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SEPTEMBER, 2019

Taal Volcano, The Philippine Islands

Manila, like a lot of the Philippines, has many American and Spanish cultural influences. The country was a colony of both nations, and although fought over, was ultimately traded for cash when it was tactically astute for both nations. The humidity is in the high 90%s, and the city is forever crowded, hot, and sweaty. 
I was staying with a friend, Craig, in the upmarket area of Bonifacio Global City, which together with neighbouring Makati forms the wealthiest area of Manila. ‘BGC’ as it is known is only about a decade old, the land having been bought from the government by private property developers, turning what was an old military base into the shining swanky city playground it is today. It is because of the land’s former owners that it is still called ‘The Fort’ today. 

Lots of aspects of both colonial cultures endure to this day, whether it be the overt Catholicism, or the US chains that populate from bygone times, like Kenny Rogers Roasters or Wendy’s. The Philippines has its own take on these: try Jollibee for the nation’s favourite fried chicken, for example, or the public ‘Jeepney’ buses which are modified Jeep front ends with the cab elongated to take passengers, usually with a new Japanese engine, and covered with religious iconography. 

 

Within the Metro Manila area, I was interested in seeing Intramuros, the walled historic part of the original city, strategically important and which literally means ‘within the walls’ in Spanish. It was originally inhabited by just 600 Spanish families, walled away from the rest of the city. Whilst a lot of it was destroyed in World War Two, what remained was authentically rebuilt around the San Augustin Church – just about the only intact building left. 

Being as I am obsessed by anything on two or more wheels, Craig and I took a bicycle tour around Intramuros, but with a difference. We were using Bambikes, bikes made almost all of bamboo (less the obvious bits), which has benefit as a method of construction. Naturally light and strong, they also have very good natural suspension. Add into the mix that the bikes have created an industry here in the Philippines, with local workers given the opportunity to train in how to make them together with pay and benefits: a future. It is a great way to see the walled city, and an interesting aspect to my break. 
Philippine cuisine is perhaps not widely known, but no less delicious for it. Sisig is chopped up pigs head and liver, seasoned and spiced, served with rice. Story has it that heads were cooked into the dish as they were the unused bits of US servicemen’s meals, who were stationed air bases during the period of American occupation. The self-styled national dish of adobo is marinated chicken or seafood with a liberal use of vinegar. Garlic rice is popular, as is the flavour of ube, a purple yam which can be mashed into a dessert. I had it in an ice cream and it was oddly delicious. 

A “Philippine Lamborghini” 

 

The city is the perfect place to stage a trip out to Taal Volcano, a unique place on Earth, being both the smallest volcano and the largest third-order island in the world. That is to say, there are three tiers, being: an island within a lake, within an island within a lake, within an island (itself in the Pacific Ocean). After a 20 minute boat crossing of Taal Lake, our guide Elmer takes on a trek up the side of the crater within Volcano Island, which takes about an hour. He is wearing only flip flops, but does the trek 2 or 3 times a day – and has done so for over twenty years. He takes us on a little known route (he says ‘secret’), which I initially take with a pinch of salt. After the trail all but disappears into the undergrowth, and we fail to see another soul on the whole island, I revise this opinion. After the lip of the crater, there is a final descent down to Main Crater Lake crossing the boiling and barren atmosphere of the volcano. From the edge, you can swim in the hot sulphuric water and see out to Vulcan Point, the final island. We walk a short way around, catch our breath, and take photos. It is an amazing atmosphere, watching such abundance of flora and fauna, together with the fountains of steam, charred wood, and boiling water jetting out of cracks in the rock. All you can hear is birdsong and silence, cattle grazing, as you watch the dense untouched jungle sway in the wind.

Craig and I avoided the torrential rain on our trek into the Volcano, but as our boat journey finishes up on the return crossing, the heavens open and I imagine the trails we just walked got rather slick and muddy indeed. 

 

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Tour of Intramuros via Bambike: https://www.bambike.com 

More info on Taal Volcano can be found at: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/philippines/tagaytay-lake-taal/activities/taal-volcano/a/poi-act/1449894/1318424