Real Friends Don’t Care About Your Smell

I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but we had a really kick ass day at Pinatubo.

By the end of the day, we’d trekked for a total of seven hours in humid weather, charged recklessly through muddy terrain on monstrous 4 x 4s, swum in a mineral-filled volcano crater and then proceeded to sun ourselves (and our clothes) dry on the trek to our bus back to Manila.

Added to the 24 hours or so since we had a shower, at some point during the day, even I had to concede that we did not exactly smell like a bed of roses.

You see, one of the biggest arguments Jo and I often have revolves around the issue of smell. Jo, after decades of intense training at being a female, is able to whiff out a day-old sock from two doors down.

I, like many of my counterparts, lack the ability to detect a year-old sock even if we were wearing them. By counterparts, I mean other guys who cannot smell.

I believe that this is a evolutionary development that arised from the millennia-old “Whomever Runneth Outteth of Clean Underwear First Needeth to do the Laundry” war. No prize for guessing who was the winner in this conflict. We promptly proceeded to take away the “eth” from the end of all words. Now you know.

Like I said, somewhere along the way, even I thought that we smelt “funkier than a mosquitoes’ tweeter”.

You can understand why we were at least a little hesitant about meeting up with Nina from Just Wandering upon our return to Manila on this particular day. Nina had been invaluable in providing information when we were planning our trip through the Philippines and one of the things we definitely wanted to do in Manila was to meet up with her.

We were hoping she would like us, and not run in the opposite direction holding her nose.

To be fair, we did warn her that we smelled less than pleasant. She took that in stride and did not even flinch when we met up with her.

We went to Abe’s for some authentic Filipino food. Any misgivings we still had about the taste of Filipino cuisine was thrown out along with any care we had about how the other patrons in the classy restaurant would perceive the two foul smelly, muddy ragmuffins in their midst.

It made Jo NOT care.

The food was that good.

image

To top off the night, Nina sent us off with a care package complete with the “Best of” of Filipino snacks. We were touched beyond belief.

It proved to us yet again that travelling is one of the best ways to forge unexpected friendships with random strangers. Friendships that are surprisingly strong. Friendships that transcend borders such as race, language, religion, nationality and smell.

================================================================

Sidenote: Do check out Nina’s AWESOME (and multiple-award winning) blog at “Just Wandering”. Also her latest project  PHL360° that showcases the various too gorgeous-for-words travel destinations in Philippines through the eyes of Philippines’ own celebrity bloggers.

Advertisements

(Many) Small Step(s) for a Man

So, there we stood at the start of the trek towards the crater of Mt Pinatubo.

We’ve been up since 1 in the morning (so that we could take our tour bus to Pinatubo) and we’ve spent the past hour or so on a REALLY exciting (read: bumpy) 4×4 ride.

Our steeds await! And it’s only 5 in the morning

I know… this picture’s very blurry. I had to convert it to black and white so that it looked decent enough to post. Believe me, I tried really hard to get a non-shaky shot, but it was hard because I needed both hands to keep my brains from being shaken outta my skull…

And for all my whining, we have Rambo here who shows us how they get things done!

Confronted with the beauty and the spectacular landscape of Pinatubo, the sheer immensity of the mountains makes me feel small and insignificant the way only Nature can. And at times like these, I am forced to look inwards and ask myself the same question I always do when faced with this kind of scenario , “WHY THE HELL AM I CLIMBING THAT???”

Then I look around and I remembered. I’ve lived for a good 31 years by coming to terms with the fact that there are some forces of nature you just don’t mess around with: gravity, laws of electro magnetic induction, Batman, Twilight fans and Jo’s insistence on doing batshit crazy things.

Yup, very apparently (and despite my best efforts), our shennanigans in Taal did not deter Jo from wanting to do further volcano trekking. In fact, we booked a tour with TRIPinas for a trek up Mt Pinatubo almost immediately after Taal.

To be fair, unlike Taal, most of the trek towards the crater of Pinatubo was on relatively flat ground. We did have to traverse over uneven terrain and even wade through knee deep rivers at some point during the trek, but for the most part it was actually… manageable. Of course, we had to walk at our own pace. The Guide estimated that we need two hours to reach the crater… we took three.

Some things never change…

At the very least it’s nice to say we’re not the only ones who needed rest. Misery loves company

It did help that the landscape was so goddamn gorgeous eerie. The eruption of Pinatubo in 1991 was the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century and its effects can still be seen to these days.

We trekked through valleys carved out by the lava flow from the 91 eruption. The landscape was barren all around with almost no signs of vegetation. If we were here at night, I would’ve sworn we were on the moon.

Where molten lava used to flow

I’m a man on the moon. Fun fact:  A way to pass time quickly is to mumble to yourself “One Small Step for a Man ” with every step. Repeat this 100000x

That’s why we were so surprised by the lush greenery surrounding the crater lake. It’s like stepping into a lost world. Cue T-Rex roar and John Williams score in the background.

Roooooaaaaar

We have arrived!

And the best part about the trek is that, unlike Taal Volcano, we could actually jump into the crater for a swim in the mineral rich water.

And for a price, we could also take a boat to the opposite side of the crater where we had a panoramic view of the entire crater. The water on this side of the crater is supposedly closer to the caldera, so the temperature can get VERY hot. But a dip in these waters really helped soothed the muscles after our long trek here. It’s like getting an outdoor hot spring spa treatment with a ridiculous backdrop.

Yeah… the water gets HOT

Spot me! Spot me! Spot me!

Other fun activities at “The Other Side”: Stacking rocks into phallic shaped towers

A few words of advice if you are thinking of doing the Pinatubo:

1) Bring plenty of water

it’s cumbersome, it’s heavy, but the water is totally necessary for the trek

2) Bring your own food. It’s a full day and there’s no food sold at any point during the trek. Don’t need to tell you how many times we exchanged the “if only the Chinese were running this place” quip. On our part, we had a great McDonald’s picnic at the crater lake… Ok, I had a great McDonald’s picnic at the crater lake. Jo finished her portions long before we got that far.

3) For goodness sake, wear an open sandal. Jo wore a pair of sneakers. Beside having to deal with really wet shoes for most of the trek, many many little pebbles fell into the shoe and could not be dislodged. After four hours of walking, some of the pebbles got embedded under her skin. These are on top of all the blisters caused by abrasion. The pebbles had to be removed with tweezers and nail clippers at the end of the day. Believe me, it was not fun FOR ME watching her do that.

For her transgressions, she’ll pay the iron price! Iron tweezers, iron nail clippers, iron needles, etc… You get the idea…

4) Bring sunblock

5) Bring a sarong or a bandanna. The 4 x 4 drive can get pretty dusty

A (formerly beach) resort

After two days of being hounded and (literally) chased about by some of the most persistent touts we’ve met so far, we decided that we’ve had enough of Tagaytay and shifted down the hill to the tiny village of Talisay.

Talisay is right beside Taal Lake and this move brings us much closer to Volcano Island. Moving to Talisay however, also means that we won’t be able to get a panoramic view we enjoyed in Tagaytay, but it was a fair trade off since it greatly reduced the chances of us being run over by some over-enthusiastic motorcycle-riding goon.

It’s the last of this view for us

While in Tagaytay, we decided to stay at the highly recommended San Roque Beach Resort.

Or ermmm…. San Roque’s (formerly Beach) Paradise Resort.

San Roque’s is more a family run B and B than an actual resort. Although it’s situated beside the lake, there is definitely no beach here. The closest thing we could probably get to frolicking in the water was a swimming pool that takes in water from the lake. BUT when we were there, this “swimming pool” had been converted to a fish rearing pond.

The rooms at San Roque’s are housed in a bungalow-style building that comes with its own courtyard (complete with swings, hammocks and water feature). The rooms are air-conditioned, the beds are comfortable and most of the rooms offer amazing views of Taal Lake and Volcano Island.

But the best part of our stay was definitely the interaction with the matronly Mdm Lita, the owner of the resort.

Mdm Lita and her family tried their best to make sure that we were well taken care of throughout our stay. She arranged to pick us up from Tagaytay so that we do not get road blocked by touts on the narrow road down to Talisay (apparently a common occurance).

When we wanted to go to Volcano Island, she arranged for her son to bring us over for 1500 PHP (quite cheap compared to what the rest of the touts were offering). Before we left for Volcano Island, she made sure we brought enough water and even gave us some protective head gear to shield our heads from the sun.

Sure… the head gear looked ridiculous, but it’s the thought that counts… right?

And you can tell that ONE OF US enjoy wearing the silly hat more than the other

I’ll be honest, beyond going to the Volcano Island, there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do in Talisay. San Roque offered us a brilliant atmosphere to kick back, relax and do this nothing in.

We spent many hours just sitting at the lake side pavilion with a cold beer in one hand and a Kindle/PSP in the other. (actually I need two hands to hold my PSP, but who’s counting?)

From the pavilion, we could see village life “row” by…

And the sunset over the Volcano Lake is pretty surreal too

Eating Dust

A lake within the crater of a volcano that is within another lake that is the crater of a larger volcano.

That’s probably the best way I can describe Taal Volcano.

For illustrative purposes…  The 15 x 20 km Talisay (Taal) caldera is filled by Lake Taal. Several eruptive centers lie submerged beneath the lake. Some, such as Volcano Island peek out over the water surface. And it so happened the the caldera of the volcano on Volcano Island is filled with water too

But if you want a more succinct (and honest) description, I’ll probably say it’s a “most beautiful piece of dusty hell”.

When we got to the Philippines, I knew that Jo would want to climb some volcanoes. Despite all odds, I managed to prolong the inevitable (that’s is why we managed to spend weeks of glorious time just chilling by beaches and taking it slow), but it was only a matter of time before she eventually got things her way.

Trying to fight the battle on my terms, I proposed we start with the LOWEST active volcano in the Philippines – Volcano Island within the Taal Volcano caldera; with the caveat that we would try a higher one IF and ONLY IF we found the trek up Taal Volcano manageable.

That’s the whole reason why we were in Tagaytay in the first place.

At the suggestion of the owners at our Bed and Breakfast, we started our ascent at 630 in the morning to beat the crowd and take advantage of the cool(er) temperatures. (You’d think that that would be enough to turn Jo off the trek altogether)

It’s a good thing too. Taal Volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines. Walking along, we saw many “steam pits”. The ground itself was unbelievably hot. The temperature at 8am in the morning felt pretty much like how it would be at 1pm anywhere else. When the sun was up, we felt like we were baking in a convection oven.

The start of a loooooong walk

To make things worse, the vegetation on the ground of the walking path were all dead. Without any foliage, the trail itself was unbearably dusty. The throngs of tourists on horses galloping up and down the trail, kicking up sand did not really help matters.

Of course, we could have taken a horse too. It was relatively cheap (180PHP), but we’ve heard horror stories of extortion rings forcing tourists to buy exorbitantly priced drinks for the guides who walk their horses at the end of the trail. (Also, I was trying to put across a point that volcano trekking is hard and hope that this will turn Jo off volcano climbing for the rest of the trip)

And then there was the walking…. I knew that it was the lowest active volcano around, I just did not account for it to be one of the steepest too…

There was A LOT of trudging up and down slopes with impossible gradients

Once in a while, the slopes were punctuated by a SHORT stretch of flatland. It was still VERY dusty…. but at least it’s flat. More on the hilarious hat later

Yes… I have to grudgingly admit that the views along the way are gorgeous too. But at this point in time, I am not too sure whether that was because of some kind of high that might have been induced by snorting in so much dust.

Somewhere along the way, Jo decided to jump…. probably so she can breath in more dust

Did I mention it was a looooooong and steeeeeeeeep walk?

Finally…. an end in sight

At the end of it all, we were rewarded with some time by the infamous caldera lake, where we promptly proceeded to buy ourselves a couple of exorbitantly priced drinks.

Precisely how we felt… and this time, we are not even hamming it up for the camera

After some time of composing ourselves, we were actually able to do some “posed” shots with the unbelievably clear water in the caldera lake. (by “we”, I mean “JO”, of course)

The Caldera lake was actually waaaaaay bigger than it looks in the pictures before. The water in the lake is allegedly boiling hot. We were told tales of a German dude who slid down the hill and ended up being warded for two weeks with second degree burns

Building Castles in the Air

One thing we loved about our travels in the Philippines is the touts… or the absence of them. People we’ve met so far are generally quite “chilled”, so there’s just not that much hustling going on.

All that changed when we crossed over the Tablas Strait onto Luzon proper. We had taken an overnight ferry over to Batangas and from there we headed to Tagaytay – our last stop before going to Manila to catch our connecting flight out.

Our trip

Despite what some people might say, journeying through the little provinces of Philippines. is generally hassle free and at times, really pleasant The locals were friendly and we never felt unsafe at any point in time. Even so, the locals we met constantly warned us that we should not trust others so easily once we are closer to Luzon and the capital city of Manila.

The change in atmosphere was very apparent once we hit Tagaytay. Where once we had to wake trishaw drivers from their afternoon naps to get a ride anywhere, we now had numerous touts chasing us around on their trishaws with repetitive shouts of “TAAL VOLCANO?”, “People’s Park?”, “Hotel?”

Probably because of our proximity to Manila, my paranoia had, at this point in time increased 100 fold. I wouldn’t talk to strangers, I curtly refused all offers from trishaw riders and I would even blatantly lie that we already had another ride waiting for us just to get them off our backs.

Looking back, my behaviour bordered on the psychotic, but at that point in time, I really thought that there was no harm in being overly careful.

Coincidentally, that’s also the story of how we walked two hours UPHILL to visit the People’s Park in the Sky.

Yup… Exactly how I felt…

To be fair to me, we were helped along this dark path by the security guard at our friendly 711, who told us that the Park in the Sky was “just ten minutes away”. Yeah. Our local 711 had a security guard… armed with a friggin rifle. Anyway, he probably forgot to mention that it was ten minutes BY TRISHAW, and I couldn’t validate his information with anyone else because I was in my “No Talky To Stranger” mode. (I was also afraid of asking him if he was sure… because he had a rifle)

We had many chances along the way to amend this mistake.

Trishaws would pass us by every few minutes and they would ask if we are going to the Park in the Sky (since that’s the only place the road lead to). I would ignore them. They would continue saying that it’s X kms away, it would be better if they take us. I would think that they are trying to scam us. They would continue shouting at us. I would tell them to buzz off (nicely). The less persistent ones would laugh as they ride off.

That should probably have been a warning bell for us.

After two hours and (about) 100 of such incidents, any sane person would probably have given up and just take them up on their offer, but paranoid me sincerely believed that they were going to literally, and figuratively take us for a ride. So I stuck to guns (in spite of Jo’s increasingly withering stares), and gave the lame excuse that we really wanted to “just walk” to dissuade the more persistent trishaw drivers.

Granted, it was a really good walk around the outer caldera of Taal volcano. We had panoramic views of the gorgeous Taal Lake and Volcano islands for most of our walk. But, no matter how you looked at it, it was:

a) A two hour walk

b) Hot as hell in the noon day sun

c) Uphill

d) A walk

Other than these, the experience was not altogether unpleasant.

Not unpleasant indeed

And at the end of the road, there was the People’s Park in the Sky.

or as the locals call it…. “People’s K N the Sky”

The Park was originally conceived to be the summer “palace” of former President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda. The “palace” was half complete when they fell from grace in 1986.

In fact, it was taken over by the municipal government, and it remained half completed to this day.

Today, the “palace” had been re-opened as a public park. A small fee of 15PHP grants access to the highest point in Tagaytay City. It’s a great vantage point overlooking Tagaytay city, as well as Manila Bay, Laguna Lake, and the Taal Lake (with its volcano islands).

Not exactly Christ the Redeemer…

But pretty darn impressive nontheless

It’s a great place to hang out, and even have a picnic or beer.

Wish we could say the same about the interior. It remained pretty much in the same state as it was when it was abandoned almost three decades ago.

But after all the fun is done, there is still the little problem of getting back…