November 20, 2016
Rodriguez (formerly Montalban), Rizal, the Philippines
From ewww to ahhhh. And vice versa. A road trip on a whim one Sunday afternoon ran the gamut of vowel-sound exclamations. After church, what was left of the weekend was enough time for an adventure. Or at least a joy ride. Ki drove aimlessly, eastward, until we stopped by the main church of Montalban (now called Rodriguez).
We pondered the mysteries of the Shrine of Our Lady of Aranzazu. A story posted on a bulletin board told of a Marian apparition in the aforementioned Spanish town. Ki wondered about the common thread that bound such supernatural sightings over the centuries. They typically involved nature and shepherds that perhaps started hallucinating after hours under the sun in open fields.
Stimulating food for thought, but we decided on a more physical adventure. We drove on toward Sierra Madre, a range of limestone mountains scarred by numerous quarries. Slopes had been loped off by injudicious mining, leaving barren and rocky indentations to glisten like snow in daylight. We shared the highway with trucks hauling away pieces of the mountains.
Miners, truckers, and their families had set up dense communities along the highway up to the hiking trails of Wawa Dam. The settlement had the aura of a pioneer town – dusty, muddy, crowded, and crammed with makeshift houses. It was a wilderness encroached and choked by human habitation. We were charged P30, for which a woman handed us a government-issued ticket, for a parking space under the trees.
Narrow trails traced the mountainside, but there was no communing with nature on this hike. It was no lazy Sunday either. The place was buzzing with activity: two men pounding rice grains with a huge wooden mortar and pestle, vendors selling fruit and trinkets in well-stocked stands, women hanging laundry on clotheslines, wet children peddling guided tours to some distant waterfalls, lines of men carrying sacks of charcoal on their backs.
The slum eventually gave way to the gorgeous Montalban Gorge. We walked through a couple of short tunnels under craggy rock faces and made a beeline, along with residents and fellow visitors marching like ants on narrow wooden bridges, for the dam. Finally, the verdant and lush Sierra Madre, pockmarked at this point only by small excavations, took center stage.
The roar of pouring water announced the proximity of Wawa Dam, also called Montalban Dam, forming a slightly curved wall of concrete across Marikina River. Built in 1909 by the Americans as the sole water source of Metro Manila, it was edged out of that distinction by Angat Dam in the late 60s and had since been abandoned. The name Wawa, quite appropriately, also meant kawawa (pitiful) in shorthand.
Vestiges of the original structures could still be seen around the dam. Cracked concrete pipes stuck out from weeds and bushes. A weathered watchtower with photogenic arched windows remained standing but near crumbling. They pointed to how the Americans modernized the colony and harnessed our natural resources, for better or worse.
Ki and I had come this far. There was no turning back; we gingerly descended the rugged riverbank, leapfrogging on boulders, perhaps chunks of the mountainside that had tumbled from quarries, to capture as much of the breadth of the dam within our facecam frame. We gave millennials a run for their selfies.
The raging river at the foot of the dam was akin to a placid lake upstream. Covered bamboo rafts used as floating picnic tables were anchored to shore. At a glance the scene conjured up dreamy Guilin, but garbage strewn all over land and water was a rude awakening. Informal settlers at the riverbank set up videoke machines and belted out their favorite Air Supply songs. Urban squalor and noise pollution had overtaken this otherwise remote and scenic mountain range.
The Sierra Madre had provided the city with water, now with blocks of rock with which we built our city. For all its ewwws and ahhhs, Montalban Gorge was a microcosm of the entire country – a piece of paradise exploited without regard by the haves and the have-nots, by the powerful and the peasant alike. Perhaps it will find some peace when there would be no mountain left.