The heart of the Philippines

TOUR AND ROUTE UPDATE: Visa permitting once I arrive in Jakarta I will fly back to Kazakhstan and cycle the Karakorum highway into Pakistan, head through India, Nepal, Sikkim to Myanmar than proceed through Thailand and Laos to China. This will be my last year on the road.

Gaby aboard a local pump boat

Gaby aboard a local pump boat

While on Tablas island I met a retired American couple (Peter and Sally) who had spent the last month cycling the three islands of Romblon province. Our paths crossed on a quiet dirt road and talked about some of our recent travels. I quickly learned that this aged couple (probably in their late 60’s) had been on the road for the last 10 years, and in that time had cycled many of the extremely remote islands of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Peter and Sally, retired Americans cycling south east Asia

Peter and Sally, retired Americans cycling south-east Asia

They shared with me their fascination with the small island of Romblon, and spoke of how friendly and happy the locals were. It so turned out that there was a ferry departing to the island later that day, so I decided to see for myself what Romblon had to offer, as well as see if I could find a good place to dive.

Local man prepares fresh coconut juice

Local man prepares fresh coconut juice

Upon arriving at the San Augustine Tablas harbor, watched a small pump boat come to shore which would be my transport to the island. Before even attempting to figure out how I would get Gaby aboard I was quickly overtaken by a group of 5 local porters lifting a motorcycle aboard. The pump boat bobbed up and down and the local porters were stunned by the weight of the motorbike the roughness of the sea. Finally the motor bike was aboard and without waiting I quickly jumped from land to boat and back carrying panniers and eventually Gaby. Once inside I avoided sitting next to any pregnant women as well as anyone who looked as though they would vomit on the short passage to Romblon, and watched the Long Island of Tablas fade into the horizon.

Welcoming sign to one of the many Barangays

Welcoming sign to one of the many local Barangays or villages

DCIM100GOPRO

Soon Romblon island came into full view and I could see the dense jungle throughout. The sea between the two islands was so shallow that at many areas the blue water turned to turquoise over sand bars. It was a day or two after new moon and off the north coast I could see a long sand bar connecting Romblon to a smaller island.

DCIM100GOPRO

The town of Romblon was very quaint with a market, church, a few restaurants and a hotel all situated around the post office. The very few foreigners could be seen hanging around the deli drinking beer and looking at their fancy cellphones.

Inside of a cockfighting area! This place was crazy with each fight only lasting less than a minute

Inside of a cockfighting area! This place was crazy with each fight only lasting less than a minute

roadside cellphone repair

roadside cellphone repair

The perimeter of the island is only about 50 km and the road passes through 20 or so small villages known as Barangays. Each Barangay is marked with a sign, and most have small markets or stores built out of bamboo homes selling snacks and ice candy. Finding “real” food however can be difficult and as I pedaled around my diet consisted mainly of young coconut water “Buko”, cough drops, and homemade fruit popsicles called “Ice Candy”.

Tricycle filled with school children

Tricycle loaded with school children

Rice soup and chili sauce breakfast

Rice soup and chili sauce breakfast, 5 pesos

I pedaled past a dive center, and enquired about diving. 20 minutes later I was on a boat with 4 Australians heading to a nearby coral reef. By far my longest dive I spent 70 minutes watching scuttle fish, turtles and snakes at a depth of about 10 meters. We surfaced just as the sun was setting and I see the brilliant colors through the water I neared the surface. The painted sky slowly become starlit and we rode back to shore. I spent the next few hours making friends with divers and eating fruit soup. The owners of the dive center were half Filipino half German, and it seemed like they had a very nice life living on the island and diving each day.

Low tide, Romblon harbor

Low tide, Romblon harbor

Romblon city

Romblon city

The next day I decided to climb the tallest mountain (Mt. Bundok) and watch the sunset and rise with a 360 view of the neighboring islands. To get there though I had to pedal around the island on the perimeter road to the north-eastern side “Romblon Oriental”, where I would find a small Barangay road that would take me to the top of the mountain. I followed the perimeter road and stopped at many of the different Barangays, often buying fresh coconut water and conversing with the locals. The Filipinos on the island were just as the American couple described them, friendly and always smiling!

Julio and his son Angelo, another friendly tricycle driver

Julio and his son Angelo, another friendly tricycle driver

I stopped to swim at a favorite local beach, and found myself swimming with dolphins and schools of fish. Back on the shore I met a Barangay official who asked me if I wanted a fresh coconut from the tree. He then scaled a 40 foot tree with bare feet and hands, grabbed a large coconut from the top then climbed back down with one hand still holding the nut! When he got back down he asked me if I had a knife to open it with, when I told him that I didn’t he used a sharp stick to peel off the skin, then cracked the top with a rock! It is situations like this that leave me completely amazed at the ability of locals. On Romblon they almost seem more like natives of a tribe rather than locals as many can live directly of the land and sea.

Barangay official free climbs tree to get me a fresh coconut

Barangay official free climbs coconut tree

Cycling this part of the world not only introduces me to a new culture but also gives me the feeling that I have traveled back in time. In many ways the island seems timeless, bamboo shacks, fresh fish cooking over palm tree biomass and children playing with sticks and road. There are no toys, computers, T.V’s and in many places no electricity.

More roadside food, pork wraps

More roadside food, pork wraps

the server was one of the many transvestites I have seen on the island. Filipinos seem to be very open about this

the server was one of the many transvestites I have seen on the island. Filipinos seem to be very open about this

I climbed Bundok mountain a few minutes before sunset and pitched my tent having he whole mountain to myself. To the west I could see the island of Tablas and to the east Sibuyan. There was no sound except for the wind which kept the mosquitos down. My tent was almost completely hidden by the tall grass.

Sunset from Bundok Mountain

Sunset from Bundok Mountain

DCIM100GOPRO

Later the next day I boarded an overnight ferry to Batangas, Luzon (the large, busy main island of the Philippines). I purchased the cheapest ticket available and spent the night in a room full of bunk beds watching Filipinos feast on cup of noodles and rice all night. At 2 am the lady sleeping underneath me got into some political debate with the porter selling bananas, resulting in me having to move beds. I arrived in Batangas at 4:30 am and before pedaling off I noticed something wrong with my rear brake. Upon closer inspection I noticed that the attachment to my rear rack broke inside the brake stud rendering my rear brake completely useless. There is no way to fix this other than having a new stud welded on, and even if this were possible I would still need a new rack bolt made only by my American sponsor Paul. Considering difficulty in getting this done, It looks like I am going to have to finish this tour with only one brake.

DCIM100GOPRO

Hog and chicken feed store

Hog and chicken feed store

I am taking a break from cycling and will be diving with my friends for a few days. The tour will officially continue when I fly to Brunei where I will then cycle through Malaysia and Indonesia before heading back to Kazakhstan.

 

A Pretending Pinoy (local)

My rice farmer hosts 30 km north of the port city Roxas

Rice farmer host, and his two daughters. 30 km north of the port city Roxas, Mindoro Island

Closing my eyes I hear the rumble of tricycles and machines grinding metal. The smell of coconuts marks the entrance and exit of small villages. I pass signs advertising Bibingka (local cake) and Halo Halo (An iced drink consisting of many ingredients many times corn), sometimes even signs selling love. The age of most Filipinos can be determined by the number of teeth left in their mouth, where most women and men over the age of 30 have lost their rear teeth; which becomes noticeable with their huge smiles. Motorbikes sometimes carry whole families and many times there is a baby sitting on someone’s shoulders.

A smile goes a long way and many times pays the rent. When looking for a place to camp; I ride up, make a camping gesture and smile.

Halo Halo, this one didn't have the much favored corn but rather marshmallows! The local ice is probably not the greatest thing to consume but while taking my malaria medication my stomach is pretty invincible.

Halo Halo preparation, this one didn’t have the much favored corn but rather marshmallows! The drink usually consists of grass jelly, jello, corn, beans, evaporated milk, sugar and ice. The ice is probably not the greatest thing to consume but while taking my malaria medication (an antibiotic) my stomach is pretty invincible.

All day I am greeted with the phrase “Hey Joe, where you go”? I have been called “Joe” so many times that when asked I say I am “Joe”. Locals are completely distraught at the sight of me pedaling by and stop whatever they are doing to wave as I pass.

Local gas station, unleaded gasoline is bright green with is counter part (leaded) being bright orange

Local gas station, unleaded is bright green with is counter part (leaded) being bright orange. All sold in used cola bottles.

One of the only vegetarian local dishes. Cooked jack fruit

One of the only vegetarian local dishes. Cooked jack fruit and rice. After cooking for two hours in coconut milk even the seeds become edible.

Dealing with locals seems to take up most of my energy; as most are looking for an opportunity to take advantage and make a few extra Filipino Pesos. I once ordered two Halo Halo’s for 20 pesos then was told that if I wanted to make a local call it would cost 50.

Fruit stand, Local price for Papaya is close to $0.50 dollars a kilo, and close to a dollar for Bananas.

Fruit stand, local price for Papaya is close to $0.50 dollars a kilo, and a dollar for Bananas.

While staying with new friends in Calapan I decided to visit the relatively unknown islands of Romblon. I pedaled south to the port and noticed when boarding the boat that I was the only foreigner. After carrying my bike across a narrow plank, I stacked my gear next to a wall of rice bags. The boat was completely filled with locals carrying plants, fruits, vegetables and enough rice to sink the small ship. Each passenger had a large sack rice so much that I began to wonder if I would find food on the islands. Halfway through the 3 hour journey the boat encountered rough seas and many of the passengers rushed to the few windows and began vomiting. I started to feel sick my self and was wedged between two sleeping locals, and a pregnant women vomiting to my right.

Leaving the Roxas port, a rough 3 hours at sea to Tablas island

Leaving the Roxas port, a rough 3 hours at sea to Tablas island

Upon arriving I noticed that most if not all the businesses were closed for Chinese New Year, a Filipino national holiday. A few kilometers later I learned that it was also prom night. I pedaled south and eventually found a quiet white sand beach for camping.

My vision of the Philippines realized. The rural country on Tablas island

My vision of the Philippines realized. Rural rice plantation on Tablas island

Binucot beach

Binucot beach during a new year low tide

There are 3 islands to explore in Romblon province and plenty of great diving. Today I road on a small provincial road which traveled past rice plantations, hog farms and villages. Tomorrow I will travel to the smaller island of Romblon to dive.