The way of all dust

Baguio City in the Philippines, beyond a valley full of ashen landscapes, has verdant rice fields, starlit skies and memories of America


The Mount Pinatubo crater. Photographs from Thinkstock
The Mount Pinatubo crater. Photographs from Thinkstock

Land knoweth no fury like a mountain churned.

Nearly 20 years ago, I was on vacation with my family in Manila, where we had joined my friend Nirmal and his family, who lived there. We decided to travel for a few days to Baguio City, a hill station not far from the terraced slopes planted with rice in Central Luzon. The journey would normally take us 4 hours, but then nothing is normal in Philippine traffic, with its multicoloured jeepneys and overloaded buses. Four hours was an underestimate.

We got into Nirmal’s SUV and drove through the crowded streets and snarling traffic of Manila, the city where outsized malls coexisted with mountains of garbage from which smoke emerged. The city’s in-your-face inequality was underlined by the high walls of posh residential colonies: inside these walls, you could hear only the splash of someone diving into a pool or the soft “plop” of a tennis ball being struck, and you could see armed guards and sniffing dogs protecting these enclaves.

The land outside Manila had turned barren. The volcano, Mount Pinatubo, had erupted in 1991, nearly three years before our visit, and the eruption’s shadow remained over the landscape. That shadow was thick and grey—volcanic ash.

Everything began to fade—trees, roads, cars parked on the side, homes, all losing their original colours; the view looked instead like an ancient photograph. Everything turned grey: the trees, the road itself, the abandoned homes, the vast fields where rice once grew, even the streams. The world around had a sepulchral look. The field became a desert; the dunes were made of ash. Trucks undertook the Sisyphean task of carrying the ash to some unsuspecting landfill somewhere, returning to find that the moonscape had hardly changed. Nobody, it seemed, had lived there; and nothing would grow there, at least for some time.

An aerial shot of Baguio City in Philippines.
But within an hour we were driving along the road clinging to the edges of the hills. The grey receded and the green resurfaced, offering a metaphor for life—you go through a tough time; you descend into the depths of despair; you crawl back slowly; and then you see that shaft of sunlight, breathe the crisp air, and the trees turn green again.

The road meandered, and we saw farmers working in terraced rice fields. The jeepneys returned, riding the uneven surface in a higgledy-piggledy manner. We overtook them and turned our windows down—we didn’t need air conditioning; cool mountainous air entered the SUV, refreshing us.

Baguio is a small hill station, with a golf course that was once the refuge of American officers. For decades, the US had an airbase (Clark) and a naval base (Subic Bay) in the Philippines. They left after the Corazon Aquino administration demanded their removal in the early 1990s. At the golf resort where we stayed, the remnants of a recent American departure were visible—I noticed the photographs of American commanders and presidents, the posters of American landscapes, even the music at the bar, the smell of apple pie.

That evening Nirmal and I went to the market and bought some marshmallows. It was a cold evening; our children had gone horse-riding earlier in the afternoon and were tired, and after dinner we went to a large room with sofas and found a warm fireplace. We had fetched long sticks with which we pierced the marshmallows and took them to the fire. They crackled, and the delicious fragrance wafted through the room, reviving our hunger.

Rice fields.
The sky outside was dark now and full of stars. We munched on the marshmallows, sprawled on the sofas, and looked at the sky and stars. The fire in the room was nourishing—it warmed us, it melted our marshmallows. But another fire had been demonic for the people and the crops in the valley of Pinatubo, only three years earlier.

The following morning, as we looked down the valley from the heights of Baguio, we could see none of the ashen landscape we had driven through only a day earlier. It lay far away, not visible in the mist. It felt strangely discomforting, even unreal. Baguio was different, as if removed from the Philippine reality, and I could see why the Philippine elite came here to build their homes. They wanted Manila for its gated communities, its stock market and its airport taking them to distant capitals; the vast land in between the city and this hill was their resource; and the hill was their abode. The distance between the ruler and the ruled has rarely looked as stark.

On our last evening in Manila, Nirmal suggested we go to the bay. We lived in Singapore then, and I had grown up in Bombay, as the city of my birth was then called. Wouldn’t one seafront be the same as another? Nirmal smiled. “Go, see it first,” he said.

And we did. And we saw the sky turn pink first, then orange, then red, and then darken, with the clouds spreading and stretching themselves, assuming abstract forms; each moment a Fauvist canvas. The harsh contrast the Philippines reality had presented, of the bleakness of that moonscape of Pinatubo, had disappeared momentarily. The sun—that ball of fire—was all; and at that moment it looked like a molten marshmallow.

Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.

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