Volcanoes, solitary bays and rice fields

Manila the ugly

Entering and leaving big cities by bicycle is rarely a pleasant experience and Manila is not the exception. Actually it is the perfect expression of the immense stress that involves such process. Manila is a huge sprawling city of millions of inhabitants and for both entering and leaving we had to ride all across it. Like it's always the case with poor countries, it isn't a city of harmony but one of huge and harsh contrasts. There are no greys in Manila, it is rich or poor, it is immaculate or filthy, it is spacious or crammed, it is ostentatious or plain misery and unfortunately, the negative connotations are the ones that predominate in the virtually infinite horizons of this huge metropolis. The fact that a big city has big contrasts and negative connotations isn't a surprise, especially in Asia, but many of them, despite having them, they still preserve some kind of hidden beauty in them, some charm, even when poverty and misery is what predominates. Manila doesn't even have the slightest appeal, it is simply ugly from wherever you look at it, from wherever you walk on it or cycle on it.

From an urban planing point of view it is one of those cities that it is impossible to enjoy by foot. Walking in Manila seems to lead nowhere, there is nothing to see on the way, there are no shop windows, no stores and the distances are extremely long. It is a city thought for the public transport but traffic is a living hell and only creates noise, congestion and insane levels of pollution. Streets and avenues don't seem to have any logical arrangement, the city seems to have grown in an organic way without any single planned strategy. From a climatic point of view, things don't get any better, the heat is torrid all year round and the very high air pollution coupled with the bad quality of the water don't make the experience of being in the city any more pleasant. It is said that the city isn't safe and there might be some truth to it since every single store has private security guards fully armed with big weapons. However, in our personal experience, we never ever felt unsafe.

Entering the city from the north, in Quezon City, we had to ride for several kilometers across it dealing with all the hindrances described above. Misery is everywhere, slums are massive and comprise huge amounts of houses crammed together, made of everything that can eventually hold a roof. Carboards, corrugated metal sheets full of rust, straws, wooden planks, tarps everything held together in any possible way. It is a very shocking scenery and even way poorer than the one I've been used to see all my life in the slums of my native Buenos Aires. Manila is not only poorer in quality but in quantity, the proportions in which you come across poverty are overwhelming.

But we are in the third world and the third world is first and foremost, almost by definition, a place of injustice, a place of differences traced by huge abysses, and after several kilometers of chaos we found ourselves entering the first world, a world of invisible borders but where the “bad” doesn't seem to exist. It is called Makati City and it's the central business district of Manila and residential center of the rich who live completely detached, probably even unaware, from the reality of the rest of the country. It is planet Makati, where everything is clean, green, organized. An ecosystem where everything is “perfect”. There's a Starbucks or two in every single block selling coffee at 3 usd (remember that out of the city the average salary is 5 usd a day for 12 hours of work) per small cup of espresso, a Mc Donald's every 100 mts, Paris-like coffees selling minimal slices of cheesecakes at 5usd or fancy restaurants selling hamburgers at 20 usd. You smell fragrant perfumes on the streets, people are sophisticated and seems completely oblivious of how people live just a couple of kilometers away from there

It was in this magic bubble where we found a place to stay in the city at Allen's house, a 71 years-old US American with the energy of a 30 years-old, that has been living in the bubble for the last 12 years and with whom I have worked with indirectly in certain projects that I did while I was living in China. Allen took care of us and spoiled us as if we were his own godchildren in his flat in Makati. We were able to make use and abuse of all the ephemeral pleasures of life, air conditioning, delicious food, our filthy clothes washed and ironed miraculously smelling like flowers blooming in the prairie, ultra-fast internet and so on. But it wasn't these but Allen's warmth and affection what kept us there so happily. It was our first stop in the city but there would be more to come.

Land of volcanoes and frustrations

Luxuries are nice to have for a while but they are not indispensable and they are far from being enough for us to give up the intense pleasures found in the adrenaline of the roads, so after a couple of days in Planet Makati we set off towards the south, to Bicol, in the extreme south of Luzon. It was in search of volcanoes and whale sharks but we mostly found traffic and rice plantations. To begin with, leaving Manila was hell in itself, the city and its area of influence extend for no less than 100 km and the road is a never ending torture of insane traffic that never ceases, not even for a meter. There are virtually no empty stretches, there are people and settlements everywhere and all imaginable vehicles transit the two lane narrow road by two per lane, that is four across the width of it. Needless to say this was a very exhausting experience, it exhausted the mind a lot faster than climbing the hardest and remotest mountain. Three long days had to pass by until we would finally start to find some breathing space in the narrow forest stretch of Quezon district. At that point we started to cycle uphill and downhill, left and right, turn after turn but we were already able to breath the fresh and clean air liberated by the dense vegetation around us. There, at the small barangay of Ikun, we found a place to stay at the hall, but unlike the other barangay hallswhere we had been staying at, in this one, the tanods(the night watchmen of the hall) stuck around for quite a long while into the night. At around 10 pm, when I was still awake hypnotized counting the billions of stars in the sky, two of them came out of the complete darkness of the road carrying on their shoulders what seemed to be a huge ribcage of an animal, it still had the skin and fur on it but I wasn't able to tell what animal it was. I asked them and with their eyes shining bright they replied – "It's horse!! it's a delicatessen in our barangay".  Right there, in the front courtyard of the hall, one set up a wok and started to boil coconut milk, another one started to separate the skin from the ribcage, another one lit a bonfire and another one chopped it in pieces and seasoned them. Before midnight, the wok smelled delicious and they started setting up plates and cutlery. The tanods looked at me excitedly, I had initially told them that I wasn't going to eat, but when the dinner was served, my cyclist's appetite was impossible to tame and said “alright, let's get to eat!”. In my ever failing road to an eventual vegetarian life, even by the hand of a vegetarian girlfriend, I have to say that that horse skillfully cooked in coconut milk was the necessary delicious dose of proteins that I needed to bring my muscles back to life, or at least that was the perfect excuse that I made to myself to justify that I still surrender to the pleasures of meat.

Not long after we passed the forest stretch we went back to a completely flat road, surrounded by vast rice fields that blended seamlessly with the sky in the horizon, even with spectacles such as something I had never seen before, a double rainbow!

  However, the clean horizon would soon become interrupted by the shape of the volcanoes coming out of the flat land. First came Mount Isarog, after that Mount Iriga, both inactive. Finally, far ahead, at the end of the road, the most spectacular and the main reason of our journey down to Legazpi, the magnificent Mount Mayon, active, always simmering out of its perfectly sharp summit. The volcano is a perfectly symmetrical cone, 2500 mts high, coming out of a fully flat surface. It has brought both peril and fear many times, causing several deaths every time it erupted. Like all beauties of nature, the Mayon didn't make it easy for us to let itself be seen and during the first two full days of cycling within viewing distance of it, it wrapped itself up and hid behind a veil of clouds from the top to the very bottom, regardless of the fact that the day was radiant and sun shone.

After those two days of hanging around the area feeling completely frustrated, we decided to take a detour to Donsol to swim with the whale sharks, which it is said to be one of those unique experiences in life. The best thing about this 40km detour that we had to cycle twice, to Donsol and back, was to see the most beautiful rice plantations that we had seen so far. By the end of the day, when the sun didn't squeeze the body anymore and it bathed the land with its golden color, the pale green hues of the middle of the day went away and the splendor returned. In the villages, the farmers return home walking along the narrow paths that split the plantations in different patches. The kids happily run all around the rice fields, having fun for the mere fact of being kids, since here there's no electricity and fun is reduced to the simplest things in life. Riding along this quiet roads of small villages, no traffic and simple people is one of the most beautiful reasons why one chooses the bicycle as means of transport for traveling.

And we finally got to Donsol to soon find out that the whale sharks hadn't migrated to the area yet, despite the fact that we were already well into the season when they should be there. Just perfect, yet another frustration! So we took a deep breath and cycled all the way back, after all, we still had a couple of days and we still had chances to see the Mayon. But we got back to Legazpi and saw that the Mayon was still completely covered in clouds, while the rest of the sky was totally clear, what the fuck! It was almost the end of the day and there wasn't any single reason to stay in Legazpi, which is a small horrible city, like all the cities of all sizes in the Philippines. So we made the decision on the spot to start cycling to the remote Caramoan peninsula and for that we would keep riding around the volcano entirely. As we were leaving Legazpi when day was almost over and our hopes were on the ground, the clouds started to move leaving the magnificent Mayon partly uncovered to see it in its full glory.

 It was sunset time, the sky was clear, the coconut trees gently swayed with the wind, the remaining clouds beautifully wrapped around the volcano giving it an amazing sense of motion, the sun dyed its simmering sulfur and made it pink and at that time, nothing really mattered. Finally, the waiting had paid off and the Mayon revealed itself and the beauty was incredible. We stayed until we saw the Mayon disappear in the shadows of the night and we had to cycle in the darkness for a while until we reached the first barangay where we found help as always, and this time, it was a family that received us in their home and even made us a great dinner.

Noises noises noises and more noises!

Filipino hospitality is amazing but to be able to enjoy it you have to be able to adapt to their way of life. Filipinos wake up early, VERY early. Life usually starts at 5 am if not earlier and by 6 am in any village, life is already in full motion. The hustle and bustle used to make it almost impossible for us to keep sleeping, no matter where we would be sleeping that night. On the other hand, as I wrote in my previous post, Filipinos love their roosters and most people have one or more in their houses. Around 3 am, every barangay slowly becomes a hen house and I'm fully convinced that Filipinos wake up before 5 am because by that time, the amount of roosters crowing at the same time is so so so unbearable, that they prefer to believe that their rooster will one day make them a small fortune and keep living with that illusion, rather than coming out of the house with a shotgun and blow the fucking bird's head off to let them keep sleeping. I wouldn't kill a rooster but I swear that every single day, by 4 am I was afraid of seriously becoming a rooster serial killer. So, that's how as a result of the combination of noises plus our daily exercise, we adjusted our biological clock to fall asleep every day at around 8 pm and to wake up at around 5.30am (thanks to those m****r f*****g roosters). This routine eventually became so automatic that even if one day we had the chance to keep sleeping, we just couldn't.So going from one noisy barangay to the next, we moved north along the west coast passing through very nice settlements surrounded by massive rice fields, a truly beautiful landscape.

 In most of the Philippines, outside of the cities, most of the houses are simple huts on stilts with almost no internal divisions. The entire family eats, sleeps and lives in only one room, and we are not talking about a two-kids family, no. Filipinos are procreating machines, a typical family has anywhere around 6 to 7 children and if it weren't for the feeding power of rice, that grows everywhere in this country, it is hard to figure how it is even possible to feed all those mouths being them so poor. Despite poverty, Filipinos are not afraid to have kids till exhausting the mother's strength, the amount of kids and young people of this country is simply staggering. There are lots of kids, lots of teenagers and youngsters, a massive labor force but little profitable jobs available for everybody. However, family is the strongest unit in this country and everybody helps each other here. Most, if not all, families, have at least one member living abroad and the Filipino labor force outside of the country is one of the largest in the world. The amount of money sent from Filipinos living abroad to their families back home is so massive that the stability of the economy of the country depends a great deal on it. No wonder why there seem to be as many Western Unions and Money Grams as there are Mc Donald's. The Philippines is a big exporter of highly trained nurses, highly educated personnel for luxury hotels and restaurants across all Asia and construction workers for the Middle East. Filipino nannies are always in high demand in the neighboring rich Metropolis of Hong Kong and Singapore, because Filipino women are well-known for taking care of all children as if they were their own. But family links are so tight, that they are as admirable as exhausting, On the one hand, the family is always there for them to support them, but on the other, to a certain extent people are enslaved to their families and individual freedom is usually very restricted.

The rain over our heads

Reaching the Caramoan peninsula was no easy task, at one point the road took a turn away from the flat rice fields and entered a stage of lush mountains following the amazing coast line. Each bay enclosed a secret paradise of crystal waters and empty beaches where we could leave our bicycles and go swimming to refresh ourselves from the intense heat of the day, floating belly up facing the sky and drifting with the gentle waves.

After several consecutive bays we finally reached the end of the road, in a very small barangay, where we put our bicycles in a bangka,  which is the aquatic version of the Jeepney, and for little over two hours we navigated on electric-blue waters until reaching the remote peninsula. It seems that there is some TV show, apparently very famous all over the world, that I had no idea of but I'm sure it is yet another stupid reality show. It is called Survivor and it consists of a bunch of people going through supposedly “extreme” experiences that they need to survive. Needless to say, I'm sure these “extreme” experiences are nothing but bullshit and cheap entertainment for the masses. The thing is that some versions of this show for different countries were filmed here due to its remote location and geographical qualities, however, a local person told me that the crew consists of 650 people who bring dozens of containers with all the gear and live in the peninsula for 3 to 6 months. That doesn't really sound like being in a extreme situation, does it?. During these months, the sleepy village experiences a sort of financial spring, especially due to the huge amounts of beer they sell during that time. The rest of the year, when we were there, it is no more than a quiet village in the middle of nowhere, beautiful, but I would only dream in a nightmare going there when that stupid TV channel is based there. The whims of the weather make it that just in this tiny tip of Luzon there is wet season when is dry season in the rest of the country, go figure!

As a result, the mornings were fine but after noon the weather grew worse, thick black clouds would take over and heavy rains would come down on us for the rest of the day.Just after a couple of days there we started cycling back to Manila, we went back to the carpeted green lands and farmers working the land from dawn till dusk. On the way back we had several different views of Mount Isarog, which despite being inactive and with its mere 1400 mts being considerably shorter than the rest, still had an impact when coming out of these flat lands.

We got to Manila ready to receive a very special guest and take a two-weeks break from our bicycles. It was finally the time to rest big time and enjoy the paradise that everybody thinks about when talking about the Philippines.