Mountainous Route to Naval, Biliran
I am now in the bustling town of Naval, so it’s understood that I did load up my bike and head out of Caligara yesterday when the weather seemed to be breaking. Packing up was a long and involved process. As I mentioned, my gear has simply refused to fall into neat packages on this trip. Nothing seems to fit right in any of my pannier bags. As I packed up, I made some adjustments and they seem to have been improvements. The main thing I did was move my big bag of lenses from my Survival Kit pannier bag to my “food” pannier bag. The problem before was that the lenses made my Survival Kit much heavier and I didn’t really need all the lenses with me all the time. So whenever I got to a new place, I’d have to empty out my Survival Kit and rearrange everything and then do the reverse when I hit the road. It didn’t make any sense. I found that when I moved my lenses to a front pannier bag, things worked out a little bit better both in terms of organization and in terms of weight distribution. I wanted to put some more weight over the front wheels, and this move did it. The longer I’ve been here, the more clear it has become that I really don’t need all those lenses. I’ve written about this at length before, I know. It just preys on my mind. I use the 12mm wide angle, the 25mm, the 75mm, and the macro lens fairly regularly. Though I do have a use for the 45mm and the ultra-wide angle, I could easily do without them.
I was in a pretty good mood when I left from Caligara. My time there had been very pleasant despite the battles with the ants and the extreme heat in my concrete cell. Nothing amazing happened, but it was very pleasant to hang out and read and simply walk along the beach with occasional rides into the countryside to go exploring.
The countryside past Caligara was stunningly beautiful with the bright green of the newly planted rice contrasted with the bright blue of the sky. It wasn’t, however, the kind of beauty that can be easily captured in a picture, so I didn’t bother taking out my Olympus. That, actually, is another problem with my packing. I simply can’t get at my Olympus easily and I pretty much never break it out during the day. It would be much better to have it in a handlebar bag where I could access it easily, but that doesn’t fit in with the rest of my gear. The only way to have a handlebar bar would be to get ride of my tent, sleeping bag, sleeping sheet, and mosquito net or have much, much smaller ones.
Perhaps the most interesting encounter of the day was at a military roadblock. I’ve encountered lots of these in the Philippines, but they don’t bother me at all. I could cycle right through them if I wanted to, but I always stop my bicycle and have a chat. When there are six or seven soldiers standing there with M-16 rifles, it’s kind of wise to take it slow and be friendly. These guys seemed taken aback by my attempt to have a chat. I made them quite nervous. It’s funny that a dumb white guy on a bike trumps a fully-armed unit of soldiers. It was a funny encounter because I asked one of the soldiers about the name of his gun. He misunderstood me and told me the name that he had given his gun. It was a woman’s name, something like Penny or Penelope. Of course, I wanted to know type of gun it was, not the name he gave it for when he slept with it at night. I guessed it was an M-16 and he confirmed that it was. These guys were very well put together, I should say. They had all the toys a good soldier could want – all likely thanks to the good graces of military aid from the United States.
About 20 kilometers from Caligara, I came to a fork in the road. One road led north to Biliran. The other led south to Ormoc. I still wasn’t completely sure which way I wanted to go, but after thinking about it for a while and remembering the beautiful views of mountains, I decided to head for Biliran. As I said, it is a place I’d wanted to visit for a long time. It isn’t high up on the list of must-see tourist sites in the Philippines, but that appeals to me. It’s just a regular island with normal regular life going on.
Up until this intersection, the cycling hadn’t been that terribly difficult. My bike felt extremely heavy and I had trouble making it up the longer slopes, but I attributed that to my long break in Tacloban. I just wasn’t in any kind of shape and I was starting all over again with jelly legs. After this interesection, however, things got much more difficult. MUCH more.
The road leading up to Biliran is a bit off the beaten track. Therefore less money had been spent on it. It was paved, but it cut a more direct line and that, added to the sudden appearance of mountainous terrain, meant the road was much more steep. I quickly found myself getting off the bike and pushing it uphill again. It’s crazy that I have to do this on paved roads. It’s understandable on rough dirt roads, but to have to push my bike up a paved road is embarrassing. Something is clearly very wrong with this picture. In a strange way, though, pushing my bike doesn’t make much difference. Even when I stayed in the seat and kept pedalling, I wasn’t able to go very fast. In first gear, which is all I could manage and that barely, I could only go between 6 and 7 kilometers per hour. When I got off my bike and pushed, I was going 4 kilometers per hour. Considering I only had 70 kilometers to cover and that I had the entire day to do it, it didn’t matter that I was going that little bit slowly. And, in fact, walking was kind of interesting. It allowed me to look around more and take in my surroundings more and interact with people a bit more. I can take in a lot when I’m cycling, but the traffic is so dangerous here that I have to be very careful to stay as close to the edge of the pavement as possible and not wobble at all. One wobble could mean going out into traffic and being killed. I don’t fancy being killed just at the moment. Even walking my bike, I had to be very careful about traffic. Luckily, I have two rear-view mirrors – one on the left and one on the right. I tend to use the one on the left to monitor traffic behind me while I’m cycling. While pushing, the mirror on the right is positioned just right to give me the same view behind me. My ears were constantly tuned to the sound of any kind of engine. Then I could look at the mirror and see what was coming up behind me. Motorbikes and motorcycle taxis aren’t a huge problem. But if it’s anything on four wheels, I have to be very careful. The worst situation is to have a large bus or truck coming up behind me while another large bus or truck is approaching from the front. That leaves very little room on the road for me and I would generally roll my bike off the pavement and onto the shoulder to get out of the way to let these two behemoths battle it out. It would be suicide to imagine that either driver would have the common sense to slow down to allow the other to pass by me before they reached me. Slowing down is simply not an option for these guys, especially bus drivers.
The honking was a big problem on the main highway, but once I got on the side road heading north to Biliran, the amount of traffic was far less and the honking was equally reduced. I found that I wasn’t nearly as annoyed and irritated as I was on the main roads. Still, the amount and type of honking simply staggers logic and bewilders me. When I set off in the morning, I do a mental game where I tell myself to simply ignore the honking. Getting angry about it won’t change anything. It’s not like I am going to change the driving habits of all of Asia by cycling down one or two roads and giving drivers the finger. So I try to tell myself to accept it and relax and go with the flow. It seems, though, that cultural norms go very deep. No matter how many times I tell myself that the honking is normal for this culture, I can’t help but get upset and angry. It offends my sense of logic. I can go so far as to accept that a little toot on the horn when approaching someone from behind is acceptable. After all, there is every possible type of vehicle on the road and they are all going at different speeds and performing crazy maneuvers. A little toot to tell someone of your presence is fine. But they don’t do that. They blast their air horn and blast it and blast it and blast it. Sometimes they wait until they are right beside me and passing me before they hit the air horn. That is the move that bothers me the most because it scares me half to death every time and I nearly jump off the bike. I can’t see how a normal human being wouldn’t realize that coming up right beside a cyclist and then hitting the horn wouldn’t be a bit annoying for the cyclist. But if you think like that, you’ll drive yourself insane. I did fairly well, though. Considering the amount time I spent on the road and the brutal difficulty of it, it seems acceptable to have given perhaps three drivers the finger. I really shouldn’t do that at all, but sometimes it happens without my even thinking about it. I’m suddenly filled with this intense rage. It takes me over before I even realize it. I suppose that, too, goes back to cultural norms. In my culture, people honk when there is actual danger and when they are angry at you for you having done something stupid. So I’m programmed to believe that all these people honking at me are telling me that I’ve done something stupid, that they are angry with me, that they want me to get out of their way, that they want me to get off the road, something. In truth, the honking doesn’t mean anything. They don’t want me to do anything, but I can’t help but feel that every honk is a personal attack. And hours and hours and hours of constant honking eventually wears down whatever zen-like state I’ve tried to develop.
Yesterday, though, the honking was the least of my conerns. The biggest problem was the steepness of the road, which made for very tough cycling. Also, the sun was out and beating down strongly. When it comes to weather in this part of the world, you really can’t win. I had been somewhat trapped by the constant rain. I wanted the rain to stop so that I could enjoy some cycling. But once the clouds clear and the rain stops, the sun is revealed and it beats down with a force to stun you. Suddenly, you want the clouds and the rain back and for the sun to go away. I know that lots of people claim to like hot weather like this. They thrive in it – or so they say. But I am not one of those people. I could not be happy living in a climate like this full time.
On the positive side, I had no trouble getting food and water during the day. The Philippines is surprisingly crowded and every bit of the road on either side seemed to be packed with houses and buildings and people. And where there are people, there are eateries. I stopped for lunch in the small town of Leyte. It was a very pleasant and quiet place, and I found a nice little eatery where I got a typical Filipino lunch for about 50 pesos. They also brought a full pitcher of ice water to my table, and I went through that steadily. In fact, there is so much fresh drinkable water in the Philippines that I hardly need to carry as much water as I do. While in Tacloban, I purchased two extra-large Nalgene bottles to increase my ability to carry water. Each bottle contains just shy of 1.5 liters. Adding that to my three bike bottles, I can now carry over 5 liters of water. That might seem a bit excessive – and it adds considerably to the weight of the bike – but in this heat there is almost no limit to the amount of water my body needs. I could stop all day and keep filling up my three bike bottles, but that would get to be a bit annoying. I find that despite the extra weight, it is best to leave in the morning with as much water as possible. In fact, I treat my stomach as another water bottle and the minute before I get on my bike and start riding, I drink as much water as my stomach can possible hold without throwing up. I just keep forcing it in and forcing it in – like a camel getting ready for a trek across the desert. As much water as I can get into my system at the start of the day, the better. It might feel like my stomach is going to explode, but within just a minute or two, my body soaks it up and puts it to good use. I can do this, because I also have a 10-liter dromedary bag for water. I fill this up at night and use it for cooking and drinking and for filling up my water bottles in the morning. I often have extra water in the morning, and rather than throw it away, I will put as much into my body as possible. In the past, I’ve even put the dromedary bag, partialy filled, into a pannier bag. Then I would have as much as 10 liters of water to start the day. No wonder I have trouble making it up the steep hills.
Yesterday’s trouble getting up the steep slopes had me thinking about the weight on my bike a lot. While in Tacloblan, I changed over my tubes from regular tubes to big and heavy flat-proof tubes. It seemed like a good tradeoff – a bit of extra weight for protection from punctures and pinch flats. But I’m starting to rethink that strategy. I also had to buy a new tire, and I purchased another huge knobby tire. My sense is that I have to have these extra-large tires to handle the rough terrain and the weight. Perhaps that is also a poor strategy. As I think I mentioned before, if I were rich, I would probably completely change my cycling equipment. I’d get a dedicated touring bike, like a Surly Long-Haul Trucker, and then purchase other gear with an eye to keeping the weight down as much as possible – particularly my tent and sleeping bag and sleeping sheet. To be honest, if someone asked me for my advice about cycling in the Philippines, I’d tell them not to do it. Far better would be to buy a motorbike and tour the Philippines that way, assuming that there aren’t huge obstacles in the form of getting the bike licensed and all of that. For a lazy bike rider like me, having a motorbike would probably end up saving money. I’d be much more likely to hit the road and head for a new place if I could jump on a motorbike and just go. If I had a motorbike, I could have come to Biliran from Tacloban as a day trip easily. On a bicycle, it is a major expedition. With a motorbike, I certainly wouldn’t have hung out in Tacloban or in Legazpi as long as I did. The difficulties of cycling are a big part that kept me reluctant to hit the road for so long in each place.
Towards the end of the day yesterday, I even started to doubt that I would be able to make it to the town of Naval. In fact, if I had come across a suitable place to stay in any of the earlier towns, I would have stopped and spent the night there. Unfortunately, there was no place to stay in any of the smaller towns. I had my tent, but I honestly saw no reasonable way to camp. As I keep saying, I don’t know how other cyclists do it in conditions like this. I don’t know where I would have put up the tent let alone how I would have dealt with the problems of getting cleaned up and cooking dinner and going to the bathroom. One assumes there will be a certain physical challenge in a bike trip, but camping out in these conditions seems far beyond reasonable. Even assuming that I could have found a place to put up my tent and that I had access to water, what then would I do for the hours and hours and hours between setting up camp and leaving the next morning? All you could do really is lie there sweltering in the heat and waiting for the hours to pass. That is hardly much fun. In fact, I actually find it physically challenging to stay in a hotel! I must be a super wimp.
Biliran is a separate island as well as a separate province, and reaching it involves crossing a large bridge. The views from the bridge were wonderful. I could see Mount Saraug, which dominates the island, and I could see small fishing villages dotting the coast. I stayed on the bridge while a huge boat passed by underneath. All the men on the boat waved to me as I took their picture (with my Canon Elph) and some seemed to be urging me to jump off the bridge. I’m not sure what that was all about. There were large signs on the bridge saying that it was illegal to urinate on or from the bridge. I wonder how that came about. My guess is that drunk men would urinate from the bridge, lose their balance and fall to their death. Either that, or they would pee on boats passing by and that led to the ban.
Directly on the other side of the bridge, the first town you come to on the island is the town of the same name – Biliran. I passed a police station that had a sign saying they also had something to do with tourism. So I stopped there just to see if anyone wanted to chat about things to do and see on Biliran. The man and woman I spoke with had little to say along those lines, but they were friendly. I would have loved to stay in Biliran and save the final 20 kilometers for the morning, but I couldn’t find anyplace to stay.
I took the final 20 kilometers very easy. Luckily, that part of Biliran was not mountainous and the steep sections of road were far less numerous. Still, it was very difficult and I counted down the kilometers one by one.
Naval, when I reached it, was a bit of a disappointment. I was hoping for a very scenic location and a somewhat small town. But it is quite a large place and very busy. I had a lot of trouble cycling around and trying to locate a place to stay for the night. There are many universities and schools in Naval (as there are in every town and city in the Philippines), and the traffic jams around those places were quite large and chaotic with pedicabs and motorcycle taxis blocking the road everywhere.
I was lucky, however, and I stumbled across a very large and interesting lodging house not far from one of the universities. It has a large gate and driveway and courtyard. The building itself is two-stories high. The bottom floor is dedicated to “bed-spacer” living, meaning that six students share each room. I asked the guy at the counter and he said that they pay 1,250 pesos per month for one of those beds. That’s about $30. That’s a good price, but the conditions are not great. The rooms themselves are nice enough, but they are very small for six people. The three bunk beds barely fit, leaving little room for books and clothing and anything else. There is no air conditioning, of course, and the windows must remain open, which allows mosquitoes to get in.
The second floor has rooms for visitors like me. The regular rooms (non aircon) cost 400 pesos per night, which is about $10. These hotels and these rooms are a bit weird for someone like me. On the one hand, $10 for a room like this is a pretty good deal. The room is very large and has a big comfortable bed with clean sheets and pillows. There is a fan and a TV and a big desk with lots of storage and shelves. It has its own bathroom with a sink and a shower. There is even a seat on the toilet, and everything works. The only downside to this room is that there is no screen on any of the windows, so you can’t really open them unless you want the room to flood with mosquitoes. In fact, there used to be an air conditioner in this room, but it was removed. Where it used to be located, there is now just an open square with no glass or screen or anything, allowing the mosquitoes to come in at will.
The point is that it is a marvelous deal at $10. It is good value for money. It’s like a real hotel room and has coffee mugs and a hot water thermos and a towel and soap and all of that stuff. The problem from my point of view is that I don’t need all of that stuff. I have my own towel and soap. I don’t want the TV. I don’t even need my own bathroom. A shared bathroom would be fine. I would be quite happy paying less and getting less. Unfortunately, that rarely seems to be possible in the Philippines. So far, I haven’t found $5/night rooms with just the basics. But since I have all these luxuries, I certainly enjoy them. In fact, this room is probably the best place I’ve stayed in in the Philippines. My concrete prison cell in Carigara cost 300 pesos a night and was a complete dive compared to this. This room is even better than my “luxury” room in Tacloban, and costs a lot less.