As of presstime, Mayon Volcano is on alert Level 3.
It is a good time as any to reflect on my close to eight years living in volcano country.
When I lost my job in the pre-martial law Graphic Magazine in 1972, I ended up in Albay in 1973 where Malacanang’s Kit Tatad had set up a branch of his Department of Information.
But I am not a total stranger to the place.
In high school, I represented Catanduanes National High School in a student conference in Albay where I finally saw the volcano at close range. It was the year I saw the film version of My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn at the Rex Theater in Legazpi City in 1964.
In the mid-70s, Legazpi was pure idyllic city. I used to live in a house by the sea (rental: P200 a month!) with a breath-taking view of Mayon Volcano.
The closest that I nearly reached the tip of Mayon volcano was in 1971 (a year before martial law) when Ester Dipasupil (formerly with the Inquirer) and some media persons went beyond the Mayon Resthouse. Between the Mayon Resthouse and the crater, the view midway to the volcano crater was exhilarating.
But I guess my physique at the time (and until now) was built for writing and proofreading and not for mountain climbing. And so just a thousand feet or so from the crater, I gave up and hastened back to the Mayon Resthouse.
My Mayon fantasy went as far as visualizing a wedding on an ancient church called Cagsawa which the volcano buried in its 1814 eruption.
An Albay chronicler noted that wedding in his history book thus: “1974 (December 14). For the first time in 160 years, a Catholic wedding was solemnized in the Cagsawa Ruins at 4 p.m. Pablo A. Tariman of Baras, Catanduanes and a bride (from Daraga, Albay) were joined in a marriage by the Daraga assistant curate Fr. Eliakim Suela, OFM.”
After that wedding, I met the then 14-year old pianist Cecile Licad also at Cagsawa Ruins in 1975 when she performed at Legazpi City’s St. Agnes Academy for the first time. She came back in 1997 as a mother of one.
Now if I made a coup by getting married in Cagsawa Ruins, somebody beat me to celebrating birthday right there on the crater of Mayon Volcano. One such mountaineering buff was a Swiss mountaineer named Jan Trangott who observed his 46th birthday right on the crater of Mayon Volcano. “This is one birthday I will never forget,” Jan said as he clinked glasses with his four companions.
In the 1978 Mayon eruption, I joined a group of Manila-based media men who got to the nearest barrio where one could get a vantage (but dangerous) view of the lava flow.
Going to the nearest Camalig barangay where a lava channel was sure to attract boiling lava, I thought that was the ultimate fantasy and with the lure of danger for added drama.
At the time, the late lensman Willie Vicoy was with UPI, Sol Vanzi was with the American Broadcasting Corporation and Louie Perez was with Manila Bulletin. I was then a correspondent for Times Journal where my boss was former Inquirer publisher Isagani Yambot.
While everyone had enough provisions from food to extra clothing, my only provision consisted of a flashlight, a tape recorder, a cassette of Buencamino’s Mayon Fantasy as played by Mary Ann Armovit (at the time, I have yet to hear Licad’s definitive Mayon Fantasy), a copy of Mishima’s Spring Snow and a blank cassette.
When we arrived, the volcano’s acting was described by volcanologist as “effusive” and not much action and excitement happened. When darkness engulfed us, Mayon’s mood turned malevolent and that was when I thought we could get buried by lava flow in the dead of night. Only three kilometers from the towering inferno that was the crater of the volcano, I came face to face with real fear.
Then we heard foghorn akin to some pressure coming from a steamship. I thought for a while that the volcano’s acting could only be limited to a growl. It turned out that Mayon also hissed and it sounded like someone was being sucked violently from the bowels of the earth.
Then we heard the mountain growl for real. The effect was eerie. I told someone I’d like to go back to Camalig town and head back to my Legazpi beach house. I just thought that I didn’t want to perish in a volcano coverage and leave a then two-year-old daughter behind.
The late Vicoy was unfazed by the The Big Growl. He turned to the mountain and shouted, “Go ahead. Erupt. Show Your power!”
As if challenged, the volcano rumbled anew, and I felt my hair stand on end. Vicoy asked me to peep through his powerful camera on a tripod. For the first time, what looked like pebbles coming from the crater were boulders the size of a residential house. I monitored one eruption and realized that the rumblings didn’t originate from the crater but from the impact of the explosion of huge boulders on the slope.
A few hours after the fiery show of Mayon’s might, I felt I needed something to divert my fear. I turned to my tape recorder and played Clementi’s Sonatina Op. 36, No. 1 which I recorded from a local station the night before.
In the morning, we saw real, flaming lava scalding the vegetation just a kilometer and a half away from us.
Someone invited the group to go where the lava flowed and I thought that was going too far. But then I took a swig of Pedro Domecq brought by Perez and told the group, “Why not?” And so, we advanced and just a kilometer away, we saw how the green vegetation turned to gray with the onset of the boiling mud.
Resting on a big boulder ejected by previous eruption, I suddenly replayed Clementi’s Sonata as played by Philipp Entremont.
Face to face with the lava and hearing music, the scene reminded me of the film Soylent Green where dying people were treated with a view of a patch of green and profusion of flowers with a Beethoven symphony in the background.
I told everyone that we had better leave the place or else perish and end up as mummified lava figurines.
Then we heard a death-like thud from the lava reservoir and everybody was jolted. I turned to Pedro Domecq and played Clementi in full volume.
Still want to go nearer? I asked the late Vicoy.
Then the fumes started coming our way. This time, no amount of Pedro Domecq could make us advance.
We retreated to Camalig town. I realized I never had the chance to play Buencamino’s Mayon Fantasy. The volcano rumblings recorded in my tape recorder were far more real and exciting.
At 74, I still consider Mayon as a silent witness to some interesting transitions in my life.