For me, the main draw of Taal Volcano in Luzon, the Philippines, was the islet in its caldera lake. The islet+lake was itself on an island, which was in a bigger lake, which was on a bigger island! How can anyone resist that? Plus, rumour has it that I could get up to it on horseback!
After a typhoon scuttled our first try to reach Taal crater lake, 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. (And while we were at it, she re-discovered her old mountaineering instincts, and convinced me to tack on Pinatubo in the same trip.)
It just dawned on me that I seem to attract a lot of friends who are into mountains, for someone who is sea-loving. This is why I never have dive buddies… sigh.
- The Second Expedition to Taal Volcano
- Ponies of Taal volcano island, where walking is (almost) optional
- The well-worn road leading up to Taal volcanic crater
- The caldera lake of Taal
- The red lava ridge of Taal volcano
- The other face of travelling while Muslim
- The way back down Taal volcano
- Carbon offset information to the Philippines
The Second Expedition to Taal Volcano
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 met up with me for dinner and briefed me on our itinerary.
The plan was that we would drive down to Tagaytay again, just like last time, and make our way to the Taal caldera lake first. And then on a different day, we would drive to Pinatubo next and hike up to the caldera lake there. Both could be done as day trips from Manila.
But there’s just one catch.
My dear friend Mayshelle, though we’re about the same age, was often unwell in those days. Stress is a serious factor in the deterioration of health, and she lives with a lot of it.
By the time I arrived in the Philippines, she was still a bit delicate after an illness, and nursing a knee. It was serious enough that her husband had one of the family staff be our driver, instead of letting her drive us (she would not let me drive in the Philippines).
However, her spirit was strong. She was determined to make this trip happen. She just needed to be tactical about her own participation. Between the two destinations, she wanted to hike Pinatubo more. As a result, even though were supposed to ride up on horseback to Taal together, she decided that I should do it without her.
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 for us hiking up Pinatubo together.
It’s a deal.
Asking for directions to Taal Lake
We arrived in Tagaytay. This time there were no typhoon warnings and the way was not blanketed in fog. It was just a warm Philippine day – but not too warm, because Tagaytay is in the highlands.
Mayshelle 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. Actually, come to think of it, my best friend Suraya 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 from me, 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.
So asking for directions was to me an ordeal, even as recently as the Taal trip. And I was still amazed by how readily my friend could just randomly stop, wind down her window, and just, “Kuya*…?”
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 kind of travelling that I really wanted to do. None of the other obstacles often written about by solo female travellers were ever as much a problem to me, as this one.
Lunch by the shores of Lake Taal
This is Southeast Asia; are we barbarians?! Of course we must eat 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 that day. Across the rippling waters we saw the island that was Taal volcano. It was explained to me that the most prominent 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! Taking the outrigger boats to Taal Volcano
Mayshelle had everything all planned out. She put me in the hands of a guide from the boat hire/excursion people. Our driver, Mang** Felix, would come with me. As for herself – she would wait for us at the hut and just enjoy the view and the breeze.
But first, an explanatory note. I alluded 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, it’s not the same sort of relational sense.
You see, there are two ways to have staff in this part of the world, which is true in Malaysia and looks to be true in the Philippines as well.
The first way is the way I think most people think about household staff, i.e. relationships with a large power distance. Employer is employer and employee is employee. Think Downton Abbey. The second way is to employ help, but really they are treated more like family. It seemed to me that my friend does the latter one. So Felix came across as some kind of cross between employee and uncle.
It reminded me a little bit of how my brothers and I were with Pakcik*** Rani, who was the driver that my father’s workplace assigned him, and who remained with us for some years. He was always ‘uncle’, never ‘the driver’. Mayshelle was sending an uncle with me, not just the driver.
Stepping out of my comfort zone – lessons in grace
I’m not someone who is naturally 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 even comfortably share a room with someone else, even if I knew them. I mean, I would if the circumstances called for it, but I would have the weight of discomfort the whole time.
At that time, just lifting up from my difficult re-birth milestone, I was still very much like 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 my friend asked Mang Felix if he would like to have a ride up the volcano with me, my heart sank a bit.
It’s the honest truth. I thought I would much rather have done it alone with the guide. All the better to lose myself in my thoughts, like I have always done.
But then his eyes lit up. He looked genuinely pleased to be asked if he would like to go somewhere, just for his own amusement and not merely to do something for another person. Like on a holiday.
And I thought, this is more important than what’s comfortable for me. And besides, maybe it’s better that in this phase of my life, I don’t do things the way I’ve always done them.
So all three of us – me, the guide, and Mang Felix – went into the boat.
Ponies of Taal volcano island, where walking is (almost) optional
Unexpectedly, there are people actually living around Taal volcano. For some reason, I hadn’t thought of that. Their buildings are very rustic, almost temporary-looking.
I don’t remember very much about the place where the boat came up to, depositing us onto the island. But I remember one thing: the ponies.
They were everywhere. Some went bareback, some ranging free with a basic blanket and stirrups. While some had reins, the locals did not bridle them.
The Taal ponies 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 simply pull up on a different one later. Islanders were literally just hopping off their boats and onto ponies and tearing away, or jumping off ponies and onto boats.
I mused, between the boats and the horses (two of my favourite modes of transport) you would never really need to walk anywhere… And the horses didn’t even need to be confined. It’s basically the uber-novel self-driving shared car paradigm – except with horses.
Your feet would hardly ever need to touch the ground. It was among the most weirdest, most awesome thoughts a place ever put in my head.
Jerrick the Pony, who took me to Taal caldera lake
OK, so I was a little disappointed that ‘horseback’ actually means ‘ponyback’, rather than the tall horses I used to ride as a young adult, when I was a fixture in my university’s equestrian club. But I’ll take it.
There are different guides on the island, who are in charge of the pony rides to the caldera for the tourists. I had the feeling that the guides are more for the ponies’ sake than for the people, actually.
My pony guide Michael introduced me to Jerrick, a darling brown plump little pony who was to carry me up the trail to the lake. I wished then that I had had the foresight to bring him 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.
The beloved ponies of Taal
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. That’s why there was no bridle.
However as we moved 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. And I think perhaps the guides didn’t trust the tourists with zero animal experience with any sort of control equipment on their precious animals.
It was something I didn’t really think about back then. Southeast Asians as a general rule don’t really get why foreigners are so into animal interactions on holiday, so the whole animal attractions issue had largely been invisible to me. But now, as a travel blogger, and discovering that the demand for animal tourism requires questionably subduing even wild animals such as elephants and tigers, it was probably for the best that the Taal guides personally led their ponies up the volcano, running the trail alongside them like absolute champs.
For Michael didn’t seem to ‘own’ Jerrick. They seemed to be buddies. There was no possibility for me to ‘steer’ Jerrick, let alone choose the pace; I’m just the passenger. Jerrick decides how fast Jerrick wanted to go, and he will walk or trot at whichever part he likes. Michael did let me have the ropes briefly for a photo op though!
The well-worn road leading up to Taal volcanic crater
We rode on trails that skirted the sides of the volcano until the final stretch. Let me emphasise: the pony guides walked the whole way. Sometimes they ran, if the ponies felt like trotting. (Yes, folks. Horses enjoy running.) It was hot, and I wondered if the guides minded at all.
The last stretch was open ground, a straightforward dirt trail that led up to a makeshift settlement on the ridge. 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 Michael a soft drink to help him cool off after the long jog up the hill.
Up on the ridge there was a motley collection of sheds little more than raised floors with roofs, perched along the narrow paths up the remainder of the slope. The ponies were tethered near one of them to rest and get watered. We left Michael there, and our ‘overall’ guide led us on foot the rest of the way.
I remember feeling self-conscious at this time, because we seemed to be among the few tourists there who were local – or passed for local, in my case. I mean, all the other tourists were in ‘backpacker chic’, looking ‘fashionable practical’ – the kind of fashion that’s inspired by practical clothing, but is actually more selfie-ready than practical. But I was just in track bottoms, the Gen X/Asian way of being outdoors. Practical and unassuming. I guess you could also say dowdy and unfashionable. But, whatever right?
The caldera lake of Taal
Our guide led us to the rim of the caldera. Long railings were fixed along the rim overlooking the lake, which was emerald green under the bright sun.
The lake 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, are reminders of what kind of lake this is. Vapours from within the volcano wafted out 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 of Taal volcano
There was a ridge nearby that led nowhere. Purportedly it is formed of red lava, long since cooled. It just meanders as a narrow trail and ends in a sort of sharp drop. To access this ridge, you would have to pay extra. I don’t remember how much it was but it wasn’t very expensive.
At first I thought the fee didn’t seem worthwhile just to get to a ridge I could already see from where I was. And I wouldn’t have gone there, except that I noted the day was wearing on. On a whim, I checked the direction to Mecca on my smartphone, thinking if I should complete my prayers soon.
Coincidentally, that red lava ridge was very nearly pointing exactly to Mecca.
So I figured, why not complete my prayers right there, on the red ridge. Just for kicks.
The other face of 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 a feel for what is happening, but of how those things are spoken about, what kinds of things make the news, and what the media influences are.
It’s well known that the Philippines have had a longstanding separatist conflict with the indigenous population of Mindanao, pretty much since they became 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 the time of my trip, there was an uptick in tensions in the south. While I don’t appear very recognisably Muslim, there 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 back then, 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 alone, I would feel self-conscious to pray 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 giving people the chance to show their better side, and calling the bluff of fears – the other side of travelling while Muslim.
The ability to discriminate
I asked Mang Felix to wait for a little while and told him what I intended. He understood.
As he waited with our guide somewhere behind me, I could hear one ask the other what I was doing. The other replied that I was Muslim.
And that was all. It was enough.
You see, the astounding thing about reading Philippine newspapers, and why I dared to chance this even at that time, is that it is extremely rare to find even pundits describe the conflict in the south in an inflammatory way.
They unanimously acknowledge that the Mindanao Muslims are, in fact, indigenous to their island. That Islam is part of the mosaic of Philippine history. That Mindanao folk still ‘belonged’ in the Philippines, without having to give up their culture. That the issue is a political one, yet another of the world’s many post-colonial mess-ups. There was no effort to delegitimise or dehumanise the Mindanao Muslims.
The fidelity of the journalistic, political, and academic narrative – considering the duration of conflict since the issue first emerged – is nothing short of incredible. Especially considering how strong the American influence is on the Philippines otherwise. There are even occasional newspaper features about the festivals celebrated by Filipino Muslims, which are factually correct and without any attempt at negative insinuations.
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 actively promoted by their allies and primary cultural influencers, the Filipinos’ refusal to take the bait 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 actual issues and the ancillary things, under lengthy and sustained pressure, especially when it seems advantageous to themselves to exploit the opposite attitude. Long may they hold, in the face of such an intractable situation.
The eye of the beholder
Mang Felix and I took photos of each other. Later on, looking at the images, I was surprised. Considering I felt all wilted inside, I looked unusually photogenic.
That was good. It is rare that I get to see what other people see, when they look at me. I’m rarely photographed, and even when I am, it’s rare that I feel comfortable enough with the photographer to look my best.
I think perhaps this could be why I’m constantly surprised when someone actually tells me who they see. 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 before them – that who you think you are relates a great deal to how well you can look the part.
The way back down Taal volcano
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 our ponies, and rode back down the volcano, back onto the boat, and back to my friend waiting on the shore of Tagaytay.
It was in one sense, not a very remarkable trip in itself, notwithstanding the charismatic emerald lake in the caldera. It’s not really one of my epic trips, nor an odyssey of discovery.
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 be vulnerable, and trust that I am among friends.
The trip was remarkable. But not because it was an awesome destination. Rather, it was remarkable because here I had dared to make some new choices, paving the first blocks of a new courage.
* 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 they are even used as the formal address. There is an implicit cultural subtext of the assumed family, that does not translate if 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’.
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.