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 and a Starbucks, to the Laguna area.
Laguna de Bay is a very large lake, which stretches almost all the way across Luzon, south of Manila. It's bordered, for some way, by the city 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 splashing 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 the 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 the ponchos are in fact, large plastic bags, cut down one side. The falls themselves are pretty enough and contain 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 kinds of Filipiniana here. Much wood work, especially religious carvings. Also, papier-mâché masks, boxes, ornaments. Many are being decorated for Christmas. Then, we find a factory that is mass-producing these items and watch the artisans painting baubles and Father Christmases on sleighs. They use a process called taka, which involves a wooden carved mould. It was invented here, and is now used worldwide.
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 town, 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 Escudero, 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 City, which seems to have a great many steelworks. Roadside stalls are piled with all manner of kitchen utensils and there are 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. 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. The city is perched precariously along Tagaytay Ridge, over 600 metres in height for the most part. It stretches 20 miles from Mount Batulao in the west, to Mount Sungay in the east. The ridge is actually the edge of the original Taal Volcano caldera, which contains Lake Taal. There's a small sub volcanic cone, forming an island in the centre. This 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.
The whole makes for fantastic views, from the ridge, and the roads winding up there. These 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. I stock up with bright red gerberas, 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 traffic jams, via a side turning down, at Alexis’ s suggestion, a long bendy dirt road. More spectacular views and past two abandoned villas, built by the Marcos family, and used just one night, for a party.
Elaine and I return to Tagaytay to climb the Taal Volcano. Driver Noli steers 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't want to come because he’d get wet, but we soon find out why. Spray flies around us, as we pass the mini crater like peaks and the rows of moored brightly painted bancas (local boats), 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 pesos each, which is still a rip off. I tell the boys that I can'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, where 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 reasonably sedate after that 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 on earth will 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, watching the 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.
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