BATANGAS, Philippines: At 70, Cesar Orese doesn't mind having aged in the countryside.
He is the kind of man who checks the time of the day not on a clock but by the position of the sun as it hovers over the shore.
Despite his age, not even the threat of deadly, fast-moving superheated gas kept Mr Orese from returning to Taal Volcano Island in Batangas province – his home of 30 years in the Philippines.
Volcano Island is found in the middle of Taal Lake on the island of Luzon – an island in a lake on an island in a lake.
Taal Volcano – one of 24 active volcanoes in the Philippines and the countrys second most active – is being closely monitored since its eruption on Sunday (Jan 12).
The island – where Mr Orese, his wife, two children and five grandchildren live – surrounds Taal Volcano's main crater and the so-called "crater lake". Water on crater lake has since drained after days of Taal Volcano's heightened unrest.
The state's volcanology and seismology institute says the volcanic earthquakes monitored around the region indicate the upward movement of magma inside the volcano, among the world's smallest but deadliest due to nearby settlements and a history of violent eruptions.
Eruptions in 1754, 1911 and 1965 displaced entire communities, claiming hundreds of lives.
From an adjacent shore before Sunday's steam-laden fumes came out of Taal's crater, Volcano Island had a green hue, not like the ash grey it is now.
"I ran to our store but the ash cloud stood tall. Stones fell on my head. I rushed to start the boat's engine and left. If not, I would have died there. The ash cloud was so dark," Mr Orese told CNA about his experience, gesturing with his hands the tremors they felt on Sunday.
Their store — newly-stocked that day — had some US$600 in supplies. In their rush, they were only able to grab two boxes of beer and some chips.
He, along with his entire family, boarded their boat that he bought 20 years ago, started the rusty engine and rushed southeastward, as the older Batanguenos like him were taught by their forefathers.
They reckoned the winds and ash spewed by Taal Volcano blew either northeastward or southwestward, so they made their way to Balete town's shores, southeast of the volcano.
FLOURISHING TOURISM MARKET
Balete is a 20 to 45-minute boat ride to Volcano Island but still in the 14km danger zone.
From the shores of the town, Mr Orese gazed at the ash-covered island with the look of one betrayed.
The island has always been good to him. He was born and raised on the mainland but left for the island during when he was middle-aged.
On the island, his family ran a small store. They had a horse, a cow, a pig and a boat they used both to fish and to ferry others.
Livelihood for those on the island was largely fuelled by a market of adrenaline-driven tourists drawn to the adventure of hiking on an active volcano. Some also hired the locals' horses to climb the trail.
There were at least a thousand horses bred on Volcano Island to cater to these tourists, based on estimates by locals who spoke to CNA.
The local government of Talisay town, where most guests would be ferried from, got additional revenue through fees imposed on visitors to the island.
Talisay is a short drive from the tourist city of Tagaytay, where most guests would drive through from the Philippine capital Manila and where many hotels are located.
Boatmen and locals living on Volcano Island who were willing to serve as guides were tapped by resorts and travel centres that offered guests tour packages marketed as a once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the volcano up close.
These packages are sold for between US$30 and US$217, depending on the number of individuals.
“Learn about the eruption history and conservation efforts of the volcano,” one such offer advertised online at US$68 per person read.
Warren Gallebo, who used to work as a driver on these tours, said he had contacts among the boatmen and local tour guides ready to be tapped whenever there was a client.
“The local guides would have spiels about their conditions in life and theyre able to gain the sympathy of visiting guests,” Mr Gallebo said.
At one resort, a former contractor said a guest would pay US$70 for a travel package that included the drive from the hotel, the boat ride from the mainland to the foot of Volcano Island, and the guided tour of the trail up to the top where one has an unobstructed view of the crater lake.
From there, guests have the option to hang out at the viewing deck, stay for an entire afternoon and sleep at one of the cottages on the island, hire a local to head down for supplies and cook food for you, or even trek down to the crater lake itself and take a post-trek dip.
While Taal Volcano is a geological marvel, Volcano Island is declared a Permanent Danger Zone.
The island is now deserted, after Taal Volcano emitted a 15km ash column that blanketed its surroundings last Sunday.
Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology or Phivolcs Director Renato Solidum said no one should be living on the island and that a permanent evacuation of residents should be enforced.
Since March 2019, Phivolcs had noted Taal Volcanos unrest.
A slight increase in volcanic earthquake and steam or gas activity of Taal Volcano, as well as a notable increase in the temperature of its hot springs were recorded at that time. Entry to Volcano Island was prohibited.
Despite the warnings, the lure of the tourist money has been hard to resist.
Jeffrey Cacao was one of the “magkakabayo” or “horse guides” on Volcano Island, guiding tourists through the “secret trail” and offering their horses to ferry guests who get tired of the trek.
Each visitor typically paid US$10 for a horse ride during the hike, separate from the tips.
But Mr Cacao said only US$7 would be left for the horse guide, after association and local government dues are taken out by the dispatcher.
Some hotels and travel agencies discourage horse-riding. But there were two associations of local horse guides set up with hundreds of members — some owning multiple horses — that sustained the trade.
FLEEING GROUND ZERO
It was during one of his guided tours on Sunday with tourists that Mr Cacao saw dark clouds and heard rumblings from the volcano.
“After we dropped off the tourists, we felt the tremors. We initially thought they were normal,” he said.
But Mr Cacao said the non-stop tremors drove them to rush back to their village on the southern part of the island to gather their family for immediate evacuation.
"There were still tourists on the island. But when they saw ash spinning out of the crater, we all ran," he added.
Mr Cacao was unable to bring his horse — used by his last clients on Sunday — as he scrambled to leave the island.
Mr Orese was on the mainland on Sunday with one of his children to buy and restock their store's supplies. Their family boat was with him.
When he was back at Volcano Island, the newly-bought goods suddenly started falling from the rack. His worst nightmare had arrived.
He ran to the houses of his two children, now with their own families, to make sure they were all with him to board the boat.
“The land shook. Our roof rattled with the pebbles. You would tumble with the shaking. So I ran,” he said.
RISKING LIVES TO RETRIEVE LIVESTOCK
Despite government warnings, both Mr Orese and Mr Cacao returned to Volcano Island after Sunday's eruption to retrieve their livestock and whatever that was left of their family's possessions.
“We can no longer buy new ones. We dont have money … Thats why we want to get them,” Mr Orese said.
"Of course, we'll go back to Volcano Island for our livestock. Those are our only income source. No one will give us a new livelihood," Mr Cacao explained.
Local tour guides said they were hurt by comments that they had abandoned their horses and stressed that they would risk life and limb for them – as they actually did during their multiple returns after Sunday.
Photos and videos shared with CNA by the islands residents show a wasteland, with everything coated with a thick layer of settled volcanic ash.
There were destroyed houses, fallen trees, a hardened dead horse and a cow buried in ash-covered debris.
Volcano Island residents who were evacuated to government centres outside the danger zone also still returned in groups to recover personal items.
"We didn't recognise our community. Trees and houses were not visible, obscured by ash. Totally flat. Weve now accepted we no longer have possessions to return to," said Volcano Island resident Judith Mendoza.
She travelled on Tuesday morning from a safe zone in neighbouring Sto Tomas City to Baletes shores to be ferried with a group of 11 residents to Volcano Island.
She was able to retrieve some clothes for herself and her son, but their crowded boat couldnt ferry back her familys horse.
Government-led search and rescue efforts have been ongoing to retrieve livestock and pets on Volcano Island, but each trip took time. Authorities were only able to retrieve around 10 animals or fewer for each trip.
It was virtually impossible to bring larger vessels docked at sea to the area since the waters are landlocked.
Volcano Island residents fear that, after this ordeal, they would be left with nothing.
Mr Cacao said saving at least some of their livestock will give them something to work with as they rebuild their lives.
THE CHALLENGE OF RELOCATION
Many Volcano Island inhabitants who fled on Sunday to Balete town took shelter in a subsidised housing area provided years ago by the local government to some of the islands residents.
Those who didn't havRead More – Source