The draw of Taal Volcano in Luzon, the Philippines, for me was the islet in the caldera lake. Which was itself on an island, which is in a bigger lake, which was on an island. Plus rumour has it I can get up to it on horseback. 😉
After a typhoon scuttled our first try, my Filipina friend and I plotted a second attempt. This time we prudently planned it to be squarely outside of typhoon season, early the following year.
While we were at it, she found her old mountaineering instincts and convinced me to tack on Pinatubo in the same trip (story told separately).
[It just dawned on me that I seem to attract friends who are into mountains, for someone who is supposedly sea-loving. Why have I never realised this?]
Taal Volcano, the second expedition
So I got on the plane again the following year, and headed to the Philippines. I checked into the Tower Inn in the Makati district like before. My friend would meet up with me for dinner and brief me on the itinerary.
The plan was that we would drive down to Tagaytay again and do Taal’s caldera lake first. Because her knee was hurting, her husband had one of the family staff to be our driver. And then on a different day we would drive to Pinatubo and hike up to the caldera lake there.
I will be with you
But there’s just one catch.
My dear friend, though we’re about the same age, was often unwell those days. Stress is a serious factor in the deterioration of health, and she lives with a lot of it. And around the time when we were supposed to ride up to Taal together, she was still a bit delicate after an illness, and nursing a knee.
However, her spirit was strong. She was determined to make this trip happen. She just needed to be tactical about it. Between the two destinations, she wanted to hike Pinatubo more. So she would take me to the shores of Tagaytay, and send me off to finish Taal alone. And that would give more time for her knee to (hopefully) heal enough, and have a better shot of us doing Pinatubo together.
It’s a deal.
Taal, without the fog
We arrived in Tagaytay, this time with no typhoon warnings and not blanketed in fog. Just a warm Philippine day – but not too warm, because Tagaytay is is the highlands.
My friend is one of those people who love people. She has zero qualms about going anywhere because her resources are all the people around her. She would ask for directions, a LOT. My best friend is the same.
I think maybe I’m drawn to people like this because I’m so poor at it myself. A deep introvert (and possibly some kind of Aspie if testing was a thing back then), social stuff had always been extremely difficult for me. It felt like something far, like the edge of a well up in the sun, viewed from the bottom. Or like walking through mud, shoes sticking with every step as I watch others spring lightly across the ground.
I wonder sometimes if my pattern recognition and problem-solving skills are so honed, partly because I resorted to them so much more – as an alternative to simply engaging a person and asking. For many long years, this was the single biggest obstacle for me to do the travelling that I really wanted to do.
So asking for directions was to me an ordeal, even as recently as then. I was still amazed by how readily my friend could just randomly stop, wind down her window, and just.. “Kuya*…?”
Later on, as I approached the end of my Blue Period, I broke this glass wall once and for all. But that is another story.
Of course we had to have lunch first.
This is Southeast Asia, are we barbarians?! There must be food first.
Several directions later we eventually drove down the highland ridge surrounding Taal lake, down to where the boats were. There was a restaurant at the boat hire place. We had a nice and simple lunch there, in one of the rustic dining huts. Rice and fish and local veg.
The view was clear – across the rippling waters we saw the island where Taal volcano was. It was explained to me that the peak with the crater in it that could be seen from this spot, was not actually the peak with the islet within the caldera lake within the island. It was actually another peak. However it was distinctive in itself, with the dip of the caldera clearly visible.
(Almost) all aboard!
My friend had everything all planned out. She put me in the hands of a guide from the boat hire/excursion people. And our driver, Mang** F-x, would come with me. She would wait for us at the hut and just enjoy the view and the breeze.
So I referred earlier, to my friend having family staff. ‘Helpers’, she calls them. But this isn’t like, you know, Batman’s Alfred or the Beast’s castle staff. I mean, not in the relational sense.
You see, there are two ways to have staff in these parts which is true in Malaysia and looks to be true in the Philippines as well.
The first way is the way I think everyone is used to thinking about household staff, i.e. with a large power distance. Employer is employer and employee is employee. Think Downton Abbey.
The second way, is to have them as employees, but they are treated sort of more like family. It seemed to me that my friend is of the latter category. And so F-x came across as some kind of cross between employee and uncle. It reminded me a little bit of how we were with Pakcik*** R-i, who was the driver my father’s workplace assigned him, and who remained with him/us for some years.
Lessons in grace
I’m not someone comfortable with strangers. It takes me a long while to get used to someone and feel easy around them. For a long time I couldn’t comfortably share a room with someone else. I mean I would if the circumstances called for it, but I would have the weight of discomfort the whole time. I don’t share well. Not because I am particularly possessive of things and space, but because sharing required syncing with someone else, and that social demand is quite hard for me to manage with strangers.
At that time, just lifting from my difficult re-birth, I was still very much like that. On top of that, although I had taken the leap to turn into my own self, I was still pretty numb for a while. This trip was in that period.
So when she asked Mang F-x if he would like to have a ride up the volcano, my heart sank a bit. It’s the honest truth. I thought I would much rather have done it alone with the guide, the better to lose myself in my thoughts. Like I always have done.
But his eyes lit up. He looked genuinely pleased to be asked somewhere, just for his own amusement. Like on a holiday. And I thought, this is more important than me. And besides, maybe it’s better I don’t do things the way I’ve always done.
So all three of us went into the boat.
Taal volcano: The island where walking is (almost) optional
There are people living around the volcano. Their buildings are very rustic, almost temporary-looking. I don’t remember very much about the place where the boat came up to. But I remember one thing: the ponies.
They were everywhere. Some bareback, some walking around with a basic blanket and stirrups. They seem to be considered common property. It seemed to me that whenever someone wanted to go somewhere, they just collar the nearest horse and off you go. Then you just dismount, and you make fast the pony if you want it again for sure, but otherwise you just let it wander off and pull up on a different one later. Islanders were just hopping off their boats and onto ponies and tearing away.
Between the boats and the horses – two of my favourite modes of transport – you would never really need to walk anywhere…
It was among the most awesome thoughts a place ever put in my head.
There are guides on the island in charge of the pony rides to the caldera for the tourists. The guides are more for the ponies than for the people, really.
OK so I was a little disappointed that ‘horseback’ actually means with ponies, rather than the tall horses I used to ride as a young adult and in university – when I was a fixture in the equestrian club. But I’ll take it.
My pony guide M-l introduced me to Jerrick. I wished then that I had had the foresight to have brought a carrot or something. Nonetheless Jerrick and I got on well enough. I mounted. The saddle was more basic than I’m used to and so were the stirrups. I couldn’t adjust it to my liking. There was no bridle per se. But I felt I could keep my seat nonetheless.
Then came the second disappointment. Apparently all the guides would lead the ponies along the way, on foot. I wouldn’t get to actually ride the pony myself to the caldera.
However as we were moving along the trail, I suppose in the bigger picture this was probably the more prudent approach. It wouldn’t do for a tourist to lose control of a pony and careen off a slope to possible doom.
M-l did let me have the ropes for a while for a photo op though.
The well-worn road
We rode on trails that skirted the sides of the volcano mound until the final stretch. The pony guides walked the whole way. Sometimes running if the ponies felt like trotting a bit. It was hot and I wondered if they minded.
The last stretch was open ground, and a straightforward dirt trail up to a makeshift settlement on the ridge. I felt a bit self-conscious at this time, because we seemed to be among the few tourists there who were local – or at least looked local, in my case. I mean, I was in track bottoms. All the other tourists were in ‘backpacker chic’. (Yes, I still have a lot of this backtalk in my head at this time.) But, whatever right?
We dismounted at a shed of sorts near the top of the hill. There were people selling bottled drinks in cooler boxes and it seemed customary to buy the guide a drink. So I got M-l a soft drink.
Up here there was a motley collection of sheds little more than raised floors with roofs, perched along the narrow paths up the slope. The ponies were tethered near one, and our ‘overall’ guide led us on foot the rest of the way.
The caldera lake of Taal Volcano.
He led us to the rim of the caldera, where there were railings along the rim overlooking the lake.
It had just the suggestion of a heart shape, which I felt gave it a kind of recognisable aesthetic. I could recognise this lake from a photo, but cannot place many other mountain lakes. The islet that makes the location a five-fold curiosity is a little piece of rock jutting up out of the deep emerald of the water near the far end.
Around the crater, along the slopes cupping the near side of the caldera, can be seen reminders of what kind of lake this is. Vapours from within the volcano wafted in smoky trails, sulphurous, venting from the Hadean fissures beneath.
The inside of the caldera would likely not be a healthy place to venture into.
The red lava ridge
There was a ridge nearby that led nowhere. Purportedly it is of red lava, long since cooled. I never picked up enough practical geology to judge this claim. It just meanders as a narrow trail and ends in a sort of sharp drop. To access this ridge, one would have to pay extra.
At first I thought it didn’t seem worthwhile just to get to a ridge I could already see from where I was. (I don’t remember how much it was but it wasn’t actually expensive). And I wouldn’t have, except that I noted the day was wearing on. On a whim I checked the direction to Mecca on my smartphone. Coincidentally, that ridge was very nearly pointing that way.
So I figured, why not complete my prayers right there, on the red ridge. Just for kicks. So we went to the ridge.
Travelling while Muslim
By this time I had been to the Philippines several times, for work. When you travel to a business hotel they would usually give you a complimentary newspaper. I like to read these at least some of the time, and get a feel for the country. Not just what is happening, but how those things are spoken about, what kinds of things make the news, and what the media influences are.
Now the Philippines have had a longstanding separatist conflict with the indigenous population of Mindanao pretty much since they were independent from the USA and became the country we know today. The conflict is periodically violent, and in these latter years, tinged with the shadow of religious extremism.
At that time, there was an uptick in tensions in the south. I don’t appear very recognisably Muslim. But here I was, surrounded by Christian Filipinos, about to carry out a Muslim prayer alone in full view on top of their volcano. I read a lot of online news; much of it western/American. If I put on my ‘English language’ head I can almost hear the whiplash of necks turning in suspicion. The Philippines is famous for being particularly American-influenced. Is this a wise thing to do? From cultural conditioning, I would feel self-conscious to do it outdoors to begin with – but outdoors in potentially hostile territory?
But this is a time for new choices. Of wide blue oceans and empty blue sky. Of calling the bluff of fears; the other side…of travelling while Muslim.
The ability to discriminate
I asked Mang F-x to wait for a little while and told him what I was doing. He understood. As he waited with our guide somewhere behind, I could hear one ask the other what I was doing. The other replied that I was Muslim. And that was all.
You see, the astounding thing about reading Philippine newspapers is that, it is extremely rare to find even pundits describe the conflict in the south inaccurately. They all acknowledge that the Mindanao Muslims are indigenous to their island. That Islam is part of Philippine history. That Mindanao still ‘belonged’. That the issue is a political one, yet another of the world’s many ‘post-colonial’ mess-ups.
The fidelity of the journalistic, political, and academic narrative – considering the duration since the issue first emerged – is nothing short of incredible. There are even occasional newspaper features about the festivals celebrated by Filipino Muslims, which are factually correct and without any attempt at negative insinuation.
Of course there is no conflict that does not over time bring bitterness and suspicion between communities at least a little bit, somewhere. But in a world where this is promoted, where their allies and primary cultural influencers actively promote hatred and exclusion towards a group that their own inconvenient separatists identify with, the Filipinos’ refusal to give in shows a fineness of discrimination that deserves nothing but respect.
It is very difficult to find a nation – of any affiliation – that can separate between the actual issues and the ancillary stuff, under lengthy and sustained pressure, especially when it looks advantageous to themselves to exploit the opposite. Long may they hold, in the face of such an intractable situation.
The eye of the beholder
We took photos of each other. Considering I felt all wilted inside, I looked unusually reasonably photogenic. That was good. It is rare that I get to see what other people see, when they look at me. I think perhaps this could be why I’m constantly surprised when someone actually tells me. I suppose my conditioning, growing up, makes me dismiss for myself a great many things.
So it was that I didn’t recognise my own reflection, when someone dropped in my life the following year to hold a mirror to me – not until it was too late.
I know this must be incomprehensible to millennials whose entire lives are documented by the selfie. Or perhaps they do understand, better than anyone else – that who you think you are relates a great deal to how well you look the part.
There wasn’t much else to do up on the caldera rim once you’ve seen the lake, and done the ridge. So we re-mounted, and rode back down the volcano, back onto the boat, and to my friend waiting on the shore of Tagaytay.
It was in one sense, not a very remarkable trip in itself. Notwithstanding the unusual emerald lake in the caldera.
But all along the way back, I had many things to reflect on. I was glad to have the company of our guide and my friend’s driver. It was good to have to push out of myself. It was right to trust that I will be among friends.
The trip was remarkable. Not because it was an awesome destination. But because here I had dared to make some new choices, paving the first blocks of a new courage.
For the first attempt my friend and I made to Taal Volcano lake, see The First Taal Expedition: Tagaytay Befogged.
* Kuya = form of address meaning ‘brother’. As far as I can tell it is similar to the way a Malay would use ‘abang’. Forms of address in Southeast Asia are often the same or similar words as those marking family relationships, irrespective of actual family ties. In Indonesia this even includes formal address. There is an implicit subtext of the assumed family that does not translate as I change into my ‘English language brain’.
**Mang = form of respectful address in Tagalog. If I’m not mistaken it roughly corresponds to “Encik” in my language. I guess it would correspond to “mister” in English. In this case its use for our driver is probably due to his greater age compared to us.
*** Pakcik = form of address in Malay, meaning ‘uncle’.