When I first arrived in Metro Manila in the middle of one rainy night more than a decade ago, the place terrified me. By that I mean it absolutely and totally put the fear of God into me. I had moved straight from the tranquil city of Douglas in the Isle of Man, population 35,000, to this vast megacity with all its noise and lights and people and things I didn’t know what to make of.
You will laugh when I tell you this, but on this very first night, I was too intimidated to even cross the road just to go to the 7-Eleven store I could see from the lobby of the building I was staying in. Looking back now, it just seems silly—I was staying in Makati CBD, probably one of the safest places to be in the country—but I simply didn’t know what to make of this place, and the sensory overload paired with jet lag proved too much.
The way I learned to love this city and this country in a way that felt more intense than any other place I had ever been to or lived in—including my home country of Germany—was not in the back of company shuttles or by traveling around in taxis. It was by bicycle.
The process was lengthy, but the rewards were worth it. Following a period of carefree expat life complete with a chain-smoking habit and unhealthy alcohol intake, it all caught up with me one day when I reported to Makati Medical Center’s emergency room while being unable to breathe properly. Luckily, the diagnosis was more bad lifestyle and less serious heart problem, but it was a wake-up call and I heeded it.
Against the advice of my colleagues (who all thought I was either nuts or suicidal), I bought a bicycle and started to ride after work every night. I didn’t really have to for my commute. At the time, the office and my condo were just a five-minute walk apart, but I made it a 30-minute cycle ride instead. I started by exploring Makati, and then gradually drew ever larger circles around the metropolis.
Especially at weekends, I often went out to just explore the city and see where its roads would lead me. From Tondo to the airport, through Quezon City’s circle and right up to Antipolo, being on two wheels gave me the freedom to discover the real Metro Manila. Somewhat carefree but never careless, I got to learn about the city, the country, and the people that made it all work in sometimes mysterious ways.
By now, I’ve traveled thousands of kilometers on Metro Manila roads using just my bike, and next to showing me that the private motor car is a terribly inefficient way to get around its perma-congested streets, it also unveiled the true face of the place to me. One of incredible kindness and warmheartedness coming at you whenever you least expect it.
One of many surprises, tremendous potential, and a thousand stories on every street corner. Whenever friends tell me they didn’t like Metro Manila when they first visited, I tell them that this city isn’t immediately beautiful. You need to take time and open your eyes and mind to see what makes it so special, and why I truly believe it could kick Singapore or Seoul’s ass if only political leadership were less troubled and more interested in actually serving the people.
Riding around on two wheels also allows you to observe better without being observed too much yourself. I very quickly learned that even a 6’1”, 200lb foreigner becomes almost invisible when riding a bicycle around here, and I don’t just mean for the cars and the trucks that sadly still cut me off way too often.
Whenever we research stories about traffic enforcement and things like ticket traps, doing it on two wheels means I can have a good look at an issue without immediately being noticed. If you ever want to sneak up on erring traffic enforcers, a bicycle is a way to do it.
Cycling is not only a good way to learn about this place if you’re new to it, but also a great (if not the best) method to commute and travel within a reasonable distance from your home.
I absolutely believe that Metro Manila should embrace cycling more and become the Amsterdam of Asia, making it a healthier, cleaner and more sustainable place to live in the process. I urge you to try it at least once yourself. Chances are that you won’t look back once you’ve experienced the liberating feeling of gliding past gridlocked traffic. I certainly haven’t.