Riding and dining in Panay

I had strong reservations about going on a long motorcycle ride in this sweltering summer heat.  When you are on a bike and you are going fast, you don’t notice you are sweating. The water your body secretes to cool you down evaporates in the wind as quickly as it forms on the skin. Dehydration occurs faster than the brain can process what’s happening. I’ve seen a fellow biker literally wilt in the sun, drop his bike, pick himself up, and remember nothing afterwards.

But, I figured that if I spent too much time calculating the risks, I would have to give up riding altogether. I should be staying home instead, reading books and taking photographs of birds that stop by the small pond in my garden. I love doing these safe things, but they do not sum up my idea of graceful aging.

And so, last week, after filing my column in advance, I joined 10 other riders, almost all of them in their 50s, on a tour of Panay Island. I belong to a loose brotherhood of big bike enthusiasts who call themselves “Hombres,” in mocking reference to the machismo suggested by the dangerous hobby that binds us together. In truth, “Foodies on Bikes” may be a more accurate description of our group, as I will try to show.

As planned, the ride is to take us, first, to the port of Batangas, where we board an evening Ro-Ro boat to Caticlan on the northwest tip of Panay.  From there, we drive south toward Antique, tracking the western coastal road of the island. We then head east and spend the night in Iloilo City. From Iloilo, we proceed north to Roxas City via the more direct center route, and then on to Kalibo, Aklan, where we rest for the night. From there, we ride back to Caticlan in the morning to catch the same boat that will ferry us back to Batangas.

I have learned not to worry too much about the logistics of such a trip, knowing how intimidating they can be. Neither do I count the pleasures or benefits to be derived from this activity. I know I will feel rewarded enough when, after a long day, driving along a coastal road at dusk, I see the pigments of our motorcycle tanks—red and orange, gray and blue, yellow and white—reflected in the slowly darkening sky as if in affirmation of the sheer joy of moving along with time.

One has to be generously predisposed to open oneself to the willful surprises of circumstances to be able to participate in the joys of group riding. For us, these surprises have usually come in the form of good food. So we ride in quest of remote places that feature little known menus and hidden dishes.

This particular ride begins, ominously, with a lunch stop at A&M restaurant in Villa Neneng in Batangas City. I did not think that a steaming bowl of stewed beef would be suitable lunch fare for summer. But we are in  bulalo  country. My initial resistance promptly collapses when the clear soup filled with cartilage-laden bones is brought in. Beside the soup, almost like a contrapuntal touch, is a huge plate of freshly fried  tawilis, their crunchy silvery scales slightly raised from their fatty flesh. The centerpiece of the meal, however, is the side dish locally known as  tinumis.

Batangas  tinumis  is a nonmeat dish, made from grated green  paho  (a variety of tiny mangoes) and chopped  puso  ng  saging, soaked and mashed in light  bagoong  balayan . I cannot think of a more perfect match for the  bulalo  and the  tawilis.  A siesta would have rounded off the meal, but soon we must hit the road again to get to the port in time to position our bikes for loading. As it turns out, the boat is delayed and we have about four hours to waste.

Someone suggests we spend the rest of the afternoon in a nearby mall and maybe have a bowl of  halo-halo. The word rings out like a call from an oasis. The icy concoction suffused with the sweetness of boiled fruits and capped with  leche  flan  and  ube  ice cream is glorious.  And I begin to understand why many of our people have taken to attending Mass not in churches but in air-conditioned malls.

Burdened by a full stomach, I barely sleep on the boat. The following morning, I nibble on some dates and skip breakfast. But a late breakfast comes unexpectedly at our first stop in Bugasong, Antique, where we meet up with our Ilonggo hosts. Floring’s Carinderia is a favorite pit stop of bikers. We go in intending to get some bottled water, and end up consuming four plates of Floring’s  adobong  manok. More like a cross between  afritada  and  asado, this native chicken dish has a delicate saffron sauce spiced with long green chilies. It is memorable.

But, a full lunch awaits us in Anini-y, Panay’s southernmost tip. In a secluded diving resort run by Boy Saldaña, brother-in-law of Dr. Rollie Tiongson, one of our hosts, we are served the freshest  sinigang  and grilled fish, and fried  talangka. The subtle taste of the fish is complemented by homemade lightly salted  bagoong fermented from freshly gathered tiny shrimps.

Our first day in Panay is capped by an elegant garden dinner at the home of Gilly Dulalia, one of our biker buddies.  His wife, Tess, and son, Dominic, a chef, have prepared a wide selection of the best of Ilonggo fine dining: baked oysters, baked fish in salt, beef smoked to perfection, charcoal-broiled rib-eye, garlic prawns in shell, and for dessert, a delicate  tres  leches  cake and an unforgettable key lime pie.

There’s not enough space here for a full recounting of Panay’s hidden food treasures. But I will name just three more: Madge Café in La Paz market, which serves Singapore-style coffee; golden brown Mascobado sugar, the real thing, which can make the most ordinary cup of coffee taste special; and in Kalibo, Ramboy’s grilled  liempo, a succulent barbecue laced with the scent of  kalamansi.

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