosion. We start at 2:00 a.m. Cruelly early. First we must drive the home of sister Lisa and brother in law Nick. Lucky them, they get to sleep an extra hour. A bus awaits. There are 50 people. I had no idea the Chu family had 50 members. Friends, it's expained to me. We board the bus, every seat is occupied, and a bootleg copy of AVATAR is playing. I fall asleep. The drive is 3 hours, and at one point they stop for food (did I mention this group eats a lot?). Richard and I sleep through the food stop. We arrive at the town of Capas in Tarlac province at 7:00 a.m. There are 10 4x4's waiting for us, each will carry 5 passengers. (This group is organized). We pile into one, and drive for 90 minutes through a river, 6 inches deep and a mile wide. The lahar coursed through here, scouring this broad and shallow channel. Along the side of the river we pass a few settlements of the now thrice dispossesed Aeta people, living in banana leaf huts. To describe their possesions as meager would be an overstatement. The Aetas are very dark skinned with curly hair, Melanesian in appearance, so differ from most other Filipinos of Malay ancestry

It's like something from the Swiss Alps, with an improbable colored lake. Involuntarily, with no witnesses, I say "wow."

Eventually the river narrows and becomes a canyon. On all sides are what look sort of like the cliffs of Arizona and Utah, pale colored sandstone, but it's not really sandstone, it's just sand, cemented together by ash, and looks like it could crumble if it rained hard, or someone tried to climb it. But I assume the lahar has hardened it, giving it a fragile beauty, these sand castle spires, with some vegetation sprouting from them, for added color (and future stability). We continue driving.

Eventually we stop, and here out trek begins. It's now 9 in the morning. Sun is up, and everyone piles out and begins slathering on sunscreen, donning hats and sunglasses. And the t-shirts are produced. As the trek to Mt. Pinatubo is orgainized by the CHU family, witty brother in law Nick has recristened it Mt. PINA CHU BO. Three prototype t-shirts have been designed, and we are directed to vote for our favorite via FACEBOOK. So out come 50 t-shirts all in proper sizes (organized, I tell you!) and 49 Chinese-Filipinos, and one white boy, put on their t-shirts. This makes for an extended moment of picture taking, got to document the ocassion. A charming Filipino tradition is to all jump in unison so the shutter catches everyone in the air. Many cameras shoot many pictures.

The trek finally begins. It's only an hour to the crater. Close to the crater is a sign reading: "Distance to crater; young: 15 minutes, middle aged: 18 minutes, old: 21 minutes." I am determined to reach the crater in 15 to 18 minutes, not a second more. Everyone makes it, though some of the young ones take longer than 21 minutes, they linger to talk and take more pictures. There are guides to provide a hand on some of the slippery areas. The guides also carry boxes with picnic lunches, and they dash ahead to put down the boxes, then run back to help us city slickers traverse the trail, then run ahead to grab the lunch packages and take them a bit further up the trail. They walk double what we do, all to ensure we don't trip. No one trips.

The final bit is a rise, and it's quite apparent that cresting this rise will be a view. I have seen no pictures of what the view might be, but expect it will be good, sort of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Although surrounded by people, I want to make these final steps solo. I don't want my first thoughts to be accompanied by words, as the words will likely be something banal like "oh wow." I've suddenly gone all zen on myself.

Imagine, a mountain blows its top. You get all jagged edges, steep sides, and then a round hollow from where the explosion emanated. The round basin fills up with water, rich in magnesium and other minerals. It's opaque robins egg blue. It's like something from the Swiss Alps, with an improbable colored lake. Involuntarily, with no witnesses, I say "wow."

The lake beckons. Most eveyone changes to swim suits. Most paddle at the edge, and chat about how cold it is. I suppose for a Manileno it might feel cold, but a lake in the USA never gets this warm in summer, so it seems just fine to me. I jump in and swim across, well, not across the entire lake, but to the cliffs on the closest shore. Where I clamber out and do a series of very inelegant dives. But not so inelegant they invite derisive comments from the others. In fact, I am told I am a good swimmer and good diver. I had to come halfway across the world to hear this, words I'd never hear at home, but still, sweet sounds to my ears. Richard joins me on the other side, as do sisters Lisa and Gina and 2 friends, so upon returning we are lauded as the elite 6. You'd think we placed well in the Olympics, but the compliments feel good (even if we did not do so very much to garner them).

The tight knit Chu family needs no exercise in team building, the point of the exercise was fun. Mission accomplished