Escaping pressure in the Philippines

A strong sea breeze greets me on a Puerto Galera-bound ferry as I watch Batangas Port fade away. The cool wind is calming and an escape from the Filipino heat. My mind needed an escape as well. Since I left new friends in Kunming two weeks ago, I’ve visited my new school in Shanghai, and bid farewell to Shenzhen, which I called home for the last two years. Bittersweet emotions have been straining me recently — internal forces battle to hold on to the past while embracing the future.

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Yesterday, the sight of Taal Volcano — the world’s smallest active volcano — encapsulated my desire to escape. Sulfuric steam vents dot the edges of the water-filled crater, releasing intense pressure from deep within. Aside from being small, Taal Volcano is unique for being situated in the middle of Taal Lake, which was formed by a massive eruption long ago (the last eruption was in 1977).

To cross the lake, hire a banca (I shared the boat with two Swiss guys for 1,500 pesos, including the return trip), and then you can do the easy, 45-minute hike up to the inner lake after you pay the P100 entrance fee. It’s not recommended, but you can actually swim in the greenish water (avoid the 70-80°C hot spots, of course), although I couldn’t find a clear trail down. However, I did take a refreshing dip in Taal Lake to wash off the dust and sweat. For a magnificent view of the volcano and surrounding scenery, stay in Tagaytay, 60km south of Manila. I spent the night at Mountain Breeze Hostel (P450 dorm bed) after flying into Manila two nights before. For comprehensive directions, click here.

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My two nights in Manila were split between Pasig City and Makati City. In Pasig after landing, I stayed at the upscale Privato Hotel (P3700 for a double room with a great view of Makati’s skyscrapers and colorful, corrugated-metal roof surroundings) and had a delicious dinner of Kare Kare (pork belly in a spicy sauce) with a Filipino, who took pity on me by personally exchanging money for me. The next day I took my first jeepney (think of an extended-cab, retro-cool jeep that can pack in 23 people for seven pesos) to Burgos Street in Makati to witness the nightlife and girlie bars. I stayed at the Lokal Hostel, which has a helpful, English-speaking staff and the cheapest rooms on Burgos (P500 dorm bed, P1,500 private with A/C). In general, most people in tourist areas can speak English. Also in general, San Miguel beer is cheap and the local food is terrific.

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(SIDENOTE: be prepared for annoying tourist touts and horrendous traffic everywhere. Traffic is even worse at the moment as locals travel to their home provinces to vote in Monday’s elections. Manny Pacquiao, the world-renowned fighter, is running for the Senate.)

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