You may have gone to the rough island at the very top of Batanes in the north, or the isolated one on the very south of Tawi-Tawi; you may have flown over the South China Sea to see how we have occupied Pag-Asa; or plunged into the reef of Tubbataha. You’ve reached the extremes of the country and yet you’ve waited all these years to see the heart of Bicolandia.
Getting there takes less than an hour by plane, or an overnight ride by bus. Arriving at nightfall, the silhouette is neither teasing nor distracting. It will tell you the morning after that you’ve been a fool neglecting the sight of her, a volcano that captivates you whether you like it or not.
As soon as you leave your downtown hotel, there she is. Clear and bright under the morning sun, showing her sharp ridges like rivulets from the crater. You drive to the boulevard by the the Albay Gulf, and there she is again. She doesn’t really want you to come closer. It’s enough that you’ve given her the attention she deserves.
You had taken her for granted because you had seen enough postcards, read too many stories about her eruption, and believed that finding the exotic in your country lay elsewhere. Still you’re lucky she has unveiled herself to you for the first time, and she will never make you forget this.
You’re doubly lucky that a writer of Bicolano legends takes you on a ride around the volcano, a total of 81 kilometers in less than a day. It takes only this much to love Mayon, which looms big over the city of Legazpi, so named after the Spanish explorer who had never, ironically, ever set foot in this capital of Albay province.
There are places along the way that are made for tourists’ best Instagram moments with the volcano. The nearest are Lingon Hill and Daraga, where a whitewashed Spanish colonial church awaits the volcano’s tantrums. In Bicol, there are as many legends as there are patron saints.
The tourists are easily pulled toward Cagsawa, which they are made to believe was a town buried by the ashes of Mayon’s anger in the early 19th century. My guide, the writer Jun Balde, tells you it’s all hogwash. He still remembers having seen the church relatively in place when he was a high school student on excursion. He shows a black-and-white photograph taken in 1934 that is “incontrovertible proof that the church was not buried.”
We sit by one of the stalls for a glass of guyabano juice. We could have had chili ice cream but again, you’d like to save that for last. Summer is announcing its onslaught with tormenting humidity. You don’t want to do what others are doing on an all-terrain vehicle, racing up to the foothills of the volcano through a dry riverbed. No, thank you, you’d rather tour the churches and seek respite from the heat within the stone walls.
Or you may relax on a bamboo raft floating in Sumlang Lake, the view of Mayon right before you, covered with cotton clouds by noon. Dip your feet in the water and take a sip of turmeric tea being sold at the stall. There’s a small park and a souvenir shop selling pili nuts of many flavors, and exquisitely woven abaca bags and floor mats.
If you really want to get closer to the volcano, there’s an 11-kilometer road up the ridge on the way to the town of Tabaco (the setting for Merlinda Bobis’s novel Banana Heart Summer). It’s not much of a thrill, though, gauging from the rundown Skyline Hotel. It’s another place for Instagram shots. Local women do business selling bonsai plants plucked from the mountain.
At the last turn heading back to Legazpi, Jun has to show the town formerly called Libog, where the revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio left his heart and was said to have sired a child. His statue is there, not Jose Rizal’s, and so is the tomb of the music composer Potenciano Gregorio: remember Sarung Banggi, the most famous of Bicolano songs?
In the city, there is no better place to watch Mayon slink into the night than at the Oriental Hotel up on a hill, a vestige of Imelda Marcos’ glory days. You sit there by the terrace, waiting for the perfect cone of the volcano to take shape in the shadows.
You think about your full day in the city--the Bicol Express that was a train running from Manila’s Tutuban station to Legazpi’s station of classic design, now painted a strange baby blue. You laugh at Jun’s many jokes, listen to his stories and laugh some more when he points out to you the name of a brothel in town (The House of the Rising Sun), a hotel (The Twilight Zone), eateries (Pares King and Pares Queen, so where is Pares Priest?)
Before you leave, you’ll like to see Mayon again in whatever mood she may be in; early morning in the boulevard there she is threatened by dark clouds above that do not dare unleash rain. Instead, a rainbow arches from over the bay.
She’s been kind to you despite your having taken so much time before seeing her again. She wants to tell you that she too can be loved. So, you stay by the boulevard, to watch her for as long as you can sipping coconut water from its shell to quench your thirst, until the volcano begins to enshroud itself with wisps of cloud.
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.
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