Third Culture Kids are resourceful, fully able to deal with anything that a cross-cultural experience can throw at them.

This was my delusion, until I encountered the horses of Taal Volcano.

It all began when we decided to visit a friend in the Philippines. The Philippines are not that far from Australia, so this was going to be our easily accessible cross-cultural fix.

My husband, bless him, enjoyed the visit completely. Chilling out playing basketball and helping in the fields where our friend was building a radio tower were all right up his alley.

But I, though having marginally more cross-cultural experience than he, was overwhelmed. The Philippines nation is beautiful, the people are lovely, warm-hearted and creative, and they cook delicious food. What I remember though is over-crowded, smog-filled, humid Manila. I must have painted myself a romantic picture of the city from BBC broadcasts about Ferdinand Marcos, his many-shoed First Lady and Corazon Aquino. Perhaps I was expecting it to be like the capital of my birth-country, a far less densely populated place. Expectations powerfully affect experiences. I discovered instead that humidity and built-up areas are not my thing, and ate way too much of the food to compensate.

When someone suggested a day trip to the famous Taal Volcano, I was delighted. We were finally going rural.

The drive to Lake Taal was beautiful. The deep green seemed to drip off the vegetation outside. And it was dripping with rain too, just enough to wash away the memory of city smog, faintly cooling the skin. Wide open spaces were few and far between – this was in the tropics, and lush, thick vegetation took over when humans didn’t. I worked out then that open spaces, where the eye can see the horizon, give me a sense of security. After all, I grew up in the rural African Savanna, and I live in South Australia. The Philippines were becoming a journey in self-discovery.

We got out of the car at Lake Taal, and there, in the middle of the huge spread of water, was the volcanic mountain. The place is spectacular. Taal Volcano and Lake Taal both sit in a massive crater, and at the top of the volcano is a smaller crater filled with a sulphurous lake. Like concentric circles. Check out http://asias-world.com/index.cfm?p=695 for a great photo.

We got on a boat. I had been pre-warned, but was a little nervous. I should explain that this was my first ever ride on anything water-borne, and I can’t swim, float, or doggy-paddle. Blame the African Savanna for that. Once on the lake though, I found my wide open spaces, stretching away in every direction. Breathtaking! We chugged across to the volcanic island and disembarked. I eased the remaining tension from my muscles. Now we just had to get up the mountain, and enjoy taking some great photos. From the bottom, though, it looked like a near-vertical climb to the top.

The people on the island were  little, brown, and simply dressed, with bright, wide smiles, and friendly gestures. There were some hens, goats, and tiny ponies. And then the bombshell was dropped.

‘Here are the horses to take us up,’ someone said.

I looked, eyes popping, at the ponies. Their hair was rough and slightly matted, and some flies hovered, yet they still managed to look cute. But was I going to ride up the mountain on one of them? I’d never ridden anything alive before. Besides, I really couldn’t see how the horse could stay upright on that steep gradient. I, and it, would fall down, all the way into Lake Taal below. Did I mention I couldn’t swim?

My companions looked as if they did this every day. Of course, silly me, riding ponies is a piece of cake! Unless you’ve never ever got within harrumphing distance of one. The only animals I have had close encounters with are cats, dogs, chickens, and a cow that once tried to butt me. Oh, and a baby cobra practicing its vicious dance. Once. But my dad killed it before it touched me. I was beginning to realize what a sheltered life I’d led.

‘Can I walk up?’ I was dressed in good, stout, walking gear.

I got long responses, but the bottom line was I could, but it was very, very steep, and a very long hike, and I would do a lot better to get on that horse that was being nudged toward me.

I had a meltdown, right there in public. My companions averted their eyes and shuffled off on their ponies while my husband and the owner of my pony, a little woman, tried to convince me to mount. I was eventually encouraged, by degrees, to sit on the animal. My husband happily mounted his own steed, and the keeper of mine mounted behind me, took a firm hold of my waist, and drove the horse, in fits and starts, up the mountain.

It was quite easy, and I didn’t fall. And the view at the end was spectacular. I wish I could have video-taped the experience, as sulphur bubbled up through the lake at the top. Surrounding us below and stretching out was Lake Taal. Everywhere was a lush green. At the end of a very pleasant visit to the top of Taal Volcano, we mounted our ponies for the easy journey down. Easy? It was actually more frightening than coming up. I felt I was being propelled forward, right into the lake. It’s amazing how those ponies keep their footing. Heart pounding, skin drenched with sweat, I eventually reached flat terra-firma.

The boat trip back was a cinch. Amazingly, it took me several weeks to realize I had experienced culture-shock – yet again!

Here is another tourist’s more recent visit to Lake Taal and Taal Volcano: http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/pascalp/se_asia_-_2005/1127493000/tpod.html. The ponies are still going strong!

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