SAN PABLO CITY ? When he returned to the Philippines in 1993 after staying in the United States for 15 years, Mandy Mariño was surprised with what his hometown by the Sampaloc Lake in Laguna had become.
?There were many nightclubs, bars and beer joints around. The water was polluted and stank because of dead fish (while) it was morally polluted in the land,? said Mariño, who grew up right in front of the lake.
?People did not care (about the effects) as long as money was coming in. It was a dog-eat-dog (world).?
What was once a pretty lakeside scenery had turned into an ugly catch basin of unbridled commerce and congestion.
Sampaloc is one of San Pablo City?s seven legend-filled lakes (the others are Bunot, Calibato, Pandin, Yambo, Palakpakin and Mohicap. Thus, San Pablo is also known as the ?City of the Seven Lakes.?
Before, the lakes were believed to be volcanic craters, but these were later found to be steam vents or openings caused by underground steam.
Realizing how ?bad? the area had become, Mariño organized a group of volunteers among homeowners in his village in 1998 to put pressure on local leaders. ?All (that was) needed was somebody to initiate (it),? he said.
The group staged prayer rallies and in 2000, launched the ?Yakap sa Lawa? (Embrace the Lake), a bold protest action that saw some 8,000 people clutching hands around the 100-hectare Sampaloc Lake.
?Many were angered,? Mariño said, referring to politicians and squatters who were eventually evicted from their shanties.
The advocacy, however, called the attention of private institutions and nongovernment organizations. About half of the business establishments were torn down, 20 parks were built from donations, and a relocation site was provided for the squatters.
?Before, nobody dared to walk around here because they were scared. But now you?ll see people coming here, especially during the weekends,? Mariño said.
He lamented that government officials who had not promptly acted when the volunteers were clamoring for the revival of Sampaloc later claimed credit for the people?s actions.
?My reward is to see families rolling out their mats and having picnics, and although there are still noise and waste, they are now controllable,? Mariño said.
In 2003, the ?balikbayan? worked with the Pundasyon ng Kalikasan (Foundation of the Environment), which organized the ?Tour of the Pandin Lake.?
Pandin, with an area of 20.5 hectares and a depth of 62 meters, is said to be ?the most pristine? of the seven lakes of San Pablo and can be reached in 15 minutes by boat from Sampaloc.
The foundation met with about 20 families living in the area to discuss ways of saving Pandin and preventing what had happened to Sampaloc. ?They were cynical at first because many had gone to them and promised help but nothing happened,? Mariño said.
But ?when they (people) realize that you are sincere, there won?t be anymore problems,? he added.
Pandin Lake tour
The residents, mostly women, finally agreed to organize the Pandin tour as part of preservation efforts and a way for them to earn extra income. The Samahan ng Mangingisda sa Lawa ng Pandin was established, with the wives of fishermen attending to the tourists and dividing the tour earnings.
Tourists can explore Pandin on a raft for a fee of only P180 each, passing by a small, clean stream from where residents draw their drinking water, and stopping over a plateau for a five-minute hike to catch a glimpse of the twin lake or the Lake Yambo.
Fresh buko (young coconut) juice is served during the ride. Tourists can also order shrimps, bituo (snails) or tilapia (mudfish) that will be caught and cooked fresh for them.
The raft tour takes about one and a half hours, but tourists can stay longer and take a dip in the lake?s cool waters. They can even camp overnight at the lakeside.
?People won?t feel intimidated by its (lake?s) size. You will think you own it, especially when you are alone with your group,? Mariño said.
Peak season for tourists is summer, but they can visit any time of the year. Most of the guests come from Manila or abroad.
?When tourists come back, you know it?s a success,? Mariño said.
He continuously helps organize the tours and the preservation of the two lakes, even as he runs Café Lago, a restaurant he put up three months ago in front of the Sampaloc Lake.
Now 70 years old, Mariño said he was enjoying ?living on a low-speed lane? compared to his stay in the United States, where he had studied and worked.
?As you get older, you will feel the need to give something back. This is my way of giving back,? he said of his volunteer work.
Can the Sampaloc Lake be revived to its original beauty?
?You can never come back home,? Mariño said. But he resolved to ?doing what?s best to care for the environment? before it is too late.