The smell of sun-dried horse manure wafts from the ground; I breathe in. It is only thirty minutes past nine but humidity is already restrictive. Beads of sweat trickle down my forehead; then to my brows where they accumulate before reaching my cheeks and upper lip. My tongue instinctively reaches for the salty beads, and retracts as fast as it advanced. This is the taste of an organized adventure, I thought. About 20 meters away, a cloud of dust is surging towards our direction. The approaching Korean tourist astride a horse is holding on tightly to her pink camera with one hand, and fixing her wide-brimmed yellow hat with another. I reach for my scarf, tie it around my neck, and lift the wide triangular end to my nose in preparation for the incoming dust cloud. “Twenty minutes more and we will be at the crater” thelocal guide said in lilting Tagalog. Hearing the distinctive accent reminds me that I am in Batangas.
When guests from the corporate headquarters visit Philippines, we usually take them around Manila or the nearby provinces. Oftentimes, Taal is our go-to choice because of its proximity to the capital city. I am now accompanying one of our Internal Auditors. And just like her, this is my first time to visit the second most active volcano in the Philippines, with 33 historical eruptions – including one in 1754 when days in nearby towns were spent in darkness because of excessive ash fall.
I am disappointed with the tour operator for reasons I will later describe. But my mood lightens at the sight of rising smoke from some parts of the crater; and the mesmerizing emerald waters of the lake. I immerse myself in the offering laid out before my eyes while silently telling myself: I wouldn’t mind trekking all the way up here instead of riding a scrawny horse.
“This is very refreshing” our Peruvian-born, US-raised guest commented while taking a sip of the buko juice we bought from one of the makeshift huts for fifty pesos each. The vendor skillfully opened three more young coconuts for our companions.
“Taal is the first ‘active’ volcano I have visited” she said. This launched our conversation about her travels to South Africa, India, Singapore, Brazil and many other countries as part of her job. In between our exchange, my mind drifts to the scene 2 hours ago that caused my disappointment:
“We’re already here. You can freshen up before we ride a boat across the lake to the volcano.” If I had my eyes closed when I heard her say this, I would probably think the tour operator’s representative is enthusiastic about our trip. But her expression contradicted the excitement in her voice. “Where?” I asked. She pointed to an area which seemed like an extension of the main house. My heart skipped a beat when I opened the door. The comfort room is reminiscent of those found in provincial bus stops. I summoned my dormant Bukowski and let out a few “Fs” (though nobody heard me).
I am easy to please and I don’t consider myself high-maintenance. I have no right to act like a spoiled rich kid because I am far from wealthy. I was disappointed because I know how much our company paid the tour operator to arrange the trip (and despite the very high price, these sharks chose a ‘resort’ with poor facilities as our jump-off point; and to think there are lots of choices!). But the major reason is this: I wanted our guest to have good memories of my country and its people. And this comfort room is the opposite –a yellowish, grimy nightmare without steady running water.
You see, it is common for Filipinos to go the extra mile to please visitors. Even up to this day, many of my countrymen would willingly let a visitor sleep on the bed while they, the hosts, sleep on the couch; they would let visitors use the best available towels, sheets, plates and utensils all in the spirit of hospitality. This is how the common Filipino mind operates (sometimes even to a fault).
It’s already past twelve when we rode a boat back to the ‘resort’. I went straight to the van not bothering to freshen up using ‘resort’ facility. It’s a good thing I was able to bring some of our products – alcohol and baby wipes – because I know people in the restaurant won’t be comfortable sitting near me. I smelled like a horse.