After hiking up Taal Volcano with my girlfriend, Joy, last summer, I documented the history of Taal, including its notable eruptions as recently as the 1980s.
Well, I had no idea that Taal would blow its lid again, but that’s exactly what happened about a week ago. It was a big one.
So, in this postcard, I not only cover our experience hiking up to the peak of Taal Volcano (which, admittedly, seems sort of petty considering the eruption), but, most importantly, our connection with our guide for the trip, Fatima.
We started out with a 20-minute, impossibly twisty ride down the cliffside, following switchbacks through the jungle on a good government road. Sweating and nauseas by the time we got to the bottom, the air temperature was easily 20 degrees warmer than at the top of the cliff above, causing us to move over into the shade - and it was only 8:30 in the morning. We bought emergency sunglasses from one of the vendors and went to the “official tourist office” – a single desk with a handwritten sign inside someone’s living room.
The only two passengers on our narrow outrigger canoe, we sped across the morning-glass lake until we soon pulled up on the shore, a stack of tires our only dock.
Various tour guides and touts milled about but they weren’t overly aggressive since there’s a strict number system to make sure everyone gets work in the proper order – and everyone gets fed. Our guide was #24, a young woman who couldn’t have been more than 20 years old, dressed conservatively in long pants and a shirt, donning a blue scarf to protect her from the sun.
Even though most of the tourists opt to ride a horse up to the top to avoid the hot, arduous climb, we told her that we wanted to make the hike, earning the view. Sweating in the jungle heat and unsferable humidity, we followed a path that led us on a zippering journey up towards the volcano.
But it was excellent, I assured her, and we all chatted and joked as we made the climb, silence only befalling us when we crossed areas with cover from the tree canopy, the sun sapping any conversation.
On the way up, we passed a party of hikers that were going at a more deliberate pace, including an older woman.
“I’m 80 years old!” she proclaimed proudly when we said hello, and we encouraged her that she was doing great.
I did buy coconuts for all of us, including Fatima and one for the 80-year-old woman, who was visibly waning in the sun as she tried to make the last push. After they split open the top of our cocnuts with a machete, revealing cold fresh water we could sip out of a straw, I carried one down the path to the older woman, who was being supported by her son and daughters now.
She thanked me, drank, and kept on.
He just kept hemming and hawing while his friend vaped. What a d-bag.
I snapped a few photos, guzzled my coconut water, and signaled to Fatima that we should keep going before we got too comfortable. The crucible of the volcano was only 1,000 meters away now, but the rest of the way was even more steep with no shade cover at all.
That last leg was impossibly hot, but it was worth it when we reached the ridge of wild grass and red rocks that descended down into the crater lake on the other side. It was a steep drop, and the path along the rim of the volcano was only a foot wide at best, with no ropes, guard rails, or nets below.
The 360-degree view was spectacular - something I won’t even try to describe. My only disappointment was they weren’t still golfing from the volcano’s edge. The first time I’d been up here to the Taal, only a year and a half ago, they were renting golf clubs and selling balls for $50 Pesos ($1) a piece here, which serious Korean tourists drove or chipped off of the ridge down into the crater lake, aiming for the tine, far-away island like they were trying to hit a hole-in-one.
But I wasn’t mad that there was “wala golf” – or no golf – since the government had shut down the practice for ecological reasons.
There were no other tourists or even locals on this route, as all traffic had long been diverted to the other, more amenable and cooler path. The only signs of habitation were wooden crosses along the way, erected to recreate the 12 stations going back to the first Spanish friars who had settled this island in the 1500s.
As we reached the bottom in no time, I was feeling proud of my decision to lead us down this shorter trail…until I realized that we were still a couple kilometers from the main beach where our boat driver was waiting.
It was a straight shot on a semi-paved road only wide enough for two horses or motorbikes at the same time because there were no cars on the island as far as I’d seen. But that meant walking in direct sun as we were getting closer to the most sizzling part of the day. I chugged as much water as possible but still started swaying and seeing blurred from the heat, something I’ve actually grown accustomed to out here in extreme temps.
Soon, we passed several young guys sitting in the shade of a tree, drinking shots out of a bottle. They called me over and asked if I wanted a shot, full well thinking I’d just keep walking.
Well, I didn’t want to be rude! So, I went over and took my medicine like a man…a warm shot of Ginebra gin at 11 in the morning, but they did have a pineapple juice chaser.
We all took a break in the shade of the front porch as she collected a pitcher of cold water from inside. This was a big deal for her, and she glowed with pride to have two genuine new friends spend time at her house.
Remarking that my travel companion was so beautiful, she offered that she once wanted to be a model, too, through sugar cane-worn teeth and still-young, radiant face.
So, her three trips per week earned her about $60 per month as a total income. Wow.
We continued walking and passed a smattering of school kids coming home from their half day in class, wearing mismatched uniforms based on what they could afford. Fatima explained that there were so many kids on the island but only a few teachers, so they had to break the school days in half so every kid would at least get some education daily.
Soon, we reached our boat, and collected our boatman, who was napping under a tree.
We thanked Fatima, gave her a tip equivalent to one week’s work, and took down the number to her cracked, ancient cell phone, promising to visit her when we came back or send others coming to Taal to her.
“When you come back, you can stay in my house overnight!” she offered, a little sad that we were departing.
Little did we know that Fatima would be on our minds and in our prayers again so soon.
When we first heard the news of Taal’s eruption and saw the powerful and horrifying, yet somehow beautiful, photos, our thoughts went immediately to our guide and friend, Fatima
There, they were stuck, as heavy rains made travel on the simple dirt roads impossible. Fatima told us that already, three jeepneys (simple passenger vehicles) had tried to navigate the treacherous, muddy roads but turned over and gone off the steep edge, killing 14 people total.
Sadly, that wasn’t even in the news here in the Philippines. The people living on Taal and in these communities are also the poorest of the poor, so they often don’t have a voice.
This is what they found...
Joy arranged for Fatima to receive a humble donation from us to help her family get through these tough times, and she managed to access it through a money wiring service that operates there.
Here is the video of Fatima and her family saying thank you. Of course we’d do this to help any friend, but seeing them safe and so appreciative makes it all worth it!