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San Fernando: Where the past and the present meet

MANILA, Philippines — Why would a bunch of baby boomers, all delegates to the Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program (SSEAYP) in 1975, choose (San) Fernando’s hideaway, among other places, to hold a reunion after more than 40 years?

Well, why not? Pampanga has always been known for its R & R (rest and recreation) offerings since way back in the days of Clark Air Base. With its natural wonders and modern-day comforts, there’s something to cater to everyone’s cravings.

The organizing committee of the 42nd reunion of PYAESS (or SSEAYP spelled backwards), ably steered by Jerry Angping and Lita Manalastas-Watanabe, a Kapampangan married to a Japanese, had our itinerary efficiently mapped out months before the event. But for us Pinoy participants, knowing Pampanga to be the culinary capital of the Philippines, we were not so much interested in the itinerary as we were in the four-day eat-inerary ahead of us.

Paging Anthony Bourdain!

Day 1, our first food stop: Tonight’s dinner is hosted by Lits and Fumio Watanabe with Lits’ mom Ima at their lovely Japanese-inspired home. A big fat whole lechon (suckling pig) sits on a table in the al fresco dining area, waiting to be chopped and devoured. It’s the very famous (oh-so-crispylicious with its homemade grilled pork liver sauce) Lec’s Lechon of San Fernando (store on San Jose Street, with a branch in Angeles City) that was once featured on Kris Aquino’s TV show, making it even more popular. Perhaps TV celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain would like to check it out?

But of course, we get to taste Pampanga’s iconic dish — sisig! Each home would have its own jealously guarded sisig recipe, like the Manalastas family recipe that’s got chopped pork ears and pork belly perked up with calamansi, pineapple juice, a little sugar, patis, chopped onions, and chili.

“I learned this from my mother who learned it from her mother,” Lits reveals the secret to the enduring sisig.

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A spoonful of wisdom I learned in Pampanga: Entering a restaurant, I read a sign that said, “Men should turn left because women are always right.” Now you know who presides over the dining table in the Pampangueño household!

Please pass the pansit

And what’s a gathering without pansit? Lits ordered Susie’s pansit canton and guisado. “Susie started with a simple store and then expanded. She’s very famous for her kakanins (native rice cakes) and now, she also serves meals. Susie’s rich now.”

I brought home some of Susie’s Cuisine’s divine San Nicolas cookies (panecillos de San Nicolas) made from arrowroot flour mixed with coconut milk, eggs, sugar, butter (and sometimes with lime). The image of San Nicolas is embossed on the cookie’s flat round surface. No ordinary cookie, it’s blessed by a priest and believed to be an effective cure for pain as well as a lucky charm.

Having had our fill of the main courses, we’re ready for our final assault: dessert. Susie’s tibuk-tibuk (Kapampangan pudding with carabao’s milk), mochi (Japanese rice cakes), and fresh buko sherbet.

Oh, what a night of endless binging, singing, and a whole lot of catching up and camaraderie!

dance on, seniors!

Luckily for us seniors (with metabolic issues), some physical activities are thoughtfully included in the program to help us burn the calories. I don’t mean climbing the extinct volcano of Mt. Arayat or wakeboarding or doing some of those nature adventures that Pampanga offers aplenty (alas, our nimble years are long gone!). But fortunately for most of us, we can still dance or do a mean boogie … so we take to the dance floor at the popular GNK Ballroom, Dance Studio to learn new dance steps, relax, and dance the night away. Or what about some rockin’ and rollin’ with Bam Angping, the young, electrifying Elvis Presley of the Philippines, at Matam-ih Restaurant, Clark Freeport Zone for our farewell night? (Venturing out of Pampanga for something more serene, Camayan Beach Resort in nearby Subic is an idyllic place for an impromptu yoga class for seniors, like the one conducted by our gorgeous resident yogi Tetch Canon-Garcia.)

It’s Christmas time in the city

Surely, whether you’re young or young-at-heart, you’ll never run out of things to do in Pampanga that’s touted to be the next hottest tourist destination. And did you know that San Fernando is the Christmas capital of the Philippines? The Ligligan Parul (Giant Lantern Festival) lights up the barrios come Christmas time. It may as well light up people’s lives, too, as they come together in the spirit of solidarity. The giant paruls come as big as 20 feet, illuminated by some 5,000 light bulbs — disco, dancing lights were introduced in 1931. This friendly parul competition sees bigger and more intricate lanterns each year.

Stores selling Christmas lanterns can be found just on the roadside and are open all year round. A lot of local and foreign tourists come to buy their lanterns all through the year. We met parol maker Arnel whose father, now in his 80s, started the business. Arnel was only nine years old when he learned the craft, along with his 13 siblings. You’re bound to meet a lot more gifted craftsmen and artisans in Pampanga.

It’s all here

San Fernando is smack in the middle of it all. Pampanga’s bustling provincial capital, San Fernando is strategically located only 66 kilometers north of Manila (only one-and-a-half hour’s drive via North Luzon Expressway), 73 kilometers east of Subic in Zambales, and 17 kilometers south of Clark Air Base in Angeles City.

Situated in the heart (or should we say the belly) of Pampanga, the City of San Fernando is home to the country’s big banks and business establishments such as restaurants and leading fast food chains plus major manufacturing and bottling companies.

More, San Fernando is an important rice and sugar-producing area. PASUDECO (Pampanga Sugar Development Company) was once the largest private employer in Pampanga.

Blast from the past

Vis-a-vis the city’s growing urbanization, the Pampangueños remain faithful to their heritage and certainly proud of their past. Church museum curator Cel Mariano tells us how the townfolk were sleepless as they guarded and protected their centuries-old San Guillermo Church from the lahar flow that half buried it when Mt. Pinatubo, a volcano dormant for 600 years, erupted. Everything was gone in an instant; the only thing that remained was the people’s indomitable spirit.

There still stands the San Fernando railroad station as a brave reminder of our men’s unwavering courage in the pursuit of freedom. It was a mute witness to the end of the Death March that started in Bataan. My uncle, Fernando Maliwanag, who became president of Feati University, was a survivor of that march. He was given military honors at his funeral just a few years ago.

The students of Holy Angel University (HAU) know their history well (we had discussions with them and probably learned more from them than they did from us). Leo Valdes, International Department head of HAU, is proud of his school whose choral group, for instance, has won distinctions abroad.

Welcome to capital town

There’s just no stopping San Fernando, what with its strategic location within the Manila Clark-Subic Economic Triangle. It’s poised to become the Central Business District of the North with the rise of Capital Town, Megaworld’s first integrated urban township in Central Luzon. The 35.6-hectare development, that will cost P30 billion to build in the next 10 years, will highlight the rich cultural heritage of San Fernando amid a modern, dynamic Central Business District.

Passing by the Pampanga Provincial Capitol via San Fernando City’s surprisingly mega wide streets, we’re told that it is near this area, at the former site of PASUDECO, where Capital Town will be located. It will house an exciting mix of residential and BPO office towers, civic and institutional facilities such as schools, an amphitheater and event venues, mall and retail hubs, hotels, and a Shophouse District that highlights the neoclassical and art deco architecture reminiscent of Pampanga’s historic rows of heritage houses. Walking down this neighborhood would be like doing a historical tour of San Fernando.

Bound to be the crown jewel of Capital Town, the Shophouse District will showcase the best Pampanga has to offer in its three levels of shophouses, such as unique and homegrown business concepts that support the Kapampangan’s entrepreneurial spirit.

One thing that’s so refreshing about this development is that 25 percent will be devoted to green and open spaces. Think lovely pocket gardens and mini parks where one can relax and enjoy the scenery at the end of a nerve-wracking day. The place will be teeming with local trees that promise to be our own version of Japan’s magnificent cherry blossoms.

The main township road itself, San Fernando Boulevard, will be 30 meters wide (all of six lanes), cutting across Capitol Boulevard all the way to Jose Abad Santos Ave. (Olongapo-Gapan Road).

“Yes, yes, the Kapampangans are open to new developments,” Lits says with a big smile. “Especially the yuppies and a lot of our young professionals who can afford to buy condos. We also have a big call center at Nepo.”

Surely, Capital Town would be a perfect venue for rekindling old ties and creating new memories at yet another PYAESS reunion in the near future.

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