20. A Nod and a Smile

  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

Manny’s eyes betrayed he was more irritated than worried that our boat had abandoned us on Taal Volcano Island.  A few hundred meters down the foreshore he spied a sturdy old woman baling out another boat.  Manny motioned for us to follow him along the rubbish strewn shoreline, which we did.

After a quick negotiation, the old woman agreed to supply us a boat and driver. She nimbly hopped out of the vessel into knee deep water, and with a twist of her arms demonstrating the strength of Hercules, she repositioned the boat alongside the beach. Manny dropped a wobbly gangplank which enabled us to board high and dry.  She hadn’t finished bailing out the boat, though, so onboard we plonked ourselves down ankle deep with a sploosh. Off we went.

Soon it became apparent why there was a lake within the boat within the lake within the volcano. We bucked a stiff wind, plowing through whitecaps which sent wave after wave crashing onto our laps. In the heat, the wind and water felt great, and the ride was a lot of fun — although I ended up with very soggy sneakers.

Back at yacht club Frank expressed his unwillingness to employ another tricycle for our return voyage up the caldera. The manager was utterly perplexed by this, but nevertheless with a nod and a smile she agreed to try to find somebody with an automobile to take us. Meanwhile, we dried out, consuming cold beers under a thatched picnic hut, enjoying the cooling breezes off the lake.

An hour later, after some number of beers, I went searching for an update from the manager, who I found right where we had left her. She reported that there was nothing except for the tricycles available to take us back to town. I quizzed her as to whom she had asked and what she had offered: Did you try our hotel? Any hotel? At any price? Is there a taxi? She deftly avoided answering each question by responding “Nothing available, sir.” I was not convinced a concerted effort – or any effort – had been made. More likely I was experiencing the Filipino reticence to say “no” to anything, preferring instead to invoke passive-aggressiveness. In this case, they knew full well they could outwait us, and the longer it took, the more beers they would sell. I knew we were licked.

Frank and I agreed the only option was for each of us to hire our own tricycle so we could each ride in the side car with minimal discomfort. The manager was flabbergasted by our extravagance, the ₱500 each (US$10) fare exceeding a day’s wages for many Filipinos.

Two tricycles appeared instantly. I grabbed a beer for the road and we jumped into our respective carriages. Still damp from the boat ride, the road dust stuck to me with alacrity. Predictably, the rambling and bumpy ride excited my beer such that when it wasn’t spraying in my face it was foaming in my lap. Early on, Frank’s tricycle disappeared from view, his driver having decided to fill up with petrol enroute. Even so, it was much more pleasant ride for the both of us, or at least less life-threatening, than the ride down.

Returning to Tagaytay, we had an unremarkable lunch of street food, then wandered around. Two clean cut young men stopped us, identifying themselves as interns, university students studying hospitality and marketing, interviewing tourists for the local business guild. We struggled through their “five-minute” multiple choice survey which clearly was not designed to be completed by American-Australian volunteers. It took us about twenty minutes to get through it, every answer being “Other”, “Not Applicable”, or “More”. Even so they were extremely grateful, insisting that we pose with them in a selfie.

Heading back to our room, we stumbled upon a restaurant that a friend had recommended, just a few doors down from the hotel.  Unenticingly named The Bag of Beans, it was decorated along the lines of a gingerbread Swiss chalet, something of an oddity in the tropics.  Their mainstay appeared to be coffee and pastries, but recommendations deserve respect, so we asked to see the dinner menu, which was quite diverse and interesting. Although they did not serve alcohol, we were assured with a nod and a smile it was okay to bring our own wine or beer. “Maybe we’ll come back for dinner later.”

Back at the hotel, a large tent, a barbecue trough and an elaborate stage with loudspeakers had been erected poolside in preparation for the Saturday evening festivities. Although our balcony was five stories above and fifty meters back, the barbecue smoke funneled across with impressive exactitude.Retreating inside, the sliding doors rattled to the over-amplified schmaltz of Michael Bublé and Robbie Williams. Filipinos have a soft spot for cheesy, sentimental, florid, easy-listening music. To tell the truth, so do I. Yet I have not come to understand their choice of volume level, which is invariably “as loud as possible”. Between the smoke and the noise, they had effectively recreated the charm and grace of EDSA, Metro Manila’s major thoroughfare.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, we figured, heading down to the pool for a dip.

We were the only guests there. It was late in the afternoon, and still the air was as motionless, hot, and humid, the sun stifling. I begged the hotel staff for an umbrella to shade our lounge chairs. With nods and smiles, they giggled and scampered away, presumably to fetch our umbrella.

We waded into the pool to cool off while waiting. It was a lovely pool – once. This day, to find open waters we had to sweep through a film of leaves, dead bugs and detritus that had accumulated around the steps and the shallow end. After a few minutes, I could feel my shiny hairless scalp scalding in the sun, so I went to track down that umbrella. Now, the only staff to be found were foodservice “interns”, that is, university student slave labour, all as eager to help as they were unable.

Dripping wet and half-naked, after some searching I found one of the pool staff relaxing with a smoke outside a moldy service entrance. “Is my umbrella on the way?” I asked.

He smiled and nodded. “Nothing available, sir/ma’am!” I concluded this hotel had no umbrellas, at least, not that I would get to use.

While English is the second language of most Filipinos, and they generally speak it quite well, their native languages (most commonly Tagalog) do not use genders. For example, there is no he/she, or his/her, just “it” and “its”. Thus, their word to show respect, “po”, translates roughly to “sir/ma’am”, or so the language books teach. As a result, I had grown accustom to being called “ma’am” from time to time.

By dinner time, we were fried in every respect. Exhausted, we decided to give Bag of Beans a try. As we entered, I showed our host the two bottles of beer we had brought along. Smiling and nodding, she led us through the half-full restaurant and up a flight of stairs. There she seated us in a large room with a dozen tables, set but empty, not another soul to be seen. Leaving us the menus, she disappeared.

“Why have they put us in the function room?” I asked Frank.

“I have no idea. Maybe the view is better up here?”

It was peaceful, to be sure, with a nice view. We ordered, and enjoyed our beer, watching the sunset. But the falling darkness stole our view. Then a middle-aged woman with two yappy Chihuahuas was seated next to us, stealing our peace. Promptly, a waiter served our meals, but he looked shocked and troubled.

“I am very sorry, but you cannot have beer in this restaurant.”

“Oh, come on…” I began, rolling my eyes — but I stopped myself. Changing tack, I continued “Okay, sir!” with a nod and a smile. He left us.

We finished our beer and ate our meals – which were quite good, actually.

The pool party was going full tilt when we got back to our room. At that point, little would have bothered us, and we fell asleep to the over-amplified throbbing howls of Barry Manilow and Frank Sinatra.

In the morning it was time to head home to Quezon City.  As expected, there were no Grab Cars to be grabbed, nor taxis to be taxed. The only choice was: bus.

I dislike bus travel in the best of circumstances, and this was not the best of circumstances. In the Philippines, the quality of busses runs from ultra-luxurious cruise ships on wheels, with air conditioning, toilets, free snacks and drinks, to diesel spewing filthy windowless cattle cars. Equally unnerving to the uninitiated is that there are no bus schedules – they just run when they run. Sometimes that’s when they fill up, sometimes, that’s when the traffic allows. They’ll stop to pick up or drop off passengers anywhere – really, anywhere – which means they often stop every hundred meters, kilometer after kilometer. To some degree, this and the traffic explains why they don’t bother with schedules.

We must have asked a dozen people how we could get a bus back to Manila. Each gave an enthusiastic nod and smile – yet further details were hard to come by. Where do we get on the bus? Stand on the road and one will come along. Name of the bus line? There are many. How often do they come? Pretty often. What does it cost? It depends.

This left me with foreboding uncertainty. Nods, smiles and vague assurances had left us without a car back from the lake, without an umbrella at the pool, without beer at dinner – admittedly, minor things. But this was about getting home. Getting home was important.


Tourists may mistake Filipino vagueness and imprecision for laziness, incompetence, or even dishonesty. Most of the time, they are doing their very best to deliver accurate information in an environment fraught with uncertainty. Sometimes, though, there is a basic difference in expectations created by the language itself.

For example, Tagalog has no word for “no”. One can postulate any number of reasons for this, but many cultures, particularly Asian cultures, all but outlaw saying “no” to anybody about anything. It simply isn’t done. Instead, all sorts of verbal gymnastics evolve around using phrases that include “nothing” or “not” or “all gone” or “we’ll see”. Those of us from rich western nations get a sense of being misled by this from time to time.

Westerners, particularly those from English-speaking nations, believe themselves to place enormous value on the idea of “Do what you say, say what you do.” To us, it is the essence of honesty and integrity. To us, it is difficult to understand a world where a verbal assurance does not necessarily create a commitment to act accordingly. But in a world where “no” cannot be an answer, “yes” is not necessarily binding. To say “okay”, with or without a nod and smile, and then do otherwise, does not impugn integrity, much less create obligation. This principal is even found under English law’s concept of duress.

All cultures value honesty and integrity in their own way. At the same time, they all tolerate, even require, polite, intentional inaccuracies. There’s little to suggest race played a role in the origin of the idiom “white lie”, yet it seems likely that when non-whites use the phrase, they are saying something about how honesty and integrity are valued by those of European descent.

This makes it all the more ironic when westerners get indignant about a perceived lack of honesty and integrity. I have long noted that the quickest way to recognize a person who lacks integrity is their repeated use of the word in reference to themselves.


We stood with our bags in front of the hotel, our eyes trained expectantly on approaching buses, trying to make out where they were heading. Astonishingly, a bus for Quezon City arrived almost immediately. It was reasonably luxurious, too, with comfy seats only four across (they often cram in five), and air conditioning. We even found two adjacent seats available, which we took. There was no toilet – only the fanciest of buses have toilets here– so I congratulated myself for resisting a second cup of coffee a breakfast.

We had barely seated ourselves when the bus reached the next stop, just a hundred meters down the road, the main pick-up point for Tagaytay. A throng flowed aboard, filling every seat, many left standing in the aisles. A few passengers had several huge bags, those re-enforced plastic things, which they crammed into the overhead space – perhaps the week’s groceries, or maybe even the stock for a sari-sari store. A mob of vendors boarded as well, selling nuts, cakes and various other snacks that defied description.

For the next three hours, vendors would walk the aisle, pressing past by the standing passengers, thrusting buttocks and bosoms in the faces of the seated passengers.  Every half kilometer, the bus jolted to a halt to let one or two passengers alight or board. Every few kilometers we’d reach a town center. There, all the vendors and many passengers would alight, making space for a new flock of boarding passengers, as well as different vendors with even stranger snacks.

After what seemed an eternity, the bus ground to a halt in traffic on a road we recognized as EDSA, the major thoroughfare that runs past our apartment, still miles away. We knew the subway-like MRT runs above EDSA, so we got off the bus and got on the MRT, sure to be much quicker.

When we got home Frank asked “So, Tagaytay and Taal– was it worth it?”

“Hard to say…” I pondered. “I guess I am glad we did it. If I had never done it, but knew what I now know, I would probably go visit Tagaytay. Probably.”

“Would you recommend it?”

“Probably not.”

Would you go again?”

“No. No chance.”