The First Taal Expedition: Tagaytay Befogged
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.
When I started working, I used to separate personal travel and business travel strictly. I’m a different me in those two circumstances; 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, inferring things about me from this and never realising that I am one thing but also its other – at the same time. 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.
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. This is a story from within the cocoon, before the Blue Period travels.
I claim my privilege
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 aching to take a break as well, 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.
I write in part for this demographic too, for my friends number among them. Many of them, too, yearn to roam the world, but the fact is they simply cannot. It is a privilege to travel. And a privilege to hope to make the journey as real for others who cannot embark with you.
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.
So I broke my rule of not combining different sides of me in the same trip. Ironically, it was only when I cared less about either, that I learned to combine them and became better at both.
The island in a caldera lake in an island in a caldera lake in an island…
Anyway she 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. Not only that, I could get up to the lake in the Taal volcano on horseback.
You can see why I said yes.
So we were anticipating the trip with a kind of muted excitement.
The thing is, though, the 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: For carbon responsible travel, you may also be interested in this Teja article for my top two ‘habit changes with the biggest impact’ starting actions; the second one may surprise you].
We kept an eye on the weather forecasts. When I eventually got to Manila, a typhoon had formed in the Pacific and was headed towards the Philippine archipelago. It might make landfall. Not where we were going specifically, but could be close. 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 down in this region, we would do well to learn from them.
They might just have been battered by a typhoon that flood their homes even in the Manila area, shutting down telecommunications and road transport. But they 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’re ‘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. She 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 these things, for a local!
Taal turns into Tagaytay, and the art of subtle communication
There is another thing to know about the Philippine people. They will not tell you no.
While this is to a certain extent common to the whole region, 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 mention it.
Either that, 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, my friend tells me, “We could instead go to Tagaytay”. What she 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 coconut pie
Tagaytay is a holiday destination relatively popular in Luzon 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. This also gives it an excellent vantage of the volcano. Along the road that follows the ridge are many resorts and cafes.
The area 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 it up. It seems to me that invariably someone in the family would have asked for it. I didn’t try any on this trip, but did on a later one.
When my other colleague told me 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 maybe. It wasn’t my favourite flavour. But it’s not like this at all. It’s made with young coconut flesh – the bit that you can scoop out from inside the coconut after drinking the liquid. 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!
Cue the fog
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, on account of the storm. 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). This means I’ve never been in snow either.
My friend had never before driven in fog, so she was a bit nervous. We slowed down, turned on the fog lights, and carried on. It was a single carriageway road, so we were worried some intrepid driver might feel like foolishly overtaking another, into our path. Fortunately, other drivers were likewise cautious.
Taal in the mist
We parked in the parking lot of a big resort. I’m not sure if it was strictly ok; my friend spoke to the guard and we were in.
She chose that resort because its grounds that extended to the back opened into a wide ledge of garden that had a great vista of the volcano (the resort is in fact, named for it). We walked through the fog to the edge.
The volcano was shrouded in fog. But now and then as the fog rolled on, we could see glimpses of it, teasing through the mist. 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.
My friend was disappointed that she could not take me to Taal, nor even show it to me. 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?
So we sat on the bench, a Christian and a Muslim, and contemplated our mutual values of gratitude over the decision of the Divine.
Travel is made of these moments. The rest is called touring.
The amusement park
We spent much of the time in Tagaytay in long talks at a cafe – Bag of Beans, one of her favourites. And 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 there, 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. The ones that look just like office workers in every metropolis.
I’m writing 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 it over. I think the lives of the poorer and rural classes are actually more visible, because it is part of the stereotype of the region, and travellers look for it.
It’s perhaps like how we think people from a Western country must be composed entirely of well-off people with lots of free time and no responsibilities. It’s so on TV, and all the people who reach here from there 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 clouds our view of each other.
So we drove back after nightfall. 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 her first ride on the merry-go-round that day.
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. But she always wanted to. So I told her that it’s not too late. So what if she was grown now, and a mother. Why not?
So she did.
Then we went to get some bibingka – the first time for me. It’s this sort of tart, which has a dusting of salted egg yolk on top. 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.
From then on, if I’m wandering the Philippines I would always keep an eye out for bibingka.
Making time for friendship
In life you have to make time for your friends. It seems to me that oftentimes friendships last longer than romantic relationships – including marriages. Perhaps it’s because nowadays we no longer marry friends. I see that those who do, or 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’, feeling worshipped or worshipful, or because they look good in photos together, or even ‘we share the same hobby/passion’, invariably do not. 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 among the things that we talk about, my friend and I. I have friends all over the place, but it is to the Philippines that I go to when I need solace and empathy.