The SingleCylinder Gazette

The Road to Olongapo

Story and photos by Paul Burgess


For the year after I met my wife we lived together in Angeles City, in a sort of hotel apartment. When I was away working, she often stayed with her Mother in Cavite. When I returned she would meet me at the airport in Manila, and we would take a taxi the 100 or so miles to Angeles. I would usually phone her from Singapore and make plans for when and where to meet. On one particular occasion she could not be contacted, in Angeles or Cavite. At first I was worried, but on arrival in Angeles I discovered that she had started a new job selling garment material in Manila. She had to flog around the city all day, then go back to Cavite to make up orders or some such thing.

Usually, when a guy comes home after eight weeks or so, there are certain things he and his wife like to do, such as talk about the weather, news and other such trivia, so I was a little "cross" that she wasn't around. On the fourth day she finally turned up with armfuls of samples and paperwork, happy to be in gainful employment. I soon destroyed her jubilant mood by venting my frustration at spending my first four days in an empty apartment/bed. We then proceeded to make up quite successfully, then I nearly lost it all again when I found she had to leave for work the next day.

She was obviously very happy to actually have a job, in a country where unemployment, minimal income and abject poverty are the norm, and I didn't want to burst her bubble by telling her that the pittance she earned a month was not even enough to pay our phone bill. I let her keep the job even though it meant me being alone in Angeles for four or five days a week.

Now this may sound like a dream come true to a lot of guys. Five days without the wife, in a city where every third building was a go-go bar, a beer 30 cents and local rum less than a buck a bottle. But the truth was that I had tired of all that and actually liked my wife quite enough to control myself.

That was until the second day of being on my own! By then I was having second thoughts about the consequences of the decision to let my wife go back to work. I soon found I wasn't feeling quite as tired of cheap drinks and topless go-go girls as I thought I should.

My SR500 "bar hopper", an oriental version of the traditional British café racer, was sitting in our downstairs garage cum workshop, freshly assembled after eight weeks of being stored in the bedroom. To curb my boredom/lust I decided to take a ride down to the seaside town of Barrio Baretto. This town was a few miles the other side of Olongapo, the site of Subic Naval Base, and was maybe a hundred miles from Angeles city.

In it's heyday Subic was the naval equivalent of Clark Air Force Base. It too had closed down, but for slightly different reasons. The local government had decided they didn't want or need the US Navy spending millions of dollars a day in their little town and told them to leave. Apparently the locals had expected the evacuation to take three years and for the Americans to leave most of their hardware behind. In just three months the Navy had withdrawn, taking everything they could move, including three of the biggest floating dry-docks in the world. My facts are based on hearsay but rumor has it that they actually scuttled one in Subic Bay, which incidentally is the biggest sheltered bay on the Asian Pacific rim.

The truth was that the economy of Olongapo City had depended on the base for the majority of it's income, and since the withdrawal Olongapo had basically died a death. There was one redeeming factor: they had left an awfully large night life scene with very few customers. Hotels were plentiful and amusement was cheap. It was to this place I was taking my first trip.

I packed a small bag with a few things and gave the bike a good checkover. Tools were stashed, tires were checked and all fluids were up to the level. I went to the hotel reception to tell them I was away for a few days and returned to the bike to start the expedition. As I turned the corner into the garage I saw the bike slowly toppling over to the left, and horrified at the damage that was sure to occur, I leapt forward and got a firm grip on one handlebar, about two tenths of a second after the bike had crashed into the concrete.

I was sure the clutch lever would be trashed, the bars would have twisted round and dinked the newly painted tank and the headlight would be crushed. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the handlebars had landed squarely on the end of the plastic cap of the foam grips, and had merely scratched the chrome. However, the cause of the destruction had been the side stand snapping neatly through, just below the pivot. Strangely it had given no indication of it's suicidal tendency earlier and had lasted long enough for me to spend five minutes in the reception since last moving the bike.

It also reminded me that the Israeli who sold me the bike had pointed out that the stand was very strong and good for anything. Remembering similar stories about the carburetor adjustment, the front brake and the "loose wire" on the alternator, I wracked my brain trying to think of any other things he had told me were "perfectly okay".

For a while I contemplated leaving without a stand but didn't fancy the prospect of leaning the bike against a wall each time I stopped. I went to see the local welder and bike guru, in his mud floored workshop. Within the hour he had welded and reinforced the stand for less than ten bucks.

Leaving Angeles early afternoon I headed for the nearby town of San Fernando, and what I believed was the best route to take. There was a shorter route I could have used, but it would take me through Porac and across the great deserts of lahar (volcanic ash) that Pinatubo volcano had spewed out six years earlier. This years rainy season had overflowed a great lake of liquid lahar high on the mountain side, and let loose terrible floods that had yet again turned all of Porac into a wasteland of disastrous proportions, with many houses buried and hundreds of homeless people. One of the more vivid images I remember from my first visit to Porac was of a beautiful whitestone church, Iglesias ni Christo, half buried in this powdery liquid ash that had thundered down from the mountain on that terrible stormy night when the volcano had first let go.

Paul B on his SR, surrounded by the debrís of a volcanic eruption. Note the typical "rider's grin".

My spirits had soared and I felt good to be travelling again. Riding a bike does that to me, as long as everything is going well. I waved at a group of giggling school girls as I rode past, smiling still when I came past again, some ten minutes later, still looking for the "Olongapo" sign that everyone had said was so easy to see. The third time I passed I pretended not to see the girls and I pulled over a ways down the road to ask somebody else directions. Finally on the right road, I was glad to see it was well graded and obviously new. I thundered along the fresh concrete at some fifty miles per hour. Magic.

The newness lasted for about five miles - then I caught up with the construction crew who were actually making it new! From then on it was a nightmare of billowing dust, corrugated surfaces and water filled potholes. Victory liners, the huge 60 seater coaches from one of the many long distance bus services, came hammering through, pedal to the deck to earn that last passenger mile, uncaring or oblivious to the hell it was putting me through. I did contemplate turning back but had told so many people I was going that I would have felt rather foolish, having ignored their good advice that the road was impassable to motorcycles.

Struggling on for a few more miles I realised I had started enjoying myself, finding that a bit of speed smoothed out the ruts. I even started to pass a few of the slower Victory liner murder machines. (I once read that an average of thirty two people a day get killed on the Philippines bus system!)

I turned off at a sign that said "light vehicles this way". Following it I soon realised it really meant "light four wheel drive Baja desert racer type vehicles"

After a diversion alongside a river I had an unexpected emergency stop when my security padlock, clipped to that little strip of steel under the left side panel, swung round and jammed in the chain and sprocket. No damage, as the road was akin to an ice ring and I just came to a gentle wobbly halt!

The SR didn't like top gear below fifty mph, as it felt a little luggish and strained, spitting back on the over run, so I just left it in fourth and let that big piston pound a little faster. After half an hour I pulled over for a breather as the engine seemed to be running really hot. A little playing and a half turn in on the air screw had it running better. (Having never been previously held at a steady throttle setting for more than a minute or two, I had been unable to get a fully warmed up air screw setting). It would now hold fifty mph with hardly a whiff of throttle, barely off tickover and probably running half in the idle range, even with me weighing in at 100kg! The bike and I were making good headway and I felt confident of getting there before dark. Despite all the obstacles that day, I was feeling good.

Then it rained. Trying to be positive I noted objectively that it kept the dust down quite well, just turned it into a sort of mud jelly! I began wishing I had a visor, and a helmet! Some gloves would have been nice too and real mudguards would have been brilliant here!

The "new" old road finally ended and we were back on the old old road. At least this was sealed and I could keep up a reasonable pace. The sky grew darker by the mile as I approached the mountains and dirty black clouds hung still, right in my path, watching, waiting for me to arrive. I kept going, hopeful that the road would turn away before I got to them. They knew better. The old Rain God was still with me after all these years. Hadn't he got bored and forgotten me, during the two years I'd lived in Singapore with no bike????

Various things happened to amuse me as I rode along, such as reaching the brow of one hill and finding three vehicles flying over the top, all abreast and filling the road entirely. As was the custom I slipped onto the dirt, waving a finger somewhat jocularly at the three, careful not to lose face!

Most of the ride through the mountains was quite pleasant, as the traffic had died down somewhat, the rain had all but stopped, and the sun broke through occasionally.

My spirits rose, not realizing it was only sunny because I was above those filthy clouds, only to be dashed again as I rounded a corner to find the road disappearing down into a valley of grey/black misty wetness. I pulled over and studied the scene nervously, having visions of sliding uncontrollably down the notoriously greasy roads.

Victory liners strain and growl up these steep winding hills, losing all the hard earned time they had suicidally gained on the plain below, spewing oil and grease all over the road. Breakdowns are frequent and usually accompanied by engine oil, coolant or other fluids being drained, straight onto the road. It was memories of these things, safely viewed from a minibus window, that had caused me to pull over and contemplate my immediate future. I sat their for a few minutes, examining my motives for coming this far without turning back, and finding no valid reason to turn round I set off down into the murky depths. It was by now further to go back than to go on, so on I went.

As always, it was easier in the doing than in the thinking and I had rather good fun slipping and sliding around, easy in the knowledge that I KNEW the road was covered in oil. No surprises here, if it gripped well it was a bonus, so I was working in the opposite situation to most riders in most countries

…..Careful, careful now, road looks a bit grippy on that corner, oooooohhh, nearly didn't fall off then!!!!!!!!!

It was almost comical, my 18 year old 500cc single spinning the rear wheel wildly as I powered uphill out of a hairpin. I had owned motorcycles that would do this in the dry, but they were never such fun as this.

You may ask yourselves "How could anybody have so much fun on a worn out SR500, in the pouring rain, on greasy roads, in a country where every car driver is trying to kill you?" Only a few people can truthfully answer that question and maybe they ride thumpers too!

The road eventually leveled out, I got colder and wetter and the Rain God laughed on, regardless. A bus shelter gave me a temporary break from the road and I slipped on the spare clothes I had in my bag. I now had two layers of wet clothing to insulate me from the miserable weather and it was nearly dark when I arrived at Olongapo City, and found myself in the rush hour.

The town is an economic shambles, and has been since the American Military left, but they are trying to restore the glory a little and promote business. Unsurprisingly the majority of shops sell U.S. Navy surplus gear, prompting me to try and buy a waterproof jacket. I looked for a while, eventually realizing that if I did find one, the sun would come out and it would never rain again.

Jacketless, I rode the last few miles to the Barrio, checking into a bar called Midnight Rambler and grabbing a cheap and nasty room. I liked this place as the owners were retired military, into motorcycles, and they also had a place I could leave my SR away from prying eyes and sticky fingers.

As I quickly washed the mud and grunge from the SR with a bucket of cold water, I reminisced about the first time I’d visited Barrio Baretto. I was single then, on my first visit to the Philippines, and had been told of this village by the sea, where drinks were half price and the girls were wild.

Three English guys, with much the same travel history as mine, had made excellent drinking partners and we'd thoroughly explored the Barrio and another similar town a few miles away, Subic City. I couldn’t help but smile as I recalled those heady days. I’d had similar times many years before, in Thailand, but here was different. This was not tourist town. Tourists didn’t come to places like this. Retired military, oil and gas workers, men with a little money, and the time and patience to work their way through the total lack of tourist infrastructure came here. They came and relaxed in the knowledge that they were a little ways off the beaten track. You won’t bump into Fred and Ethel, from Clackton on Sea here, or newly weds John and Linda from Boston, gazing wistfully into each others eyes on the beach.

Here there be dragons, single men, young and old, who came to enjoy a little bit of the wild west spirit and grab a last piece of a cheap paradise. Vodka, 50 cents a shot, beer, 30 cents a bottle. A beautiful young maiden for the night, ten bucks. I looked forward to an evening carousing the bars, looking for familiar faces, male and female.

Pulling my "emergency" clothes from their sealed plastic bag, I hurriedly dressed and ventured out into the now dark main street. It was, in fact, a major highway, and trucks often came barreling through at ridiculous speeds. Puzzled at the unusual lack of gaudy bar signs, I walked almost the length of the small town. Nothing. Nothing was open, except a café that was once a flea pit of a bar, and was now a flea pit of a restaurant. It boasted what I reckoned was the worst pool table in the world. A horrible red colour, with enough rips and tears to keep a seamstress happy for a week.

As I passed by, familiar voice screeched out my name, and I was slow to get away. I was trapped, and had to walk into the dingy little bar and meet the owner of the amazing voice. The shouter was a very well endowed young girl I’d met a few years before, in this very bar. Her impressive physical appearance and sweet young face were totally out of character with the screeching foghorn of a voice that bellowed out every word, whether you were across the street, or making pillow talk. The loud voice, I felt, was a way of overcoming or hiding her shyness at what she did for a living. This I had explained to her long before, and she had managed to tone her act down to a moderate 95 decibels, but that had long since been forgotten. We screeched and bellowed at each other for a while until I made my excuses and managed to leave. Girls like her were hurting. No customers, strict new laws on prostitution, and no trade or education to fall back on. They could have moved to Angeles or Manila to carry on their work, but these simple girls were small town people, out of place in a big metropolis. A few made the move but most just drifted back to the peasant lifestyle, relying on some other member of the family to provide the support for a change.

The whole town was dead and I began to wish I was back in familiar old Angeles City - where I at least had a comfortable bed and knew a few people to pass the time of day with. My years as a whoremonger were over, and I had no intentions of spending the night with motormouth, running the chance of taking a potentially deadly and/or embarrassing disease back to my wife.

I hopped a jeepney down the coast to Subic city, where things had been really wild in the days when Subic Naval Base was open, and found the same lack of life there too. Ghost town. This was boring and I decided to return to The Rambler and hit the rack for the night. Alone, in the middle of what used to be paradise on earth for 44,000 US military personnel.

Early next morning I dined on the Ramblers classic “American Breakfast” and was on the road by 8:30. The bike started faultlessly and, as expected, the rain started again as I made my damp and dangerous way back to Angeles. The bike ran great, despite being soaked, run at speed through four inch deep puddles, and splattered with thick mud. A couple of hours later I was back in Angeles, the weather had dried up, and I spent a frustrating twenty minutes making my excuses not to drink beer with a police officer I’d asked for directions. He was absolutely hammered, whilst on duty in his little police office, at only ten in the morning. He couldn’t even point out where we were, on his large and very clear wall map.

I finally got home just before midday, and my good friend, an Australian guy who ran the place, congratulated me on picking such a good time to go to the Barrio. Baffled, I enquired as to his apparent sarcasm. He explained that Angeles City had been blisteringly hot and dry, and sunny from the almost the very hour I’d left town!.



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