Saturday, 16 March 2013

White Sands, Green Trees - Excerpt & Synopsis




White Sands, Green Trees
Synopsis
Humorous and true description of my travels and adventures around the Philippines and Malaysia during 1996-98.

An Excerpt

Ta'al Volcano
About two Sundays after arriving in Manila, a trip was organised by Bob Keen for the new staff of the school to visit the Ta’al volcano in Batangas.  This is about an hour’s drive south of Manila on an easy traffic day (but there aren’t many of those).


The driver we had for the minibus was Alfredo, with his gnarly hands and crumpled face.  It is obligatory for Alfredo to toot the horn after every gear change, a hangover from his days driving the indomitable jeepneys around Makati and Manila.  He’d been banned from driving once (no mean feat in the Philippines, and had to retake his test).    However, this meant that he’d passed his driving test twice more than an awful lot of other Fil drivers.  Off we set and soon we were passing out of the concrete of Manila and seeing a lot more greenery as we reached the outskirts of Ayala Alabang.  It was a sunny morning (aren’t they all), and we soon cut through what Sunday traffic there was to reach the Ta’al Vista Hotel.

This resort is perched on the rim of what was the side of the original volcano that had collapsed in on itself to form Lake Ta’al.  It was in the middle of this lake that the present day volcano was situated.  It was rather cool up in the Tagaytay heights and thick mists obscured the view of the volcano in the lake for a few minutes after we arrived at 1030.  All that could be seen were the tall grasses and palms disappearing down on precipitous slopes below us.  Obviously some fast food was required to kill the time, and so the nearby Jollibee outlet sufficed.

Once a few snaps of the scene had been achieved, we all bundled into the van for the drive down the crater sides to the lakeshore.  At the oddly named Yacht Club (?), we hired the services of a local banca (long narrow boat with outriggers) operator.  Here I learnt one of the first lessons for life in the Philippines – don’t pay up front.  Wait until you have been safely delivered before paying.  As it was a return journey, the boatman was going to wait at the volcano shore while we climbed it and came back.

It took about 20 minutes to cross the lake to the volcano and the village near the landing point.  Here we discovered we would each be charged for the use of the jetty (20 pesos), and were immediately accosted by women and children aiming to sell souvenirs and horse rides up to the top.  Judging by the condition of the horses, carrying someone was about the last thing they could be capable of.  Thin and emaciated, I thought they would be better off spending the time feeding and resting.

Working our way through the huddle of houses, we found the path up the volcano and proceeded at a reasonable pace.  The going was easy if only a little warm, and we soon found ourselves being passed at a rest point by some Oriental tourists on the sad horses.  Their riders were middle aged and overweight.  The horses must have suffered, as they were encouraged up the hill by the operators with their sticks.  Photos were taken as we marched up the hill amongst some rather curious plants.  Many of the surrounding slopes seemed to be cultivating these, although other ridges were devoid of vegetation, appearing whitish on pale green.  Within about an hour of setting off we were at the rim of the crater, having skidded up the last steep section over a few small smoking cracks.

At the top, locals selling water and coconuts from a stall greeted us.  This was when we discovered that we were glad we’d brought our own sealed mineral water bottles.  The ones these people were flogging had no seal.  The barrier to stop folks falling into the crater was a flimsy bamboo fence, but even though I’m terrified of heights, I did venture a peek over the edge to see the lake inside the volcano and the steaming vents around the sides and from the stack in the middle.
 Ta’al Volcano is the world’s smallest active volcano, and on the path up to the top several small fissures leaking smoke had been stepped over.  We hung around eating lunch for about an hour and then set off back to the banca.  It only took about half an hour to get back down to the waters edge, where again the vendors swooped and we had to pay to use the jetty again.  The boatman then wanted more money.  On the return journey on the banca, the rain started to fall and things started to turn miserable.  Undaunted by this, Bob’s filipina wife Lisa, was able to negotiate the price to what it had been and we were deposited only 200 metres along the palm-fronded shore from where we had started.

Trudging along the shore, I eventually espied Alfredo and the van, to which we duly hurried.  Climbing aboard, we found out that the boatman wasn’t one of the Yacht Club ones and as we hadn’t hired one of theirs, Alfredo shouldn’t have been parked there, so a fast exit was required.  ‘Fredo provided one, which was rather scary, being as it was up the precipitous sides of the old crater around some windy hairpins, with the road covering missing in places.

The visit was finished with a view back from the Dunkin’ Donuts just beside the Tagaytay roundabout (another rarity in the Philippines).  Plants were purchased for twice what the locals would pay at various “gardens” (nurseries) on the road out of Tagaytay towards the South Super Highway.

This was the real experience of the visit.  Being stuck in traffic returning to Manila after a weekend away.  It was a complete nightmare and took 3 hours to do.  However, this was by no means the worst traffic or even the usual for what I was yet to experience.
Boracay - dry season
A couple of weeks after my return to Manila, there were a group of teachers from the school, who announced they were off to Boracay.  I had heard of this place earlier in the year whilst still in Surrey, as my landlord had just returned from his world trip/year off and had said it was something to see.

The flight was arranged with Pacific Air.  To describe Pacific Air as cowboys would be unfair to unscrupulous operators the world over.  Most of the group of 13 went on a reasonably sized turboprop.  I, along with three teachers, was squashed into a six-seat single prop with the others’ and our luggage.  I was seated in the co-pilot’s seat and the view of Manila and Ta’al was good.  It was after that that I got nervous.  The pilot pulled out a map, and I assumed he was going to point out places below.  But no.  He unfolded it across the front window to “keep the sun out”.  He flew blind across the rest of Batangas and over the islands towards Boracay.  Nervously, I tried to see around the edge of the map hoping that no other Pacific Air planes were doing the same flying in the opposite direction.

About five miles out of Catlican airport the map was put away, much to the relief of all the passengers, as the air was getting disturbed as we got lower.  Dropping down along the coast of Panay, we descended parallel to beach and paddy, approaching the airstrip.  At the last minute the pilot bent down to fiddle with something on the floor, and only looked up seconds before touchdown.   This didn’t help overcome any worries I have about flying.

After a quick exit we joined with the teachers already landed and waiting for us to bring their luggage.  Sorting it out, and three or four to a tricycle, a race then ensued to the banca departure point down the road at Catlican.  First one and then another took the lead, bouncing in and out of potholes, all arriving safely at the quay.  The trikes were 40 pesos to hire and the banca cost about 15 pesos per person.

Bundling on to a banca, with what seems like the world and his dog, is another experience.  The only worry is that the boats are loaded down and go through the waves rather than over them.  Letting the driver know where you want to get off on the island helps, especially if there are a number of you wanting to get off at the same point.  It saves on lugging kit along in sand in searing temperatures.

This duly happened and I had to find a hotel to check into.  All the others had been booked into Nigi Nigi Nu Nu’s previously, but as I work at a different site I’d only found out a day before departure.  I went around the corner (so to speak) for the night to sleep (250 pesos), and checked into Nigi’s the next day when a room came available.

This was low season (November), so rooms were available all over the island, and the White Beach (in front of Nigi’s) was very quiet indeed.  I again only had a short time  (the Friday, Saturday and Sunday) of this break generated by All Saint’s Holiday on the Friday.  Hunting around I decided to get a haircut, do a boat ride around the island and go on ride in a glass-bottomed boat.  The latter I found out about on the Friday while having the haircut, and was set for Saturday afternoon.  The circuit of the island was set for Sunday morning, with the company of Ian and Catherine.

MTV were in town that weekend, with their Beach Craze, of volleyball, and fashion parades at the Cocomangas Bar at the northern end of the White Beach.  Friday night was spent at the Sandcastles Thai restaurant and the cuisine was excellent.  Saturday night involved an Indian restaurant where the service was incredibly slow, and the food, when some of what was ordered arrived, was mediocre to say the least.  While waiting, however, conversations were being oiled with plenty of San Miguel and wine.  This may have had something to do with Richard idly flicking a cigarette butt away, that then landed on the next door neighbour’s roof still glowing.  The roof, being dry palm leaves posed a slight fire risk.  I thought my aim with his glass of red wine was quite superb, neatly extinguishing the stub and saving the building a surprise.  After that and the annoyance with the food it was time to leave.  The group left en-mass, paying for the drink and the food that had been eaten, only to find ourselves being pursued by an irate owner claiming non-payment.  As armed guards are an ever-present trigger happy group in the Philippines, his ire was quickly soothed with explanation by one or two of the girls in the party and the rest of us hurried of to Beachcomber and Cocomangas bars, just as on the previous nights.

There are two bars to visit on Boracay, and these are they.  Cocomangas also has rooms that are cheap, but is probably more famous for its shot drinking competition for those fool enough to try to down 30 and keep them in their stomach, as well as stay standing.  It is also to be noted for the method of serving drinks in jam jars, now copied by other bars on the island.  With the presence of MTV for a fashion show a catwalk had been constructed inside the bar and various models had walked down it the previous night.  On the Saturday, it was the turn of the tribal costumes and local Ati-Atihan dancers.  These were duly filmed and then the crowd was invited to dance around and on the catwalk.


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