No Career As A Cowboy For Me!
Last weekend, my gracious hosts here during my two-week business trip in the Philippines decided that I should see more of their country than the business district of Manila, the shopping malls of the Greenbelt and the heavily fortified office (although the views from the 38th floor are impressive) and the hotel where every night I would seek oblivion, but find only the patchy sleeplessness which comes with jet lag.
And so, we enjoyed a two hour minibus journey to the south. We fought our way through the streets of the capital and the chaos of Jeepneys, random jaywalkers, street hawkers and some of the worst driving I have witnessed outside of the Italian motorways. We drove alongside shanty towns. We drove alongside affluent suburbs interspersed with corrugated huts. And, we wound our way into a lush countryside strewn with rice paddies, banana trees and the occasional goat.
Off the motorways we fought our way through narrow streets where Jeepneys were replaced by motorbikes with sidecars carrying up to seven adults at a time and reluctant dogs who lay in the road like a sleeping policeman and we peered out at shops selling coconut milk and caught glimpses into houses which looked spartan.
The chaotic conditions in the Philippines with the constant blaring of horns, incredibly poor condition of the public transport vehicles with their lack of tyre tread and disregard for health and safety, are a stark contrast to the almost clinical cleanliness of the air-conditioned shopping malls and the safety at work programmes which count a users keystrokes on a PC and force them to take a break so as to avoid repetitive strain.
Soon we arrived at the attractive shore of the lake housing the active Taal volcano, which itself housed a lake within the crater. It put Windermere to shame for sure and was festooned with brightly coloured boats and talipa fish farms.
We were greeted by people sporting life belts for us to don ahead of our boat transfer. Now, the Filipino people are slight and slender. This life belt barely stretched around me. It was more of a shawl than a jacket. I was not confident that it would support my weight in the event of the boat sinking. My concern was intensified somewhat when the life-belt people insisted we sign in, listing our name, age, address and nationality. Presumably this would aid them to identify the bodies more easily in the event of a sinking incident coinciding with a deficient flotation aid.
The thirty minute or so boat transfer to the volcano was enjoyable. The breeze off the water was refreshing in the 35 degree heat and a humidity which was already mocking my choice of attire. To be fair, my choice of attire was somewhat limited. I had packed for business, restaurants and bars rather than excursions such as this. If I had been en vacancies I would have sported t-shirt, shorts, baseball cap and flip flops. But, instead I found myself in Tommy Hilfiger chinos and a Hackett polo shirt. I was grateful, however, to my nearest and dearest for insisting that I pack a factor 30!
It was all down hill from there. Our gracious hosts, (who were not so gracious that they didn’t insist we pay our share of the motorway toll taxes en route) had failed to inform us that the route to the crater at the top of the volcano was on horseback!
The boat delivered us into a scene of chaos. A village strewn with litter, patrolled by packs of mangy, flea-ridden dogs, the occasional water buffalo, and volcanic ash paths adorned with excrement, the source of which I did not like to ponder. It looked like a film set for an apocalyptic spaghetti western. And, there were horses everywhere. Between four and five hundred apparently, each with a number, and a tiny Filipino handler sporting a blue shirt with the corresponding number on their back.
We were ushered to a small stone slab, while the handlers ran their eyes over us, assessing our size, weight, and riding capability, before prodding us towards the stone mounting slab like pirates walking us down a plank, taking our turn to mount the slab and forcing us onto the back of our steeds.
I was allotted horse number 3. Horse number 3 was in worse shape than I am and was even more reluctant to make the journey than yours truly, who in the blink of an eye had been plucked from the relative safety of a ramshackle boat with rudimentary safety features and thrown onto the back of a horse, without so much as a hard hat, for his first ever horse-riding experience in his forty something long years on this planet.
Now this was not a man-sized, John Wayne-esque, kind of horse. Oh no. This was a petite, runt-like homegrown Filipino breed. And, as I subsequently found out, Number 3, was ten years old and with three hooves firmly planted in the glue factory!
It was slightly terrifying. No sooner had I cocked my leg when my number 3 guide slapped number 3 horse’s rear and I was lurching and rolling at a none-too gentle pace up a steep track. Without the benefit of reins, I gripped the front of my saddle and fixed my face into something which, I hoped, looked nonchalant or at least did not show my fear.
We paused first for a photo, which would later be photo-shopped to make it look as if we were at the top of the volcano looking out onto the lake, rather than in the middle of the dungheap. Later they would attempt to sell us these photos for 400 pesos. I declined. As we boarded the return boat, the price for the photo had gone down to 200 pesos. I declined a second time.
We paused a second time to be issued with one of those surgical mask things that Asians often sport to ward off bird flu, SARS, or to hide their terror when riding a horse up volcanoes. I attempted to decline but they were insistent. They were insistent because they subsequently charged us 150 pesos for the privilege upon our return to the village.
Horse number 3 panted loudly as he rocked and rolled his way while literally being beaten up an ever increasingly steep and rocky path which passed jets of sulphuric steam, piles of rubbish. At points the path was quite narrow and crowded as those horses climbing the hill came together with those descending. Occasionally, the horses would attempt to graze on the bushes at the side or take a bite at another of the horses. At times they would be forced into a trot. The guides would occasionally jump onto the back of the horses behind their allotted tourist to kick-start their animal. My guide did not do this. I think he was aware that this could have been one straw too far. Instead he shouted, pat and whipped the poor animal as I tried to block the cramp in my hands from gripping the saddle and the pain from my shins where the saps of the stirrups were digging in. I also tried to block the fact that the higher we climbed, the hotter it got, until it became quite stifling.
At the top we dismounted and were relieved of a further 100 pesos to buy a drink for our guide – I hope it covered the cost of a drink for the horse as well. Now, the views at the top were beautiful if you ignored the piles of rubbish and tacky stores selling t-shirts and fridge magnets. You looked out into the crater with its pool of boiling green water – this volcano was certainly still active.
But all too soon we were ushered to the compounds where the guides and horses were gathered to seek out my number 3 horse and guide for the even more terrifying 45 minute journey downhill, at a considerably greater pace than we had ascended.
Back in the village we were relieved of our face mask money and a further 100 pesos tip for the guide before getting back on our boat, soon to find the relief of our air-conditioned minibus for the journey home and an all-too welcome shower.
However, in the privacy of the shower, I soon discovered that the memory of this first, last horse riding experience would stay with me for several days to come. Not only was I saddle sore, but my bum cheeks were very, very chafed and were bleeding quite badly.
It has been six days now, and I still have a very sore arse!
Entry filed under: business travel, Cautionary Tales, middleman, travel. Tags: business travel, Greenbelt, Jeepneys, jet lag, Manila, Philippines, photoshop, saddle sore, sleep deprivation, taal, Taal Volcano, volcano.