Up at 5 a.m. today to travel south with Elaine and Alexis. Alexis has organised a driver called Ephraim and a Kia Spacewagon (so we can do a lot of shopping). We go via the South Super highway out of Manila and a Starbucks to the Laguna area.
This is a big lake bordered by the suburbs. It eventually merges into Hot Springs and resort areas lined with hotels and fruit stalls. Our first stop is Pagsanjan where we board canoes to travel up river to the falls. The canoes are precarious, paddled by two men, a father and son. The water level is dangerously close to the top of the canoe – they are really only designed for two passengers. Elaine is quite sturdily built. Another canoe with an inboard engine tows us along for the first stages and we pass settlements, women washing, children swimming in the water, little hut houses and animals grazing and bathing too. There are plenty of long horned water buffalo. The banks are lined with green water lilies and purple hyacinths bob up and down in our wake. The ubiquitous palm trees line the banks.
The boatmen take up their paddles as we approach the first rapids. For the next hour they toil upriver alternately using paddles and dragging us up ramps laid between the rocks. It must be exhausting and they take several well-deserved breaks.
Around us the riverbanks deepen into tall mossy green canyons, bright blue kingfishers dart ahead to point the way and clouds of iridescent butterflies hover over the rocks.
Shortly before we hear the thunder of the falls, the heavens open and we are soaked. We stop at a stall on the bank for the boatmen to have a drink and some barbecue chicken – their breakfast. The woman in charge sells us plastic poncho type raincoats.
Back at the boat we put on our rain wear only to discover that they are in fact large plastic bags cut down one side. The falls themselves are pretty enough and contained plenty of water. Elaine and I take a trip behind them on a raft made of lashed together bamboo like a giant panpipe. I am up to my waist in water just resting on the raft. Our passage through the fall must be very similar to being in a proper typhoon. The noise is deafening and we are buffeted and soaked. An unmissable experience.
Then back down the river shooting the rapids properly this time, although enough water comes into the boat on each passage to keep Alexis busy bailing at the front.
The journey back is accomplished in a third of the time. The father tells us he had been doing that trip once a day for thirty years. The son has been working for six months.
We disappear in to the local hotel to get changed (my clothes are still wet two days later) and then on to Paete and the local craft shops. All sorts of Filipiniana here. Much wood work, especially religious carvings. Also lots of papier-mâché masks, boxes, ornaments. Many are being decorated for Christmas. Then we find a factory that is mass-producing these items and watched the artisans painting baubles and Father Christmases on sleighs. We have lunch in The Exotic Restaurant - delightful flower gardens and a huge python called Samantha coiled in a tiny cage.
Next we drive back through Paete passing a large rickety building full of men shouting. It is called the Paete Coliseum and Ephraim says the event is cockfighting.
The rest of the day is spent journeying to Villa Escadura, which Alexis has been told is an attractive and historic hotel at which to stay. It is on a coconut plantation in a hidden valley. The countryside is very interesting, full of densely covered green volcanoes and through a town called San Pablo that seems to have lots of steelworks. Roadside stalls are piled with all kinds of kitchen utensils and there are lots of jeepney factories, and the odd shop labelled ERAP (President Joseph Estrada’s nickname though I’m not sure why) - Easier Retail Access for the Poor. The journey is long. On finally reaching our destination we are told that the resort is full.
We have a quick peek at the pink walled mansion and drive on towards Tagaytay, our original planned stopover.
Dusk is falling and Ephraim’s driving becomes more exciting as he skirts the inevitable traffic jams by driving on the wrong side of the road, Like a Bat Out of Hell appropriately blaring out of the stereo system.
We compromise on a new hotel called Lima City and eat in the Japanese restaurant before falling soundly asleep. Next morning breakfast at the Malarayat golf club - very attractively set in the middle of flower gardens and more lush mountain peaks before Tagaytay is finally accomplished. The scenery here is stunning. Lake Taal with a volcanic island in the middle and fantastic views from the winding road up. The roads are lined with stalls full of fruit and vegetables so perfect they look like the little models I had bought on fridge magnets the day before. Stock up with bright red daisy like flowers, rambutans and slices of the huge jackfruit.
Lunch the next day at Sonia’s Garden. A summerhouse festooned with white netting set in the middle of an English style garden full of exotic plants and flowers floating in stone tubs and sinks.
We return to Manila and more inevitable traffic jams, via a side turning down, at Alexis’ s suggestion, a long winding dirt road. More spectacular views and past two abandoned villas built by the Marcos family and used just one night for a party.
Into Makati through the demonstrations. Very little to see, just some banners and groups waiting on street corners and all quite calm, but the crowd is building up again at the Ortegas shrine on EDSA. Reference is constantly made to the last bloodless revolt – they are determined to do the same thing again. They will stay there until Erap goes. I keep getting text messages updating me on the situation saying, “Pray for us”. Texting is getting bigger and bigger here and anti Erap messages have been escalating across the airwaves for some months.
Elaine and I return to Tagaytay to climb the Taal volcano. Noli drives us through the inevitable jams and then on to the town and lake. Fantastic views again marred by clouds. When is the promised dry season going to arrive? We take a boat across to the island in the centre of the lake. I laugh when Noli says he doesn'tt want to come because he’d get wet, but we soon find out why. Lots of spray, past the mini crater like peaks to a row of moored brightly painted bancas with very steep pointed prows. “Rent a hat ma’am 20 pesos, water ma’am, 20 pesos, guide ma’am, 500 pesos (One track up as far as I can see). Horse ma’am, 1,000 pesos.”
We eventually settle for two horses at 350 each, which is still a rip off. I tell the locals that I don’t ride and I want a quiet horse. They bring me a white creature with pink eyes that roll at me. He nips and won’t even walk up to the bench at which I am supposed to clamber on. I get my foot in a stirrup and am proud to swing a leg over unaided. The horse immediately bucks. Elaine has hysterics.
The journey is okay and the scenery would be great if we could see it through the clatter of pushing horses, crowds of people and clouds of dust.
Taal is billed as the smallest (and one of the most active) volcanoes in the world. At the top is a small crater lake bubbling away below the surface, surrounded by wisps of steam from countless calderoles. Japanese and Filipinos pester us to have our photos taken with them. I’m black with dust and my eyes are streaming. What can the pictures look like when they are developed?
We decide to walk down, much to the consternation of the guides. ‘You pay us ma’am not him. He is not to be trusted”. They follow us with the horse, worried we will renege on the extortionate deal we have agreed. I scramble around looking at fumaroles. “Careful ma’am it’s dangerous”. Elaine mutters that we are over 21. Five minute later my feet slide from under me and I land, with no dignity and much too quickly, on the ground. Elaine orders me to get up quickly and not to show I am hurt. But I am, my hands are bruised. To give them their due they do not laugh, but they cannot understand why we still want to wander slowly and admire the views. Once down the bottom payment is demanded. “No tip ma’am?”
Back to the beach. “Twenty pesos to use the bench to climb on the boat ma’am”. As we arrive back it starts to rain hard. We twist up the mountain to Tagaytay town and a late lunch in Josephine’s with plate glass promising good views if ever the clouds lift.
We fight more traffic home to Manila, stopping off in Alabang at the Festival Mall. Here there is a shop called Europa delicatessen – Coleman’s horseradish, Branston pickle, Heinz ketchup, Bounty bars, jelly babies and best of all, Sharwood's hot mango chutney. Now I’m a real ex pat shopper.