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Published: April 24th 2021
We headed off for a short family sojourn in the Philippines before the start of the academic year. Issy and I had honeymooned there way back in 1989 and hadn't been back since. We relied on our ever reliable travel agent, Family Affair Travel, to make all the arrangements. We hoped they'd done a better job than Thomas Cook, who'd arranged the honeymoon. When us newlyweds went to check in at the Manila hotel they'd booked for us it seems they'd decided in their infinite wisdom that we should be in separate rooms. Each to his own I suppose, but this wasn't quite the sort of honeymoon I'd been looking forward to. I think I remember reading about the collapse of Thomas Cook about a year ago. If they were relying on honeymooners for a lot of their business I'm a bit surprised they managed to survive that long.
We did eventually manage to convince the hotel that we were genuinely married and they kindly agreed to let us share a room. It even had a double bed. Other than that we found 1989 Manila a bit depressing. We visited a clearly ridiculously wealthy neighbourhood where all the mansions hid
behind massive high fences and locked gates, and employed their own teams of security guards. The vast majority of the populace however looked like they were living in abject poverty, and there didn't really seem to be any middle class. The drive in the from the airport was particularly forgettable for the numbers of families seemingly living under sheets of corrugated iron on the roadside. The 2014 version looked quite a bit more prosperous, although we hoped this wasn't just because they'd got a bit better at hiding the poor from the tourists.
Manila certainly hadn't got any smaller since 1989. The ever reliable Wikipedia claims it's the world's most densely populated city, and you didn't have to twist our arms to believe it. Our hotel was next to a massive shopping mall whose supermarket had 130 separate checkouts. Issy and I got lost in it, and it seems we weren't the only ones. As we wandered aimlessly in search of the right exit we heard an announcement over the PA system requesting the parents of Troy Sheehan to collect him from the Lost Children's Room. Now Troy was seventeen at the time, but probably looked a fair bit
younger. He told us that he was strolling around, probably looking more than a little lost, when a group of teenage girls decided they'd better come to his rescue. We're still not quite sure why, although a lot of Filipinos told us that he bore quite a resemblance to One Direction's Harry Stiles, and we reckoned this probably had something to do with it. He told us the girls wouldn't let him leave the Lost Children's Room until we came to get him.
We hadn't come to Manila to see the city, but rather a couple of relatively nearby natural attractions.
We spent a day doing the so-called "shooting the rapids" at Pagsanjan Falls, a couple of hours drive south east of the capital. Issy and I had done this in 1989. Some of the later scenes from the movie "Apocalypse Now" (of "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" fame) were shot there. "Shooting the rapids" probably doesn't paint a particularly accurate picture of what goes on there. We were given life jackets and construction hard hats, and loaded into a couple of fibre glass canoes with our "guides". These guys really earn their money.
The river wasn't all that high, so rather than paddling they spent a fair bit of their time carrying our canoes, with us in them, upstream over the rocks. The gorge was spectacular, with massive vertical jungle clad cliffs on either side. The ride ended at the falls themselves. Apparently only one of its three drops is visible from the base, but this was a spectacular vertical cascade which looked like it was probably around thirty metres high. But the fun wasn't over yet. Next step was to load us onto some flimsy looking rafts made of a few bits of bamboo lashed together with some string, for a very soggy trip into Devil's Cave behind the falls. Our guides had a slightly easier time on the way back downriver, although only slightly. They still had to carry us and our canoes over the rocks even though we were going with the flow. We stopped at a local rural streetside cafe on the way back to Manila, and were treated to a karaoke concert by some of the local patrons. We quickly learnt that Filipinos love their karaoke. There seemed to be at least one karaoke machine in most of
the bars and cafes we went into. Just as well they've got the voices to go with it.
The next day was spent at Lake Taal, a couple of hours south of Manila. We left Troy back at the hotel. He'd been given a lot of preparatory work to do for his final year of high school, and decided he probably wouldn't get it finished if he waited 'til he got home. I've never been quite sure whether that was very impressive dedication or just a stunning failure to get started early enough.... The main attraction at Lake Taal is the crater lake on Volcano Island, which is within Lake Taal. There was also a small island within Volcano Island's crater lake, which made it an island, within a lake, within an island, within a lake, within an island...... We were loaded onto some distinctively shaped and very colourful long boat type outrigger canoes and ferried across Lake Taal to Volcano Island. The next step was a long dusty sulphurous trek up to the crater's rim. Some decided to use donkeys, but we didn't think these animals looked particularly happy so we decided to spare them more pain and
get ourselves some exercise in the process. We passed lots of vents spewing yellow sulphurous smelling steam. I don't particularly remember anyone telling us at the time that the trip might be just a tad on the dangerous side, but we weren't getting a lot of comfort from the volcanic activity that was clearly going on seemingly everywhere under our feet. I've now consulted the ever-reliable Wikipedia once again, and it's pointed me to an article entitled "The 2020 Taal Volcano Eruption". It seems we were lucky to see the island in the Volcano Island lake when we did; it's not there anymore. The 2020 eruption was apparently a very serious event that reportedly killed 39 people, spewed ash over most of central Luzon including Manila, and resulted in "suspension of school classes, work schedules, and flights in the area". Maybe it was just as well no one told us it might be dangerous or we mightn't have gone. At least we lived to tell the tale. The view from the rim of the crater was stunning, although the lake had a nasty yellowish greeny tinge to it, and I'm not sure you would have felt all that well if
you'd been unfortunate enough to tumble the hundred or so metres down into it. Other than looking at the view, the main activity on offer was hitting golf balls down into the lake. If the number of balls we saw hit in the short time we were there was anything to go by that 2020 eruption must have covered half of the Philippines in golf ball remnants. The trip back across Lake Taal was a soggy affair. We didn't think a smallish lake would ever get very rough, but it seems we were mistaken, and we had the sodden clothes to prove it when we finally made it back to shore.
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