Mapanuepe Lake, San Marcelino, Zambales

We missed the only public jeepney transporting to and from the isolated barangay of Aglao in San Marcelino. This compelled us to hire a tricycle. The first two drivers we asked refused to bring us there. ‘It is too far,’ ‘unpaved road could break our tires,’  ‘we don’t know it,’ were the responses we received. On our third attempt, a driver showed mercy and heeded our request as long as we would go back to town the same day. He wasn’t familiar with Mapanuepe Lake but said there is a lake in Aglao referred to as “Lawa (Lake)” by the locals where he could take us.

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The drivers who turned us down weren’t lying. Most parts of the road were unsteady and under construction. The lake was nowhere in my sight after almost an hour of trudging our way up. Collision of two worlds was noticeable: on our right denuded huge rice fields and the mountains surrounding the province of Zambales; on our left revealed an interminable deserted region. After passing through this area, I realized that my mind was like a book lacking few pages because I couldn’t recognize this place in my home province. San Marcelino just sits next to our town, but I felt like I was lost in the wilderness on my way to its remote barangays; its existence was nowhere in my memory even if I looked closely.

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Signs of life in this rural community gradually increased as houses made of bamboo and nipa hut started sprouting beside the main road. Locals and indigenous people slowly emerged from bushy pathways occupying the vacant lots. Undersized concrete structures also became visible, giving us hope that a community awaits us in the direction we were heading to.

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We asked the man crossing the road. “I don’t know Mapanuepe Lake,” he said and pointed us to go straight as there is a lake at the end of the paved road matching our description. When we got off the vehicle, two men wearing faded jeans and slightly worn out shirts — one looked much older than the other — approached us and offered a tour using their outrigger boat.

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Under the giant trees, we seated and rested while negotiating the rental fee. The lake looked calm and unperturbed. Mountains surrounding the lake served as its fence. It had crystal clear waters with smooth surface reflecting the blue sky. Mild forest winds caressed our faces as we bravely stood on our feet. Fresh aroma of woods and falling leaves was sprayed in the air. The space was infused with mellow hums of birds and insects; they are the only living creatures licensed to create noise in this quiet place. We didn’t move until strange voices commanded us to start exploring. “We have to go. The sun is getting high,” uttered one of the voices. We followed and quickly got onto the boat.

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Mapanuepe Lake is an unknown destination to many until it got featured on the ‘Destination of Truth’. This was an American paranormal reality series (the last episode of the show was aired in March this year) which highlighted eerie and mysterious living creatures around the world. An account of a boy about seeing a 7-foot unknown creature inhabiting the lake proliferated throughout the village and had allegedly caused panic to the people. This rural story prompted the crew of the show to fly to the Philippines. Together with some townsfolk with burning curiosity on the discovery of the boy, they searched the whole lake. No indication of the said monstrous creature came into view. It was then believed by experts that the shadow spotted by some fishermen whirling in the body of water was just merely a school of fish.

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Alvin, one of our boatmen, sat with us as he recounted their life more than two decades ago. People lived a modest and simple life. Their primary sources of living were fishing and farming while some would hunt animals in the wilds. They had a harmonious community. Villagers and Aetas — indigenous people of Zambales — practiced barter system (which still exists in some parts of the barangay at present). Then Mt. Pinatubo erupted.

History has it that its eruption in 1991 was one of the world’s worst disasters. It hit Central Luzon badly. While the ground continued to jolt, Pinatubo spewed ashes affecting the whole region. Incessant heavy rains followed causing the lahar to reach the ground, the main river and other tributaries of San Marcelino. Lahar, mud, and debris from shattered branches of trees blocked the water passages. When heavy rains assaulted again, rivers overflowed that caused flooding. Flood waters spilled all the way through the low lying areas. Aglao, Buhawen and Pili got submerged. Eventually, old Aglao was totally wiped out while leaving part of Pili inundated. This gave birth to Mapanuepe Lake that lies at the convergence of Mapanuepe and Marella rivers.

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The words fleeing Alvin’s mouth were piercing, but something in his eyes was more telling. According to him, there were no reported fatalities in Aglao when this happened as they were warned and asked to evacuate before raging waters swallowed them alive. Their faith was tested. They couldn’t even go to the church erected at the heart of their village for shelter, because if they did, they would have been perished by the flood. Santa Barbara, the church of old Aglao, wasn’t spared from nature’s wrath. “Do you see that red steel cross protruding in the middle of the lake? That’s the only memory we have of our old church,” he said in a poignant tone before revealing some legendary folktales that sent tremors down my spine. “Every year, the lake takes one life. If it fails to, it would take two the succeeding year.” I had to pause for a moment to absorb his disturbing account but he continued his tale, “Two marines mysteriously disappeared in the lake while swimming and residents hear screeches coming from the lake at night.”

Whether or not there’s truth to the stories of disappearances, in a place away from civilization, rural legends form part of the land, form part of the existence of the locals, and form part of their daily living. Horror stories such as this will always be passed on to the succeeding generations, to the neighboring communities, and to the tourists. And we, as visitors, can always pick what to see and which to believe.

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The history of Mapanuepe Lake is a piece of knowledge that fills out the blank pages of my mind and acquaints me to my home province so deeply. I still picture the lake as the aftermath of a beautiful village where people live in harmony together, where lives flourish behind tough plights, where hope remains pinched in the heart and soul of the residents, and where life — despite of the village’s dark past — goes on as each day passes.