this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on August 2, 2001.
The race will start in two weeks, and I don’t think I’m in shape. Like other adventure races, it involves three days of round-the-clock, multi-sport endurance competition, including mountain biking, trekking, swimming, paddling and other sports. Held in some of the most obscure, stunningly beautiful corners of this country, they are a story in themselves. But that’s not what this article is about. It’s training in Manila that has given me some of my most memorable moments in the Philippines.
After bungee-jumping off a bridge taped to a skateboard, kayaking down so many unexplored rivers and taking jeepney rides to Tondo at midnight, it takes a lot to make me nervous. But my recent workouts have left me jittery and set me thinking about getting health insurance for the first time. When I arrive home after a long bicycle ride, my skin and nostrils are charcoal black, and I wonder if I have actually helped my body get healthier or contributed to my early demise. When I am forced to follow a poison-spewing bus, I get visions of the doctors doing an autopsy and concluding after seeing my tar-blackened respiratory system, “Oh, another two-pack-a-day smoker.” Then I imagine my friends protesting, “Nah, didn’t touch the stuff, but he did ride his bike in Manila.”
Manila drivers make biking seem like a game fraught with grave consequences. I have met motorists who looked me straight in the eye as I rolled down toward them and then promptly cut me off, almost spreading me out on their hood, all because they wanted to get ahead of other vehicles waiting for the green light. Buses and jeeps bob and weave like roller derby racers. Biking or jogging on these streets sharpens that knife-edge, since there are some monstrous holes in the pavement. I have narrowly missed running into holes that resemble Viet Cong booby traps, rusty, exposed metal and pungent black water.
I am constantly on the lookout for dogs as some places seem to be populated by as many canines as people. Most times they just go about their job by barking a bit and unenthusiastically giving a short chase, but some actually can get very territorial and try to carve out steaks from my legs. I have developed a kind of drunken Bruce Lee half-jog, half-roundhouse kick to drive their kind away. I know it gives the spectators good entertainment value. A tear in one sock reminds me of that one time in Makati where my attempts to fend them off didn’t work.
On one ridiculously late ride, I stopped at a corner store and noticed that the owners had fallen into a deep slumber. My “Tao po’s” couldn’t rouse them, so I dropped several one-peso coins on the metal shelf. On the fifth peso, the woman popped her head and lit a cigarette that was inexplicably already in her mouth. Her business partner groggily raised her head and suddenly stopped, frozen by the sight of this white engkanto cutting into her dreams.
My favorite times of the day are dawn and dusk, since they allow me to observe situations unnoticed like a ghost, instead of being an interruption or attraction. At dawn, people are too busy putting their day into motion to notice me. At dusk, people are focused on using the last fleeting moments to put their day in order.
One long walk from Ermita to Pasay at daybreak found me passing through narrow corridors and going by kitchens animated with the sound of clanking pots and frying breakfast. The surreal calm of the early morning gradually gave way to signs of life. A 10-year-old girl stumbled out of a doorway, peso bills clenched in her fists to buy pan de sal, rubbing her sleepy eyes, too tired to stare or care about my alien appearance.
A typical example of the circus-like randomness of my workout schedule is what happened to me recently. Unable to cross Edsa to Pioneer, I pedaled down to the bridge, carried my bike to cross under the Mandaluyong side of the bridge to get to the northbound lane. Assuming there would be a stairway, I ventured down. Weathering the torrent of “Hey Joe’s” (Is there a place in Europe or the Middle East where locals yelp out, “Heeeey JunJun! Saan ka pupunta?”) from the basketball players whose game I interrupted, I asked an old lady (they are the easiest to approach; they’ve seen it all) if there was a way up. Two children guided me through the most enjoyably convoluted route up to Edsa through some people’s living rooms. I had to lift the mountain bike over kitchen tables, making one woman choke on her chicken bones in surprise. Finally, amazingly, we were back on Edsa, the 100 vertical feet from river to bridge taking me on a memorable journey. I thanked the kids and rolled on.
So why do I put up with the pollution that coats my nostrils with coal-like soot, jokers waiting to heckle me on every corner and drivers who operate on the principle that “Might makes right”? It’s because of the people I meet. I get to see people from all walks of life: from the bankers on Ortigas who raise their eyebrows when they see me covered with mud from head to toe to the squatters by the Pasig into whose Good Friday Mass I stumble (“Hey Joe, wanna join our Mass?”) to the men who offer their cups filled with gin and ask, “Hey Joe, wanna shot?” which I am usually quite happy to oblige, all in the name of international relations, of course. From the bar girls of Burgos Street in Makati who whistle as I weave my way though flower vendors and club doormen to kind Aida under the Quezon Avenue MRT station, for whom I stop to talk and buy buko juice from every time I have a long ride to Valenzuela. And, no matter how exhausting or challenging a workout might be, I can always count on the welcome of the hordes of kids around my apartment complex. Their smiles, their touch and their questions always lift my spirits no matter how thick the toxic mud on my face is or how many near-death experiences I might have had during the course of my journey.
One night, at the end of a four-hour workout, I was nearing home when something practically locked the brakes on my bike forcing me to a full stop. From the Edsa bridge I saw the full moon shimmering on the surface of the meandering Pasig, illuminating the playful flow of the current and the ever-present mass of lilies from Laguna de Bay. The scene was so beautiful I almost forgot that the river has been biologically dead for at least two decades. I thought of the last scene in “Noli Me Tangere,” where Ibarra stealthily makes his way up to the lake, hidden under a cover of cogon, in a boat piloted by Elias.
I admired the scene for a minute or two, and then started pedaling toward home again. Gotta get in shape. Only two weeks left.