Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mt Mayon, Philippines

For three hours the commanding presence of Mt. Mayon, the Mt. Fuji of the Philippines, shone upon me, as I pedaled past this near perfectly-shaped, 8,000 foot volcano and emblem of the country.  The sky above was a cloudless pristine blue promising a great view of Mayon, but her majesty had gathered about her various strands of clouds, cloaking this and that of her voluptuous lines.  The clouds continually shifted, tantalizing me and keeping me transfixed, awaiting that moment when she might reveal all.  Whether she did or not little mattered, as there was no denying her splendor and magnitude, living up to her indigenous name of "beauty."  At some point or another she unveiled all of her stunning features, but never all at once.

None of the clouds seemed to be escaping vapor, hinting at an eruption, which she is liable to do at any time.  She is one of the world's most active volcanoes, though It's been a dozen years since she last erupted. Previous to that she spewed forth four times in eight years, killing 77 in 1993, catching everyone by surprise as her monitoring equipment had been switched to another of the many volcanoes in the Philippines that had been erupting.

As I made my approach to Mayon I had a nice prelude with the 5,000 foot Mt Iriga volcano to gaze upon, radiating a magnificance of her own.  

This volcano alley, with a host to come, along the final one hundred miles of Luzon made for a nice farewell before I commence two weeks of island hoping and then return to Luzon for my flight home.  It's taken me over two weeks to make a near circuit of Luzon, the largest of the 7,107 islands that comprise the Philippines.  There is only one other that is nearly as large, Mondanao, the Islamic island to the south that is not safe.  I will take the ferry from Luzon to Samar, the third largest island, but just one-tenth the size of Luzon.  I will make fast work of it and the five others on my itinerary, all among the ten largest, but not all that large.

My final night on Luzon was another example of the great accommodating spirit of the Filipinos.  I was invited to set up my tent at the municipal building in the small town of Castillo by Daniel of the Department of Tourism, who happened to be in the area checking on hotels.  Castillo surprisingly had two.  One was a new semi-luxury hotel of nothing but air-conditioned rooms.  The town's older budget hotel was under renovation.  I had been directed to the better hotel and was about to head to the budget hotel, not knowing it wasn't open, when Daniel intervened.  He was just completing his inspection and rather than being eager to be on his way he was happy to fulfill what seemed to be his calling and assist a "tourist."  

He told me there was no point in trying the other hotel, as it wasn't open.  Then he turned to the manager of the luxury hotel and asked if he might reduce his rates for me.  I protested that I couldn't accept such an offer and wondered if there might be some sort of beach resort up the road where I could camp.  Rather than that he suggested I camp at the local municipal building.  "That would be all right, wouldn't it?" he asked the two local officials who were with him.  They didn't hesitate in saying that would be no problem, that there was lots of grass and a night watchman.  It was on the outskirts of the town. The entourage of officials led me there in their van.  The ever-smiling Daniel was accompanied by an assistant with a camera who had been clicking away non-stop documenting Daniel's clinic in how to treat a visitor.  He unfurled the welcome matt as if I were an honored guest wishing to meet my every need.

Though it was going on six he was in no hurry.  He wanted to know where I had been and where I was going. He assured me that the two typhoon-ravaged islands that were on my agenda were back to normal and that I should have no concerns.  He had loads of advice on things I ought to visit and roads to travel.  He rapturously waved one finger and then another over my map pointing out places I ought to go with the passion and vigor of a maestro orchestra conductor.  He was someone who clearly thrived on his job. 

It was good to learn that the Chocolate Hills, my next prime objective three islands away, were in fine shape despite the earthquake that had hit them shortly before the typhoon and others had told me might have diminished their appeal. I couldn't have met a finer man, and his spirit and generosity were reflected in the town officials.  Both of them, each on their own, came back to the municipal building after I had set up my tent and was eating my dinner in the evening cool with my headlamp to make sure everything was okay and I had enough to eat.  One offered to bring me food and the other invited me to his home for dinner.  They did everything except ask me if I'd like a girl as others have.

It was as fine and fortuitous a campsite as the one I had enjoyed two nights before at a barebones resort on the sea that I had all to myself other than the proprietors. 

I had been directed to it by a kindly soul in a town with a couple of hotels that were beyond my budget.  I wouldn't have discovered it on my own, as I knew nothing about it and its sign along the road was badly weathered and virtually indecipherable.  It was half a mile from the main road down not much more than a dirt path.  I paused at the sign to make sure it was what I was looking for.  A woman at a small home at the intersection asked if she could help me.  I told her I was looking for the resort and was hoping I could camp there.  She said she  had rooms for rent and also girls if I liked.  She was the madame of the local brothel.  I'd stayed at a brothel in Maputo, Mozambique a few years ago, one of my most read blog posts (mostly by those googling "prostitutes in Maputo"), so had no qualms about staying at such a place.  I asked to check out the rooms in case I couldn't camp.  One was in use.  The others were all barebones, but acceptable.  One room had a large mural of a naked big-breasted blond Americano.

I knew that the Philippines attract sex tourists, primarily to Angeles and Subic north of Manila, but this wasn't linked to that trade at all.  I doubt a Westerner had ever patronized this place.  The Philippines are a bit like Cuba, with some assuming an older white male has been drawn to their country for its women.  It is no where as extreme or as pervasive as it was in Cuba.  There it was a daily occurrence to be accosted, often multiple times.   Here it has been minimal and non-aggressive, almost an act of politeness.

I didn't have to return to the bordello for the night as the couple who ran the resort had small bungalows for rent as cheap as its rooms.  They couldn't understand why I wanted to camp.  "For the fresh air," I explained.  They'd never had a camper before, but were happy to oblige me for a nominal fee.  Camping is not much in the Philippine way.   Before my bucket shower I took a dip in the pleasantly warm Philippine Sea.

It wrapped up a fine day thanks in large part to my decision to take the lesser travelled and shorter road to Naga rather than sticking to the main highway that went through a series of large cities.  When I came to the intersection I wasn't quite sure of which way to go.  My map showed the less traveled road would save me thirty miles but all the traffic continued on the main road, implying there might be something wrong with the other way. 

I'd had the same dilemma the day before and chose the shorter road, which I somewhat regretted, as it included a brutal twelve per cent grade for over a mile.  It had several switch backs.  It was so treacherous there were a handful of people spaced several hundred feet apart with flags to moderate the speed of vehicles making the descent, similar to Bolivia's Most Dangerous Road in the World at its blind spots.  I saved time by taking the short route, but probably expended more energy.

So I feared that might be the case with this road as well.  As I was debating what to do a motorcyclist who had just come down the road pulled into a restaurant at the intersection. He told me the road was fine, completely paved, and just gentle ups and downs as I had experienced the last couple of hundred miles.  And best of all there was no road construction as there had been much of the past couple of days.  Every few miles one side of the road was undergoing repaving for anywhere from a few hundred feet to half a mile.  It was almost as if there were a version of speed bumps to reduce the speed of the traffic.  There was a flag person at either end of each construction zone, providing work for quite a few people.

Bandanas were popular among the road crews.

Some used them to cover their faces so they wouldn't have to breathe in the dust and the fumes.

They are also a headgear of choice for women.

She was one of two people serving at a roadside eatery, as cafes are most commonly known.

The pulled up shirt is a common fashion statement amongst the male population, particularly with the big-bellied, who often fold their arms and prop them on their proud protuberance.

Eateries are also known as Food Houses, some with creative spelling.

And the more traditional with one of the ubiquitous grandiose Churches of Christ in the background. 

The Churches of Christ are indistinguishable from one and another.  They'd be a perfect place to camp, but I was turned away from the only one I tried.

In this region noodle dishes are almost as common as rice, though they are still served with rice.  This is a typical meal complete with my own pitcher of cold water and a small cup of broth that accompanies most meals whether one asks for it or not.  The extra fluid is always welcome. 

I try to slow a bit when a pass the roadside eateries to see of there might be something delectable I haven't seen before or if they have a bowl of boiled eggs on display so I can stock up.  These were the only dumplings I've come across so far.  I wished I'd filled my bowl with them.

I try to keep food in my Tupperware bowl at all times, especially at the end of the day, so I can start eating immediately as I set up my tent or check in at a hotel.  Since food is left out all day at the many roadside eateries, I have no concerns of food going bad in the heat.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Gumaca, Philippines

Choosing to bypass Manila by going east around the huge Laguna de Bay, I had stumbled upon the favorite riding route for Manila's cycling clan.  And it being the weekend they were out in mass, so many it almost seemed as if I was caught up in some annual sanctioned ride.  There was still a steady steam of motorized traffic on the shoulderless two-lane road, but we all cohabited harmoniously.  Legions and legions of cyclists passed me, all decked out in Lycra, most with a companion or two or in full-fledged packs, many wearing matching jerseys.  It was most heartening to be a part of this thriving throng of pedaling diehards.  I received a greeting from many, but only a couple slowed for a conversation.

"Is that a Surly you're riding?" one asked.  

"It is," I replied.

"I used to have one," he said, "But I broke the frame when I was on a tour in Germany.  It was my fault.  I took a turn too hard, hit my pedal on the pavement, and crashed.  I was thrown onto the grass and wasn't hurt, but it was the first day of the tour so I had to replace the bike."

He liked Germany enough that he is returning in April with his wife.  He was out for a 150 kilometer ride today with two of his cohorts.  Usually they only ride 100 kilometers, but they wished to ride further today to some waterfall.  I asked if they would double back on this road or if there was an alternate route back.  He said they would return the same way, but only for fifty kilometers, as their turn-around point came after 100 kilometers.  When they reached 150 for the day they would put their bikes in the support vehicle accompanying them.  

"You have someone following you?" I asked.

"Yes, that white van behind us," he replied, then added, "In the Philippines you have to be concerned about your safety."  I glanced back and yes indeed there was a white van trailing us with its blinkers on.

They were the only ones I noticed though with a support vehicle other than a young woman who was riding hard and had a guy, evidently her coach, on a motorcycle urging her on.

The road had some climbs, including a big one of nearly five miles, so when the next ascent began, the guys with the support vehicle left me behind.  I could have expended a little extra energy and stuck with them, but I would soon be done in if I did that.  As much as I was enjoying the conversation and looking forward to some cold drinks from the white van, I let them go.

A while later a rare solo rider slowed to my speed for a few words. He was wearing a Caisse d'Epargne jersey of the French bank that once sponsored a Tour de France team and is also the favored jersey of my great French friend Yvon.  "How did you know about this road?" he asked.  I told him it was just luck, not mentioning the bandana that awaited me on the road the day before and all that it signified.  He said he rode this route every day for fifty kilometers.  He'd like to do more but he had a family to support.  He marketed fish.  He said he ordinarily stopped just up the road for a coconut and invited me to join him.

After we finished the coconuts the lady we bought them from split them open with a machete so we could scoop out the juicy meat for a little extra nourishment.  No drink could have been more refreshing.

After the five mile climb the traffic thinned out considerably, both cyclists and motorized vehicles.  Basketball hoops began appearing along the road just as I had seen in the mountains on lightly trafficked roads. 

Not too many people have driveways nor do many communities have the available space for a court, so the road had to do.  This one had NBA etched into it.

Occasionally there was a little space between the road and the hoop, so the players didn't have to be so wary of traffic.

When I saw a couple adults shooting hoops, I paused to put up a few myself.

During this lull three cyclists saw my loaded bike and stopped to ask where I was going and where I was from and if they could take my picture, as others had done along the road.

One of them had just returned from a ride around Vietnam and Laos, the fellow on the left.

The woman asked if she could be a Facebook friend.  I wondered if they followed The Tour de France.  They did, but not closely enough to know about The Devil. The woman thought it was Robin Williams.  I told her that The Devil is actually a German and that my Facebook photo is of the two of us in the Pyrennes.

It had been a great, great day, so much so that I had gotten too caught up in the riding and hadn't stopped to eat and rest often enough.  Late in the afternoon I realized I had been pedaling for three hours and was beginning to wane.  There had been some potential wild camping spots amongst palm trees and the junglish terrain, but not when dark began to threaten.  I was closing in on Tayabas, but before I reached it I came upon a resort.  It advertised camping but I was told it was under construction and not available just yet.  I was fatigued and didn't much want to push on, and said any spot would be okay for my tent, but the young man tending the registration desk didn't care to oblige me.  He politely said there was another resort called Graceland a little ways further that offered camping as well.

It was a deluxe, recently opened, resort that looked too snazzy for camping but a security guard at the entrance told me there was.  I had to pass a second guard post and leave some ID with the pair of guards there.  I was afraid to ask how much it would cost, as dark was imminent and I didn't have much choice in the matter.  I didn't flinch too badly at the 400 peso charge, more than I ususlly pay for a hotel.  At least I would be perfectly safe here and it promised to be a quiet night and I didn't have a twelve-hour limit on my stay.  I wouldn't need to set my alarm and for a change could get as much sleep as my body needed.  

A guy on a motorcycle led me to the campgrounds past grand villa buildings and a lake with boats and a separate restaurant.  I had the camping space all to my self.  Another young man helped me set up my tent and provided me an electrical outlet on a long extension chord for my iPad.  The WIFI password was Memphis.  Some time that evening it occurred to me that this is a place I would have no qualms about asking for the twenty per cent senior discount that Dud and Pearl had told me about a couple of days ago and that I wasn't sure if I would ever care to use.

The next morning I returned to the registration building and told them I'd just learned from a Philippino friend that I might be entitled to a senior discount.  The two people in the office didn't quibble in the least and refunded me eighty pesos, enough to pay for my breakfast and lunch later in the day. I would have liked to have spent some of it on a halo-halo in honor of Dud and Pearl, but I didn't come upon any.  

I didn't want to make a habit of asking for the discount, but I took advantage of it again the next night when I stopped too early to feasibly pay for the twelve-hour plan, not wanting to get up at three a.m.  The three extra hours I had to pay for cost just a little bit more than the discount.  I don't know how far I will go with this.  I have a series of ferries coming up that I'll use it on, as Lonely Planet mentioned that, though nothing beyond.  Its possible its a new law passed since my edition.  

Only once have I shopped at a real supermarket.  All the others have been smaller mom-and-pop operations.  But that large corporate supermarket had a special line for seniors complete with benches so they could sit while waiting.  I didn't know about the discount then and if it was being applied there.  Food is so inexpensive, there's hardly a need for a discount, but I may give that senior line a try if I ever end up in a supermarket chain store again and see if the discount is available to seniors there as well.

I'm now headed down the southeastern arm of Luzon to Mount Mayon, a perfectly shaped volcano that is the most photographed site in the Philippines.  The traffic has been thinning and the riding becoming more and more pleasant.  I've had some cloud cover blunting the intensity of the sun and even a little rain.  Now that I'm into week three of the Philippines at the halfway point of these travels, I don't want this trip to end.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Antipolo, Philippines

The ride out of the remote surfing town Baler was as much of an adventure as the ride in.  When I was told the alternative road out was much rougher than the road I had come in and was advised that it might be best that I double back on that road, I considered it, but not for long.  I am driven by curiosity, seeking out the fresh and new,  so different road it had to be.  

And wise decision it was, as even though it was a bicyclist who gave me the information, he had never actually biked either road so didn't know the comparative demands on the legs.  He was right that the other road was much rougher, with nearly half of it unpaved, and climbing to a higher elevation, but its grades were a merciful five and six per cent, never jumping to the leg-breaking ten and twelve per cent grades of the preferred road.  Another advantage of the rougher road was the near lack of traffic, so little it had me concerned that I would be an easy target for an ambush if the wrong person knew I was on the road.  I took extra precautions, hiding the majority of my money in several places, just keeping a token amount for the thieves if it came to that.  

I would have liked to have rested up for the ride out and relaxed for a day in Baler, but it held no appeal whatsoever.  The beach was grungy and the adjoining towns of Baler and Sabang were just another typical Philippine conglomeration of drab, run-down buildings with their streets abuzz with motorized tricycles.  It was a hive of activity, not a quiet, serene corner of paradise as its isolation and difficulty to get to suggested. The row of somewhat new hotels along the beach had no character or charm.  Nothing enticed me to linger and rest and catch up on my reading, though it may have been the wise thing to do.  

Nor was the campground any great shakes other than its nominal 100 peso charge, one-third that of other places I had camped.  It doubled as a pasture for a few cows and chickens and turkeys.  I could understand why I was the lone camper when the adjoining bar blasted live rock music until three a.m.  I was fatigued enough to pretty much sleep through it, waking occasionally, then quickly drifting back to sleep.  The music wasn't bad, actually pleasing, so I could enjoy it for a few moments before returning to slumberland.  I knew I wouldn't so easily sleep through it though a second night if I stayed over.

The lone budget hotel had turned me away, claiming to be filled, but I wasn't so sure about that. Someone else had offered me an air-conditioned bungalow for the somewhat bargain price of 800 pesos, though more than double what I usually paid to sleep.  When I didn't jump at the price, the young woman trying to solicit me added that she'd include a Filipina for a slight bit more.  It was the second time I had had such an offer.  But such is not my style.

So it was easy to choose spending the day riding my bike rather than sticking around a place that struck no chord with me other than knowing that Robert Duvall and Francis Ford Coppolla had made a great contribution to the world of cinema here.  But when I began my ride out I wasn't so sure I was making the wise choice.   My legs were feeling heavy and not so eager.  The first six miles to San Luis were flat and through a shaded, paradisical arcade of palm trees and some of their cousins.

Just after San Luis I was surprised to see a kilometer post with the number eighty on, counting down the kilometers to the next town.  Rare is it that the countdown is more than sixteen, so frequently do the Philippine towns come. This would be more than triple the longest stretch I had gone on this trip between towns.  Though my map had showed no towns, I figured there had to be a few villages along the way.  I had plenty of food to last me though the day and into the next if I couldn't mange those fifty miles before dark.  And water was no concern, as there would be frequent springs along the way if these mountains were like all the others I had ridden through on this trip.  I had only used my filter once so far, so would be happy to justify having brought it.

It wasn't until several miles into the climb that I hit the first unpaved stretch.  They became longer and more frequent until the dirt and gravel took over for good.  I could climb at pretty much the same pace as if the road were paved, but on the descents I had to hold my speed to under eight miles per hour, about a third of what I would have been doing if the road were paved.  That was painfully discouraging, especially since I had to be so vigilant not to hit a rock at speed and couldn't glory in the descent.

The road was under construction, slowing me in spots and even bringing me to a halt for as much as fifteen minutes while crews went about their work.  A narrow temporary bridge too circumvented one of the many streams crossing the road.

Still it was a most glorious ride.  I fell into an effortless rhythm that freed my mind to wander for one of the rare times here in the Philippines.  Making steady progress on the dirt, realizing I had the energy to do the fifty miles to the next town and wouldn't have to try to camp somewhere along the way, had me happy to be biking and not lounging.  My thought drifted to other great rides on dirt roads--one thousand miles up the Alaskan Highway, three hundred miles in Bolivia, one hundred miles over the Sierra Madres in Mexico and other significant stretches in Iceland and the Himalayas and the Andes.  One memory led to another.  When I'd be brought back to my present reality I knew these were memorable miles that I'd be reveling over in the years to come as well.

There were a few homes on the road that had empty cases of soft drinks out front.  At each I was told they had no drinks at present.  I was in no great need.  A cold, flavorful drink would just be a nice alternative to the warm water in my bottles.  Coming up on noon with less than twenty-five miles to civilization and Bongaban I came to a small cluster of homes, one of which had hard-boiled eggs and mangoes and cold drinks.  It was a wonderful oasis.  The short stretch past these dwellings was paved.  Whenever I came to such a stretch, usually at a bend in the road where a stream was coming down from a ravine, I hoped that it signaled the road would be paved the rest of the way.  That moment didn't come until nearly ten miles before Bongaban.  

Then I flew on it at close to twenty miles per hour thanks to a gradual descent,  arriving shortly after four.  It was a sprawling, bustling city, the road clogged with tricycles and pedestrians walking on both sides of the road, as per usual there were no sidewalks.  Despite it size, it had no hotel.  Ten miles down the road there was one in Palayan,  but it was a brand new, most unlikely, chateau of suites with the cheapest room 2700 pesos, way beyond my budget, here or anywhere.  Fortunately my legs had the energy to do another ten miles to the large city of Cabanatuan.  

A police officer in Palayan assured me there were lots of hotels there.  If only that were so.  The Philippinos with their large extended families seem to have relatives everywhere and don't need hotels.  I biked four miles through Cabanatuan before I found a hotel that a police officer in the town center recommended, the only he knew of.  He didn't indicate it was so far away though, nearly all the way through the city. I stopped four or five times asking people how much further it was to this hotel, called the White House, or if there might be another hotel nearby.   All the delays in reaching it put my arrival time after six.  It was another of those hotels one paid for in hourly increments, so it at least meant I could immediately take a room for twelve hours and not have to get up before dark.

As usual it was frustrating to have to search so hard for a place to spend the night, but all in all it had been Another Great Day on the Bike.  And having pushed twenty miles further than I intended put me within eighty miles of Manila.  It was also exciting to learn after two weeks I was closing in on peak fitness.  I had spent over eight hours on the bike within a span of eleven hours and felt I could have kept pedaling for a few more hours.  

The next day was equally satisfying, making it to Manila and beyond.  It was flat all the way until an end of the day climb.  I thought for a while though that I would be lucky to survive the day.  The first forty miles were on a bustling two-lane highway with only an occasional shoulder.  Four times I was forced off the road by a passing vehicle heading straight for me, taking no heed of the bicyclist, impatient to take advantage of the rare opportunity when it could pass. That hadn't even happened to me four times in the past forty years.  At least the traffic wasn't whizzing past at great speeds.  The road was clogged with as many tricycles and jeepnays as big trucks, keeping the speed to barely twenty-five miles per hour.  It was as if there was a mass evacuation going on, except the traffic was headed in both directions.

After forty miles the road joined the MacArthur Highway that Tomas and I had ridden out of Manila on two weeks before.  The road widened a bit here, so it was no longer so perilous, though the traffic was still relentless through this urban sprawl.  I continued on it for twenty miles and then turned east away from downtown Manila, though I was still in the thick of Manila, following a monorail line to the more affluent part of the city.  All of a sudden there was an abundance of traffic cops who I could ask directions of.   I had to make several turns and with the help of my iPad GPS device and the cops, I didn't miss a one despite the mass of traffic.  I was in the thick of the rush hour and growing concerned that I wouldn't escape the sprawl before dark and would be hard-pressed to find a hotel out this way.

Once again I could have played it safe and gone into the heart of Manila and stayed at any one of a number of traveler's hotels recommended by Lonely Planet.  But that would have meant starting the next day in the maelstrom.  I wanted to be done with it.    My concerns instantly dissolved when I happened upon a lovely, virtually new, robin's egg blue bandana along the road on an overpass with no foot traffic. It had to be a sign from the gods that I need have no concerns.  I had seen bandanas in use here, another remnant of it having been an American colony, but to find one along the road was well nigh miraculous.  They are a frequent roadside find in the US, but rarely elsewhere.  But it evened things out, as I had lost one a few days before.  The rear pocket of my shorts I shove it into had become unstitched on one side and it slid out.  A couple days later I saw a sewing machine on a table along the road advertising seamstress.  An older woman sewed it up in a jiffy for ten pesos.

Now I was back to three bandanas and also the assurance that I'd find a place for the night.  It was at a swimming pool complex on a high hill overlooking downtown Manila that advertised itself as a "resort."  That is a frequent description for hotels that also offer camping.  I ducked in, more to take a rest from the long, steep climb I was on, than expecting they would actually let me pitch my tent there.  But the two young women at the reception desk were happy to accept me.  It was another place where one paid for in  time increments.  It accepted visitors around the clock.  It had cooled off this evening, so the pool wasn't going to attract any late night swimmers, but it did have a kereoke bar that went until 1:30.  Once again I was fatigued enough not to be bothered much, though this singing couldn't have been more wretched.  There was no real campsite.  I was offered a gravel patch with a table.  There was a pile of raked leaves nearby that I could spread over the gravel.  And it was a campsite with the best view so far.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Baler, Philippines

I was increasingly feeling as if I were Martin Sheen in "Apocalypse Now" going up river through the jungles of Vietnam in search of Marlon Brandon as the road I was on to Baler, where the iconic surfing scene was shot,  was turning into a nightmare as I was dealt one unpleasant surprise after another.

For one the road signs and people along the way fed me nothing but contradictory information on how many miles of this rough road through rugged mountainous terrain I would have to endure. I knew enough not to trust what anyone told me after a cop in San Jose, where I left the main highway, told me it was 40 kilometers and someone else said it was 100 kilometers. My maps indicated it might be 80 kilometers, though with all the squiggles on the map it could be 100 or more.

Eight miles after I left San Jose I came upon a sign with distance on it--69 kilometers to Baler.  That would make it 51 miles in total, just as I was surmising.  It was half an hour until dark.  I managed another five miles before I found a place to camp, my first night of camping on the sly.  It wasn't an optimum site by any means, up a narrow river gulley and over a barbwire fence, with a host of rocks to clear, but it was the Taj Mahol to me.  I wasn't totally out of sight of the road if someone glanced up the gulley.  Dark would pretty much insure my privacy, so there would be no headlamp reading this night.  But I was willing to risk the subdued light of my iPad, not only for reading but finding things in my tent and eating  three individually wrapped hefty hot cakes I picked up from a roadside vendor in the town with the kilometer sign for a mere ten pesos each, a grand total of 67 cents, easily the most calories per peso of the trip. I had been finding hard-boiled eggs for ten pesos and thought that was a good deal.  These easily topped that.

I knew it was a slightly risky place to camp, though not as much as if it had been the rainy season.  The risk didn't give me much concern, but rather gave me silent satisfaction,  as it always does in such situations knowing that I would at least be pleasing Nietsche, who advocated "Live dangerously."   I don't necessarily seek danger, but I certainly don't like playing it safe.  If I did, I wouldn't have biked to Banaeu after reading in Lonely Planet that  there were occasional "violent robberies of private vehicles" on that spectacular stretch.

I had perhaps my best sleep of the trip, especially better than the night before in the shed right along a busy highway with trucks roaring past all night.  On this lightly used secondary road there was virtually no traffic after dark.  I was just woken a while before dawn by a rooster on the cliff above me.  I discovered I was just below someone's house, a very modest single room hut no doubt without electricity, nor evidently dog.  There hadn't been a sound from it all evening or any light.  It was dim enough when I took up camp below it that I hadn't noticed it.  Good thing as I would have been inclined to push on.  I had already scouted out three possible places to camp that weren't acceptable and it wasn't likely to find anything further.

As I broke camp I munched on bananas dipped into my just bought Philippine peanut butter.  The only ingredients on the label were nuts, salt and sugar.  It was more sweet than customary, but deliciously so.  And so were the small bananas I had stocked up on leaving San Jose--prices per kilo varying by freshness.

I was on the road by 6:30 with 38 miles to Baler and the beach.  I was at 600 feet elevation with no telling how much climbing awaited me and how severe it would be. After two miles I came to an intersection with a sign that said 39 kilometers to Baler.  That was too good to be true, meaning it would only be a 26-mile day.  If I made it to Baler before noon I would be tempted to just take a couple hour break and keeping on riding.  I have designs on quite a few other places in the weeks ahead and am not sure if I can include them all.  I had actually hoped to reach Baler the night before, but had been slowed by more climbing than I anticipated and an hour with Dudley, known as Dud, and Pearl, the Aussie and his Philippine wife who flagged me down once again and invited me to lunch.  I had just eaten, but there just happened to be a halo-halo stand across the street from the restaurant they wanted to eat at.

Halo-halo is a refreshing crushed ice drink full of a wide variety of fruity and sweet ingredients.  No two are the same.  Tomas and I had had one on our first day, as it was something I was greatly looking forward to, but hadn't had one since.  They weren't so easily found in the cool of the mountains and I had somewhat forgotten about them.  Their taste is so divine I thought their name was taken from those celestial beings who are adorned with halos, but I learned from Pearl that halo means mixture, and that's what these drinks are, an untold, incongruous mixture of fruits and jellies and fluids with a snowball of crushed ice.

Oddly enough Pearl's brother and their driver didn't care to join the three of us with our halo-halos, content with more substantive food.

I nurtured my halo-halo, savoring every mouthful, while Dud regaled us all with more of his travel and work tales.  I learned from them that I could ask for a senior discount on meals and lodging of up to 20% for anyone over sixty.  They didn't get much of a discount on their 500 peso lunch.  When Pearl asked for it they gave her a token twenty pesos back.  It couldn't have been a finer hour unless the restaurant's WIFI had been working, saving me nearly an hour trying to find a WIFI outlet that I could connect to in San Jose.  I tried four places without success, finally having to pay 30 pesos at an Internet cafe, my first Internet expense of the trip.

I didn't get out of San Jose until well after four.  The wise thing would have been to find a hotel there and not risk trying to find a place on the road, but I hadn't even ridden fifty miles yet for the day so I couldn't possibly not push on.  I was very pleased to have pushed on despite the difficulty of finding a place to camp.  I was humming along delighted to have my ride through the mountains reduced by twelve miles.  After climbing over a thousand feet in my first hour I stopped for a breakfast of rice and pork adobo, as much a national dish as halo-halo.  Pearl regularly cooks it for Dud.  She confirmed the main seasonings are garlic and vinegar and lots of sugar.  "That's why I put on so much weight," Dud said.

Ten miles more of steep ups and downs and I needed another helping.  I was still in the thick of the mountains.  It was hard to believe I only had six miles to Baler.  I had seen no more kilometers signs, so I was growing concerned.  Three serious motorcyclists with leathers and bandanas and the glowing faces of guys enjoying their morning ride and their camaraderie sat at an outdoor table, the smoking table, of the restaurant. 

The Philippines have a strong anti-smoking campaign in place.  A couple days before I passed through a sizeable town where smoking had been banned.

But the cigarette packs don't have the gruesome photos as do those in Turkey and France.  Just a very benign warning.

If the jolly and friendly guys hadn't been fuming away I. would have joined them. One said he had seen me leaving San Jose late in the afternoon the day before and was surprised to see me so far down the road.  They all gave a start that I had camped along the road.  "You are an adventurer," one exclaimed.  All three lived in San Jose and were just out for a morning ride, sixty kilometers to this restaurant and then back through the nice mountain scenery and steep, winding roads.  I asked how much further it was to Baler.  They said this was about the halfway point.  That was devastating news, especially since the terrain was becoming more and more demanding, with steep descents into ravines and then ten per cent and steeper climbs out.  The demons had been toying with me giving me woefully inaccurate distances.  If this was just the half-way point, it would be a 56-mile day for me.  It may not even be .possible to complete it before dark.

The news got no better when I resumed riding and the road turned to heavy-duty gravel.  I feared 36 miles of rough road the rest of the way.  If that was the case, I might have to turn back if I had to crawl along at less than four miles per hour.  But this stretch only lasted a mile, though there would be more to come.  The only thing worse would be if arrows started coming out of the junglsih terrain.  Soon the road narrowed to one lane wide for a couple of miles with occasional pull-outs for vehicles to pass.  That slowed me too.

I couldn't ride fast on the descents as the road was regularly interrupted by stretches of gravel, usually towards the bottom of a ravine, to keep speeds down.  With traffic having to slow down on these stretches, some of them were lined with people selling mechandise including "I Love Baler" t-shirts.

My spirit was in a downfall after thinking I would make it to Baler before noon, but now worrying if I would even make it before dark.  But twenty miles before Baler I left the mountains and had relatively flat riding past rice paddies being harvested.  Down at this elevation there are three crops a year in contrast to Banaeu which can only get in one.  It was 48 miles for the day and 64 in total from San Jose.

As I pedaled with relative ease on the final stretch I could once again start feeling the anticipation of reaching the seminal location where Robert Duvall uttered that quote that might have more variations on it than any other line from a movie--"I love the smell of napalm in the morning."   There are probably thousands of other smells that people have said they love in the morning that make them feel victorious.  It was a cliche at one point, but no more, becoming a favored expression in our lexicon.

Less than a mile before Baler I came to the turn to Charlie's Beach Resort, named for Charlie's Surf Point in the movie, the only acknowledgement anywhere in this somewhat dreary surf town to "Apocalypse Now," at least according to the only non-Filipino I encountered on the beach and in the town, an older American surfer who is married to a Filipina and owns a small hotel on the beach.

The beach was nothing special, but I could still feel tremors of delight remembering the majesty of magnitude and significance of this Palm  d'Or winner and all the controversy surrounding the movie.  A documentary was even made about the making of it.  Coppola was so unsure of the movie he was cutting it right up to its premiere at Cannes and wasn't even sure if the cut he would show there would be what he would retain.  As I knew, all the tribulations I endured getting to Baler would be validated.  The beach didn't look much different than the beach in the opening of "Chariots of Fire," another seminal movie scene, other than the palm trees, but I felt a similar exaltation and rush of memories when I laid eyes upon it in Scotland a few years ago.  I could imagine those British Olympic runners training on this beach too with that soaring score that was a cliche for a spell as it was used so often in the heyday of that Oscar-winning film.

Quite a few Hollywood films have been shot in the Philippines.  The Philippine movie industry ranks just behind India and the US in the number of films it produces.  Hopefully I'll have a chance to see one before I end these travels.  I thought a bar here might have nightly showings of "Apocalypse Now," such as the hostel Janina and I stayed at in New Orleans last month with a nightly screening of Spike Lee's Katrina documentary, but no such luck.  That meant I could get to bed early, once again in my tent at a campgrounds by the beach, allowing me to get an early start the next day.



Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Aritao, Philippines

It wasn't exactly wild-camping, but it was the closest thing I'd managed in nearly two weeks in the Philippines--being allowed to throw down my sleeping bag in a shed beside a small roadside cafe. Once again the adventure for the day in these travels was finding a place to sleep.  Rather than looking forward to an end of the day campsite of my own devising, as is the usual crowning glory of a day touring just about anywhere else, here in the Philippines I end my days with the dread of having to spend a night in a hotel and the ordeal of trying to find one.

After descending from the mountains into a vast valley of rice paddies with mountains in the distance on all sides I was on a busy main road that took me through a sizeable town every dozen miles or so, each with at least one hotel.  After three such towns I was confident that the next when the light began wanig would as well.  I wasn't all that disappointed when I was told by a police officer that it did not.  That meant I got to be creative and might be spared having to sleep inside.  I tried a gated church that had some lawn, but the caretaker couldn't countenance such an idea.  Next I stopped at a restaurant and filled my Tupperware bowl with some rice and a bean stew and asked if they knew of a place I might sleep that night, hoping they'd by sympathetic enough to say I could sleep there.  No such luck.

So down the road it was.  I had at last reached a region with some larger agricultural plots with homes not so tightly bunched, offering the possibility of setting up my tent at dark without anyone seeing me.  There was no sleeping in the rice paddies as they had all recently been planted and were filled with water. I had seen some dikes and paths between paddies that could take me some distance from the road.  Before I had to give that a try I came upon what looked like a small quarry up above the road.  I came to a level spot where I could gain access to it just past a small cafe. The woman running the cafe happened to notice me as I turned in and called out asking  if I needed some help.  There was a concerned, helpful tone to her voice so I didn't mind telling her I was looking for a place to camp since the nearby town had no hotels.  

She was thrilled to tell me she had a small shed that she had been considering turning into a room to rent and I could be her first customer.  I told her I'd be happy to just set up my tent nearby, but she reacted in horror that there were many bad people around and that wouldn't be safe.  I knew what she was talking about as someone had stolen a pair of socks from under my bungee cords earlier in the day that I had just washed. The shed would be fine with me.  It actually had a bed frame though no mattress or bedding, not that I needed any.  The bottom half of the shed was concrete and the upper half wooden slats that let in a little of the breeze.  There was electricity to I could charge my iPad.  The water came from a pump behind the shed.  She provided me a bucket for my washing.  It would be the best, or at least the most out of the ordinary, accommodations of the trip.

Her husband was equally friendly and cordial.  He had twelve acres of property, some of which he farmed.  He had plans of building a hotel at this very spot.  When I told him where I was from he told me an uncle of his was a doctor in Chicago  As we talked I was so exhausted that I had to sit on the plastic chair they had provided me.  He told me he had a motorcycle, but didn't range very far on it, never even riding it to Manila, less than 150 miles away.  He couldn't imagine doing it on a bicycle.  His wife what level of education I had achieved, something I have never been asked before, and something that was evidently a significant factor of Puilippine life.  I told her I had graduated from college, but that my girl friend had done even better.  "She has two masters degrees, one in print-making and another in literature."

"She must be very intelligent."

"She is.  She's a college professor and is writing a book."

"How old is she," she asked.  I'm frequently asked my age here from practically everyone I have a conversation with, but no one had asked the age of Janina. 

 "She's the same age as me," I said.

She told me she was a trained nurse, but now devoted herself to running their cafe, such as I see countless times a day with shiny pots out front advertising the stews on offer.

They both said they had had hard days and would be going to bed soon and hoped we could talk more in the morning.

They were the second of my benefactors for the day.  The first was a 65-year old Australian and his Filipina wife.  They pulled over in their car and waved me down.  They said they had seen me three times, the first outside of Baguio nearly a week ago and wanted to talk.  They lived in Canberra but regularly visited the Philippines.  This trip coincided with his wife's high school reunion, the 50th.  She said about half of her classmates presently lived in the US.  This was the first time they had visited the rice paddies of Banaeu and felt very guilty for never having seen them before.  They didn't realize how remarkable they would be, even more impressive than Ayers Rock.

The husband asked if I had always been so skinny, as it is a battle for him to keep off the weight, another question I'd never been asked. I told him it is a battle for me to keep the weight on and that I was constantly eating.  I showed them the snacks I was munching on in my handlebar back.  One was a mango cookie.  Neither of them had seen such a thing before and were happy to give one a try.  Then he opened the trunk of his car and offered me a handful of local cookies.  A bit later they gave me some crackers and also some raisins and nuts.  

They had been in France six months ago and saw quite a few cyclists in Provence.  He said he had a hard time passing them on the narrow roads.  On and on we talked of our various travel experiences.  I told them about bicycling across their Nullarbor and also biking for 50-miles in to Melbourne one-legged after having broken a crank.  When we parted he gave me a "Good on ya mate."  I asked his wife what the Filipino parting words for a traveler were.  It was simply "Be careful."

Though I was happy to be back on the flats, able to pedal almost on cruise control not having to shift or be overly conscious of the effort I had to give, after a week of strenuous, all-out-effort climbing in the mountains, my legs weren't as chipper as I hoped they would be.  The day before was supposed to be a rest day, and it somewhat was, but I still rode more than I intended, and my legs could feel it.  I only rode twenty-five miles, all on an unloaded bike, just requiring a seemingly minimal effort compared to carrying fifty plus pounds of gear, but still all the climbing did take some energy especially a thousand foot climb in 1.8 miles to the overlook of the World Heritage rice terraces of Batad ten miles beyond Banaeu.

I had only intended to bike to the start of the climb, but after I talked to a Frenchman and then a Swiss guy who were hiking back from just having seen them and saw how enthused they were, I couldn't resist tackling the road, even seeing how steeply it rose. At least it was recently paved, or nearly so. The Swiss guy said he had been coming to the rice terraces for ten years and he felt sad at the huge increase of visitors. At the summit of the climb were a dozen or so jeepnays.  It was only since the road was paved that a jeepney could make the climb.

At least it gave me my first opportunity to peer into the empty back of this ubiquitous form of Filipine transport.

He was also chagrined by a couple of souvenir stands at the summit.

Still it was not attracting the typical tourist yet.  This was mostly the younger, budget set.  Many were Japanese and South Korean. It hardly seemed overrun.

I only ventured to Batad because my attempt on Hapao, another World Herotage site ten miles from Banaeu  down another road had been thwarted by muddy roads.  It had rained the night before, the first rain of the trip.  It was an initial mile climb out of Banaue on a paved road and then a long descent on dirt.  After a mile my brakes and rear fender were clogged with mud and I had to turn back.

This road was too rough for the jeepnays.  Just the motorized tricycles could manage it.

They too are unique to the Philippines, a one-wheeled side car attached to a motorcyle.  Despite not reaching the rice paddies it was still great scenery all round and felt somewhat like a day of rest.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Banaue, Philippines

It was Rice Terrace Saturday for me as I bicycled forty miles through more of the rugged, demanding mountainous terrain of central Luzon.  The first sampling came as I approached Bontoc during a twelve mile descent from Sagada.  The first seven miles were perilously steep, descending the climb I had made two days before.  When I joined the main road the grade turned gentle for a relatively brake-free descent following the Chico River.  There was just one lone terracing at a wide point in the river.

When I reached  Bontac I fueled up with a couple of pancakes and then began a fifteen-mile climb heading back the direction I had come from Baguio but up another road that made a giant "V" through the mountains with Bontac at the tip.  This road was even more spectacular and equally leg-sapping  as it carved through a dramatic canyon.  The climb peaked at over 6,000 feet, gaining some 3,400 feet from Bontoc.  There was an additional several hundred feet of climbing thanks to a mile-and-a-half descent in the middle it.  The first few miles were relatively flat along the Guitron River lined with rice terraces of its own.  Some rose above the river.

Others lined its banks.

It was another unique cycling experience that had me reveling.  This continued a ride that would rank among the best anywhere if it were known at all.  Few touring cyclists venture to the Philippines and those that do are inclined to stick to the flat coastal areas and the beaches, especially on the smaller, less industrial islands south of Manila and Luzon.

As the road rose, the rice terraces disappeared, but the scenery remained sensational.  I had it all virtually to myself as there was hardly any traffic and the narrow roadsides were blissfully free of any habitations, unlike the road coming from Baguio.  With so little traffic I could safely ride in the left lane and take advantage of the shade of the cliff side.

After seeing no terraces for several miles I spotted in the distance the most jaw-dropping terrace yet sidled up against a small town below the road, both nestled upon a mini-plateau.  

It truly was in a superior class, as it had an official viewing spot withna sign recognizing it as affiliated with the World Heritage sites ahead.

When I reached the summit it was chilly enough to put on a vest and wind-breaker.  Then began a thirteen mile 2,700 foot descent to Banaue.  It was long and gradual.  My legs quickly forgot the strain of the climb and I felt I had achieved a state of grace.  I could see the road for miles ahead carved into the side of a ridge.  I was grinning all the way. And I would have been grinning even more if I knew the grandeur of what awaited me.

Nothing could have prepared me for the miraculous site of the terraces of Banaue, a vast network that goes on and on for a couple of miles utterly staggering the imagination.  I know any UNESCO site is something special.  They never fail to move me.  But this was truly extraordinary.  I never could have imagined the huge scale of these terraces, especially compared to all the others I had seen.  The others were impressive.  These were astounding. They made all the other terraces look like mere doodles.  No photograph or description can come close to capturing their majesty, just as can be said of the Grand Canyon and Machu Pichu.  They were utterly boggling, otherworldly and mystical.  I can offer some photos, but must apologize for how little they convey of their magnificence.  They truly deserve their designation as the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

Their beauty and their construction would make them as significant as any of the world's wonders, but their age makes the even more so.  It is estimated they go back 4,000 years.  Like the puramids and Angor Wat and Stonehenge the imagination is challenged as to how they could have been constructed.

I will be in no hurry to leave this place.  There are four other sites in the vicinity that have been granted UNESCO sainthood as well.  One has to be hiked to, but the others are bikeable.  Banaue will be a fine place to linger.  It has the flavor of a mini-Kathmandu, bustling with people aglow from the mystical aura. The town is just a single lane wide, the first half mile carved into the cliffside below the main highway and then on through the marshy valley.  Like early day Kathmandu it only has budget accommodations.

There is no hot water at the People's Lodge where I am staying and the communal bathroom is referred to as a "Comfort Room."  There are no sockets in the rooms.  They were all removed a few years ago by civic order when too much electricity was being used by the handful of lodges, more than than the local transformer could handle.

There is so little traffic even on the main road that basketball nets have been hung up against the cliff wall on one side of the road and boys play ball in the middle of the road.  The little children cheerfully greet visitors.  The jeepneys are so packed extra passengers cling to their roofs and sides.

None of this did I expect of the Philippines, especially after the first few days of congested cities and roadsides and traffic-clogged roads.  I have been in Nepal, or some other distinct, distant place, the last few days, not the Philippines.

That applied to Sagada as well.  The quiet mountain village attracts a handful of foreigners to see the boggling site of coffins stuck in cliffsides, but it is mostly a retreat for Filipinos to escape the heat of the lowlands and the mayhem of their cities.  When I saw a handful of Europeans when I arrived, I thought it might be teeming with them, but there weren't many more than my first glimpse.  When I undertook a hike in search of the coffins I thought I would encounter a few others on the trail. But I had the trail all to myself for the two hours of my leisurely hike.

I had been told by a Danish guy who had made the hike through Echo Valley the day before with two Germans and a guide, that it could be done in an hour.  He didn't warn me how easy it was to go astray without a guide and how steep and strenuous the terrain was. 

I chose to go in Tevas.  They were far from adequate for the rocky and treacherous path, but my cycling shoes with imbedded cleats wouldn't have been much better.  I was content to plod along, in deference to my fatigued legs and also in hopes that someone with a guide might happen along.  I even paused to read a few times.  But no one else was on the trail.

I did spot one trio of coffins wedged in the limestone canyon wall high above the valley floor, but my eyes didn't find any others.

But it alone was an extraordinary site making all the effort to get there worthwhile.  And it was pleasant to be immersed in such a wilderness for a couple of hours.

It was also nice to hang out a bit with a few fellow travelers who were likewise thrilled with their travels and happy to recount their experiences elsewhere in Asia getting here.  I was able to lighten my load by one book giving it to a Danish acupuncturist who had been on the road for two years.  I had finished off Richard Haliburton's "New World's to Conquer" several days before after reading half of it on my flight over and had been looking for some worthy soul to give it to. It was a delightful read about his self-dramatized travels in South America in the 1920s including swimming the Panama Canal, retracing the trek of Cortez from Vera Cruz to Mexico City and traveling a while with a monkey. 

It was the third of his seven travel books and spent two years on the best seller list. Halliburton paid one visit to the Philippines on an around the world flying trip that took over a year recounted in a later book.  If I had been able to get my hands on that, I would have brought that instead, but I was still glad to have read the one I had.  The Dane had not heard of Halliburton, but he was aware of someone swimming the Canal, so was especially happy for the book.  I do not know if Halliburton did any cycling in his travels, but I will be reading the rest of his books when I return to find out.  I do know that he crossed the Alps with an elephant to repeat the feat of Hannibal.  Next book up is Dervla Murphy's "Camerron With Egbert" about traveling in Africa with her 18-year old daughter and a horse.