Freedom on a Chain(set)

Travel and indeed the journey of our life is a major focus of our time- we spend a vast amount of our waking life either in transit or planning for transit from place to place. We go to work, the store, home, vacation. We- as humans are built to be explorers, travelers and  settlers- therefore we find many wonderful lessons in the ritual of the day to day commutes and the unexpected chaos of unknown foreign travel.

Hobbit House
Gemma & bikes outside of a Hobbit House on one of our journeys!

Travel is a major part of my day- just figuring out how to get to different places and the best method to do that and when to go has been a major focus of the beginning of our service. Fortunately, we have came prepared and the first full day of our service we bought something that would bring joy to the challenge of travel- bicycles.


Freedom is having a bicycle. There is nothing quite like the feeling of knowing that you can just hop on your bike and go anywhere you want- and you never have to think about the cost of gas, the schedule of the bus or finds a seat. I love the concept of how you can put your own energy into the chainset (the component of a bicycle that converts the reciprocating motion of the rider’s legs into rotational motion used to drive the chain or belt, which in turn drives the rear wheel) into motion- how you’re own determination and persistence literally moves you. Here in the Peace Corps, it means something more. There are things I can do on my bike that are impossible to do on public transport-  journey to new sections of my community, meet friends whenever they want, join community events and not have to worry about transportation home afterwards- but my favorite advantage is being able to stop anywhere at any time to investigate something new. It takes me on many wonderful adventures.

Gemma and I on our first day as PCV’s just after we got our new bicycles!

I often find myself riding by a fruit or vegetable stand and immediately turning around to pick up some delicious Mangosteen or Magdang- maybe some garlic or cabbage to use it for dinner. Sometimes I will ride by a house and hear my name, in which case I turn around and often times find a co-worker or friend  who comes out to the road to have a short conversation and share the gossip of the day.

Sometimes I find a new business or ride by a bakery that smells so delicious that I just have to stop and grab some fresh, still warm from the oven Pandisal. I love these little discoveries and it makes the language challenge a bit more interesting because it is pretty rare for someone to stop on a bike to buy something from a stand, even more rare that that cyclist is an foreigner, and almost unfathomable that said foreigner would speak Bisayan. I love watching my new amigos try to figure out what I am saying and then seeing it dawn on them that I am already speaking their language and they are trying to hear the English. This delightful moment is usually followed promptly by broad smiles, laughter and many, many questions about my age, if I am married, how long I have lived here, where I live, where did I learn the language and many more personal inquiries. It is something that always makes me smile and when I show up again the next week- it means that the person and I are already good friends and I get introduced to everyone else that happens to be around at the moment. It’s kind of like being a cross between a celebrity and a wild animal- curiosity abounds but uncertainty about this new creature that behooves caution.

Preparing to take the bike on to it’s first ferry to neighbor island Siquior

Here in the Philippines, I also get to have a rarer experience  while cycling- the expressions on people’s faces when I ride by them. First, I must describe what I am wearing so you can understand the unsuspecting villagers shock at me. First- I am much larger and taller than most of the people here, being bald is rare, having a beard is rarer and a goatee is just strange- cool, but strange. Next, I am wearing a large highway orange helmet. Few people here wear helmets on motorcycles and no other person that I’ve seen wears a helmet on a bicycle except for professional riders. The bicycle that I ride itself is huge. It’s bigger than some of the moto-scooters that are around. I ride on 29” mountain biking tires with high endurance shocks on the front of the bike. It is mostly black with bright red fenders and with 24 gears to cycle through on my chainset-  it’s usually moving as fast as I can make it, usually able to move faster than most traffic on the island. I am usually wearing a white undershirt and backpack of some sort with my pants rolled up to not get caught in the tires and my sandals pumping away on the pedals. If I wear black pants- it’s a pretty common occurrence to get mistaken for a Mormon.

Bikes on the Ferry! (Life jackets are mandatory)

Sometimes if it’s near dusk or raining I will wear a reflective vest for added visibility in addition to my super bright led lights. If it’s daytime I have reflective wraparound sunglasses to keep the dirt out of my eyes and at night I have clear safety glasses. Most people who ride outside here in the Philippines wear sweaters or long sleeves to protect themselves from the sun- me- I love the sun- so I’m always in short sleeves.…. In essence- I would stand out anywhere in the world- here I am shocking to see.

When I am riding to work or to dragonboat practice or a local community event- I often see people just stop and stare. Before I got a bike here in the Philippines, I thought that the expression “slack-jawed shock” was just for cartoons- but I see it everyday now- people staring at me with their mouths wide open and their eyes arguing with their brain trying to make sense of what they are seeing. Sometimes the older generation that spots me on my rides have a bit more life experience don’t go all slack-jawed but rather their hardened faces just stare quizzically at me as I breeze past.

nice day
Another day in Paradise

It took me a few weeks to figure out how to counter this and the answer was surprisingly simple- I give them a Bisayan nod of acknowledgment. I purse my lips, raise my eyebrows and nod my chin upwards at them- it is in this moment that the coolest thing happens- their faces break into wide smiles and huge grins, eyes twinkling and as I ride past, they keep smiling. It’s a simple acknowledgement but I think that something so familiar from a foreigner helps to shock them out of their argument between brain and eyes and they are able to accept my appearance easier. In sections of town or the common roads I ride on, it has become so common to see the same people that now we exchange short pleasantries shouting “Buntag!” (Morning) or “Gabii!” (Evening) at each other as I pass. I truly love these momentary exchanges as I can feel the smile blooming on my face as I approach someone walking or watching me from afar- when I announce my greeting I see the same large smile blossom on their face. It is a unique exchange that I almost never had in the states.

The hills can be exhilarating!

The ride itself can be rough- with sun and heat to contend with, I won’t ride anywhere without a water bottle. Since sweating is perceived as a bit of faux pas here, I tend to ride very slowly during the morning and very, very quickly when I am headed home (where a refreshingly cold shower awaits). I bring extra clothes wherever I go, as well as a handkerchief to quickly wipe away sweat and I bring cologne and deodorant to most places as well. If I am making multiple rides, I will bring a different shirt to wear each place. Americans have a stereotype here of being smelly- so I do my best to combat that with cologne and changes of clothes everywhere I go. I often shed my jersey as soon as I get to a place and slip on a fresh shirt and new deodorant- it’s become a major part of my daily routine. The heat makes it an hourly battle.

Yes, I did fall over right after this photo was taken..but check out that Jersey!!!

In addition, I never know what it going to happen when I leave the house. It could rain, storm, flood, it could be unbearably hot sun that threatens blistering sunburns, dehydration and heat stroke- so I prepare for all of this by riding in sandals (dry faster than shoes) riding with a waterproof backpack (to keep the computer/phone dry), wearing clothes that are both breathable and quick dry and professional (Thank you REI) and at least one water bottle.  Having a huge NYC type lock that I allows me to lock to pillars, huge trees, telephone poles, gates, fences, metal signposts, Ban2x’s motorcycle and bridges has been essential in letting me ride anywhere and everywhere.

Riding my bike off of a seaport

I get the slight impression that Peace Corps as an agency doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable with the amount of riding that volunteers do in general- but because of our work I am riding an average of 10 miles a day and Genevieve is more in the 20 miles a day range but because of our split assignment that is how much we need to do. When we applied to the Peace Corps we hoped riding would be a daily part of our lives, so we prepared by saving up funds for good bikes, bringing over rechargeable lights, our huge cable locks and solid helmets. We often add on reflector vests for longer night rides and we focus on riding as safely as we can. Helmets and lights are mandatory in Peace Corps service (as well they should be) but reflector vests are not. The traffic patterns here are easier to read than in the states and I feel much more comfortable here than I ever have in the states.

boarding ferry
Biking right onto a ferry for a visit to another island!


I think it has something to do with how many motorcycles and scooters there are on the roads. Almost every family has a version of a motoscooter and they race them up and down the roads They are about the same size as a bicycle so bus drivers here are more used to seeing them than in the states. Our lights make us brighter than most of the moto’s so most drivers think we are motos until they get close to us. Plus, the Filipino approach to driving makes it easier to react to cyclists because it seems like everyone only pays attention to what is going on in front of them. At first this was a little nerve-wracking to figure out the patterns of it- but once I settled into trusting that the people behind me would react- it because easier to pay attention to what was happening in front of me and act accordingly. It is a great game of trust and of quick reactions, but I have found that for whatever reasons the Pinoy culture is much, much more reactive and receptive towards bicycles.

Charging up a mountain!

When I rode my bicycle every day in Chicago it was a continual battle with drivers and cars. I had to fight for space, for the mandatory 3 ft passing law, sometimes I had honest discussions with confused drivers about why I was allowed to ride a bicycle in the first place. (read into that what you will- it’s probably right) but here in Negros Oriental (our island) riding is a joy- the vehicles give lots of room, people on motos will sometimes try to talk to you or greet you and kids riding on the back of trucks will inevitably smile and wave- usually accompanied with a hardy “Hey! Joe!” which I usually respond to with an equally surprised/enthusiastic “Ayo! Jose!” (When translated- also means Hey Joe but in the local language and I would like to think a small tip of the hat to the National Hero- Jose Rizal.)

Sometimes riding with a mask is necessary to manage the exhaust fumes in the city

It’s awesome to make small connections like this- the group of teenagers who pass me everyday coming from school to their homes in Calo on a small, crammed tryke. They often drift up behind me and then move in front- the driver is barely outpacing me but it gives enough time to have a short conversation with the them. In the beginning it was “Hey! Joe! WHAT IS YOUR NAME?” now it is a bit more relaxed with a “Hellooo Rok! Peddle Faster!” or occasionally they will warn me that the rain is coming “MoUlan! Moulan!” I respond as best as I can between gulps of air tinged with exhaust and the coppery salty wind of the sea of in the evening- but at least during the rainy season on the way home I have the wind at my back so I’m cruising along the coast waving at the fisher folk and the usual cast of characters that haven’t quite gotten used to the sight of me and at first would just stare but now raise a hand tentatively- as if they aren’t quite sure if they can wave to me yet or not… maybe tomorrow.

The bicycle as I see it- is access to new places and new friends, it is a source of exercise that isn’t expensive (Gym’s/weights) dangerous (running) and it’s functional. It lets me commute within my very modest Peace Corps budget and it also lets me be visible in the community. I think it is a perfect embodiment of what the Peace Corps is- a very accessible, self-propelled machine that is interested in real experiences and interactions. It allows me to control my interactions and at the same time to seek out new adventures, new friends and places to which I would never be able go have gotten before. The bicycle is freedom.

Gemma and I riding in RAGBRAI a few years ago- supporting the Peace Corps mission even before we were both PCV’s!

2 thoughts on “Freedom on a Chain(set)

Add yours

  1. Beautiful story, brother. Thanks so much for the glimpse into your inspiring existence out there. Love you both, endlessly


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