Taal Lake and the Lagunzad Trail

Sarge Lacuesta

Philippines

Dan Lagunzad was a botanist: he was built slim and thrumming, like a low, springy tree that was just a little bit taller than I was in college when I met him. I was not his student, but he and my professor — whose name I hardly remember — took their classes out on an ecological survey trip to Taal Lake, about two hours’ worth of driving from Manila.

It was the culminating activity of our classes in Ecology 101. We were all in the first semester of our fourth year in our pre-medical courses, and graduation was an entire season away. And so it was all aimless fun and discovery: Ecology 101 was an elective, one of those courses we knew wouldn’t matter in the long run, and all we were worrying about were girls and boys, and the very abstract idea of the future.

We were a bus full of friends and acquaintances, and like every class at the University of the Philippines, a motley bunch; we were drawn to the university by nothing but a common desire to make something of ourselves, to leap out of our backgrounds in the case of the poorer ones, such as myself, or to blend further into them in the case of those from accomplished or affluent families.

Taal Lake, 70 km south of the capital, is one of those freaks of nature. It is caldera within which is a lake within an island within a lake; the island itself is an active volcano. At the time we visited, it had recently threatened to erupt, compelling the government to call for an evacuation of the towns on the outer lake’s shore. They had booked an empty outpost of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology for our quarters, which meant there was nothing but bare, open floors, a cluster of heavy, outdated equipment, a couple of toilet cubicles, and a bank of showers.

The rear of the outpost ran a long deck that looked out at the lake, ribboned with brightness in the middle of summer, the small dark shape of Taal island springing from the middle of its horizon. The edge of the water was just a few metres out; it began sharply, like a table of dark glass at our feet.

Our weekend mission involved observing organisms, studying samples, and measuring levels. We’d brought specimen jars, microscopes, and dissolved-oxygen metres, taking careful inventory of the items we had taken from our laboratory. We had also devised a system of doing things, dividing the work into teams, and dividing the teams into individuals who would be in charge of specific tasks.

Professor Dan was 34 or 35, which was young, I would think, for a college professor, although at the time I’m quite sure we had no idea what age he was, or cared to know. He had sharp features and small, bright eyes, and a tight head of loosely curled hair, and I remember his mouth was always hooked into a thin smile. He hovered around us shirtless in his jeans, his torso dark and faintly muscular. He stopped from time to time to tell us things we might find interesting — he might have pointed at the island, vaguely volcanic in shape, sitting in the middle of the lake, and he might have told us we would be heading there the next day.

We spent the rest of that day and that night gathering flora and fauna. The scrubby shore, hot and unshaded, yielded little more than plastic bags and bottle caps. The lake took a lot of getting used to: the bed was overrun with an unending plain of undulating seagrass,  and the water itself, cloudy and deprived of marine buoyancy, demanded that we put on face masks and life vests to make sense of our surroundings and keep ourselves afloat.

That evening, an unexpected thunderstorm broke through the sky, and those assigned to the night shift performed their duties under the threat of lightning strikes. The rest of us couldn’t sleep, though we knew we were too young to die. We didn’t, and we woke before dawn the next morning.

The shower stalls were strictly reserved for the girls; the boys were relegated to a small, concrete clearing where a garden hose was hooked up to an outdoor faucet. Stripped to our briefs, we shared a bar of soap, and took turns dousing ourselves with water.  In the distance, as the sky brightened, the island showed itself on the lake.

We took two pump boats to Taal Island. I remember that the water was deep and smooth, the outriggers steady as they cut the surface. I don’t remember how long the trip took, but it was long enough for Professor Dan to lead a complete rendition of America’s “Ventura Highway.” I’d never heard the song until then; it came from the bottom of his lungs and he looked like he was remembering something while he sang it: Ventura Highway in the sunshine, where the days are longer, the nights are stronger than moonshine. 

Unless the danger is happening, nobody really follows evacuation orders. When we reached the island, there was the bustle of fishermen on the shore, and on the way to the hiking trail it was all business as usual for the roadside restaurants and sari-sari stores. We took to the trail eagerly, but as the midmorning hours bore down, our line slowed to a debilitating trudge. We cursed and we muttered, and we caught our breaths only when we finally reached the ridge that overlooked the innermost lake: a lagoon whose acidic algal bloom had coloured it a deep, unnatural green.

Professor Dan touched the green water and sniffed at his hand. He told us that it was as acidic as vinegar. He stamped his foot hard on the rock and tried to infect us with his amazement at the hollow sound it made. He said it was how you could tell you were standing on a volcano. He grasped a stand of cogon grass which had sprouted from the gnarled stone, and tore it out hard from its roots like it was a clump of hair. This is what ecological succession is, he told us, his small eyes bright even in the noon sun, this is how new species can take over older species over time.

Decades later, long after I had quit medical school and lost touch with every single one of my school friends, I wanted to write about our trip to Taal. After some effort, I found an old classmate on Facebook and asked him about Professor Dan. He told me he died in 2010.

Later that afternoon, after we had returned from the island burnt, drenched and hungry, we packed up the equipment and scrubbed the floors clean at the Institute. I wandered into the basement and found Professor Dan in the kitchen, sitting in the dark, that smile on his face, a bottle of rum tucked into his hand. He turned his smile toward me, and I don’t remember if he offered me some, and I’m trying to remember if I had drunk it.