Heaven and altitude: The peak of Taal Volcano
Altitude is a breathtaking thing. It’s the closest to God some of us will ever feel in our lifetime. The weightlessness that comes with being so close to the clouds, the energy that radiates from the ground beneath you as you look over the precipice at all that lies below. You are the earth, and the earth is you. Creator and creation become one in flesh as the heavens look down upon the chaotic harmony from above.
One of my first excursions after landing in Manila for my month-long trip was to such an invigorating place. It was at the top of Taal Volcano, looking down into the main crater, that I felt the fiery connection between me and my ancestors flare within me for the first time in eight years.
Our first few days in the Philippines were electrifying, culminating into a moment of unbelievable reverence as I stood looking into the crater of the second most active volcano in the Philippines.
From the very moment we landed in Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the heat hit me like a wave. For someone like me, a lover of hot mocha drinks, fuzzy socks and throw blankets, the temperature was shocking. But it was something about the island air I hadn’t inhaled for nearly a decade that left me scrambling to exit the airport, my carry-on bag thumping against my back with every step and the feeling of the tropical sun reacting with my skin to bring the melanocytes to the surface.
As our driver weaved through the thick, crowded streets of Metro Manila on the way to our hotel to meet my uncles and cousin, I stared in awe at the city around me. From countless vendors selling their wares to the throngs of Filipinos in the streets to the palm trees that waved to me with their flowing leaves, I felt a sense of homecoming. Even the garbage that sat in clumps at the side of office and residential buildings and the luxury condominiums and apartments built on the outskirts of the city, so out of place and yet so normal, seemed to call out to me excitedly, “Welcome back, welcome home.”
There is nothing more beautiful than untouched land, believe me – I hope everyone that wishes to experience such untainted, immaculate beauty gets to in their lifetime as I have. It is this kind of clean, natural perfection that drew me to the top of Taal Volcano – so colossal and volatile in its mystery.
Our trip to the volcano was spontaneous; old friends of my mother, who we had last seen eight years earlier planned the trip, picked us up from our Manila condotel and drove us the nearly two-hour distance past Tagaytay Ridge with its magnificent view of the surrounding mountains and waters to Taal Lake.
There, we had a delicious seafood meal that I can still taste on my tongue months later. Sitting beneath the bamboo and straw canopy, I was reminded of the simplicity of the land, how its people lived in such blissful normalcy engulfed in a constant ocean spray and the smell of steamed shellfish. I was so happy.
When our late lunch was over, it was time to cross Taal Lake, its lapping waters something straight out of my most beautiful dreams. I remember boarding the boat carefully, holding the driver’s hand as I stumbled my way onto the wooden seat next to my brother. When the boat started to move, we were given a million salty kisses as the lake bobbed and jostled our vessel about like a toy. We were but mere playthings, having been granted the affection of Mother Nature herself.
I remember thinking that I couldn’t recall a time where my brother looked so happy. He hadn’t cut his hair in many months, so he kept it tied back in a ponytail that showed his glowing face. Looking back on our time in Manila and in the province, I noticed that he had never smiled as much as he did on this trip.
He would take picture after picture, enduring every single one of my mother’s “selpie selpie” sessions – moments he usually turned away from in annoyance. We leaned on each other as the boat knocked us from side to side. I felt so connected to him in that moment. We were the only ones that didn’t wear lifejackets. We felt invincible, as if we were one person walking on the water like Moses.
When the half-hour boat ride was over, we washed up lazily onto the shores of the Talisay village, where a frail looking woman helped my heavy body down from the bow. I was left to contemplate the wonder of the human body and its ability to stay so strong in old age as I clutched her skinny hand, afraid of the height.
All around us, the village was alive. Children splashed in the lake water, squealing with glee in their soaked-through clothes. I thought about how they could be so accustomed to tourists coming in and out of their home with such frequency, like the waves of the lake splashing at the boats that brought them to this special place.
We made our way to the horse stalls where we learned that we could ride the little beats up the mountain to the crater. I begged my mother to let us go. “Will we ever get the chance to do this again?” I asked her. She said yes to the trip, and I thought about how much a woman could love her children to be so kind, to be so selfless and good. I thought how lucky my brother and I were to have her, despite all the things we quarreled about and disagreed over. I thought that she was the sole reason on this earth that I could be surrounded by such wonder and tranquility. I still don’t think I’ve thanked her properly.
I pulled my clumsy body up onto the horse, and my guide, a short Filipino man with beautiful, dark skin and a silly smile, led us out of the stall. I was the first one of our group to ascend the mountain, and as I sat shaking, slightly from the excitement, slightly from the anxiety. I thought that I would never again experience such a thrill as feeling the tropical breeze blow through my too-long hair and smell the faint odor of the volcano’s sulfuric gases creep out from cracks in the mountain ridges.
About a quarter of the way up the volcano, my guide joined me on the horse’s back and I felt as connected with him as I had been with my brother on the boat. He played music for me from his cracked cell phone, gently singing along to break the silence between the horse’s footsteps. “Clip, clop, clip.” Later, he would tell me that the horse’s name was Jericho. I wish I had remembered his name too.
I let his gentle voice fill the empty space around us as I stared around in awe at the magnificence of the grassy ledges, at the rolling hills, at the dirt path. Every so often, I would spot a makeshift cross jutting out from the soft dirt in the distance. The Philippines was such a spiritual place, so God-fearing and proud in their faith. I felt so pure. A white sheet pinned to a clothesline, ruffling in the wind’s gentle breeze.
When we had all finally made it to the top of the volcano, another guide led us to the viewing area, to the very edge of the world.
I approached the metal bars that separated me from the bubbling crater below and I marveled at its natural state. This force of nature sat before me, my body so small and insignificant in comparison to the gaping mouth of steaming liquid before me.
I could see the guide talking next to me, explaining something to my mother and brother about the science behind it all, but I couldn’t hear her. All around me, the greens looked greener, the blues looked bluer. The dirt smelled stronger – a musky scent that seemed like nature’s cologne.
As I stood clutching the metal bars, looking past the crater at the other land masses and the endless lake beyond it, I contemplated my own mortality. How was any of it possible? Sleeping volcanoes and playful lakes, living in a harmony that humans have yet to be made capable of.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, the guide still speaking animatedly of something about chemicals and temperatures and volcanic explosivity. I breathed in the air around me, wishing I could bottle it up and take it with me when, inevitably, I would have to leave it behind. When I opened my eyes, everything felt larger. More open. As if the universe was expanding, as it does, before my very eyes.
I noticed then what the concept of altitude meant to me. It meant being able to rise above, like a bird or a plane or something otherworldly altogether. I realized that the altitude of heaven was truly inconceivable, but I felt that because of places like this, I could make it there. I could make it to the paradise in the sky simply because I had made to this paradise on earth.