The epic pointlessness of a motorcycle ride

Last January, my brother Goli and our cousin George came home specifically to go on a long motorcycle ride with the Hombres, our biking group of middle-aged professionals who like riding to breakfast on any Sunday. The previous year, these two California-based dudes rode with us to Yosemite Valley, setting the pace on America’s fast and uncompromising highways. It was our turn to show them that it is more fun riding in the Philippines.

Our group commander, Eric Mananquil, suggests a four-day, three-night swing to Northern Luzon that will showcase the unique charms of Banaue, Sagada and Vigan. We have all visited these places a couple of times, but we don’t mind going through the same route and serving as tour guides to our enthusiastic guests. The farthest point north of Manila they have been to is, not surprisingly, Baguio. We decide to skip the city of pines and go straight to Doc Toto Kalugdan’s enchanting bed-and-breakfast in Kiangan, Ifugao, where we spend our first night, passing through Nueva Ecija and Nueva Vizcaya. Traveling on a weekday and going via the newly-opened TPLEx segment of the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway, the journey to Ifugao is short and effortless.

The advantage of doing a repeat of a previous trip is that you know exactly where to turn, gas up, take a leak, and rehydrate, and where to eat and stay for the night. The downside is that, having passed that way before, you tend to be less engaged. You may even begin to feel a little drowsy while riding, especially after a big meal. That’s when you fail to notice the stray dog that is about to dart across your path, or the tricycle in front of you that executes a sharp U-turn just when you are about to overtake it.

On this trip, I keep checking on my kid brother from my rearview mirror. I still remember how he and George formed a front and rear shield to protect me when I went on my first long ride in America a few years ago. Though Goli is a skillful rider, I am aware that the tempo of driving on Philippine roads could be disorienting for him. But I allay my apprehensions by reminding myself that he has sharper instincts and he is used to splitting lanes on California’s highways.

Having promised him and George the adventure of a lifetime, I am mindful of how they are experiencing the ride itself. They are stunned by the sheer number of tricycles on the main roads of Nueva Ecija. But it does not seem to bother them. They strike easy conversations with the small underbone bike riders that quickly surround us at every gasoline stop.

A certified foodie, my brother eagerly looks forward to every meal stop. At the simple turo-turo joint in San Jose, Nueva Ecija, where we break for lunch, he could not resist eating with his hands upon seeing the broiled catfish that came with the burong hipon (fermented rice and small shrimps).

At the Mankayan junction along Halsema highway, where livestock from the surrounding ranches are brought for slaughter, we stop for a late lunch at a roadside eatery catering to truck drivers. There we feast on huge bowls of beef stew smothered with bone marrow, clearly a bestseller. But the dish that floors us and summons a hundred and one memories of home cooking is the lightly fried calf liver that is served rare in a thick brown sauce. My brother takes a moment to deconstruct the key element that undergirds its exquisite flavor, and then declares triumphantly that it’s Worcestershire sauce.

We can barely walk after a meal like that, least of all maneuver heavy adventure bikes on twisty roads in dense fog—such as we encounter on Bessang Pass on our way down to Vigan. It is pointless to proceed under such riding conditions. Eric, our spearhead, signals a stop when he spots a small coffee shop somewhere near the top of this historic pass. We order coffee and share the remaining sweet bananas we took from the breakfast table in Sagada. Goli takes off his jacket and lays it on the roadside like a mat and takes a nap. I glance at the sky and anxiously calculate how much time is left before the afternoon light gives way to dusk.

What I fear most when riding at night are the blinding lights of vehicles on the other side of a narrow two-way road. The glare clings to the pupils of my eyes for a few minutes, enabling me to see only the white lines that mark the margins of the road. I try to make out the tiny red rear light of the bike ahead of me and basically go on auto-pilot mode. My brother notices the jerky moves I make when the bike perilously veers to one side. He moves up next to me to ask with a thumbs-up sign if I’m okay. I’m okay, I nod to him. By now I can feel the soothing breeze and the familiar smell of the sea, and I know we are near. Still, it is during moments like these that I begin to doubt the adequacy of my riding instincts, and I ask myself when I should stop riding.

Soon we are in Vigan. We notice that one of us, our friend Richie, is missing, and we worry that he might have missed the turn going to the old town. He calls: No, he isn’t lost; he had minor trouble with his lights and had to stop. We are booked in lovely Ciudad Fernandina Hotel, a marvelous achievement in adaptive reuse. I look at my brother Goli: He looks jet-lagged and exhausted, yet he wears the widest grin on his face and gives me a high five. A silent salute to brotherhood and banality.

Milan Kundera calls it “the power of the pointless.” “It is not merely ennui, pointlessness, triviality; it is beauty as well; for instance, the magical charm of atmospheres, a thing everyone has felt in his own life… these trivial circumstances stamp some personal event with an inimitable singularity that dates it and makes it unforgettable.”

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