Saturday, May 17, 2014

Bicycle Tour: Challenging the Streets of Manila One Pedal at a Time

Wazzup Pilipinas!

There is truth in the old cliche that once you've learned how to ride a bicycle, you'll never forget.

The last time I rode a bicycle was way back 2008. I had to stop riding a bicycle when my family and I had to move to a rent-to-own apartment for more convenience to our daily commuting to our workplace. Commuting a long distance from home to work adds a great amount of stress to the daily challenges we usually get, and traveling using our own private vehicles will only leave us spending more from our meager take-home pays. The public trains (MRT/LRT) somehow help lessen the hours but we usually end up all feeling squished like a lemon but smelling awful and sweaty like we just came from a workout.

Going through the huge crowd enduring the traffic or the over-congested trains are just some of the struggles in the Metro. Most of us are all similarly rushing to our respective work places and need to make do of what's available to the ordinary Pinoys. Only a few of us were luckily blessed with an affluent family while many of us can't afford to be too choosy because we were not born with rich parents.  Thus we are often called a resilient race because we learn how to make ends meet with very little resources and don't complain much.

My mountain bike was used for traveling to nearby areas for  sudden urges to buy snacks at the nearest neighborhood groceries, or whatever other errands I needed to do. It was better to sweat it out a little than wasting a few bucks on "special" tricycle fares. It was also ideal as an early morning exercise especially when I needed to escape our neighborhood and just freely ride away into anywhere. Sadly, it just ended up in storage, gathering dust and almost forgotten at one of our houses because it will be difficult to bring along with me through 9 floors of our building apartment. If it was not for the Bicycle Tour offered by Smokey Tours, I wouldn't have remembered my previously well-cherished possession.

Preparing the bikes before departure

Jessie, our vibrant tour guide from Smokey Tours, took us somewhere nearby where the bicycles were stored after the meetup infront of the Goldilocks restaurant and bakeshop near the LRT Buendia station. He took us to where many buses where parked. Apparently, it was a bus station where buses where en-route to Suothern Luzon areas like Laguna, Batangas and Quezon.

Jessie Mendoza, our tour guide from Smokey Tours
 After cleaning up the bikes, he gave us some background about Smokey Tours, cautioned us about the dangers on the road, and some hints on what to expect from the trip. He was obviously very well-informed about many things and I could feel his energy and enthusiasm that could almost become contagious if you hang around longer with him.

When I first hopped on the Smokey Tours bike, I admit I was a bit nervous at first. However, I don't let anything stop me from my adventures. I am always eager to go forth and discover all my potentials. I take risks and is willing to try out everything. Bicycling is not a stranger to me, I quickly got use to the pedaling, but the real challenge was riding the bike through the busy streets of Manila.

I felt something wrong with the bike, and it was confirmed when the chains snapped off. Our tour guide quickly put it back in place, but it snapped off again only after a few meters from our point of origin. I immediately called his attention so he had to go back to replace the bike. He made sure first that we were safely across the busy street of Buendia before he went back. Now that's a plus point for the guy!

Crossing the street of Buendia also made me witness something perplexing that I only got to confirm later in the tour. Jessie has the uncanny ability to stop vehicles just by showing the palm of his hands. Lol! He has the power to cross any busy street of Manila with very little worries, and surprisingly, they all let us pass through along with him.

Continuing with our Bicycle Tour after he returned with a better bike for me, we traveled along Leveriza street seeing a mix of residential and commercial establishments populated mostly by markets, grocery stores, restaurants and inns. I couldn't take photos while riding a bike so what I have to show you are only photos taken during our stop-overs.

Open area park Remedios Circle is at the center of many inns, spas and restaurants

Our first stop was at the Remedios Circle which according to Jessie was formerly famous for being the center of Manila's nightlife and the venue for new artists and performers. Now it is used by LGBT groups for gatherings and other activities. There was also a statue of Marcelo H. Del Pilar at the center of the park which unfortunately also is a witness to how vagrants, mostly street children, has used the park as their refuge through the night. This is where some of them sleep when they have nowhere else to go.

Chris, Jessie and Vicky at our first stop
The statue of Marcelo H. Del Pilar seems like a guardian to these children sleeping below
Street children sleeping under the shade of the statue

It is so sad to see sights like these especially when you know that these children choose to sleep as long as possible so they wouldn't have to face another day feeling the hunger when they are awake. Many of them would choose to sleep it off until bearable before they return to the streets begging for alms or food. Some of them maybe runaways who intentionally left home because of poverty. They felt they would have a better chance of surviving in the streets that staying at home starving to death.

Where2Next? We set forth to visit the main park of the Philippines passing through the street of Adriatico where backpackers often converge because many affordable hostels are available at this area.

Lapu-Lapu stands in the middle of what was formerly a roller skating rink

Luneta or Rizal Park is a familiar place for me since I studied in Manila but what was baffling was I never visited the place during my five years as an Engineering student of Mapua Institute of Technology. I would just pass by this very historical place as I do my routine of home-school-work.

Yes! I was a working student during my college days not only because I wanted to help my parents pay for my studies, but I was already very eager in exploring more than the usual. You'll find me working for fast-food chains during my college days after I got tired of working as a student assistant during enrollment time.

I got the idea of working when I found out student assistants get the privilege to enroll first before everyone else. The job required you to have a very good class standing which I never had a problem because I was getting good grades even during my earlier days in elementary and high school. The fast-food jobs were by accident when a friend asked me to come along with him while applying for a service crew position. I was urged by my friend to apply too. Unfortunately, I was the one who got the job but my friend went home feeling down and blue. From then on I got into new jobs after every end of contract because nobody was hiring for regularization among college level crew.

Resting behind the shades of one of the food stalls of Luneta. At the background is the former Department of Tourism
What I realized lately was that we often look for something great at far areas that are commonly not accessible to us that we fail to appreciate the beauty of the places nearby. We dream of traveling to many famous provinces, and even outside the country, yet we have never even explored the places that are just a few rides away from us.

I've studied in Manila for several years yet I have never explored it thoroughly and would always prefer to travel somewhere else.

Red Orange flowers adds color to the usually green trees
The Rizal Park is a wide area where many Filipino families hang out during special occasions
Aside from being the location of the Lapu-Lapu monument, a map of the Philippines, and the National Museum nearby, Luneta Park had these trees they call "fire trees" which had red orange flowers growing during summer time. It was a great sight to see among the greens. It brings back memories of Japan's Cherry Blossom trees which flowers only comes out during a particular season, and makes any park look pretty much interesting to paint on a canvas.

Galleria de los Presidentes de la Republica Pilipina (Gallery of the Philippine Presidents)
We didn't pass through the location of the Rizal monument and the fire and light show water fountain usually operated during night time celebrations, because we took a route towards Intramuros instead to reach Baluarte De San Diego - a beautiful bulwark turned garden venue for grand weddings, Galleria de los Presidentes de la Republica Pilipina (Gallery of the Philippine Presidents), and ECJ Building - old venue of WOW Philippines project, where the building is an old Augustinian seminary turned university with  combined stone and art deco architecture as its main features.

Galleria de los Presidentes de la Republica Pilipina (Gallery of the Philippine Presidents)
Bikers resting at the other side of the street
Bikers posing for the Wazzup Pilipinas camera

Where2Next? Our next stop was at the oldest Baroque church in the Philippines located at Plaza San Luis which remained standing still despite many occurrence of war and natural disasters. It's not my first time to visit this church but it never fails to amaze me especially when you look inside to marvel at the wonderful structures.

San Agustin Church
The San Agustin Church and museum is a UNESCO World Heritage site just opposite the also famous Casa Manila museum which is known to showcase the lifestyle of the rich Filipino aristocrat. It also houses some restaurants and souvenir shops at its first floor.
Casa Manila is a reconstruction of a Spanish colonial home which offers a window into the opulent lifestyle of the gentry in the 19th century
The "Bike Shop" was located at Cabildo corner Real streets
Jessie took us to a "bike shop" near the area at the corner of Cabildo and Real streets. Jesse says this is a place that connects old Filipino history to current living condition of some Filipinos. "Bike Shop" meant to be a place where pedicab drivers can have their "bikes" fixed and re-aired after several hours of working in the streets taking passengers from one point to another.

Jessie and the "Bike Shop"
We again took shelter from the heat of the sun at the very little shades available
Memorare Manila 1945
Where2Next? Our next stop was at the Memorare Manila 1945 located at the Plazuela de Sta. Isabel - the memorial statue for the more than 100,000 defenseless civilians who were killed by the Japanese Imperial Forces during the Battle for the Liberation of Manila sometime the year 1945.
Saddening to know the history of this memorial statue

May the victims rest in peace
The Battle for Manila was one of the most brutal episode in the history of Asia and the Pacific. Many innocent lives were lost during the battle that is commemorated by this memorial statue depicting the deaths of even women and children, including babies.

Chatting under the shade of  the "Kalachuchi" tree

Graffiti art is a creative means of expression

The Memorare Manila 1945 was also near the Intramuros Skateboarding Park - a free lot used to express new Filipino artistry by means of graffiti-like art works. It was also near the Bahay Tsino / Kaisa Foundation  - a museum dedicated to Chinese contribution in Philippine history.

Bikers at the Inramuros Skateboarding Park
Where2Next? We proceeded to the former kingdom of a Muslim chieftain named Rajah Sulaiman before it was taken over by Spanish conquistador Martin de Goiti and later on Spanish conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi built the Fuerza de Santiago on it's site.

Entrance to Fort Santiago

Fort Santiago is Manila's premier tourist attraction and one of the most important historical sites in the Philippines used as a defensive fortress or citadel designed to protect the newly formed city of Manila.

"Kalesa" are horse-pulled carriages that transport people during old times when motorized vehicle are rare
During our visit we saw several calesas passing by used as a working tourist attraction to take visitors around the facilities of Fort Santiago.

Fort Santiago marker
It is the most eventful place in Philippine history where thousands of Filipinos lost their lives from the Spanish era to the Japanese occupation.

The jovial Jessie in front of Fort Santiago
We were surely going around a lot of places even under the almost unbearable summer heat. If not for the bikes, we could be suffering already from aching feet. Our tour guide Jessie also kept the tour interesting for he had a lot to say about each place we went to.

Where2Next? Lol1...if you're wondering why I keep on saying "Where2Next" is because we have with us along with the tour the owner of the Where2Next hostel - a popular hostel in Manila mainly dedicated to backpackers. Smokey Tours provides free tours to hostel owners so they could promote it clearly to their foreign clients who travel the Philippines in search of adventure.

So Where2Next?  We visited Plaza de Roma, also called Plaza Roma, where the highly controversial Manila Cathedral Church is located. I said highly controversial because there where many celebrities that got married in it that ended up separated or divorced thus it has become less popular for marriages.

Plaza Roma plaza is considered to be the center of Intramuros. During Spanish colonial times, the plaza was the Plaza Mayor of Manila, and was thus considered the center of the city, with bullfights and other public events being held in the plaza until Governor-General Rafael Maria de Aguilar converted it into a garden in 1797.

Manila Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica
The Manila Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica, informally known as the Manila Cathedral, is a Roman Catholic basilica dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the Principal Patroness of the Philippines. The cathedral serves as the seat of the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila.

The centuries-old church underwent two years of major repairs and rehabilitation work and was later reopened just last April 2014.

Palacio Del Gobernador
Nearby is the Palacio Del Gobernador which houses the Commission on Elections and other government agencies including the offices of the Intramuros Administration.

Research says it was the former house of Manuel Estacio de Venegas, a governor’s aide, the two-storey structure was expropriated and subsequently made the official residence and office of the Spanish governor generals in 1645 until an earthquake brought it down in 1863. It lay in ruins for almost a century until the Land Bank of the Philippines built an 8-storey building on the site in 1978.

Monument to Charles IV of Spain
At the center of the plaza is a monument to Charles IV of Spain which was erected in honor of his having sent the first batch of smallpox vaccine to the Philippines. A fountain surrounding the monument was subsequently erected. It was said that it was replaced by a monument dedicated to Gomburza - an acronym denoting the surnames of the priests Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora, three Filipino priests who were executed on charges of subversion arising from the 1872 Cavite mutiny, but was later restored to the original, as well as other sites in Intramuros, upon orders of former President Ferdinand Marcos.

Where2Next? ...I mean... up next was a visit to the Puerta del Parian / ASEAN Park - the entrance area of the Chinese non-converts during the Spanish times.

Walking with our bicycles inside the ASEAN Park

We were not allowed to ride our bikes inside so we had to walk with it, but it was an opportunity to rest inside the park and to admire the beauty of the place. Also an opportunity for more picture taking or "photo ops" so we could cherish the memories.

Puerta Del Parian

The Puerta del Parian is named after the Parian De Arroceros (Chinese Rice Dealer's Market) became the official gate entry of the Governors-General of the island after the British occupation. It is considered as an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Heritage Park which is among the protected educational and inspirational sites of high conservation importance. These are efforts to conserve areas of particular biodiversity importance or exceptional uniqueness.

The Sentry gate of the Puerto Del Parian
Another point of entry to the ASEAN Park and we see Jessie chatting with Chris

The Puerta del Parian played a crucial role in Philippine’s history, from the time of the Spaniards to the swift British occupation of Manila in 1762-1764. Prior to that, many enterprising Chinese, most of them, rice traders trade goods in this market. It is because trading at those times, though simply conducted on a know-you basis and to some extent, barter-trade by nature relies heavily on the Pasig river. Pasig River passes very near this gate at Puerta del Parian making it convenient for carrying loads of rice and selling it to merchants in other parts of Manila.

It was and is today, the significant gateway to the walled City of Manila in Intramuros.

Bust of Presidents and Prime Ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were strategically placed in circular motion
Cannons on top of the walls used to protect the city
Vicky reading the ASEAN Declaration
You can see a view of the historic clock tower of the Manila City Hall pass through the golf course from the ASEAN park
View from the top of the ASEAN park where we see Jessie chatting with Vicky

Posing with the Guardia Civil?
The Rizal Monument at Luneta Park

After the much needed rest, we then went back to the Luneta Park to see the Rizal Monument. Every Filipino knows that the monument was dedicated to the national hero Dr. Jose Rizal.

It was also not allowed to ride a bike at the park so we had to walk our way through it before heading off to Baywalk along Roxas Boulevard.

Resting again under the shades before proceeding to Baywalk

We bought fresh "buko" after a long ride from Luneta Park pass Baywalk along Manila Bay. We drank the juice and ate the meat of the coconut. I wasn't able to take photos of Baywalk when we passed by it but the refreshing drink of "buko" juice was well worth the sacrifice. It would have been awesome as well if we could stay until the sunset.

The Coconut meat could be "mala-uhog" which was soft and slippery when eaten or the thicker variant that you must chew. Whatever you choose, they were both satisfying and filling.
Jessie enjoying his refreshing "buko" juice after a long bike ride
The Tanghalang Pambansa or Cultural Center of the Philippines

Last stop before heading back at our point of origin was at the Cultural Center of the Philippines or more appropriately should be called Tanghalang Pambansa building. It was the main tourism area of the 1970s which was the height of tourism in the Philippines. It is a chosen venue of many productions and cultural shows and is beside other attractions like the Star City amusement park.

The chaotic streets of Manila were no match for our tour guide who was able to effectively tour us around the city. I admire how he remained lively in his every explanation even though the Bicylce Tour was really stressful and energy draining. Imagine the heat coupled by the effort to pedal our way towards the next generation. But it sure beats walking around Manila. Jessie knows his way around Manila and there was no dull moment. It would have been more fun if there were bicycle lanes to lessen our worries while crossing a busy intersection.

Accidents where negligible inspite of one of us falling down from the bike when he got hit by another biker that was not among our group. Jessie was quick to offer remedies to relieve the pain. Some slight scratches were tolerable, and it was just so awkward to have it happen almost at the end of the tour at an area that was relatively the safest among our many destinations.

Bicycle Tour from Smokey Tours

Thank you Jessie for the amazing Bicycle Tour. We covered numerous areas, and you were able to share a lot of valuable information to add to my knowledge about the Philippines. I had a wonderful experience riding a bike again after six years, and the tour opened my eyes to the beauty that I previously ignored. There is also truth when I say, "It's More Fun in the Philippines with Smokey Tours!"

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