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.