It is possible that due to its geographical situation, most long-haul cycle travelers decide to bypass the Philippines. With more than 7000 islands spread across the Pacific ocean, The Philippines cannot be accessed by land. In most cases, people have to fly in and out of the country. This alone discourages most cycle travelers because of the costs involved in flying with all the stuff and how uncomfortable that is. It is a fact, we are not comfortable when we are away from our bicycles, let alone stand the nightmare of imagining what may happen to them when careless hands load them in and out of the plane. Although there is one way to enter and leave the country by sea, it is quite limited for the ones who are cycling from country to country. Still, I had been dreaming for years about visiting The Philippines and I wasn't going to let the discomforts of flying discourage me, thus I felt that it was worth it to pay the extra cost and face the unbearable feelings that come at the time you check-in your bike and last until you get it back. Two months later, time would not only prove us that it had been worth it but also that it hadn't been nearly enough time for such an amazing country.
Respect, first and foremost
There is something that has a strong impact on oneself from the very first time you set foot (on your pedal) in The Philippines, especially for those of us who have been living in China for quite a long time, and that is the enormous respect and careful manners with which the people address you. I don't want to cause misunderstandings though, Chinese people are respectful but their manners are very different and it takes quite a lot of understanding of the Chinese people to get used to them. Here, it didn't take us more than a few meters on the saddle after leaving the airport to realize how respectful and deferential people are. As soon as we were on the road pedaling, we started to hear over and over, people greeting us in a very joyful and enthusiastic way: “Good morning Sir! Good morning Madam!”. The deference with which Filipinos addressed us was such that from the very beginning they made us feel welcome, almost at home. Just after a few kilometers, a security man sitting by the road, not only gave us precise indications for where we were heading to but sat on his own bike and escorted us (regardless of the fact that it was 9 am and it was already 30C)
Our journey started in Clark, a small provincial airport that serves the city of Angeles, about 100km north of Manila. Landing on the tropics always has a special flavor. You get off the plane and the humidity immediately impregnates your body to never leave again until the very last day you are there. The air is dense, torrid and there's usually this very strong smell to wet soil and plants that fills your nostrils. But you don't only feel the tropics by its climate but also by the more relaxed and cheerful spirit of its people. In the tropics, pace is slower and life happens in slower motion. Coming from frantic China, this brings a very welcome change of pace for us. Of all the multiple choices that we had to start riding in the country, Julia chose the most difficult one. In an utterly brave decision to start building her own physical and mental strength beginning with the road that would eventually be the most challenging for her, we set off to the north to ride across what is known locally as the Cordillera, the Spanish word for “mountain range”. The funny thing is that when one thinks about the Philippines, images of idyllic beaches, cocktails, swaying palm trees and all sorts of pleasures in paradise come to mind, and these images are actually not that far from reality, after all, the Philippines is one of the world's divers' mecca and most of the tourists that come here come in search of resort life, crystal clear waters and anything but adventure. However, the north of Luzon has a lot more than a culture of colorful fishes and earthly pleasures on white sand beaches. The Cordillera is a massive massif of lush mountains, exuberant vegetation, dramatic canyons, steep cliffs and above all, an impressive array of tribal cultures that inhabit the region since the dawn of time.
The first stage of the journey after leaving the airport on the way to Baguio, the door to the Cordillera was easy. Being the beginning, one is full of energy and enthusiasm, trying to absorb everything around you like a curious child. Everything is new, everything is different and one doesn't want to miss anything. Despite being a fully flat and perfectly paved road the shock came with the heat and the traffic. The heat in the tropic is unforgiving, it accompanies you all the time, everywhere you go from dawn till dusk. After 9.30 am it slowly starts to become a problem, reaching its peak at 2 pm and starting to die down equally slowly after 4 pm. The traffic is chaotic and disorganized and the volume goes along with the population. The Philippines has a very large population for a rather small inhabitable territory. 97 million people. It quickly became clear to us that there would be no empty stretches for more than 1 or 2 consecutive kilometers. There are people and uninterrupted settlements all along the roads, everywhere. On the other hand, considering the high volume of traffic, chaos and the disorder and noise that come with it, it was rather impressive that nobody would be honking their horns to us due to our slow pace. At times, we had lots of cars and trucks stuck behind us, waiting to pass and not even one of them would be honking their horn to us, let alone yelling or cussing. What's more, the only reason why we would become aware of them was because of us turning our heads. To me, coming from where I come from, this was like science fiction. People were so respectful about this that they even made me feel guilty and I would do my best to quickly pull myself to the side of the road to let them pass. Trucks, mini-vans, cars, motorcycles, tricycles, buses and the funny jeepneys flood the roads of the Philippines. The Jeepney is a Filipino invention, a public bus for short distances, sometimes looking as though coming out of a cartoon. An old truck refurbished with a metallic skeleton glamorously painted to stand out of the rest. Seeing the huge dedication and love their owners put into them brought me wonderful memories of Pakistan and its truck drivers, both enamored with and proud of their vehicles.
During these first few days of adaptation and absorption we clearly detected two characteristic elements of the Philippines of today, both inherited from its past. The Philippines suffered two consecutive tragedies, first the Spanish colony. The Spanish brought to them the same sort of miseries that they had already brought to America (the continent, not what people wrongly refer to as a country). From them, they inherited: a great deal of natives either massacred or abused or both, a lot of Spanish words in their language (including most of the surnames of today), quite a lot of colonial architecture and of course, the implantation by force of the catholic church, making the Philippines the only stronghold of Christianity in Asia.
As if they hadn't had enough with the first one, they had a second tragedy, a US American colony. From them, they inherited, the shopping mall culture and the habit of eating trash at the countless Fast Food joints. The life of most modern Filipinos today revolves around these last two. Lastly, they inherited the English language which most people can speak in different degrees and sometimes remarkably well. The amount of shopping malls, fast food joints and churches of all the imaginable variants of Christianity is overwhelming. There's at least one branch of each of them in every town and village. On the other hand, a small bunch of ultra-super-powerful families control almost all the wealth of the country, a country that most of the time goes from poor to super poor. The two most powerful families, both local but one of Spanish origin and the other one of Chinese origin, fight to show off their power by building one Shopping mall after another. The most common tripartite urban scenario is: Church+Mc Donald's+Shopping mall, the rest is mostly slums and rural settlements.
It is really hard to imagine how this trilogy can be profitable in a country where the basic salary outside the big cities is no more than 5 usd a day.
On the church side of things, just to mention a few I remember: Catholic, Evangelist, Baptist, Protestant, Anglican, Lutheran, Adventist of the 7th day, Mormon, Jehova witnesses, moonie, Opus dei and the list goes on and on. No my friends, I'm not trying to list all the variants of Christianity, I'm just literally mentioning just a few of all the ones that we've seen here on a daily basis. And here's the thing, when asking filipinos what they think about the 300 years of Spanish colony, they all seem to agree that it was awful and brutal, however they are all grateful about having been given the Christian faith.
The days of easy roads soon came to an end. The entrance to the Cordillera began at about 50km before reaching Baguio City and it began abruptly. You go from a flat landscape of vast rice plantations and coconut trees at sea level to very steep climbs that turn left and right almost whimsically. After only 35km, we were already above 1000 meters and everything around us was mountains.
The climbs were so steep at each turn that I had to put a lot of muscle at the time of pushing the pedal. For me, that I was already fit, it was normal, but for Julia that was just starting, it was logically an extremely strenuous exercise and she would have to frequently get off the bike and push. Thus the first days were slow and if it hadn't been enough, they came with heavy rains, even when we were officially well into the dry season. This made us stop quite often and made everything even slower and more painful. However, everything changed completely after we passed Baguio, an ugly and populous city crowned by one of those hideous SM City malls, when we took the amazing Halsema highway, that cuts across most of the Cordillera, from south to north. What came after were hundreds of kilometers along the most amazing rice terraces that I have ever seen before. The ones in southern China that I had just cycled across certainly had a huge impact on me but these of the Cordillera, were simply breathtaking, not only literally due to what it takes to cycle these steep climbs, but because of the utter perfection with which these slopes have been sculpted for centuries to fully optimize the available space to cultivate the land. Seen from the road, the terraces seem to form an amazing pattern that looks almost like wool. At times, you could see uniform patches, at others you could see intricate amphitheaters folding back and forth, twisting and turning with the beams of light filtering through the clouds shaping them dramatically. The resulting scenery was sublime.
The Igorot tribe (among many others) that inhabit this region from the dawn of time still survives here, even in times when the cultivation of rice in the highlands is no longer a profitable business. Their houses made of wood and corrugated metal adapt to the slopes with the same apparent facility of the terraces that they themselves cultivate every day.
The eldest people have their full bodies artistically tattooed from head to toes. The youngest however have already left the traditions of their ancestors behind and moved into the future wearing cheap and tacky clothes imported from China. Thanks to their high level of English it was easy to communicate with the Igorot and we were able to feel how wonderful and sensible they are. They always treated us with the best local coffee brewed right there, usually behind their own house. It is the water they drink here and it is simply delicious.
In tagalog (the official language of the Philippines) Barangay means something like village and it is the smallest partition of the urban structure. Every barangay has its own leader chosen by the people, he/she is “the barangay captain” and always is, without exceptions, a very kind and hospitable person. The barangay hall, depending on the size of the barangay, can be either a building or a small house and it is the place where the captain meets every day with his counselors to disccuss the matters that concern to the community he leads. At the end of every day, when we arrive to a barangay the first thing we do is to ask to see the captain, to whom we tell about our journey, our plans, our purposes, the reasons of our presence there and finally ask him/her for a place to sleep. The captain will always invariably make sure that we have such place. We are almost always given permission to sleep at the barangay hall and sometimes they even invite us to spend the night at their own home with their family where they serve us dinner and breakfast the day after. Needless to say, they don't ask for a single penny in return. Because of this, the times when we actually paid for accommodation in the Philippines were deliberate and counted with the fingers of one hand. There wasn't any single barangay in which the people, beginning with the captain, hadn't been there to ensure our safety and integrity, as well as our comfort. In the Philippines, people never ever leave you if you need something. Even if in the beginning they don't get quite well what you need or what you are looking for, they will stick around until they finally get it and help you find the solution to your necessity. It is absolutely amazing and one of the most wonderful things about traveling in this country. In every single barangay we've stayed at, we have shared our time and lives with the locals, who have always made us feel welcome and received us with the utmost hospitality.
As we got into the more remote parts of the Cordillera, the barangays started getting smaller and smaller and the people of the tribes friendlier and more curious. Sagada and Banaue had long been left behind, two of the only tourist spots where 99% of the people who come to this region concentrate, thus they weren't interesting to us at all. We passed through the former by necessity and we ignored the latter completely. We were on our way to Abbra province looking for riding across the amazing Balbalasang National Park in Kalinga. Every time we told people about this plan, they would stand still in silence for a few seconds, look at us first, at our bicycles after and would conclude: It's IMPOSSIBLE! The road is in tatters, it is dangerous, there are no people, no public transport and there's no food! On the other hand, our sources told us that it was the most beautiful road in the Philippines so it was hard for us to resist the temptation. After cycling the whole Halsema highway it was already hard to imagine something even better, but after leaving Lubuagan on the way to Balbalan the road became seriously spectacular.
Several kilometers before Balbalan when we left the Halsema highway, the nice tarmac had ended and gave way to a shattered road hidden somewhere along the way. It was the narrow road made of dirt and big cracked stones that would take us through very rough terrain, making us sweat pushing constantly uphill and downhill through spectacular canyons and breathtaking views. Emerald green rivers ran hundreds of feet below where the vertical cliffs ended abruptly. The climbs were very steep at times and made the heart pump very fast, throbbing as if wanting to come out of the chest. The road kept twisting and turning with huge drops into the abyss right next to us.
At an average of 1500 to 1800 mts high, the vegetation started to mix and becoming less tropical than the one below. The climate of the Cordillera made us forget for a while that we were still in the tropics, during the day, the heat was bearable and nigths were fresh, even slightly cold and brought skies filled with billions of stars. During the first half after leaving Balbalan there were still small tribes and settlements. People get to these after several hours of painfully uncomfortable travel in a weekly half-torn-apart jeepney loaded beyond the boundaries of human reason, defying every law of physics.
After the last village, there was absolutely nothing for several kilometers and it took us several days to complete the journey. The road was truly rough and it grew worse and worse as we moved along. It got to its worst 9km before the pass that serves as border between Kalinga and Abbra provinces. We did the best we could, me cycling and Julia pushing but it was too much for her at this stage, the road was insanely steep and it was a sea of big stones and it would've taken us quite a long time of incredible effort to pull it off. After a few kilometers of misery, a jeepney in tatters carrying loggers to get water somewhere up in the mountain passed by and the driver saw us in misery struggling through the stones. He told us that he wasn't going too much farther to leave the loggers and continued, and we did too, but after a little more pain and misery, Mario, the driver went back with the empty jeepney to pick us up and took us 5km up the steep climb. It was only 3km left from there to the top and we were eternally grateful to him for this. We happily crossed into Abbra province after a while, rode along some amazing ups and down in the solitary woods to finally reach a spectacular 45km long road downhill. The road was still in very poor condition and there was no people but we were going downhill already and it would get better with every kilometer cycled. The green scenery of the woods would also start to gradually disappear giving way to a more arid terrain, with wonderful orange colors that became even more saturated by the time the sun started to go down.
With the exit from the Cordillera and its more pleasant climate, the heat set foot on us once again and it was a big blow. Constant sweating, high humidity, unbearable sun. We were back to sea level on the way to Vigan, lying on the west coast of North Luzon from where we would start our way back to Manila. We followed through some beautiful fertile valleys, and being now riding to the west of the Cordillera heading west towards the ocean, the sunsets became increasingly stunning every day.
Another characteristic that is particular of the tropics is the almost perfect balance between night and day. The sun rises and sets early. There are pretty much as many hours of light as of darkness. Thus, unless one wakes up very early, the days become very short. The day that we were supposed to reach Vigan the intense heat made us stop more times than usual along the way and fortunately we got stuck some 18km before the city, in a small barangay called Santa. There, we met Orlando Marino, a 60 years old Italian man, owner of the butchery of the barangay, and whose origin is the exact same small communa (village) in southern Italy where my great grand father comes from, Giussepe Marino, who migrated to Argentina last century. So Orlando could very well be some kind of distant relative to me. He had been living in the Philippines for 6 years already and opened his butchery and a pigsty in Santa. He treated us like nephew and niece and invited us to stay at his home where we spent several days resting and relaxing before starting to cycle back to Manila. From there we were able to do a day trip to Vigan, a place that if one didn't know that it is in Asia, it would pass as yet another historical colonial town anywhere in Central or South America. Walking around Vigan's old quarter is like going back 400 years. Its colonial architecture is preserved in quite good condition and it brought me some beautiful memories from my trip to Cartagena. But as soon as you walked outside the bubble of the old quarter you were back in yet another horrible Philippine city.
On the other hand, Santa is a sleepy fishing village by the ocean, where fishermen set off on their small boats at the end of the day to fish while witnessing some of the most beautiful sunsets. Their silhouettes beautifully drew dark figures against a deep orange backdrop. By the time darkness sets in, they populate the ocean with tens of oil lamps while they fish well into the night, before they come back to the village with their catch in buckets and ran along the main road yelling to let locals know what they have, drawing the attention of the villagers who are in fact waiting for them and come outside to buy the fresh fish they got. Talking about fresh food!