After a great subterranean adventure and a hike back over the mountain from dawn, it was time to depart Ifugao for now and return to the lowlands. A day-long bus ride saw us back to Manila, but not before stopping by one final port of call: Pampanga.
Just to the north of Manila, Pampanga is a core province of the Philippines: urbanized, populated, fertile, flat, and rich in materials and culture, the first province to be designated by the Spanish colonizers in 1571, and well-reputed as the capital of Philippine cuisine.
My connection to this region was a distant one. Many years ago, when I lived in Hong Kong, my family hired a Filipina domestic helper. She lived with us for many years, going so far as to move back to the UK with us, and became an integral member of our household. After all those years of urging on her part that I visit the Philippines, I was delighted to at last fulfil that advice: and so do I write today with considerable thanks to her daughter Irish, Irish's husband RR, and their three adorable children, for the kindness of hosting us and showing us around on our last few days in that country. So too do I extend my greetings to everyone living nearby, all of whom descended on their house within minutes of our arrival to give us the warmest welcome possible to their neighbourhood.
We thus got first-hand experience of Pampanga's foremost claim to glory: its food. Pampanga cuisine is rich, diverse, and spreads across a whole range of spectra: familiar to exotic; profuse to delicate; straightforward to prodigiously sophisticated; and without exception exploding with flavour. Food thereby becomes a lens on Pampanga's complex history, including its diverse cultural heritage blending Chinese, Malay and Spanish influences. At times abundant and overflowing with bounty from the rivers and fields, Pampanga has also experienced conflicts, rebellions, floods and volcanic eruptions, and associated cycles of famine and struggle; thus sharpening a resourceful, creative and flexible approach which marshals all available ingredients into a proud tradition – even crickets and frogs become delicacies. The result is a vibrant culinary culture that pounds at the very heart of Pampangan identity.
Pampanga also houses what used to be the Clark Air Base, a massive United States military compound that supported the US colonial rule over the Philippines for the first half of the twentieth century. Overrun by the Japanese early in WWII then reclaimed by US and Philippine forces towards the end, Clarke expanded during the Cold War and served as a springboard for American invasions in Southeast Asia, particularly in Vietnam. It was also from Clarke that the disgraced President Marcos and his entourage made their escape in the revolution of 1986.
By the end of the Cold War, the base was already technically under Philippine sovereignty, with US and Philippine forces operating there jointly. However, in 1991, the US abandoned Clarke altogether when the base was devastated by one of the most climactic events in Pampanga's story.
Mount Pinatubo is a 1,500m-high stratovolcano that rises where Pampanga meets the neighbouring provinces of Tarlac and Zambales. In June 1991, after half a millennium of sleep, it exploded in one of the most destructive volcanic eruptions of contemporary times. The combination of ash, lahars and pyroclastic flows killed over eight hundred people – thousands fewer than it would have if not for preceding evacuations – and devastated communities, farms, forests and livelihoods across the region.
The Clarke base was not spared, leading the Americans to finally pack up and leave it for good. However, the ash and debris was eventually cleaned up, and the base converted to the Clarke Freeport Zone: an industrial, commercial and recreational hub alongside an international airport and the Air Force City, where the Philippine Air Force still operates.
Nearby is the city of Angeles, which exemplifies the cultural richness of Pampanga across many aspects, and also hosts its Koreatown.
|Mount Arayat, with a more peaceful history than Pinatubo, looms over Angeles City and is a popular hiking destination.|
Our Philippine voyage concluded with a night in Manila, or “the Gates of Hell” as I'd heard it affectionately referred to in Ifugao. Unfortunately there was no time on this occasion to explore it, save to observe that it is, as reputed, a massive city on the move with staggering momentum. As it hurtles ever upwards and outwards, it exudes an unstoppable confidence in where it is headed: but as for how clear its vision is of where it wants to go, and how inclusive that vision and confidence is of all who live there – we shall see.