19. A Volcano within a Volcano

  1. 01. Giving It Away
  2. 02. Mind Games
  3. 03. Customer Service
  4. 04. Getting Down to Business
  5. 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
  6. 06. The Commission
  7. 07. Service!
  8. 08. Instant Celebrity
  9. 09. The Pinoy Diet
  10. 10. Life As We Know It
  11. 11. Doctors’ Borders
  12. 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
  13. 13. Half Empty
  14. 14. Me and My Leg
  15. 15. Always Be With You
  16. 16. Going Underground
  17. 17. Decisions, Decisions
  18. 18. I Shall Depart
  19. 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
  20. 20. A Nod and a Smile
  21. 21. Not Fighting City Hall
  22. 22. Stasis in Places
  23. 23. Fond Farewells
  24. 24. Parting Shots

Funny how when one makes a decision, all sorts of unintended implications rear their tangential heads. Funnier how I say “one” when I want to say “you” while in fact referring to “I”. That’s because I have never completely thought through the implications of any decision I have ever made. Near as I can tell, neither has anybody else. Yet, the words “I hadn’t thought of that” rarely pass the lips of humans. There’s a good chance you spent much of your life waiting in vain for your boss to utter those very words.

Once we decided to finish the assignment as originally scheduled, the seemingly distant departure date suddenly loomed near. There were so many sights we had planned to see in the Philippines that we had yet to see, mostly because my limited mobility from the knee operation had trashed some well-laid plans. Now, we’d just have to cram in what we could.

We’d be leaving before Easter, so all the holy week activities crossed themselves off our list. I was most disappointed that we’d miss the actual human crucifixions, a popular seasonal pastime. Holy week also is the gayest of weeks in a country that has peculiar, yet tolerant, attitudes towards gayness (more on that in later tantrums).  Reports indicated that during holy week, Puerta Galera rivals Provincetown in its fabulousity. Frankly, I find that hard to believe but I would like to have found out for myself.

That left the Taal Volcano — a lake in a volcano in a lake in a volcano – at the top on our list.  On a pleasant Friday in late January, just after noon, we climbed into a “Grab Car” headed for nearby Tagaytay, the tourist town high on the volcano’s outer rim, just 65 kilometers south of Manila

Grab Car is a service similar to Uber, although I prefer it because the fare is set in advance. That’s an important source of solace for skinflints such as myself who cannot bear to watch the meter tick whilst stuck in traffic. Grab Car’s pre-fixed fare approach has the effect of making any traffic delay the driver’s problem.  But it also means the driver gets to choose the route, determine the speed, and whether to drive like a maniac or not. Even so, I have had good luck with Grab Cars. Without worrying about the fare, I bury my head in my laptop or smartphone and await the driver’s announcement that we have arrived. Sometimes I close my eyes. On occasion this has involved prayer.

Regular taxis are cheap in Manila, but as with almost every other city in the world, I do not enjoy taking taxis here. I have not experienced any major problems, but every Manila taxi ride involves some minor irritation: the driver claims to not know a major landmark, or takes a ridiculous route, or “forgets” to turn on the meter, or claims that particular route is a flat fare, or stops to fill up with gas, or is out of receipts, or has no change, or the vehicle is a death trap, or drives like Helen Keller. After about thirty such episodes, I got tired of every hack assuming I was an idiot.  I decided it was worth the little extra cost to grab a Grab Car, which are reliably new, pleasant, prompt, and courteous.

The ride to Tagaytay was unusual for the distance, taking the driver out of the Metro Manila area. Co-workers had warned us we were taking the driver out of the Grab Car area, leaving the driver very little chance of getting a return fare. Oddly, the Grab Car computer failed to take that into account when it set the fare and searched for drivers to accept it. So did the driver who accepted the ₱1,035 fare (~A$30). That is, until we got about twenty seconds into the ride.

“The fare is not enough for Tagaytay – I get no return…” he announced.

I can’t say I was surprised. “Then why did you accept the fare?” I asked.

He went silent for a moment, deciding to play on my sense of decency, a risky bet at best. After an uncomfortable pause, he groveled “I have to cover gas for both directions…”

I hate it when people play on my sense of decency. After all, ₱1,035 was about two days’ pay for, say, a retail clerk. “Look, do you want the fare or don’t you? We can get out right here.” I bluffed.

Silence. The driver’s shoulders slumped, beaten, whipped you might say. I felt awful.

“Okay, okay…” I capitulated. “How about two thousand pesos?”

Suddenly, we had our happy, courteous driver back. “Okay, sir!” he chirped. “Plus tolls, yes?”

Off we went into the crush of Manila’s Friday afternoon traffic. We had left just after lunch to beat the traffic, but to beat the Friday afternoon traffic, one must leave Manila by 1985. Our driver was admirably creative in finding back streets, shortcuts and side roads to circumnavigated the perma-standstill, yet it still took us almost four hours to traverse the sixty-five kilometers. Let’s just say we all were relieved to have arrived.

Our accommodation was the Days Hotel Tagaytay which sported a logo identical to that of the American Days Inn chain. Happily, they had little in common beyond that. Generally, the service, décor and food was mediocre and tired – which is a step up from the American Days Inns. But one stayed here and paid here for the location and the view. Immediately adjacent to the town center, the building had levels layered down the side of a steep incline at the peak of the outer rim of the ancient volcano, providing every room with a sizable balcony. Our balcony had a stunning view of the lake below with its volcano within. Wow. I could have stared at that all weekend.

Tagaytay has a reputation as something of a foodie town. Trustworthy friends had given us several recommendations for restaurants that were sure to be a treat, but they turned out to be located some kilometers out of town –and we were not about to get back into traffic. Enchanted with the view, we walked into town to find some dinner, only to find ourselves back in the swirling, smoggy madness of busses, jeepneys and tricycles.

Just off the main road, we wandered into a cantina calling itself “Taco Shack Asian Taqueria”, offering a variety of strange-sounding dishes: Tom Yum Tacos, Curried fish burritos, and so on. We were the only customers in the place. With ice cold San Miguel Pale Pilsens in hand, we plopped down at a table on a deserted balcony, celebrating another spectacular view, this time with the sun setting over the caldera. Our food arrived, probably the most enjoyable I had in the Philippines. Chatting with the proprietor, we discovered she had only been open for about a month. I hope they make a go of it.  Perhaps Tagaytay deserves its reputation as a foodie town.

Saturday morning we set out to see the Taal Volcano up close, and the lake within it. The Taal Volcano sits in its namesake lake below created in the outer caldera. So we needed to descend a thousand meters on treacherous roads down the outer caldera’s edge to the lake front, then take a boat ride to the island that was the Taal Volcano itself, and then hike up its caldera to view the lake inside it.  Got that?

Despite its reputation as a tourist town, Tagaytay does not have taxis, or Ubers, or Grab Cars. The hotel had a package volcano tour for ₱6,000.  That seemed outrageous, having paid only a third of that to get all the way from Manila. Instead I cleverly negotiated with a tricycle driver to take us to the Taal Lake Yacht Club for only ₱500. (Later we would determine this was the standard rate.)

In Filipino parlance, “tricycle” refers to a motorcycle with an enclosed sidecar, the motorbike part usually having a windscreen and something of a roof. It is one of the principal forms of transport in the Philippines, usually traversing short distances (most often less than a kilometer) for a buck or less. Often coworkers or entire families will share a tricycle ride and its cost, squeezing four, maybe five people onto the thing – sometimes more if kids are involved. One has the choice of riding in the sidecar, or riding side-saddle (and it must be side-saddle) behind the driver.

At five-foot-ten, I am a tall man in the Philippines. I can squeeze myself into a sidecar with moderate discomfort. Frank, at six-foot, is something of a giant. Not long after arrival in the Philippines, we took exactly one tricycle ride together, both of us in the sidecar. We emerged with sprained necks and sore lower backs. We both swore “Never again.”

Never, it turns out, is not as long as you might think. We started to squeeze into the sidecar, but Frank bridled. “No, I can’t, I just can’t.” he blurted. “I’m riding behind the driver.” He sat himself side-saddle.

The next forty-five minutes were, at best, unpleasant, and at worst, harrowing. The motorcycle started, the engine emitting a deafening roar inches from my left ear. Immediately we began to descend a thousand meters down the caldera in a series of treacherous hairpin switchbacks.

Here and there the road was covered in the debris of recent landslides and rock falls. The road often skirted cliffs with no guardrails or visible bottom.  Sink holes randomly appeared, justifying sudden swerves this way then that.

In the sidecar, I was tossed about like rag in a clothes dryer.Frank had it much worse, clinging for dear life.I could see only his backside above me. With each right-hand swerve, his bottom slipped slightly off the saddle to the left. When I could muster the control needed, I tried to pull him back by his belt loops. From the sidecar I couldn’t see that Frank had his head craned at an eighty-degree angle throughout the ride — otherwise he couldn’t fit under the driver’s roof.

After thirty minutes of that, we reached the relatively flat lakeside road. Now dust became the problem, billows of the stuff filling my eyes and mouth with grit. I became aware that a parade of flatbeds trucks, at least two dozen, maybe forty, was passing in the opposite direction.  Each truck had a hand-painted sign and was festooned with balloons, all purple and white.

Twenty or more people rode on each flatbed, they, too in purple and white. With some effort I deciphered the signs well enough to determine the cavalcade was a homecoming or reunion for the local grammar school, every class having its own vehicle, every vehicle chockers. It was obviously a big deal.

One last swerve bashing my shoulder against the tricycle’s superheated exhaust pipe, once last jounce cracking my head on its plastic roof, and we had arrived at the roadside gate of the Taal Lake Yacht Club. I stepped out, wobbly, like I had just alighted a carnival ride. Frank was dazed, trying to straighten his neck. I handed the driver his ₱500 and he sped off, leaving us in a cloud of dust.

“That was the stupidest thing I have ever done that I paid money for.” Frank stated with authority.

The Taal Lake Yacht Club was an understated affair, a line of thatched roof picnic huts along the lake shore.The yachts were long narrow skiffs, like giant canoes, with outrigger pontoons on each side and outboard engines. There was a simple but sizable weatherboard clubhouse, and a snack bar where they also managed the finances – namely taking our fare for the boat ride out to the volcanic island.

We had made a booking, and were right on time, which is always a mistake in the Philippines. They looked honestly surprised to see us. People started scurrying around. Where is the manager? Are you sure you made a reservation? Oh, yes, here it is. Is there a boat available? A crew? I had to wonder what the point of taking reservations was.

Two lanky teens appeared who would take us on the twenty minute boat ride to the island, and, presumably, back. They were brothers, the manager said, one of whom would serve as guide, the other would handle the boat.The guide, Manny, spoke fluent English, telling us some of the local history and lore as we began a very pleasant ride across the waters.

Manny asked Frank “You are brothers? She said you are brothers…”

“Ah, no, we’re not brothers…” Frank replied, leaving it at that.

“You are brothers?” I asked Manny and the helmsman. “She also said you are brothers…”

“Ah, no, not brothers…” Manny replied.

The four of us regarded each other with perplexed looks.

Our arrival at the Taal Volcano Island village of Talisay drove home just what a tourist trap this attraction was.  In addition to the tricycle fee, the boat fee, the resort fee, and the guide fee we had already paid, now was demanded of us a park fee and a landing fee. None of these was expensive, but it did seem that every move involved paying somebody a fee.

For a couple hundred pesos more, we could have ridden horseback to the top of the inner caldera. My doctor had expressly forbidden horseback riding, the squeeze-the-knees part of it sure to aggravate the very tendons I was trying to let heal. It was just as well, as I don’t enjoy horseback riding anyway.

We started up the very dusty trail on foot. For some reason the fourteen Stations of the Cross were marked at random intervals.Every ten minutes a pack of tourists on horseback would come up from behind so we would stand aside to let them pass. It was still relatively early in the day, so few tourists were coming down yet, on horseback or otherwise.

“How many horses ply this route?” I asked Manny.

“Ply?” He was unfamiliar with the word. “There are about eight hundred horses on the island, four hundred in the blue group, four hundred in the orange group. All owned by the same man. The orange group is out this morning, I have not seen blue group yet.”

“Eight hundred? Wow!” I admired the narrow trail with astonishment, noting all the horse guides in sight wore orange T-shirts. “So how come we aren’t knee deep in, um, horseshit?”

“They clean the trail every four hours – three times a day.”

That impressed me. So did the view of the interior lake from the inner caldera’s edge, with scalding water from the ancient volcano bubbling here and there.There was little peace at the summit, though. Ramshackle sheds of hawkers hawked all manner of souvenirs.  One vendor offered the opportunity to drive a golf ball into the lake, another to fry an egg on a nearby seismic vent, both experiences we resisted despite the appeal of wasteful stupidity.

Heading back down, there was a steady stream of horses passing in both directions, now both orange and blue. The horseshit piled up quickly, making me realize that they had little choice but to clean it up every four hours.

Back where the boat was supposed to be, Manny was a bit surprised and less than pleased to see our helmsman powering our boat away across the lake towards the yacht club without us. He hollered and waved for a moment, but we all knew it was in vain. An old man emerged from a hut, got Manny’s attention, apparently passing along the message, near as I could tell, that our helmsman gotten a better offer.

“This oughtta be interesting…”