We were on the beach at Puerto Princesa in the Philippines, my mother collecting clams with a young girl who scoured the sand for sellable items to help her impoverished family of 10 make the equivalent of a few pennies. Our backs were to the hotel, so we did not see the man approach.
"I'm looking for Justin," he said.
If Bond movies have taught me anything about foreign locales, it’s not to trust a thick Russian accent.
"Tell us more about this Justin fellow..." we replied cautiously.
He smiled broadly. "I have his motorcycles."
Our eyes lit up and tones changed immediately. To hell with stereotypes, this man was Santa Claus, and he had motorbikes in his sleigh! Sergey, the owner of Rent-a-Bike, and Patrick, Mr. Claus, had delivered our KTM 390 Dukes for the week.
We filled out paperwork, exchanged stories about the best places to explore, and they gave us a ride to town in the bed of Sergey's new pickup truck, with my mom filling the last seat in the cab. I felt like a kid again. No matter what the means, wind in your face is intoxicating. The colorful lights from the hand-built tricycles and worn out Jeepneys — the Philippines’ answer to public transportation — danced around us as they rode over bumps and grooves in the street. The town itself didn't emit much light, so what wasn't lit by vehicles was swallowed by darkness.
Because I have family there, and it’s where my parents are from, I’ve spent a lot of time in the Philippines. This visit, I became all too aware of how familiar the country’s smells have become to me. From the sour to sweet and from bitter to downright putrid, the pungency of my blood’s homeland has carved a distinct place into my memory. Diesel aroma — one of the fonder scents — filled my senses whenever our truck came to a halt, and I welcomed it like an old friend. It was like living the moment after a climax in some 1990s thriller movie when all the tension melts away. No sounds emitted from the set, just some electro-pop-funk-jazz-y music setting the pace for the scene.
The first few days riding the KTMs were a literal blur. I bobbed and weaved like I never have before. The Duke responded like it was part of my body, and we, together, tore through the mountains of Palawan, drawing glances from every local whose path we crossed. Here, we were on "big" bikes. We were ogled like superstars, drenched in sweat from our windblown performance and downing water like that "Beaver" fellow after serenading his screaming fans at his concert.
The bikes felt great. We looked cool just riding them. And we reached every destination in a blaze of fury! Now, I'm biased. I've only ridden small dual-sports and a couple of shitty old Hondas. So when I say the 390 Duke felt balls-out fast, consider my perspective. But, I'll challenge anyone to ride this bike and not leave a proverbial skid-mark behind when they twist the go-fast grip!
Places I’ve ridden before with traffic that Americans consider unruly, like Baja California, are a highly regulated cakewalk compared to the Philippines’ no-lane highways, congested with multi-purpose scooters, diesel belching transports, colorful rubber sandals, and no true order in sight. City riding is an exercise of wit and awareness unlike that of Western regions, darting through narrow gaps of motorized steel, feral animals and residents with a death wish. A surging threat of injury or fatality presents itself with the equal gain in speed. Riding after dark — and darkness falls early — meant edging the roads upon each set of fast approaching headlights, anxiously anticipating my destination. The only thing that saved me was the sprightly Duke below.
Day after day, we sped through palm trees, drank buko juice (the water from young coconuts), challenged pick-pocketing monkeys and investigated a river that ran endlessly through a cave. “Holy water” and bat poop threatened our gaping mouths as we drifted gently in a pitch-black cavern with only a single search light to guide us. Blind turns, carabao (the Asian water buffalo, and the national animal) and asinine speeds were the only real perils we faced while we painted the wild terrain orange and black.
The Philippines is a motorcycling nation, swarming with more than three million motorcyclists and counting. No one knows efficiency like the South Pacific commuter. Pigs in minuscule handmade cages are trailered by puttering Japanese motorbikes, which are often stacked high with chickens, packages, plants and even an entire family. Look closely at any two-wheeled vehicle and a toddler may poke his head out and stare right back through narrowed eyes, struggling to see you in the wind.
If you're looking for a typical tropical paradise getaway, find a travel agent, book a cruise, or go to this or that popular hot-spot. But if exploration of the unknown and exotic calls to you, and you’re not the timid type, I suggest a week or two in the Philippines. And while you’re there, along with drinking San Miguel beer and swimming in the sea, I’d recommend a motorcycle rental.
Most people would tell you to avoid these islands all together. Most would tell you riding in a country like this is a guaranteed way to become the skid-mark, instead of leaving one. I disagree. The Philippines are intoxicating, and if you can overcome the chaos that comes standard with any country that lives well below the poverty line, then you’ll soon find yourself grabbing handfuls of throttle, negotiating steep mountain switchbacks, weaving your way through traffic and meeting some of the most hospitable people along the way.
The purpose of our trek was to visit family and honor my uncle's 80th birthday, even flying to Mindanao, an island the U.S. government warns that we avoid altogether due to reports of kidnappings or worse. We breezed through Manila, waded through shallow seawater in Puerto Princesa and absorbed sights and odors in the outdoor markets of Davao City. But it was a couple of 390 Dukes that provided some of our most memorable moments in the Philippines, as motorcycles often do.