It’s the sunset of my twenties, and I’ve only just learned to drive. (I mean really drive, transporting myself from place to place while cursing the traffic. Those few weeks with an old beat-up Kia Pride when I was nineteen don’t count.) I’ve never bothered before because Metro Manila has always been, to me, a hectic but ultimately free space. There were always tricycles, jeeps, taxis, buses, boats, and planes for all my errands and adventures.
But then came COVID-19, and the city stopped being the wild and open thing it once was. In a puzzling move in mid-2020, while many modes of public transportation were either suspended or still dangerously crowded, the government banned motorcycle pillion riders. (After a while, married couples were allowed to ride together, and eventually, some motorcycle taxi services were allowed to operate.)
Even for the blessed, the safe and sound and sheltered, there’s something about quarantine that eats at the soul.
To add insult to injury, the use of motorcycle barriers was enforced for a while — something motorcycle taxis like Angkas are still required to do. We’re stricter than most when it comes to safety gear, and a barrier between two people on a motorcycle is just nonsensical and borderline dangerous. Refusing to become idiot sandwiches, we stopped using our motorcycle for months.
Talk about anti-poor — nobody got that much crap for using cars. When we went out in our grandparents’ car, nobody would ask if we were married or tell us to put a plastic barrier between us. There were fewer checkpoints for people in cars. It was hell for everyone else: People began walking long distances to work. Bicycle sales skyrocketed.
We all remember how the days became sadder and sadder, even for the most fortunate of us. It’s the little things that get to us at last. No more tête-à-têtes in bright cafés. No more running away out of town at a moment’s notice. No more zipping over to the bayside just to see the sunset. No more beaches and hiking trips; no more nights in deep forests and high mountains. With a hyper-infectious virus around, these could be said to be the least of our problems. I know that. But even for the blessed, the safe and sound and sheltered, there’s something about quarantine that eats at the soul.
A taking back of power
2020 being the wrecking ball it was, our finances were rather shattered, and it was a long stretch of months before we could consider spending on anything beyond the barest necessities. November 2020 found us in reasonably calmer waters. So we took the leap and purchased our second motorcycle — mine.
In the end, my desire for mobility is stronger than my fear of danger.
There was rebellion in the action, and petulance, and a taking back of power. And, apparently, I’m not alone in this. Overall motorcycle sales plummeted in 2020, but if hearsay is to be believed, I was part of a surprising wave of first-time female buyers. The sales guy at SYM said I was the seventh woman that month to buy that same motorcycle.
When I bought my motorcycle, restrictions had somewhat lifted; Mao and I were already free to use our motorcycle, me riding pillion, no silly barrier required. But even if things seemed to be getting better, I still remembered how this freedom of movement had been taken away overnight, sparing Mao and leaving me helpless and dependent. It was like that hateful scene in The Handmaid’s Tale where all the women lost access to their finances. I did not appreciate this at all.
(For better context, I should mention that I can’t use our original motorcycle, Snek, as it’s too tall for me. 😆)
At first, I was terrified of the machine and of the streets of Metro Manila. But I knew it was now or never: either I learned to drive or stay a passenger forever. Besides, the world I once knew — a crazy, messy city in which I was nonetheless free — wasn’t coming back anytime soon.
I have hundreds of kilometers behind me now, but there’s a level of fear and caution, hopefully an appropriate one, that will never go away. It’s a scary place for a dreamy scatterbrain, the street. But in the end, my desire for mobility is stronger than my fear of danger. And I know that’s true for my serendipitous sister-strangers — all the other women in Metro Manila who have bought their first motorcycles because of the pandemic.
Why this motorcycle?
From a soft, idealistic vantage point of my heart, I saw myself in a plaid skirt on a shiny vintage Vespa-like scooter, puttering over to libraries and museums. But this is Manila.
This is Sparta. That wasn’t going to happen. For one thing, I knew I’d want to go off-road sooner or later.
So I looked to an alternate inspiration: the habal-habal. When we went to Tarlac for our Tapulao Traverse and to Benguet for our Mt. Pulag hike, I saw TMX125s climbing mountains, crossing rivers, and leaping over puddles. I wanted something like that: dirt cheap, durable, and most of all, with parts so common that if I ever found myself in need of repairs in the farthest barrios of the archipelago, there would be help.
Between the Keeway CR152 and the TMX125, it was just a matter of which dealer processed my inquiry faster. I really didn’t know which to pick: they have similar (low) seat heights and they’d both be highly customizable. In any case, I didn’t have enough driving experience to make a better informed choice. The sales teams for both were super fast — but Keeway won by just a few hours.
In the end, I’m glad I got the Keeway. I think the gear shifting pattern (standard 1 N 2 3 4 5) is safer and more sensible. (Even if yes, it can be hard to get the thing into neutral sometimes.) And maybe it’s just that I’ve just grown into it, but the 150cc displacement feels just right.
Driving was terrifying and uncomfortable at first. I kept stalling, and I hated having to stop because it was such a hassle to get going again. Stopping on upward slopes left me in despair.
It turned out the carburetor just needed a little tuning. Once that was done, the motorcycle was like a new creature. And when I realized that the stalling wasn’t always my fault, I calmed down and found it easier to practice.
The thrill of the spill
I was the kid without a bicycle, the teenager who never even considered “borrowing” her parents’ car. Now, I face the struggles of an utter noob on the road.
Yes, these accidents do stress me out. But the freedom of the road is one of my favorite things.
Though I try to be as cautious as possible, I’ve had a few spills and near misses. In freezing white mist, on a damp twisty road in the Sierra Madre, my notoriously slippery wheels slid on mossy asphalt. The motorcycle frisbeed ahead as I flipped to the ground face-first like a pancake. When I got up and started riding again, I didn’t know if I was shaking from the cold or from my nerves.
Then on a later ride with Mao, I stupidly ran out of gas, while on a highway, on the way home from Cavite. I skidded but stayed upright, then spent a few minutes in the dark roadside, confused, until something clicked in my brain and I switched the petcock to reserve. That part isn’t in the video below, but it’s a relaxing watch anyway — a trip full of hypnotizingly twisty bends:
My worst spill was caught on camera. In Antipolo, I attempted to pass a huge truck — too late. It was turning right into what turned out to be an uphill hairpin bend. Alarmed at the sudden rise, the surprise U-turn, and the size of the truck, I downshifted, panic-braked, and stalled, leading to another lowside crash. I was unscathed but quite ashamed of myself: I should not have attempted to pass such a huge truck without seeing the turn’s exit. You can watch it here:
Yes, these accidents do stress me out. But the freedom of the road is one of my favorite things. Once upon a time, I reveled in open-windowed buses, wind in my face, enjoying the kind of manic speed which could only be explained by the driver being on some kind of upper. I’d watch big cities and little towns flash by, and hot open fields under angelic afternoon skies, and many times I thought: I’d die happy if I died now. (If you think that’s morbid, you probably haven’t commuted in the Philippines and suspected that the driver is high on meths.) My point is, there is unmatchable satisfaction in the sensation of movement that needs no destination.
Till the next ride
My quest for enlightenment aside, I do hope to stay as safe as possible so that there’s always a next ride. It’s dangerous, yes: one day I may decide to stop motorcycling and switch to a large four-wheeler instead; or maybe I’ll go back to the passenger life, that old special secret freedom that doesn’t require my hands on the wheel. The world is always dangerous, but not dangerous enough to justify the loss of too much freedom and adventure.
My motorcycle is away from home right now for a minor repair (handlebar replacement) and a few functional upgrades that have, well, snowballed into slightly big-ticket modifications. She already has a maybe-name, but perhaps I’ll wait till the first paint job to make it official. 😉
I’m writing this entry to celebrate my 29th birthday (which was on the 12th of March, a couple days ago). I’m older now than your average Romantic poet and rock star, and it’s a nice calm place, this so-called wrong end of one’s twenties. Which is good: each grain of serenity is precious in times like these.
It’s my second pandemic birthday, too, so it’s a good time to look back at how far we’ve come… and to realize how far we still have to go. It was this time last year when the local lockdowns began. It was a descent into confusion that took us all by surprise, one way or another.
Unfortunately, the news has taken a turn for the worse again this week, with more lockdowns looming and — surprise — a new local variant of the virus. Welcome to Year II of the Plague. May we be braver and better equipped this time around.
Follow us on YouTube!
Stone-faced realism aside, I’m concluding this entry from a place of reasonable hope: We have a YouTube channel! Subscribe now to Mao Tours. We’ve decided that there’s no better way to immortalize our adventures. Because the escapades we share with the world today are also the crystallized memories that will keep us warm when we’re old and homebound.
For now, the channel is home to a few short motorcycle trips, but we hope to fill it up in future days with the mountains and forests and seashores we miss.