The drive from Puerto Princesa to Sabang is spectacular, the environment constantly shifting from bright green agricultural plots, to rugged small town rurality, to low lying mountain ranges, to verdant forestry. Besides a brief stop to take in the sight of a snake, lying mangled on the side of the road after encountering a speeding vehicle, there was nothing I saw that wasn’t inviting to the eyes.
I was so mesmerized with my surroundings that I forgot to pay attention to the quality of road I was driving on. I hit a rough bump towards the end of a little village. It sounded bad, but I didn’t think much of it.
Several kilometres later, though, I felt a wobble. Teresa occasionally gets uncomfortable riding behind me so my first thought was that she was trying to readjust. But when she told me it wasn’t her, I started to become worried. At this point, we weren’t in a town, village, or any other community. The forest closed in on either side and there wasn’t another person in sight.
I stopped the bike and checked the tire pressure. At this point, there was no doubt that we’d suffered a flat. I wish I knew at the time how bad it actually was. Inside of the tire lies an inflated tube that’s much thinner than the rubber of the outer tire. It’s common for this inner layer to become punctured without any real damage to the outer layer. That wasn’t the case here, though. That bump I rode over was a nasty one. It created several tears that essentially doomed this tire without the hint of a spare one for miles around.
We began walking the bike forward. While we didn’t know how far the next community was, we’d noted that we’d been seeing them every five to ten kilometres or so. In fact, it hardly mattered because a few minutes later, a man was pulling up from behind with a flatbed attached to the side of his tricycle and his young son riding behind him. He stopped next to us as it was evident that our bike wasn’t operating. While most of whom we’d met in the Philippines spoke enough English that we could all converse with one another, out in some of the more remote/rural communities, the language isn’t as studied. I assume this is simply because linguistic priorities are different in an environment where you aren’t interacting with native English speakers as frequently, or at all. What it boiled down to in this situation is that this gentleman, and several other people we’d meet along the way in this area due to our motorbike misfortune, didn’t speak much English at all. It was a little tough at first to get a conversation going. But when a situation demands for it, people will find a way to understand one another.
This man we met was a very gracious and generous one. He and I loaded our bike onto his flatbed, tied it in a very precarious way, and set off with Teresa riding on the man’s trike behind his little boy and me atop the motorcycle on the wooden flatbed. Anyone who happened to drive by us at this point were given a very unusual sight, I’m sure, as I witnessed amusement cross more than one face.
Since we’d first arrived to the Camotes Islands some time ago on this trip, we’d noticed little shops along the side of the road advertising “vulcanizing”. I’d never heard this term before, although I’m sure anyone who works in an auto shop is more than familiar with it. Essentially, the shops are there to supply tire inflation and related products/services. I had a tickling feeling we’d be needing this service at one point or another in the Philippines; here it finally was.
The gentleman took us to a small shack doubling as a home and vulcanizing spot, in a little village called Buena Vista. It was owned by an older couple, their 20-something son hanging around with three of his friends to help out as well. I can’t remember if I mentioned this in my post on Banaue up in northern Luzon, but there seemed to be this trend of young men wearing fingernail and toenail polish. I can’t say for sure that all of them also happened to be gay (although some definitely were) but something tells me that not all who rocked this look were for certain. Maybe someone can enlighten me as to how this trend began in the Philippines. Anyway, the three younger guys were all wearing nail polish of various colours. They were very helpful as well. Teresa and I sat back as they attempted to deal with our tire.
In the meantime, the two of us wound up playing a game of basketball with some local school kids on the court right across the laneway from the vulcanizing shop. It was a fun, but exhausting way to pass the time in the constantly increasing heat and humidity of the day.
We’d set out early in the morning to avoid the daytime heat and now we were way behind, as well. We didn’t know then that the Subterranean River was open to anyone until a fairly later time. When we’d registered at the Coliseum the day before, they’d given us a “start time”. It turns out that that meant little so long as we’d paid.
Watching minivans of tourists constantly drive by also amplified our anxiety. They were heading in the same direction we were; at least we knew we’d been on the right path the entire time. But it also leant credence to the popularity and heavy congestion of this particular excursion.
After about forty five minutes, the inner tube of our bike’s front wheel was replaced and we were on our way. It was never meant to be, though. After about five minutes, the tire was flat all over again. We should have been more thorough and we should have been clearer. The real problem wasn’t the inner tubing, it was the tire itself and the vulcanizing shop (the only one for miles around) didn’t have a spare tire. It was a simple operation with iron, almost medieval looking tools, something you’d expect to see in a blacksmith’s shop. Really cool to watch in action, too. Sadly, it wasn’t enough for our bike.
So we walked it back to Buena Vista. Luckily, it was mostly downhill on the way back so we wound up just sitting on it with me pumping the breaks to keep us under control. I had to walk it the last half kilometre or so and it was boiling outside at this point.
When we returned, the people at the vulcanizing shop improvised. They got an old rubber inner tubing and used it to patch the tears in the tire from the inside. We all knew this was only a temporary solution, but it was our only chance of getting back to Puerto Princesa and replacing the entire tire. We knew the day was a write-off at this point. We wouldn’t be visiting the Subterranean River just yet.
Before setting off this time, I tested it out to see if it was just going to go flat again. I concluded it wouldn’t, not just yet. We still had quite a while before we’d be back in Puerto Princesa, well over an hour. It was heart-wrenching to turn back, to not have made it to that destination. It was the only choice at the time.
We’d almost made it, too. Back through the towns and villages, past the rice paddies and hilly stretches. We even stopped for gas and restarted our journey again, getting ever closer to salvation. About ten or so kilometres from the city, the tire was flat again and there was nothing in sight that could help us. I walked the bike to the side of the road and, for the first time in my life, stuck my thumb out for a ride.
I didn’t try to flag just any vehicle. We had two human passengers and a motorbike to consider. I kept my eyes out for trucks. Almost miraculously quickly, three men driving a pickup truck stopped for us. I walked up to the passenger side window, leaned in, and told them that I needed their help. They didn’t speak much English, but they got the gist of the problem. They hopped out and we all loaded the motorbike into the back of the truck. Teresa and I were in awe that this was going on. I’m telling you, it took almost no time in both situations where we needed help today to get that help. That’s not a coincidence. That’s the culture here.
It turned out that these men worked in the mayor’s office at the intersection of the two main streets I had mentioned before, Rizal and Puerto Princesa North. They even showed us their government ID badges to prove it. They took us into the city, straight to a shop that had everything we needed. We thanked them profusely, and they wanted nothing in return. Teresa and I sat on a little wooden bench nailed into a tree while two men took the entire tire, destroyed, off of our bike and replaced it with a brand new one. The whole ordeal lasted hours and wasn’t cheap by our budget travel standards. We were exhausted and yet very elated at the same time. We knew, even while this was happening, that this would be a great story to tell people.
It was mid-afternoon by this point. For the rest of the day, we chilled out, did our café thing and enjoyed Puerto Princesa. The next day, we’d make it out to Sabang and the Subterranean River. I’ll pick up from when we’d finally passed Buena Vista.