We’re on tour in the Philippines. Having left home on 15 February, I have been travelling, speaking and signing books in Universities, High Schools and at an international convention for twelve consecutive days now, with up to three events per day. The schedule, managed by the indefatigable Professor Pascual, has been a delight, but relentless.
Today, I am supposed to be the guest of honour at Makati University’s English Week, subtitled, Celebrating the Voice of Michael Forester, an honour to which it is as difficult to acclimatise as it is to the climate, 14 degrees north of the Equator. But the City of Manila has other intentions, for a city-wide transport strike has been called. As a result, all places of education have been closed for the day. I know the professors and students at Makati have been preparing, as have I, for months. The deflation is almost tangible, and I am so sad for those who have been disappointed.
There is nothing to be done, and Dr Pascual decides we must compress two days of events into one, tomorrow, when the strike will be over. That gives me an enforced, but highly valued day off. Dr P has decided we will spend it at Tagaytay. I have not idea what’s in store. But there again, we never really do.
I awake early with words in my mind. This is normal, but for the last twelve days, incessant activity has rendered Komar, the Shadow Man, silent. I leap from bed, knowing that if I do not process the words as they come, I will more than likely lose them. That’s the nature of our partnership, the Shadow Man and me. He speaks, I process. If you want to know about Komar you’ll find his story in Forest Rain, a newly released collection of spiritual essays and poetry, which has been selling fast, here in The Philippines. This communication, though, is a dissemination piece, an advertisement, if you will, in support of If It Wasn’t For That Dog, my book about Matt my beloved Hearing Dog. I will post it on social media at the right time.
Words processed, I potter until it is time to take the Taxi to Tagatay. En Route, we stop for coffee, and in Starbucks, my mind wanders off to meet with Komar again. I never plan this, but I do make space for it. Today, Komar is bursting with what he wants to say, for my mental preoccupation for the last twelve, intense, days has distracted me from listening to him. The words are those contained in the next blog post, number 96: The Wrecking Ball. I will post that entry a day or so after this one appears. Post drafted, we proceed on to Tagaytay, where I am confronted with an astonishing view over lake and mountains. And at the centre: Luzon Island on which stands Taal Volcano, our real destination. We drop down the mountain side through a series of dizzying hairpin bends to the side of the lake, where the waves are brisk. Little boats bob at the makeshift jetty, as if struggling for emancipation. In the tour office comes the first major decision of the day. It’s a 45 minute walk in the rapidly rising morning sun to reach the lip of the volcano. The alternative is a 25 minute horseback ride.
Now, I did that once before; rode a horse, I mean. It was about 30 years ago. It did not end well. Initially, I opt to walk, but realise what I’m taking on, given the heat, and eventually, take my life in my hands and agree to the ride. Business done, we proceed to the jetty, such as it is. I don the proffered one-size-fits-all life jacket (only it doesn’t – fit, I mean) and climb into the boat. My hearing processor is removed for what will be an inevitably wet journey. Silence descends, making much space for another discourse with the Shadow Man. And as we chug over towards Luzon Island, the waves lull me into trance once more and speak, he does.
He speaks of metaphor and mountains, of love and of lakes; of heights and depths and of eternity and infinity. I am all but literally blown away, not by the wind, though that is strong enough.
But by the metaphor that is this life, this journey that is joy and challenge, experience and revelation, if we but open our eyes to see past that which presents as commonplace. All I see, all I ‘hear,’ all I feel, kinaesthetically, stands as metaphor, as representation for the deeper place, the substructure of the universe that lies beneath what we see, if we simply have eyes to see; to see the Godspace. And it is in the Godspace that we find understanding of our owning meaning and purpose. For I am part of that metaphor, that glorious explosion of ecstasy which is the birth cry of our expanding universe, in the infinite multiverse of possibility. And I weep. I weep in the lake spray that disguises the reality of tears and makes tears a metaphor all of their own. I weep for the joy of the inspirations of the mountains, the revelation of Spirit in the lake, the exhilaration of the waves and the climb of the volcano that lies ahead.
We arrive at Luzon Island and clamber carefully out of the boat. My request to keep the life jacket for the horse ride is met with mirth. We proceed to the mounting point and don masks for the dust. I am introduced to a horse and climb inelegantly onto his back. Much discussion ensues in foreign tongue before I am removed and placed on a sturdier animal. I have considerable sympathy for any creature challenged to carry my weight, albeit there is some 50 pounds or so less of me than there was two years ago.
I look around for the steering wheel and brake pedal. I can’t find them. I’ll bet this creature doesn’t even have a road worthiness certificate. As we set off, I am wholly preoccupied with hanging on to the tiny handle at the front of the saddle, and maintain my balance against an all too high centre of gravity. Surely, if God had meant man to ride, he would have given us four legs. But there again He did. It’s called horses. In front rides Dr Pascual, poised and elegant. Something tells me I don’t look like that. Mercifully, the driving is done by the gentleman attending the horse. I pray earnestly that he will not let go of the piece of rope that substitutes for reins. I only wish he had a steering wheel.
As we ascend the volcano, we pass a sign that says ‘Stations of the Cross.’ So this is what it feels like to be crucified, I think. Not being a Catholic, I try hard to remember how many Stations of the Cross there are –is it seven or nine? Please, Lord, let there be only seven. I don’t think I’m going to survive nine. At each stage, folk appear to offer us weary travellers various refreshments, usually of the liquid variety. But if anyone thinks I’m about to let go of this handle in front of me with either hand for something as unnecessary as fluid, they are sorely mistaken. In the survival-on-a-horse business, security trumps thirst. I am grateful for my hat and my sunglasses and my dust mask. I can live without water until we get to the top.
The dusty path opens out to a wider sweep of land that rises more gently for a time. I look around at the ever more breath-taking view. I’m now beginning to get… what? My sea legs? Can’t be. I may be all at sea here, so to speak, but I’m not at sea. I begin to get my horse legs. I just wish I had four, like the horse. But I have some balance at last. I’m beginning to understand how, with enough practice, the certifiably insane might possibly come to enjoy this life-threatening elevation. At least, the view is clear from up here. But just as I am beginning to think I’m Clint Eastwood riding my golden palomino across the Wyoming savannah into the sunset, the path grows steep again – and that’s Steep with a capital ’EEP.’ I lean forward in a vain attempt to remain upright and wonder just how long this can go on, when we are confronted by a troupe of riders making their way down. We stop for them and I sway uncertainly, wondering if there might be a market for horse safety belts. We set off again.
And then, finally, mercifully, we arrive at Everest base camp. Well, it feels like it to me anyway. We alight the horses on to piles of concrete bags without the aid of a safety net (actually, thinking about it, UK Health and Safety would go bonkers over this place – but that’s another Learning). A short climb on makeshift steps formed from more bags of concrete (smart thinking, hey) brings us to the top, and the view for which we have come. I stare over the lip of the volcano in astonished wonder at the green water of the caldera lake below me and out over the far lip to Taal lake beyond.
As I drink down the spectacle, trance takes me once again and I am looking for the metaphors. So now, I see the meaning in the journey. That horse, standing a few metres below me: however much I feared it, he was never going to stumble or let me slide off. He makes this trip every day. My job was just to sit there and enjoy the journey, to hold on and not panic myself into losing my nerve and creating a crisis. It’s pretty much the same job I’ve had all my life. It’s simply that it has taken me a while to see it.
After an hour of scribbling notes (the dictation on the i-phone won’t work – due to the heat, maybe?) and snapping up visual memories, we turn for the journey back. No one told me horses go faster downhill than they did coming up. No one told me the road is steeper on the way down. There’s metaphor in that too. But I guess it’s a Learning for another day. Clint Eastwood never had this trouble. Must have been because of his golden palomino.