HER eyes were the softest brown. An almond mole—like an islet below the curve of her right nostril—took after the shape found in the crater of Taal Lake.
“Taga-Cebu man ko, ma’am,” she told us—her accent less pronounced than ours. But there was no mistaking that she was one of us. A fellow water vendor called her out after eavesdropping on our self-deprecating remarks about our poor Tagalog.
We found an instant ally in this place surrounded by a lake that looked and felt like a sea. She had the slyness of a Bisaya as well.
“Ari lang mog palit og tubig kay tag-50 na nis babaw,” she suggested. She sometimes wiped her sweat with the small towel hanging on her right shoulder.
“Pila ka oras ni katkaton padung sa crater, ‘te?” I asked.
“Duol ra na oy. Mada ra nag lakawon,” she whispered, making her voice as low as possible so the middleman would not feel betrayed.
On our right, men and women mounting their horses waited for the middleman to call them out. To protect their skin from the dizzying February heat, they used shirts as masks and wore long sleeves.
Upon our arrival, the middleman kept on persuading us it would take three hours to ascend and hiring a horse would be needed. We did not believe him.
Sometimes traveling asks one to be stubborn, not to fall for what is already established, for what is expected of a non-local. Traveling—especially in places long marred by tourism—sometimes asks one to question the rule, make one’s own rules, trust the gut that says three hours would probably be around an hour or so.
Most of the visitors horsebacked their way up. We were some of the very few who walked our way.
I expected to hear complaints from the five city girls knowing trekking is my passion, not theirs. But they did not arrive. Scarves, a malong, and even a towel suddenly appeared from small bags to shield owners from the misplaced summer in February. Horse dung and its smell accompanied our ascent. Trees were as rare as the trekkers.
We walked in the margins on the way up because it seemed the human path was meant for horses. Those who walked had to give way to those who horsebacked.
Dust was all over. It was on the foreign tourist mounting the horse, on the guide’s shirt mask, on the horse’s feet. But the dust was its thickest and most unforgiving on the walkers’ feet.
But we took our time. We looked backward as much as we looked forward. Backward to see Taal Lake gradually eating up the horizon as we ascended. Forward to know where we were heading.
Hunger, exhaustion, perspiration, thirst blurred in our heads. With the peak in sight, we put more conviction and certainty in our steps. Our hunger and thirst for intangible and tangible things would be fed and quenched by the volcano’s mouth.
The girls I traveled with indeed amazed me because I was the type who preferred the male traveler’s simplicity and spontaneity to the female complexity.
But I should give my female friends credit. Not all could walk in three-inch wedges for hours, not all could fit all those clothes in a rather small bag, not all could brave the heat and manage to look beautiful after a two-hour trek.
I should give them a chance because despite geographic shortcomings (thinking that Taal Volcano was part of Manila), the ascent to the crater, the rounds-and-abouts in the labyrinthine metropolis, the haggling at the night market and Divisoria, the trip to the capital, became a rite of passage for them, a realization for me.
Women must walk. Women must leave the familiar once in a while, or leave the familiar once and for all, and seek and create a new one somewhere else, like the Cebuana water vendor at the foot of the Taal Volcano.
Our journey to this part of Luzon became a pilgrimage of six Cebuanas to the self. Upon reaching the peak, we swelled with pride amid pants.
Instead of feeling appalled and embarrassed at the unrecognizable state of our feet, fulfilment trekked up from our soles to our heads—fulfilment as silent and contained as the lake in Taal’s mouth.
*Jona Branzuela Bering scales mountains, treks rivers, combs beaches, hops towns, takes photographs, saunters city streets for stories and poems. She always travels with a backpack, books, pens, and notebooks. She blogs at http://backpackingwithabook.com/. For inquiries and suggestions, email her at backpackingwithabookgmail.com.