Pampanga: Reclaiming Angeles and Clark

Even if your view of the world is not in the least left-leaning, you are still bound to see Angeles City and Clark through the prism of soul-searching–especially since these two destinations in Pampanga province are in a stage of recovery from havoc, both natural and man-made.

Upon boarding the Golden Princess on America’s Independence Day, July fourth we were greeted by the melodic tunes of a string quartet and the most welcoming smiles of hundreds of crew members. A sumptuous lunch was served at the Horizon on Deck 14 with colorful tulip glasses of the sail-away drink, the Mucho Mango.

After the sudden crippling of the local economy due to the historic scrapping of the American military bases and the wide destruction brought on by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, you cannot help but zoom in on the tell-tale signs of recovery and rehabilitation everywhere. What you find here is, happily, one big banner story of reclaiming not just the good things that were lost but more so the things that should have been.

Rejuvenated by soul-searching

The telling signs are readily evident in how the locals have made an effort to choose hope and joy in the face of the seemingly insurmountable. You hear, for instance, the story of how Mayor Edgardo Pamintuan roused his grieving people from the doldrums in 1991 by organizing a street-dancing festival called Tigtigan Terakan keng Dalan (Music and Dancing in the Street), their version of Oktoberfest, barely four months after the volcanic eruption. Seemingly irrational at first, the gesture strikes you as a Viktor Frankl moment of truth: “I have a choice in my reaction to life’s circumstances.”

You find it equally refreshing to see Angelenos now being reasonably proud of their heritage. You don’t hear here the contumacious sneer, the unseemly putdowns, of one’s own, only eager recommendations. Watch how tour guide Kim Tinio of Kuliat Foundation’s Museo ning Angeles animatedly turns back the hands of time to trace the evolution of Angeles from Barrio Kuliat, originally named after a parasitic vine proliferating then but now a rarity. His zeal is infectious and typical.

Over lunch served upstairs at this former municipal hall, you are enthused to find how eager the other museum staff lay out all the requisite goodies from what is dubbed to be the Philippines’ culinary capital (see sidebar): The conversations heavily spiked with Malay-sounding, vowel-filled Kapampangan, the town’s First Lady, no less, plays host, explaining the entrées and suggesting how to mix and match dishes. You slowly discover where the genius lies in Pampango cuisine: it lies in the crafty pairing of homespun flavors and textures. She points to where the original Aling Lucing sisig is made (at one streetcorner beside the railroad crossing), then goes on to say that there are three major variants of the dish, but not one contains egg. You thank your hosts with a surreptitious burp, hoping the dismal sound is masked by folk singer Andy Alvis singing “Atin Cu Pung Singsing” in the background, reminiscent of another fine musician, the fine jazz singer Mon David, who’s also a Pampango.

A requisite tour of two famous mansions, the 1820s Bale Matua or Founder’s House (also called Henson House or Pantaleon de Miranda House) and the 1890s Pamintuan Mansion, leaves you catching your breath at the contrasting sights of country-style décor (folksy wood carvings) and Old World elegance (stamped ceiling and ornate calado or filigreed woodwork). You listen to the tale told about the Pamintuan doña who once upon a time shouted “Ing paksi! Ing paksi!” to one and all from on top her stately palace–her way of flaunting to her neighbors that her dinner for the night was vinegar-stewed milkfish sourced all the way from Dagupan, a rare luxury then. The dazzling all-white interior of Holy Rosary Church in the center of the old section of town stuns you with its gigantic silver sunburst altar centerpiece, which was reportedly made from melted silver coins donated by someone who had won the lottery jackpot during the times of the polo y servicio (forced labor) under the Spanish.

The American face of Clark, which in 1902 was called Fort Stotsenburg, is equally assured of indelibility with the preservation of the historic Stotsenburg Gate, the sparklingly neat Clark Cemetery (plus a K-9 cemetery), the invaluable Clark Museum of wartime artifacts, and the parade grounds of all-American spaciousness made even more interesting by a marker memorializing the exact site where President Manuel Roxas died in 1948. In the museum, the picture of an American soldier in the brink of tears during the turnover rites would have pleased postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, who frowned on all forms of colonization as being psychopathic. You also meet around here a finely-built fellow named Gabby La’O, who runs the Western town-looking El Kabayo Stables horseback-riding club in full cowboy regalia. The Philippine tricolor, notably, now waves proudly out front, in place of the former colonizer’s.

Facing reality head-on

You hardly ever see the denial of the deluded in this town. They know the American servicemen are gone, many of their properties and savings gone. They have found acceptance and like to move on. Local historian Marco Nepomuceno is the first one to admit how the town’s earliest and most prominent families acquired, distributed, and fought over their wealth through the generations. History book author Ed Sibug is beginning the task of writing down other similar stories into another book, certainly with the same accepting eye.

Angeles, however, still has a shrugging-shoulder attitude when it comes to Fields Avenue, the “adult Disneyland” strip notorious for its raucous Mardi Gras scene. The good news? It is substantially ridden of its former criminal elements, thanks to Police Chief Louie Tan guarding the junction at the end of the district’s no-car zone. The shows in the most frequented establishments, such as Golden Nile and Club Atlantis, are still no family fare, about two notches above what you see on bawdy lunchtime TV. But you are surprised how the crowd here has gone international–no more American monopoly–and they seem more interested in the food fare than the quickie sex, for what are they all doing in the open-air cafés drinking all night as buddies? Speaking of food, you are delighted to learn that the first shawarma shack in the Philippines can be found still standing somewhere near.

Embracing the new together with the old

The old is being embraced, but not at the expense of the new. The Holy Angel University’s Center for Kapampangan Studies, for example, is equipped with modern museum display devices. You type your name in one computer and amuse your narcissistic self at seeing the Pampango baybayin script version of it. The guide here shows, among other things, how the world-famous Pampanga lantern is manually operated: through sheer ingenuity, using just grandma hairclips and masking tape! Later, you enter a theater to watch videos highlighting Pampanga’s unique history and culture. You end up amazed at the impact these people in Central Luzon had on an entire nation–all the whole bunch of them: saints and scoundrels, rebels and romantics. Factoids like this come flying off the handle: leftist leaders Luis Taruc and Bernabe Buscayno had Pampango roots, as had the first Filipino priest, soldier, doctor, and so on.

You meet a young party boy here, make him a quick friend, and next thing you know, you are driven around town for other best-kept secrets. You head off to Abe Tayag’s Island Grill for a night cap, where you sample such novel delicacies as dulong (baby anchovies) paté in olive oil and basil, and the deep-fried tanigue (Spanish mackerel) caviar called puga. Among the crowd, your new friend points out, is the owner of the famous fashion store in Manila, Folded and Hung, a true-blue Angeleno. You check out the night club scene at Hacienda–hulky Terence Lagman and crew’s party place–which pulsates with the same vibrancy as Manila’s Embassy or Republiq, the glamorous younglings filling it up to the rafters in the dead of the night. You weave yourself into the thick weekend throng, there to hobnob with the perfumed future of Pampanga. A lot of guests are from Manila, including the night’s DJ, Elmer Dado, and his band, Gruppo Tribale, with their intoxicating samba beats.

The hotels are on an expansion spree, even as they try to exude warmth in huggable sizes. ABC Hotel, for example, combines the refinement of the Old World and the warmth of Asian hospitality. The others, like The Fields Plaza Suites, designed for honeymooning couples, goes modern all the way. Checking in, you feel like an Arab prince, with your appetite for royal treatment satisfied.

Other facelifts abound. You take Friendship Highway one moment then find yourself the next on an entire strip called Koreatown. Farther, you are dazzled by the palazzo architecture of Ruperto Cruz’s Royal Garden Golf and Country Club, a one of a kind manicured property. You realize gourmet places are everywhere too. You dig into your porterhouse steak at the Royal Amsterdam’s Black Angus Steakhouse, lick your fingers feasting on the jolly Jim Sebree’s most authentic Cajun and Creole cuisine in Cottage Kitchen, and sample the French-inspired dishes at Gerard Heinen’s ABC Hotel—whose chef trained under Le Soufflé’s Billy King—and have yet another hearty lunch at Jim Dale’s Blue Boar Inn at La Casa Hotel. You next find the Yats Restaurant & Wine Bar in Mimosa golf course just because you heard it has the most extensive wine list in the country (5,000 mostly French labels).

Here at Yats, you converse with a frequent guest, Irishman Richard Agnew, who recounts how he ended up in Angeles. You hear a dozen other similar tales from other nationalities around the city, frequently involving a local lass who has held the foreigner’s heart captive, and frequently resulting in the blooming of a conjugal enterprise. You see this as a form of reverse colonization.

Angeles and Clark are now quite child-friendly that you forget adult entertainment altogether. You take your kids to Fontana Water Park for summer fun or to a trek to Paradise Ranch and Zoocobia for a huffing-and-puffing environmental awareness exercise. You survey the other options available based on the season: a four-seater plane ride over Mt. Pinatubo, mountain-biking, hot air balloon, kite-flying, go-karting, paintball, airsoft… Even PX goods shopping here can also be an extreme sport. You head off to the many casinos later, reminded that Angeles is a sister city of Las Vegas. PAGCOR Casino’s façade interests you with its reliefs of Kapampangan mythical characters like King Sinukuan, Pampanga’s first inhabitant according to local lore.

Finding blessing in abjection

Finally, you see here the palpable proofs that loss and tragedy in cataclysmic proportions can be a blessing if we turn them into one. Lahar sand, for example, with its high sulfur content, is a quarry much preferred by construction people. It easily earns millions for the enterprising.

An isolated hot spring recently emerged in Sitio Puning, accessed through Barangay Sapang Bato via a 4X4 ride, that is deemed therapeutic by Koreans who come and go in hordes, availing of their own traditional treatments such as hot sand, volcanic mud, and massage treatments. The 45-minute ride over a splashing Sacobia Riverbed gives you the thrill of your life, with magnificent vistas of breathtaking canyons, ravines, and gullies you will never forget. Amidst melodic bird chirps, you notice queer stone markers along the way, and learn that they are an Aeta indication of where to take refuge in case of sudden rain. Who knew the scars of a furious volcano could be this dramatically beautiful? There are just no words; you just have to be there.

Jing Torno of Angeles City Tourism Office prefers to sum up his city this way: “Food! Fun! Angeles!” I would have added, “More!” This bustling destination, plus Clark, together have the gritty urbanism of Manila, the cosmopolitan air of Boracay, the American frontier feel of Baguio, and the rustic charm of an old provincial town, but they each have become uniquely themselves, with their own palette of many hidden charms and unexpected come-ons. Their story ends on the happy note of reclaiming one’s true self in the ever-shifting lahar of time, their cry for freedom from invading humans and invasive nature echoing resoundingly down Abacan River.

Among the must-try dishes of Angeles City, Pampanga, the Philippines’ culinary capital, are the following, selected here for being on the more exotic side:

Burung asan: fermented shrimp wrapped in fresh mustard leaf or steamed ampalaya (bitter gourd) halves or paired off with steamed okra

Bringhe: a fiesta fare of glutinous rice dish made glisteningly yellow with turmeric and cooked with chicken bits

Paku (fern) salad: a mouthwatering, refreshing, and brightly colored salad with contrasting textures

Moche: a glutinous rice dessert with monggo beans too temptingly delicious to be limited to just one bite

Tibok-tibok: a nervy 100% carabao’s milkbased dessert that’s light on the tummy; not to be confused with the cornflour-based maja blanca

White halo-halo: this Pampango version strips the classic crushed-ice dessert of color and the result is an interesting personality

Original sisig: you can’t go wrong sampling an unofficial national dish (grilled and chopped pig’s ear, cheek, and liver in vinegar and leeks) right where it was invented, by Aling Lucing (Lucia Cunanan); it has evolved into three or more versions