Monday, March 24, 2008

Holy Rollers

Maundy Thursday and Good Friday of Holy Week are national holidays in the Philippines, which makes them a perfect time to go on a long bike ride, aptly named the Holy Ride. I went along with the Negros Oriental Bikers Association on a one-day, 120km (73 mile) ride. Most of the small towns in the area have a local mountain biking club, with the center of the scene being in Dumaguete. About 30 people went along with this particular ride. The participants tend to come from the middle/upper crust of local society – college students, bike shop owners, high school and university teachers, and real estate agents. But not all do, and I wasn’t the only one without a top-level bike, spandex, and fancy shoes that clip on to my pedals. The one thing that all the participants had in common was being much better than me at riding their bikes!

I didn’t participate in the entire ride, which was from Dumaguete to Ayungon and back (a total of 160km). Instead, the plan was to join the riders as they went by my house 20km from Dumaguete. I knew they were planning to congregate in Dumaguete at 4:30 am, but I wasn’t sure at what time they’d actually leave, and I wasn’t sure how long it would take them to get to my house. I’m still quite bad at predicting “Filipino time” – I know that this group, in general, is more punctual, but after all, it’s still 4:30 am, and nothing voluntary that early ever starts on time, no matter where you are. At about 6:00 am, as I was getting my things together, my host mom announced that they were rolling by. I scrambled to get my pack together, get some water, and put my shoes on, but they were long gone by the time I got on the road. I hauled to try to catch them, riding a fast 7km to try to join the ride. As I was rolling into the next city, I caught a glimpse of some bikers up ahead, and I was finally able to reel them in as we were heading out of the city. I surveyed the crowd: racing uniforms, spandex, sleek backpacks/camelbacks, clip-in shoes. Me: t-shirt, board shorts, running shoes, and a too-large backpack, because I wanted to bring money, phone, spare tube, sunscreen, and toilet paper, and had no convenient small pack/bike accessory/pocket-in-the-back-of-fancy-biking-jersey in which to place these things.

The pace at the beginning was surprisingly easy, as we rolled through sugarcane fields, palm trees, and small settlements. We stopped in Bais for a breakfast break. Having eaten at home, I passed on the humba (marinated pig fat) and just had a banana, the first of many that day. From there, the pack stayed together for a few kilometers, and gradually began to spread out going into Manjuyod. I was riding at a nice pace and chatting with a guy who grew up in Cebu, lived in California for 20 years, and has retired early here, when he mentioned “there’s a hill here, let’s catch up” and zoomed up and away. It was then I realized the lack of strength in my legs compared to the other participants. When we finally all reconvened a few km up the road at a beautiful cliff that drops off into the Tanon Strait, with a scenic vista of Cebu Island and sparkling blue water, I was definitely feeling it in my legs. I devoured an apple and continued on, being fooled for a little while by a gentle downhill portion, before I really started dropping back from the pack. Eventually I had to stop for a quick pee break, and by then, I was completely alone.

Past the town of Bindoy, 11km from Ayungon, I happily noticed through exhausted eyes that a couple of my friends were resting at a little roadside store. I bought a couple bottles of water and waited with them for a few minutes. Apparently, there were even a couple people behind me. Together, we were the slow group, either because we were older, chubbier, or just a weak-legged American. We pressed on 9 more km and then found a larger group stopped just a couple kilometers out of town. By this point, my thighs hurt so bad that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I got off my bike, walked around, sat on the ground, squatted, but nothing would bring me comfort. Finally there was nothing to do but leg out the last two excruciating kilometers into town. I was sure that I was done for the day, and would just take a bus going back home. We collapsed in the town plaza. My legs were killing me, but it went away after a surprisingly short time, as I was distracted by conversation. We went into the municipal hall to meet with some local officials and get some snacks and put our names on a sign-in sheet (ubiquitous at any gathering of more than 3 people, it seems). I met up for lunch with the Peace Corps Volunteer in town, and then did some of my most enthusiastic riding of the day to get to her house to use the bathroom. I had a bout of LBM (see previous posts) and was seriously doubting whether I could/should make the ride back. Just then, the members of the bike team from my town rolled up to the house – they’d been searching for me, everybody else had already left! I popped a couple Pepto tabs and decided I’d try to go as far as I could.

My legs immediately started killing me, but after a couple km they loosened up so it wasn’t constant pain. Remarkably enough, it was on a climb that I had been dreading, when standing up to pedal the whole way, that all the pain left my legs and I started feeling great. Alone by this time (though not last), I tucked in to the long descent and was feeling very joyous. Eventually I found everybody congregated in Manjuyod for a quick rest. Again, my thighs hurt to the point where it was worse off the bike and I couldn’t really find a comfortable position. We took off again, and I stayed with the pack through the outskirts of Bais, but eventually decided that I was done for a while. I stopped at a small grass patch in front of a gas station that had a sign saying “Ginadili ang istambay dinhi” (Hanging out here is prohibited) and collapsed on the grass. Alternating between lying down, sitting up, and with what must have been a pretty pathetic look on my face, I’m sure I made quite the sight. After a couple minutes, a friend came riding back to let me know that everybody else was stopped at a bakery just a couple blocks ahead, so I pulled myself up and went to join them.

Here the pain became absolutely excruciating. I sat in a plastic chair alternating between elevating my legs, crossing them, shaking them, massaging them, jumping, and walking around, but nothing made them feel better. I borrowed some Effervescent Oil and rubbed the green goop into my thighs, which made them feel something, but it wasn’t less pain. Not realizing how hungry I had been, I wolfed down pastries in one bite and gulped half-liters of water in one chug. Absolutely nothing took the searing pain from my thighs. I felt pathetic and helpless. I looked around desperately, tears welling up in my eyes, fanatically scratching my head. When the group was ready to go, I begged them to let go of their cultural hospitality and care and go on without me. I put my legs up on another chair, hugged my backpack, and fell into some semblance of a sleep, right in the bake shop, on the street corner, with an incredibly loud generator right next to me (it was a brownout at the time). I’m not sure how much later it was, perhaps 20 or 30 minutes, when I woke up and noticed that the pain had miraculously left my legs. I had another piece of banana bread, bought two more bottles of water, and got back on my bike, resolving to finish the last 20 or so kilometers – but slowly. As the sun began to dip toward the mountain, I went at a pace that I knew wouldn’t exhaust me, dealing with a literal pain in the butt that came from being off the saddle too long.

As I was passing through Tanjay, I noticed one of the bikers by the side of the road, putting his bike into his house. A spry older man with gray hair who had left me in the dust numerous times that day, he told me that the others were not too far ahead. They’d stopped in Tanjay for some budbud, the local delicacy, which is a kind of sweet, sticky rice that comes wrapped in a banana leaf. Around the boundary between Tanjay and Amlan, I caught my first glimpses of the cyclists, and soon was caught from behind, much to their surprise, by a group that had apparently stayed in Tanjay a little longer. “How did you get here!?” asked one. I rode with them for a little bit, but was absolutely determined to catch the main pack, so I quickened the pace, knowing that it would cause great pain later but not caring. At first I snuck into the back of the pack, to the happy surprise of the riders. I noticed my friend/local biking mentor/teacher at local high school up at the front of the pack, jumped off the road to the dirt path along the side, and raced up to the front. Everybody was sort of shocked and genuinely delighted to see me sprinting along, having given me up for dead (or at least the bus) back in Bais. Even though I was unquestionably the weakest rider of the group, I felt that I had won the day’s championship just by getting back to the pack. It was only a kilometer or so more into Amlan proper, a triumphant homecoming. A day that began with nervous anticipation, a late start, and a hurried chase, proceeded to new friends, 2.5 liters of water, 6 bananas, 120 km, natural beauty, and personal agony and triumph, had come to its exhausted and satisfied end.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Pinoy Paddy's Day

Having your birthday on St. Patrick's Day is great, especially if you're partly Irish and your middle name is Patrick. (Total coincidence, by the way.) In the US, it's a big enough holiday that people get a little excited, but not so big that it overshadows your birthday, the way Christmas might. It compliments things well. However, the Irish have not made too many cultural inroads to my town. Despite the heavily rooted Catholicism in the Philippines, the patron saint of Ireland and engineers is not well known.

What's more, Filipinos celebrate birthdays in a different way. Instead of the birthday-haver's meals, drinks, and everything else being bought for them, and harsh refusals of any suggestion on the part of the birthday haver's offer to pay for anything, here, the one with the birthday is expected to pay for all. In other words, if you don't shell out, you have no party. So you can pretty much decide what kind of a party you want by how much you want to pay. I opted for a low-key office celebration, rather than a huge party fueled by multiple suckling pigs (maybe next year).

Here's the snacks I purchased: pretty standard stuff. A liter of Coke (with real sugar, by the way, I hear that these "Mexican Cokes" are all the rage among hipsters in the US), a liter of Sprite, my two favorite kinds of Pinoy chips, some fresh baked goods, and a trio of kasava cakes I was somewhat coerced into buying earlier in the day from a door-to-door salesman.
The snacks

My birthday ended up turning into a two-day celebration when I brought back the snacks on the 17th and my neighbor/host brother/co-worker expressed great surprise. It turned out he had ordered a cake for me, but thought it was for the 18th. So, on the 18th here, when it was still the 17th in my true birthday-time zone, I continued to receive birthday greetings from home, got a couple packages in the mail, and got to eat a cake inscribed "Happy Birthday Craig Bossman" (I'm the boss, man!). It was a pretty low-key birthday but ended up being a lot of fun. I think for next year, I'll probably go a little more all-out, and also inject a little green food-coloring into the situation. Thanks to everybody who wished me a happy birthday, it's nice to know that so many people are thinking of me while I'm over here (and that Facebook's birthday reminder is a remarkably effective tool).

Speaking of Ireland, I just finished Dubliners by James Joyce. I think the cover of this edition, which my dad sent to me, is remarkably cool (I also highly enjoyed the writing, and recommend that you read it).