Tuesday, May 16, 2006

6,000 km cross-country in 22 days on a motorbike

By Hans Peder Pedersen, Inquirer

“Get your motor running, Head out on the highway, looking for adventure and whatever comes our way. Born to be wild!” –Steppenwolf

THIS is a story of a 6,000-km, 22-day cruise on my Harley Davidson Sportster 1200, across the Philippines from Zamboanga City, and back—via Dapitan, Cagayan de Oro, Davao, Surigao, Tacloban and Sorsogon cities, Manila, Subic (Zambales), La Union, Vigan City, Pagudpud (Ilocos Norte), Tugueguerao (Cagayan), Banawe (Ifugao), Baguio City, Manila, Puerto Galera (Oriental Mindoro), Kalibo (Aklan) and Dumaguete City.

For many years, I have traveled in this country on a bike in February, and I’ve never experienced a single day of rain during those trips. But this year, it was raining when I left Zamboanga in January and was pouring down when I came back in March, and lots of rain along the route.

I passed Southern Leyte a few days before the landslide. Maybe, it was a late La Niña. But in Banawe, the hotel people told me that it was the warmest month they could recall.

Most of the roads are fairly good, some even excellent. Of course, others are bad and a few, real ugly. The worst are the roads in most of Samar, and their terrible state is a crime against the Samareños, as well as travelers.

The first leg to Zamboanga del Norte was a great ride. The road along the northern coast of Mindanao runs close to the sea, sometimes high above and sometimes at sea level—a beautiful section.

All the way to Davao, the roads are of good quality. The newly built stretch from Cagayan de Oro (Misamis Oriental) to Bukidnon via Malaybalay was a very pleasant ride over cool high plains.

As an architect, I had worked on the master plan for Cagayan de Oro and Davao cities 25 years ago, and I wanted to see the development since. Davao has followed up well with infrastructure improvements, such as overpasses, while Cagayan de Oro seems unchanged, with traffic in bad shape.

From the Davao Insular Hotel, I made a day trip to the Pearl Farm on Samal Island. The cottages in architect Francisco Mañosa’s distinguished contemporary vernacular style is resort design at its best.

The road from Davao to Surigao and from Tagum to Butuan is under rehabilitation. The bad news is the entire pavement has been removed from a stretch of about 100 km, making it a very unpleasant ride in a bowl of dust and black diesel fumes from buses and trucks.

I missed the ferry in Surigao by 15 minutes due to a change of schedule nobody but the shipping line had heard of. I spent the night in a training center near the pier and got on the early morning ferry to Leyte.

Black cloud

Every town now has an emission control station. If the black color on my face after a day’s ride is any indicator, buses, trucks and jeepneys seem to be exempted from control. But what do I know?

I traveled the Pan Philippine Highway many years ago when it was in very good shape. It will take a lot of work to get the full length in proper condition. I reached Tacloban and checked in at the Leyte Park Hotel where Linda, a one-woman band back after years of performing abroad, gave me the old rock-and-roll routine.

Roll-on, roll-off

The roro is an exotic experience. You line up at one window to pay the terminal fee, move to the next for a passenger ticket, and to another for a bill of lading for the bike typed carefully with one finger. You proceed to the Port Authority to pay for handling and, finally, to the Coast Guard for a rubber stamp on the registration.

In Surigao, they have added a little humor to this pedestrian procedure. A woman at a table outside the booths collects P50 for the “Barangay Tax.” I got a receipt, though.

I started the next day toward Luzon in pouring rain over the impressive San Juanico Bridge and on to Samar—the worst and most dangerous bike ride of the trip. This is the worst road I have ever experienced during years of biking around the world. I made it to Allen with only a slightly damaged shock absorber and got on the roro to Sorsogon for the night.

The ferry trip was rough. Many plastic bags were out to catch lunch. Seasickness seems to be contagious.

Public transportation

It’s always interesting to study the specific, often innovative, local versions of tricycles and bikes. Each area has its own design. In Southern Leyte, I saw bikes with roofs so big and mounted so high that they looked like hand gliders ready for takeoff. One operator recognized the resemblance by calling his unit “Airborne.”

I took the 550-km ride from Sorsogon to Manila in one go, stopping only for gas. I was descending from the hills toward Lucena on a meandering road just as sunset painted the landscape red and yellow—a beautiful sight. On the last stretch to Manila, I was all alone on the Skyway and gave the bike full throttle, blasting through the night with Harley rumbling.

I had the bike serviced and got a new tire after the sometimes rough ride. My friend King did the job in his Harley shop “Full Throttle” in Makati. I was ready to go north.

In Subic, I joined up with my old friend, Leo Prieto Jr. He left his Fireblade “crotch rocket” home to test his new BMW R 1200 GS on the trip to Pagudpud. So here we are, two old dudes on different bikes both basically designed more than half a century ago with some evolutionary improvements.

We spent the day at the peaceful, relaxing Mangrove Hotel before riding to Vigan. The coastal road through Zambales and Pangasinan is ideal for biking—long sweeping curves, not much traffic, and a well maintained pavement. Heavy traffic slowed us down in Dagupan City, but we were onto the great ride along the Lingayen Bay to La Union where we spent the night.

Vigan is a fast-growing city. We stayed in the classy Vigan Plaza Hotel at the main plaza. We arrived early, in time for an afternoon stroll through the old streets of Spanish colonial houses and a visit to the cathedral.

The ride to Pagudpud was easy. Approaching the northern point of Luzon, we passed a number of sandy coves shaped by powerful waves rolling in from the open sea.

Pagudpud is a serene area with strong, fresh wind and big surfs. After sunset, “the night comes falling from the sky,” as Bob Dylan experienced it. A pitch-black sky makes the stars shine as brightly as I have ever seen. The waves thundered against the shore.

Jr. had to return to Manila to take care of business the next morning, and I headed for Tuguegarao and Banawe.

The ride around the northern tip of Luzon offered an exciting experience. At one time, the road is actually on a bridge-like structure between the coast and steep mountain slopes covered with rainforest.

I spent the night in Tuguegarao and continued the ride to Banawe early next morning. The access from Bagabag, Isabela is easy on concrete. A heavy deforestation is prevailing in this area, exposing large denuded mountainsides.

Banawe has not changed much over the last couple of decades. Most of the terraces are still maintained. Many tourists were arriving.

I proceeded to Bontoc on the old dirt road. It was raining since early morning and the track was slippery, making it hard to steer the heavy loaded Harley. It was certainly not an off-roader. On one side, you have a free fall of several hundred meters and on the other, the mountain wall.

It was mainly a ride on first gear. I made the trip, also in heavy rain, 30 years ago on a Juniors Triumph Bonneville.

Touching the sky

While slowly ascending on the winding road, I suddenly found myself inside a rain-filled cloud. Visibility was only a few meters. No colors but grey, like riding in a black-and-white movie. The mist was sprinkling my face with water, a pleasant cool sensation on the skin. Riding in a cloud felt strange, like touching the sky.

Shortly after starting the descent, a sunbeam cut through the mist and lighted up a strip of the valley below. The shades of green came back and a small triangle of clear blue sky appeared between two mountain peaks—a transition of poetic beauty. The power of the sun gradually took control and revealed the strong sculptured rice terraces in the valley.

It was a slow but scenic ride on a dirt road in Bontoc, Mountain Province. It follows a river with small rice terraces on the brink. Getting closer to Baguio, the traffic increased. Many vegetable trucks were driving like mad on the meandering mountain road, and the situation called for careful, defensive driving.

The entrance to Baguio is a war zone of jeepneys fighting for passengers. I reached the city proper and got gobbled up in the traffic mess and choking polluted air.

Urban decay

When Baguio was built following Daniel Burnham’s plan, it was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful mountain cities in the world. Over the last couple of decades, it has become an example of how bad it can get when there is no development control to match blind greed and short-sightedness. A sad story of a dethroned beauty queen of the mountains turned whore.

I spent some time with old friends before starting my trip back to Zambonga City on the Nautical Highway.

First stop was Manila, where I had another checkup of the Harley for the 1,500-km trip. I took the South Superhighway to Batangas and the roro to Puerto Galera. I spent a day with Jim, who manages the peaceful Coral Cove Diving Resort in Sabang away from the circus in the town itself.

The rain followed me on most of the journey back. I headed for Roxas, where the roro took me to Caticlan. We arrived around 10:30 p.m. and everything was closed. The bike was low on gas but a helpful guy took me to a house where I was able to buy five Coke bottles of premium.

Little sleep

I reached Kalibo at midnight, looking for a place to get a little sleep after 19 hours of traveling, mostly in heavy rain that made the muscles cold and sore. But as John Mellemcamp sings: “It hurts so good,” especially when it was over.

I found the ideal place to sleep where I had to pay only P200 for three hours and P35 for the following hours. I paid for six hours and started early to Iloilo and the roro to Bacolod. I continued to Dumaguete where I arrived at around 8 p.m. after another rainy day on the road.

I spent two days in the city. It’s a lively place, especially along the boulevard with its string of cafes. A friend from Zamboanga has a daughter who studies at Silliman University. She was the perfect guide and introduced me to a group of her good friends. We spent a pleasant evening in one of their homes where they served delicious vegetarian supper for me.

I took the 7 a.m. ferry to Dapitan and proceeded to my home in Zamboanga City. It was still raining.

There are many good hotels all over the country. From three- to five-star hotels, whose prices range from P1,200 to P2,700 per night, but all good value for the money in their own right, such as Dakak in Dapitan, Harbor Light Hotel in Cagayan de Oro, Insular Hotel in Davao, Leyte Park Hotel in Tacloban, Mangrove Hotel in Subic, Vigan Plaza Hotel, and Banawe Hotel.

Not in this category is the most expensive room on this nationwide trip in Saud Resort in Pagudpud, where a single traveler is charged P3,550 per night.

As a biker, I love to ride into the unknown, chasing the wind. But it’s another story if you are a tourist who wants to plan and budget a vacation. I was part of the team that carried out the “Tourism Masterplan for the Philippines” and can appreciate that angle, too. There is a need for coordinated and currently updated information on schedules and prices (they seem to change frequently). I suggest that the Department of Tourism supplement its travel maps with a website providing this service.

Editor’s note: The author is an architect and senior biker, and a long time resident of Zamboanga City.

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