First Time to Taal: Driving Through Fog in Tagaytay
In life, you feel the things you lack the most. It is harder to see the treasures secure in the vault. However, I am conscious that I have the treasure of friendships - diverse, and growing across the globe. Some of these stepped up for me at a time when it seemed I had lost all I tried to acquire, though not always in the way they planned. Tagaytay represented one of those times.
- A Travel Identity Split in Two
- The invitation to travel to Taal
- A typical travel risk in the Philippines: Typhoon warning
- Tagaytay at a glance, and buko pie
- A day of firsts
- Carbon offset information to the Philippines
A Travel Identity Split in Two
When I first started working, I used to separate personal travel and business travel strictly. I'm a different me in those two circumstances, and it felt hard to switch back and forth between them. I had too much of a good thing; I am so many things in one person that I have always felt that pursuing any one of them would inevitably preclude the others.
It must be confusing to people. Rarely would someone remain long enough to see more than one side of me. So, different people infer things about me from the side that they see, and never realise that I am also its other - at the same time. It's there, but the dark side of the moon that you do not see. Not as a frivolous contradiction, but deep in the essence of things where the roots of those things merge in unity.
I myself did not understand how to connect them all, for the longest time. It felt like those around me could not be big enough to grasp my complete self, and so I could only exist in pieces.
Consequently I went through much of life constantly feeling less than whole.
But I learned since, how to be all of them at once (or begin to), once I came out of the cocoon. The funny thing is, it was only when I cared less about them, that I learned to combine them into one person. Ironically, I then became better at both.
The invitation to travel to Taal
It was during this time of stasis that my friend and former colleague in the Philippines suggested we make a day trip south, to Taal. I go to Manila every so often for work, but never strayed beyond the business districts.
She was also aching to take a break, from the pressures of a deeply competitive life, a common yet largely invisible struggle for working middle-class parents across Southeast Asia. Well, across much of Asia, really. It would take her several more years to complete her growth arc, to move beyond these expectations in a way that was authentic to her.
I write this travel blog partly for this demographic too, for many of my friends number among them. They, too, yearn to roam the world, but the fact is they simply cannot. Some might say it is just a matter of priorities, and in a way that is true. But their priorities are not about whether you give up lattes, or chase a promotion. Their priorities are not #firstworldproblems; they are shelter and comfort for people around them, and if they leave their place, it is a loss for more than just themselves.
It is a privilege to travel. Even via backpacking, travel remains a privilege. The privilege here is not just the availability of money, but of a treasure far more valuable - the availability of time, and the absence of pressure to convert it into security for oneself, a dozen others, and far into everyone's old age.
I am cognisant of this, whenever I am home again. And it is a privilege to make the journey as real for others who cannot embark with you. So I broke my rule of not combining different sides of me in the same trip, and said yes.
The island in a caldera lake in an island in a caldera lake in an island...
Mayshelle told me that Taal is a volcano, which is located in a lake, which is on an island (because the Philippines are composed only of islands). Then inside this volcano there is a lake, and in this lake there is yet another tiny island.
That blew my mind, and probably the last push I needed to break my rule of not combining work travel and personal travel. How could I pass on that?
If that was not enough, she also told me that I could get up to the lake in the Taal volcano on horseback.
You can see why I said yes.
A typical travel risk in the Philippines: Typhoon warning
We were anticipating the trip with a kind of muted excitement.
The thing is, though, my business trip in September would still be within the typhoon season. In addition, in recent years the typhoon season has become less predictable in the Philippines, and stronger in force as well. Just as the global warming models had predicted.
[READ: You may also be interested in my headline article about what I think are the two simplest first steps towards sustainable travel, highlighting the carbon responsibility of travellers].
We kept an eye on the weather forecasts, hoping that there would not be typhoons messing up the plan. But when I eventually got to Manila, a typhoon had indeed formed in the Pacific and was headed towards the Philippine archipelago. It might make landfall. Not where we were going specifically, but landfall does not have to be a direct hit to impact travel plans.
We discussed the situation. We figured we might try anyway, and see how it goes.
Daytripping into the storm
I have to mention something about the Philippine people. They are resilient. As the world changes and weather changes begin to pressure the rest of us in this region, we would do well to learn from the Filipinos.
Filipinos might just have been battered by a typhoon that flood their homes even in the urban Manila area, shutting down telecommunications and road transport. But they will call into the telecom meetings the very next day with a kind of blasé stoicism.
Like, "Oh yeah, it was a typhoon. Yes, it affected my house. But the telecommunication links are back up so I'm back at work virtually".
So when I say we went 'daytripping into the storm', it sounds cool and edgy, but I'm not saying it with the tense drama of anticipation like on travel videos on YouTube. Nor were we kitted out in specially-designed outdoor clothing and backpacks, like on those adventure expeditions. Mayshelle did take the 4-wheel drive rather than the saloon, but otherwise we just set off.
That's it. That's how little drama there is for natural disasters, for a local!
The Taal Plan subtly turns into the Tagaytay Plan
There is another thing to know about the Philippine people. They will not tell you no.
While this is common to the whole region to a certain extent, the Filipinos are among the most cryptic of us. This drives everyone foreign insane, who work professionally with them, since you have to work hard to work out when the yes means yes, and when it really means, I don't think so, but the relationship is more valuable right now. When the silence means, I got it, and when it means, there's a problem but maybe it will turn out ok so no need to trouble people with it.
Either they go insane, or the foreigner blissfully does not notice at all and goes away thinking everything has been just perfect and they must be the best senior manager ever to have visited!
So on the day of the road trip, when she arrived at my hotel to pick me up, Mayshelle tells me, "We could instead go to Tagaytay".
What she actually means to tell me is, "The boats won't run to Taal because the winds are too high and there is a typhoon warning."
You see what I mean.
Tagaytay at a glance, and buko pie
Tagaytay is a holiday destination relatively popular among Luzon locals, for time away in the highlands. Situated on the rim of the ridge that curves around Taal Lake (where the Taal volcano is), its height gives a welcome coolness to the otherwise hot humidity of the tropics.
Its location perched at the ridgeline also gives it an excellent vantage of islets within the lake, and Taal volcano. Along the road that follows the ridge are many resorts and cafes capitalising on the view.
The area of Luzon is also known for a particular delicacy - buko pie. 'Buko' is the local word for young coconut. Filipinos making a trip to - or through - the region would stop by to pick some up as pasalubong*.
I didn't try any on this trip, but did on a later one. When my other colleague Jay told me that it was basically coconut pie, I was disinterested because I thought it was just going to be a typical coconut pie thing. You know, coconut flavoured and with coconut shavings on top. Coconut isn't my favourite flavour.
But buko pie is not like this at all. It's made with young coconut flesh, not mature coconut - the soft bit that you can scoop out from inside the coconut after drinking the liquid. Well, I love that! The pie is also served warm, which I also liked.
So it turns out that there is one kind of coconut pie that I'm into!
Fog rolls into Tagaytay
We drove to Tagaytay, glad to be on the road and away from the stifling city. Now that the decision was made, it hardly mattered that maybe the destination would not have the best weather because of the storm. All that mattered was that the road trip had begun.
Up we went to the highlands, approaching Tagaytay. And then the fog rolled in.
It was proper fog. Visibility was no more than a few metres ahead. Although I had spent time in the UK, I had never before been in fog, because invariably whenever I am in the UK, the weather always shifts to become 'warmer than expected' (you're welcome, British people). And yes, this means I've never been in snow either.
The fog also caught my friend by surprise. Mayshelle had never driven in fog before, so she was a bit nervous. We slowed down, turned on the fog lights, but carried on. It was a single carriageway road, and while we were careful, we were worried some intrepid driver might feel like foolishly overtaking another, and into our path. Fortunately, the other drivers were likewise cautious.
Taal volcano in the mist
We made it to Tagaytay, and parked in the parking lot of a big resort. I'm not sure if it was strictly ok, but my friend spoke to the guard and we were in. She has a way with people though. It's hard to say no to Mayshelle.
She chose that resort because of its grounds that extended to the back, which opened into a wide ledge of garden that had a great vista of Taal volcano. The resort is in fact, named for it.
We walked through the fog to the edge. There is a dampness to fog that I found absolutely curious. It had an odd stillness to it, like the damp itself was smothering sound. I had not experienced it before, and so the sensation was novel and interesting.
But at the end of the garden, the volcano was shrouded in fog. Now and then as the fog rolled on, we could see it, teasing glimpses through the mist. Mayshelle was disappointed. Disappointed that she failed to take me to Taal, nor even to a view of it.
But I told her it did not matter. We could try again some other time, when the weather is better. But we were standing in fog, which neither of us had ever experienced before. Who knows when a fog might suddenly roll in again and 'ruin' our plans? There were a lot of photos on the internet of Taal volcano in clear view. Who has one of it lurking like a fantasy through the mist? Was this not a grace?
So we sat on the bench, a Christian and a Muslim, watching the fairy fog flit across the distant volcano, and contemplated our mutual values of gratitude over the decisions of the Divine.
Travel is made of these moments. The rest is called touring.
The amusement park in Tagaytay on the way back to Manila
We spent much of our time in Tagaytay in long talks at a cafe - Bag of Beans, one of Mayshelle's favourites. But eventually, as the day darkened, it was time to go. I would normally do a trip like this as an overnight trip, but my friend did not like to be away from her son.
Besides, it is not uncommon in Manila, and in similar cities in the region, to become used to an extremely long day. It's because of the horrific traffic jams.
It is normal for my colleagues in these locations to begin the day well before dawn, and return home hours after dark. These are white collar executives, mind you, not workers far down the employment pecking order. No, I'm talking about the ones that look just like any corporate worker in every metropolis.
I write about these mundane things, because it is also part of travelling like a local. This part is invisible to the far foreigner, and we in the region like to gloss over it.
As a result, I think the lives of the poorer rural classes are actually more visible, because it is part of the stereotype of the region, and foreign travellers look for it. They look different from people in developed countries. Whereas they incorrectly assume that those locals that look similar on the outside to people back home, must live in pretty much the same way.
It's perhaps like how Asians think people from a Western country must be composed entirely of well-off people with lots of free time and no responsibilities. It looks that way on TV, and all the Westerners who make it here seem to fit the bill.
But I know different, because I have travelled, and I have family ties to the working class in the UK. Glamour fogs our views of each other.
So Mayshelle and I drove back after nightfall, when the fog had lifted a little bit. Along the way we passed by Sky Ranch, an amusement park on the Tagaytay ridge. On a whim, we decided to stop by.
A day of firsts
My friend had another first that day - her first ride on a merry-go-round.
We were walking through the near-empty amusement park. Presumably most people were staying away due to the storm warning. But the park was still open. As we were walking, she confessed she had never, never been on a merry-go-round, and she always wanted to.
I told her that it's not too late. There's one right there, and nobody is watching. So what if she was a grown woman now, and a mother. Why not?
So Mayshelle took her first merry-go-round ride, with me right behind her.
Then it was my turn for a first. We went to get some bibingka - the first time for me. Bibingka is like a kind of tart, and has a dusting of salted egg yolk on top to give it a twist.
Again, I'm not usually into bakery goods. But the salted egg and the sort of sooty effect of the traditional way of baking it amps up the savoury side for me. Bibingka became my favourite Philippine dessert. From then on, if I'm wandering the Philippines I would always keep an eye out for it.
You have to make time for friendship - especially if they're international
In life you have to make time for your friends. It seems to me that oftentimes friendships last longer than romantic relationships - including marriages. I think perhaps it's because nowadays, we no longer marry friends. I see that those who do, or who become friends afterward, tend to make it.
On the flipside, I see that those who married solely for devastatingly romantic reasons such as 'being completed' by the other person, feeling worshipped or worshipful, or because they look good in photos together, or even because they share the same hobby/passion, tend not to make it. Well, at least not happily.
Hobbies can be lost - or acquired. As you grow, you grow up. Passions change. And life is not only composed of photogenic moments. But in all cases, eventually the bond needs to rest on the bedrock of respect, unselfishness, and comfort under pressure. In other words, friendship.
Unfortunately we are an impatient generation, raised to think toxic behaviour means love. Causing pain to each other, and wasting time.
It's also a sad truth that we often need to understand what is important and what is not, by personal experience. While the glamour is still upon your eyes, you cannot see light.
Such are the things that we talk about, my friend and I, in the many cafes we have lingered in.
I have friends all over the place, but it is to the Philippines that I go to when I need solace and empathy.
*Pasalubong: I'd translate this Tagalog word to buah tangan in Malay, but there isn't quite an English translation that really fits; the closest is probably 'gift'.
Carbon offset information to the Philippines
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Manila produces carbon emissions of approximately 2,000 lbs CO2e. It costs about $10 to offset this.
Have you found the treasure of international friendships?