Sunday, April 1, 2012

Was the KTM the Best Bike?


Was the KTM the best bike?  That is a good question.  Yes and no, and hard to say without actually having ridden another bike on the same or similar trip.  I definitely wanted an enduro type bike, and I would still choose that type of bike without a doubt.  The roads in the Philippines are typically narrow, rough, under constant construction (which has more to do with the topography  than the quality of the roads themselves) and in the provinces, there are a lot of dirt roads.  Some of the dirt roads would have been impassible or very difficult to navigate on any type of road bike.   The quality of the roads can also change quickly due to weather conditions.  Mud slides were commonplace in the mountain provinces and a dirt road that was nicely graded on your way in could turn into a true 4X4 trail  or a clay ice-skating rink on your way out, if a heavy rain came through.  

Hauling the Bike Over a Mud Slide
When I say the roads can be rough, I mean that in every sense of the word.  Most of the roads are two lane concrete.  When these roads start to crack apart, there are huge pot holes and slabs of concrete that just drop off anywhere from a couple of inches to a foot or more.  The travel on the KTM or any other enduro bike suspension will save your back side and the bike in some cases, if you happen to go through these concrete obstacle courses unaware.  We hit more than a few, that would have ended up bad for us and the bike had we been on a street bike.

We also went through the Negros Oriental area after the earthquake and there were at least two collapsed bridges, which forced us to cross the rivers without them.   One was crossed by riding through the 18 inch deep water, after riding through about 6 inch deep very wet and slimy mud that was like riding on ice.  The other river was crossed on a Planck set up by the locals.  The small 150cc bikes got across it no problem, and we managed to get across it OK ourselves, but if we had a bigger bike, I doubt we could have made it.   There were many other instances that we came across that would have been ugly on a street bike, and trying to load a large heavy street bike onto a Bianca boat would also have been difficult if not impossible in some instances.  
Bike Loaded on Bianca Boat (Bohol to Leyte)
I looked at a Tenere, and I almost bought it as I think it would be a good bike for this kind of trip.  However, it was quite a bit older, and I was concerned about the age and that it was also air-cooled.   An older air cooled  bike is OK when you're moving but when you get into some of these towns and smaller cities, you will not be moving that much and even the water-cooled  KTM got pretty hot sometimes.  These are tropical conditions, and every bike will be running hotter than normal compared to the US or Europe.  Another reason I chose not to go with the Tenere was the handling and suspension.  There is no doubt it could have carried the load, and had the travel to absorb the 12 inch deep pot holes you come across, but because it was an older bike, it was heavy and did not handle all that well, which you would expect on just about every aged bike.   I would have been pretty worn out riding this bike any long distance.

As far as the dealers being an issue, even though there are many Kawasaki, Yamaha and Honda dealers here in the Philippines, they do not sell big bikes, they do not know how to work on big bikes, they don't sell any parts for big bikes and I don't think they can even order the big bike parts since they don't import the bikes.   So regardless of how many of these dealers there are, it is equivalent to really having none if you have a big bike.  I believe there are a couple of dealers in Manila that sell a few of the Japanese big bikes, but the only ones I saw were street bikes and outside of Manila or Cebu, I never saw any dealers that had any big bikes.  You will have to order or get the parts yourself and do all the work yourself on the Japanese big bikes.

The advantage with the KTM was that, even though there are only three dealers (The one in Davao is new since I bought the bike) You can call them and have a part sent to you were ever you may be, if they have it in stock.  I had to do this once when we were in Bohol, and the part got there about three days after I called them.  However, I was lucky they had the part in stock.  They do carry some stock but I don't think it is a large inventory.

The other thing I liked about the KTM was that, it really is a joy to ride.  It handles wonderfully, and it is about as close as you are going to get to street bike handling on an enduro type bike.  Not only does it handle well on the street, but it does a pretty excellent job in the dirt, and if you really want it to do well in the dirt, a decent set of knobby tires is all you would need.  The bike is a little heavy to be called a true dirt bike, but unless you plan on competing in super-cross, I don't think anyone would have any complaints.  The other thing about the KTM and the part that made it truly enjoyable to ride, was the power.  This bike is a beast, and I believe it is the most powerful big bore single on the market.  It is an exhilarating bike to ride, without a doubt.

That being said, I still think the KLR 650 would have been the better bike.  It comes close to the KTM in all respects, and it has been around since the 80s basically unchanged other than the suspension and a few other things.  I think it would have been a more reliable bike, and parts availability is not a problem since they have been making this same bike for years.  You would most likely have to order parts from overseas, but I am sure you could find them in stock and would only have to wait for them to be shipped.  And, you do not need a Diagnostics tool so you can do all the work yourself.  Unfortunately, I could not find one that had legitimate papers, and I did not have the time nor inclination to import one myself.   

You do see a fair amount of big street bikes here in the Philippines, but you are limited in where you can go and really enjoy them.   There are a few places where you could truly have a fun time on a street bike especially going up to Baguio.  I do think I will end up getting a big street bike here just to take out for the occasional joy ride, but for touring around the Philippines I don't think any type of street bike would be a good choice.  

The Bike - 2008 KTM 690 Enduro



The modifications to the bike included the addition of a custom fabricated rack mounted at the rear grab handle locations and was designed to mount a "Givi" box. The 12.0 liter fuel tank is located on the rear of the bike. The fuel tank also acts as the rear sub-frame for the bike along with the grab handle mounting and the frame is molded into the fuel tank. It appears extremely strong compared to previous KTM sub-frames. However, if you damage this internal frame, the entire fuel tank will need to be replaced, so I tried not to over load it.

I also geared the bike down by reducing the front sprocket by one tooth. The average speeds on the roads in the Philippines are low and combined with the traffic, narrow roads, and many dirt roads, gearing the bike down was a huge improvement over the stock gearing. This made getting around in traffic and around busses and trucks much easier. You will rarely get the bike into 6th gear except on the expressways or on some of the better straight highways in the provinces, even with the down gearing.

I also, disconnected the power restriction on 2nd & 3rd gear. ( Mono Maniacs ) This is very easy to do, but you might have a problem passing emission requirements. However, emissions are not a problem in the Philippines, all you need to do is spend 5 minutes behind a jeepney to figure that one out. After removing the power restriction, there was a noticeable improvement in power and gave that extra little bit of punch when you needed it at lower speeds.

Other luggage we carried was a dry bag strapped on top of the "Givi" Box and a little tank bag where I could view the HTC/Phone-GPS when riding and, which carried the tool kit, along with a few other things. We also had a small back pack with a water-proof cover for carrying our camera gear. We traveled light and stayed in whatever accommodation we could find.

There are accessories available for the 690, that include a 2nd 14.2L fuel tank on the front of the bike which will increase your fuel capacity to a whopping 26 Liters. There are also up to 41 liter aluminum side cases available along with a rear luggage rack that is similar to the custom one I had built. With the side cases and "Givi" box along with the extra fuel tank, I believe this bike can be a true adventurer.

The extra fuel tank would have been a nice addition for our ride, but I could not find it for sale in the Philippines and would have had to order it from overseas. There are usually plenty of fuel stations present in most areas and lacking any fuel stations there is always fuel attainable on the side of the road being sold in liter bottles. However, with this being a fuel injected engine, any contaminated and poor-quality fuel could be a big problem, especially since the fuel filter is located in the tank, which is not easy to get to.

In some areas even the fuel being sold by the side of the road could be scarce. This was especially true in Palawan, Samar and in the Mountain provinces of Luzon. With the extra fuel tank, there is literally no place you couldn't go in the Philippines on this bike. It would have also eased my mind when running on reserve hoping to find a fuel station. Fortunately, I found a fuel station most times and only had to purchase fuel in the liter bottles a couple of times.

My biggest complaint other than the fuel injection stalling issue was not being able to purchase the diagnostics' tool. You can play with the adjustments manually without knowing whether or not you are making the correct adjustments. This at least gets you up and running or temporarily fixes an issue you are having, but to do it properly you need the diagnostics' tool.

Specifications:
Year:2008
Model: KTM 690 Enduro
Category: Enduro / offroad
Displacement:654.00 ccm (39.91 cubic inches)
Engine type: Single cylinder, four-stroke
Fuel system: Carburetor. Keihin THB 46
Fuel control: OHC
Ignition: Keihin
Lubrication system: Semi-dry-sump lubrication with 2 Eaton pumps
Cooling system: Liquid
Gearbox: 6-speed
Transmission type, final drive: Chain
Clutch: APTC Wet multi-disc clutch, operated hydraulically
Exhaust system: 2-cell stainless

Chassis, Suspension, Brakes and Wheels:

Frame type: Tubular trellis steel frame (CrMo)
Front suspension: WP USD, 48 mm
Front suspension travel:250 mm (9.8 inches)
Rear suspension: WP monoshock
Rear suspension travel:250 mm (9.8 inches)
Front tire dimensions:90/90-21
Rear tire dimensions:140/80-18
Front brakes: Single disc
Rear brakes: Single disc

Physical Measures and Capacities:

Dry weight:138.5 kg (305.3 pounds)
Seat height:910 mm (35.8 inches) If adjustable, lowest setting.
Ground clearance:300 mm (11.8 inches)
Wheelbase: 1,498 mm (59.0 inches)
Fuel capacity:12.00 liters (3.17 gallons)
Starter: Electric

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Friday, March 30, 2012

The Art of Philippine Motorcycle Maintenance



After we left 100 islands we went up to San Fabian near La Union to visit some of my wife's family and then headed back to Manila going through Tarlac using the expressway to Manila.  I needed to submit some paperwork for my Philippine residency in Manila.  It was Thanksgiving,  and I could use a few days to do some maintenance on the bike along with taking it to the dealer in hopes of sorting the Stalling issue.  The inconvenient part about having a computer-controlled  fuel injected bike is that you need a computer or diagnostic tool to sort out most problems with the fuel system.  Unfortunately, KTM does not sell a diagnostics tool to the public which pretty much leaves you at the mercy of the KTM dealer if you have fuel or other computer-related  problems.

I can somewhat understand KTM's desire to keep the technical maintenance of a computer-controlled  bike confined to their dealer network or to authorized repair centers.  However, if you're going off the beaten track on an adventure, it would be nice to have all the required tools with you.  My bike is not necessarily designed as an adventure touring machine, but you can configure it that way with accessories and KTM does sell a specific adventure touring machine here in the Philippines called the 990 Adventure, with a marketing sub title of "To the End of the World."  It has a bigger engine that is fuel injected and controlled with a CPU the same as the 690.  
The whole point of an adventure touring machine, in my opinion, is to use it as the name of the machine suggests, as an adventurer.  However, if you're going to go to the end of the world on a KTM, there better be a KTM dealer when you get there and more than a few along the way.   The marketing gurus and business types at KTM who made up their catchy slogan obviously did not talk to the maintenance or part departments.  You would have thought, if they were going to advertise a bike as being capable of reaching the end of the world, they would sell the rider the parts and tools to get there.   

I wouldn't call the Philippines the end of the world but there are 7,107 different islands in the Philippine archipelago with Manila, and Cebu being on two of them.  If you happen to be on one of the other 7, 105 islands in the Philippines, it is not very convenient or cheap, for that matter, to get your non running motorcycle back to one of the two islands capable of servicing it.    

If you own a KTM or any other big bike in the Philippines getting it serviced and getting parts is one of the most inconvenient things about that ownership.  You can solve the service issue by doing it yourself if you know how, however, with the KTM, you will still need the dealer to perform certain tasks.  For parts needed in a hurry you will most likely need to order them from overseas and pay the obscene Philippine duty on top of your shipping costs.  If you don't need them quickly you can get them shipped using a Balikbayan box, or have a friend bring them over who happens to be visiting.  I had a $20 dollar part sent over, and the duty was $22 on top of the $75 shipping.

You may be able to find some parts locally, but almost all the local motorcycle shops sell parts and service for motorcycles of less than 250cc.  For a brake lever or something common between a small  and big bike there is no problem, but anything specific, and you will have a hard time finding it.   The advantage with a KTM in the Philippines is that the dealer does have some parts in stock, usually related to consumable maintenance such as oil filters.  The KTM dealer can also order whatever other parts you may need, but depending on the part it can take up to a month to arrive.  The older carbureted bikes have an advantage over the fuel injected KTMs with regards to service since working on a carbureted bike is pretty straight forward, and you can fix the bike almost anywhere without needing a computer diagnostics' tool, but you will still have the problem with parts.    

Now for a word of caution: A Philippino will tell you they can fix anything, and to be fair I have seen some pretty impressive ingenuity.  However, under no circumstances should you hand over a big bike to a local mechanic that has no experience working on a big bike.  I had a local shop wanting to replace my rear shock with a rear shock made for a 200cc bike that was not even remotely the same type of shock.  For starters, it was about 2 inches shorter and half the diameter of the original shock, and they wanted to weld on a piece of steel to make it fit.  I could not even believe they were suggesting it.  If you don't want your bike hacked to bits, it is better to do it yourself or find someone who knows what they are doing.        

We got back to Manila a few days before Thanksgiving, which gave me enough time to do most of the maintenance required and get the bike to the dealer, so they could reset the ECU and make adjustments to the throttle sensor, and throttle body, to eliminate the stalling issue.  We had some friends and family over for Thanksgiving, cooked a turkey with all the fixings, and I picked up the bike from the dealer the day-after.        

Unfortunately, the paperwork  for my residence card here in the Philippines required us to stay around in Manila until the first part of the following week, so we had a weekend and a day or two with nothing to do.  I figured this would be an excellent weekend to take the bike on a little two-day  ride to make sure everything was working properly before we took our month-long  tour around Luzon.  After doing a little research on places to go, we decided a ride down south to Batangas, and then take a ferry over to Mindoro and ride up to Puerto Galera for a couple of days.  It sounded like a pretty decent plan.    

Big La Laguna Beach - Puerto Galera -Mindoro Island

The bike was running good after I picked it up from the dealer, and the stalling issue seemed to be eliminated along with the fuel-injection  error light that always came on when the stalling issue appeared.  We packed up for a short two-day  ride and headed down the South Luzon Expressway to Batangas.

So far, so good, things were looking positive.  But, about halfway in-between Manila and Batangas the fuel-injection  error light came on.  The bike was still running good, but I was almost certain as soon as we slowed down, or I chopped the throttle, the stalling issue would return.  I tested my assumption by chopping the throttle a few times, and sure enough the annoying gremlin was back.  So much for getting the stalling problem fixed by taking it to the dealer for the use  of their fancy KTM diagnostic's tool.

I was not actually surprised that our little stalling gremlin was back.  I did  some research into this problem on a few different web sites, and it appeared to be a common problem on many of the KTM 690 bikes.  What worried me was that all that, I had read, basically told me that if your bike had this problem, you were stuck with it, as no one seemed to have any definitive answer.  Bikes had been sent back to KTM dealers with every cause investigated and every part that could be remotely responsible replaced, all to no avail.   The problem did not make the bike unable to ride and all in all the bike was still a very enjoyable bike to ride.  However, when it did happen it was annoying, and I was a always a little pissed off about it.  But, why let a minor annoyance ruin a good ride, so we continued to Puerto Galera with me blipping the throttle every time we came to a stop, or I had to chop the throttle.   I could take the bike to the shop again when we returned.

Floating Bikini Bar - Sabang Beach - Puetro Galera - Mindoro Island
  
Tamaraw Waterfalls, Western Nautical Hwy Near Puerto Galera - Mindoro Island

Getting Ready for Town Festival - Western Nautical Hwy - Mindoro Island

 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bola-Bola Definition


For anyone who does not know what the term Bola-Bola means, I thought I should provide a brief definition. Bola-Bola is a Philippino term that basically means bull excrement. However, if one does a little more research into the word, you will find in Tagalog, which is the official Philippino language, the term derives from Binobola mo lang ako, which implies saying untruths but in such a charming manner that what the speaker says appear to be true. It's related to "binibilog ang ulo," literally making a head round -- bola (ball) and bilog (circle) have the same shape round. It remotely recalls "drawing circles" around someone. If you look up the word bola on Dictionary.com you will discover that the origin of the word bola is Spanish and means ball. Which considering the Philippines was a Spanish colony for over 300 years it all makes sense. Or does it?

Bola-bola definition aside, the point I am trying to make is this. This blog and web site may contain Bola-Bola at times so do not hold myself or anyone else who happens to make comments accountable. However, I also believe Bola-Bola should be kept to a minimum and only be used when one has nothing else intelligent to say.

Decision Made - Moving to the Philippines

Motorcycle Touring Through the Philippines.

How does one end up riding a motorcycle through the Philippines you might ask?

Have you ever had one of those jobs where you can't seem to decide if having that job is a good thing or a bad thing? You go to work every day, and sometimes you enjoy the work, and the people you're working with, but there are things about the place you are working that you simply detest. The politics of it all and the bola-bola gets so thick that you feel like you need to wear a pair of knee-high rubber boots to wade through it. However, even with a pair of knee-high rubber boots you still can't get rid of the stench, both literally and figuratively.

Well, it just so happens that I found myself with one of these kinds of jobs. On the plus side it was a job, which is more than a lot of people have these days. I was getting paid good money. I worked with a group of pretty decent guys. The job was challenging to say the least, which is something I enjoy most of the time, and I enjoyed the job most of the time.

On the negative side, I was living in a country that did not seem to have any sort of moral compass, as my dad would have put it. Farmers would water their fruits and vegetables with toxic chemicals to increase their yield at the expense of their consumer's livers. Livestock was routinely fed steroids to provide leaner meat. Fish farms fed their stock expired birth control pills to fatten up their fish. Waste products were reused and put back into the food supply chain. Even products that were never intended to be part of the food supply chain were ground up, or broken down in such a way that they could be inconspicuously added to actual food products.

The scary part of all this food manipulation, was that there was no way to tell if you were eating tainted food products or not. There were no governmental controls, and even if there were laws on the books or an agency to enforce those laws, they were never enforced. And if they were, they could easily be circumvented especially if you had the right friends in the right places.

The only time tainted food became an issue was, for example, when half of a wedding party got ill from eating tainted meat and one of guests who got sick happened to be a member of the government or had a close friend in the government. The sick guest would call for justice and if his governmental contacts were higher than the venue owner / caterer of the wedding party, then justice would be served usually quickly and severely. In addition, the government, not wanting to miss a good public relations opportunity would use this application of justice as a perfect example, of how they were cleaning up the system.

The government officials would make speeches on the television telling everyone they were cleaning up the system and not to do these bad things, or you will be punished. What they actually meant by cleaning up the system was this. We are not going to do anything or enforce any laws, but if you get caught because you are stupid enough to sell your tainted food to government officials or friends of high-ranking government officials, and you don't have a higher government official in your pocket; your punishment will be severe.

The severity of the punishment was unquestionable. This severity was obviously the public relations portion, since it was not uncommon for the death sentence to be carried out. It always kind of reminded me of the old English kings who put their criminals (and enemies of the state) heads on a stake exactly outside of town. Who needs a functioning legal system when you can just scare the Bola-Bola out of everyone?

There were other negatives and reasons that I decided it was time to forgo my current job and ride a motorcycle around the Philippines, but I am not sure that is what this writing should be about, should it? I am purposely not naming the country as I might want and or need to go back to work there again. I don't think the citizens of a said country would want me telling personal stories and experiences about what a negative and Bola-Bola place it could be would they?

All that being said, I believe every country has its negatives. If you were to replace tainted food in the above writing with say, tainted financial products, then everyone would know I was talking about the US wouldn't they?

Well, I will leave this post where it is and see if first, anyone reads it. And second, if anyone might have any ideas on which direction, the continued writing might take? On the other hand, someone may suggest I find something else to do with my time?

Finding A Motorcycle

The Bike

The first order of business when we arrived in the Philippines after locating a place to stay was to sort out a good motorcycle. I had done some research before we arrived, and it looked like it was possible to get exactly what I was looking for, at a reasonably cheap price. I wanted to get a big bore single, something similar to if not an actual Kawasaki KLR 650. The reasons I wanted this type of bike were many. It has the power to get you out of sticky situations; the suspension is solid, and you can load up the bike with a fair amount of weight. They are, for the most part, reliable bikes, and they are designed to handle well on the street and in the dirt.

After we located a place to stay and had got somewhat settled in, I set about trying to locate a good bike to buy. It was not long before I discovered this was not going to be as easy as I had hoped. The biggest problem with big bore singles or any big bike, for that matter, here in the Philippines is that they are not that common. The large majority of Philippinos ride small displacement bikes. A small displacement bike basically means anything under 250cc. This is a matter of practicality, economic circumstance and governmental regulation. You don't really need a big bike here, and even if you have one there are few places you will ever get the bike out of 3rd or 4th gear while riding it around town.  Most Philippinos use their bikes to get around town not to ride from one end of an island to another, or to a different island altogether. Sure some do but it is not that common. They could use the bigger big bike suspensions though, almost all the small bikes experience massive over loading. They will load up to four and sometimes five people on a little 125cc bike, then ride over the pot hole filled roads in and around town. It does not take long for the suspension on these small bikes to give in, and it is rare to see one functioning properly. Most small bikes go bouncing down the road due to the struts being shot.

I had found a few advertisements online for motorcycles before we arrived in the Philippines so that was the first place I started looking for a bike. The one that looked the most promising was a guy, who had a KLR 650 for $4000 US. I met him at a hotel in Pampanga as he rode the bike down from La Union, and I met him half way. The bike itself looked great, but when we got to the paperwork, something did not smell right. The bike was not registered in his name, which is not uncommon here due to the snail's pace of the Land Transportation Office, but when I asked him if I could get a deed of sale from the owner, he started squirming around like I had just asked him for the impossible. I found this double strange as when we were talking earlier, he told me all about the owner and how he was his friend, and he was in contact with him about all the work he had done on the bike. I said I would buy the bike, but I needed to get a deed of sale from the owner. I wrote up a deed of sale, gave to him by email and a hard copy, subsequently told him to send it to the owner who was apparently in the UK. I wanted to have the alleged owner sign it in front of a Justice of the Peace, or the equivalent of a Notary as we call them in the US, then send it back.

I called him back the next day. My suspicions were confirmed, for some reason his friend was not willing or able to sign the dead of sale. I asked him if he had any other motorcycles for sale which he did have, but none had paper work. I can't say for sure, but my guess on what this guy was doing, was this. He was shipping the bikes to the Philippines from the US in pieces then reassembling them. The bikes were good but they at no time went through Customs, and they were quite possible stolen bikes in the US. I will never know. I needed a clean bike with a clean title to be riding around the Philippines and from island to island. The last thing I needed was to be stuck on some island getting a shakedown by the Police because my bike was not legitimate. I doubt I would have ended up in jail, but I am certain my wallet would have been a lot lighter.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Finding A Motorcycle, Part 2

After looking at a few different bikes, and finding more bikes with suspect papers, Bikes that were in need of more maintenance than I was willing to give, or older bikes which I was concerned about having enough miles left in them to complete our intended tour of the Philippines, a good friend of mine suggested the KTM dealer in Manila. Our first attempt at locating the KTM dealer proved to be more eventful than you would expect for such a simple task.

First one has to understand that Manila, is a rather large city, and is not that easy to get around in. Traffic is a nightmare, the street numbering, and naming system are also very confusing. Many streets have the same name, they are rarely straight, one minute you are going north, the next your going East and your still on the same street, the numbers are rarely posted on buildings and many addresses simply tell you the name of the street, the nearest Cross Street, the building name and the Barangay (neighborhood). If you look at a detailed map of Manila, you might have a hard time discerning it from a plate of spaghetti.

I thought hiring a taxi for the day would be the wisest thing to do as I wanted to look at a couple of other motorcycle shops on our way to the KTM dealer. The taxi driver, as it turns out most taxi drivers in Manila are, was not too interested in helping us accomplish our tasks for the day or in getting us from point A to point B. They are more absorbed in dragging your need for a taxi out as long as possible in hopes of relieving you of as much money as imaginable. The typical scenario, goes something like this.

First, you are not a Philippino, and he usually and correctly assumes you do not know your way around the city. You have just become their mark for the day. If you provide an address, his first response will be he does not know where it is. Now keep in mind you could give him an address to a well known place in Manila, such as the American Embassy, for instance. Almost everyone, and most assuredly every taxi driver does know where the American Embassy is. But if you don't know, he will play dumb and drive around in as many circles as possible trying to jack up the fare as much as he can. I was aware of this little charade so I attempted to cut him off at the pass so to speak by simply hiring him for the day.

He did take us to a few bike shops, where I found nothing that remotely fit the bill for the kind of bike, I was looking for, but I thought it was worth a shot. Trying to find any location was a nightmare as he played dumb most of the day. By the end of the day, he still did not manage to locate the KTM dealer. The next day, I realized we were only one block away from it at one point. My mistake was being stupid enough to believe that he had nothing to gain by not getting us to our destination since I paid him for the day. However, on our way back home, I had him stop in Makati at a place I knew the location of, where I had to take care of some business. While I was doing this, my wife decided to take the taxi to get some food and then come back and pick me up.

Here was the taxi drivers mistake. Obviously, he did not know the relationship between myself and my wife, and he started chatting away about how he was going to get more money from me by me having to hire him for another day since the day was almost over and we had still not found the KTM dealer. I found this out later, when we got home and my wife filled me in.

It was not really necessary information as I had already decided the guy was a worthless taxi driver and had no intention of calling him the next day, but it was enlightening information. The thinking in the Philippines is a bit different and not something that most Westerners are accustomed to. I may be wrong on this, but this is where I see the difference.

The way I think about doing business. If I hire a taxi driver, and he does a good job, his job being, to be honest and get me to my destination in the quickest way possible, I will hire him again and will go out of my way to use him because I know he is honest and does a good job. On the other hand, the Philippino taxi drivers only focus is on getting as much money out of you as he can.

He knew he already had the money for the day, so if he can play dumb and drag it out for another day he could make twice as much. He doesn't care if I get to my destination or get done what I need to get done, his only focus is making more money. If I don't call him the next day, he does not care, he still gets the money for that day. If I am stupid or feel sorry for him, or like the guy, or for whatever other reasons I might call him the next day, he gets another day worth of cash out of me.

To make a long story shorter. I found the address, and located it on a map before we left then next morning. Furthermore, I have since downloaded a very useful app on my wife's HTC phone. It is called Osmand+. It is an open-source map that works with the phones GPS and location service. You can download the area map for the location you are at so you can use it off line, and it works quite well. We used it almost exclusively for our navigation throughout the Philippines, and it is a lot cheaper than buying a standalone GPS unit, or having to go online and use Google's maps. So the next time a taxi driver tries to give me the run around, I simply pull out the phone, find our location, and direct him right where we want to go. I pay him what is on the meter and never bargain up front. If he does not start the meter, we get out.

When we got to the KTM dealer the next morning, I was a little more than excited as they had about three different bikes on the showroom floor that were about as close to what I was looking for as I could have found. Unfortunately they were all new and were out of my price range. Way out would be a more applicable statement. However after poking around the shop for a bit, looking to see if there happened to be any used bikes in the back room, one of the sales guys came up to me and started getting as much information on me as he could to try and make a sale. In my mind I had gone up in price already since I was not having any luck finding anything in my initial price range so I gave him a figure and he said they had a bike. They had to get it from the warehouse but if I would wait around a bit they could bring it over.

The bike was an older KTM 640 Duke. It was in reasonable good shape and after I took a spin on it, we agreed on the price. The valves were making a bit of noise and they promised to give it a tune up and adjust the valves. I picked the bike up a few days later and we got ready for our first little ride. Hallelujah, we were finally going to get on the road!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Black Duke - The KTM 640



The 640 was black if you did not already guess from the title of this post, and it was a rather pleasant bike to ride. Although I think most big bore singles are agreeable to ride. There is something about that deep throated thump the engine makes when you get on the gas at low revs. Just when you think, you need to shift down a gear the torque of the engine kicks in, and you can feel the power underneath. I also liked the look of it with flat black plastic and big silver letters spelling out Duke on either side. It had a few drawbacks, the main one being the rear sub frame and the lack of any easily accessible locations to mount a rack. We needed some kind of rack or way to carry our baggage if we were going to be touring around the Philippines. However, I figured I could use a little ingenuity and come up with some kind of way to mount a rack. I did come up with what I think would have been a pretty decent rack design, but as it turned out. I never got to see if it would have worked.

After I picked up the bike, we decided to take it for a short two or three-day trip down the West coast of Luzon South of Manila. I had picked up a road atlas of the Philippines a few weeks back and had been studying it for possible routes and locations that looked interesting. I read a bit about some nice beaches by Nasugbu, which is on the West coast of Luzon just north of Batangas. According to the atlas, we could ride down the coast from Manila past Cavite to Naic then continue following the coast all the way to Nasugbu.

It looked like the perfect little test run for the bike. I had completed my cursory design for the rack but did not have time to get it fabricated, so I bought some bungee cords and used them to strap a bag on the back fender plastic behind the seat. For a two-day ride, this should work just fine, since we did not really need to pack all that much. I also had a tank bag in between me and the handle bars to put some stuff in, and my wife had a small back pack.

We left our apartment early in the morning to try to get out of Manila before the traffic started to get to its usual nightmarish state. It was a cloudy day, but it did not look like it was going to rain, so down the coast we headed. As you start to get out of Manila heading toward Cavite, there is a toll road so you can make good time for a short while, but after the toll road you are on the typical Philippine two-lane highway which is usually chock-full of three-wheel motorcycle tricycles (trikes) and jeepneys until you start to get into the country side. I was not looking forward to the trike and jeepney infested road after the toll road but what can you do?

Now for those who are not familiar with Philippine traffic, let me provide a small description. Like most Asian countries, it is absolute mayhem on the roads in the bigger cities. There are large numbers of small scooters and motorcycles, which are, for the most part, not much of an issue. Then there are the trikes, which are basically a smaller displacement motorcycle with a side car attached. The side car is usually designed to carry two people in the side car, some luggage on a small rack in back, and one passenger on the back seat of the motorcycle. Now just because it is designed for three passengers certainly does not preclude the addition of a few more. The golden rule as far as vehicle capacity is that if you can hang on, you can get on. If you can squeeze more people in the side car or off the outside of a grab rail, then there is still room. It is quite a sight seeing a trike go by with three people in the two-person side car, two sitting in the rear luggage compartment, two on the back seat of the motorcycle and another two hanging off the railing with their flip flop covered toes clinging to whatever little lip of steel they can find.

These trikes are geared down so low to carry all that extra weight that I doubt the maximum speed can be much more than 20mph (30kph) going downhill. This trike self-imposed speed limit might make the ride safer for the guys hanging off the rail, but it sure is a pain in the back side when you're on a narrow highway, and you can't get around the overloaded trikes moving at a snail's pace.



Then there are the jeepneys. Unlike most other Asian countries, the roadways in the Philippines are populated by one unique item that is, as far as I know, only found in the Philippines, and that is the jeepney. The jeepney originates from the old army jeeps brought here by the US soldiers during world war II. When the soldiers left, they either sold them cheap or gave them away to the local Philippinos. The US army jeeps most would recognize everywhere else in the word have undergone a few modifications after being taken over by their new owners. They have the same basic front end look of a jeep, but the frame as been extended and the rear wheels have been moved back about six feet so you end up with something that looks more like a stretch limo.

Now these are not your everyday looking stretched limo either. These jeeps are pimped out; They chrome everything, airbrush pictures of anything from a Ferrari emblem, to sports team logos, to every kind of religious figure and biblical quote you can think of. They have massive front and rear bumpers with all sorts of intricate steel artwork running from the front to back. The rear of the jeep has been converted to a long bed with benches running down each side with a chrome roof top and no rear door or tailgate on the back. The purpose of the open rear end is so people can hop on and off them as they meander through the streets. It is a bit similar to riding an old trolley car in San Francisco but without the tracks and there is no door on the side. You just hop in the back, pass your five pesos up to the diver or his assistant/conductor and then jump out when you get to where you want to be.

For getting around the city and country side cheaply they are a great form of transportation. However, there are some drawbacks for the other vehicles on the road. If your business is picking up as many people as possible along your designated route you don't want to miss any fares. So they are constantly slowing down and swerving to the side of the road to pick up passengers and then swerving back into the flow of traffic. This has the nasty habit of slowing the flow of all traffic and for taking out the occasional scooter, motorbike, trike or whatever else happens to be in their way.

On the major roadways, they have tried to eliminate some of this by putting in Jeepney stops. However, the only thing that adding the jeepney stops has done is create massive bottle necks as all the Jeepneys are swerving in and out at the same place. Any traffic hoping to go by the Jeepney stops has to be extremely slow and cautious since you never know when a jeepney driver is going to pull out in front of you.

Another drawback of the jeepney is the diesel smoke that belches out every time they accelerate. I don't think there is any form of pollution control on them and the smoke concentrations are high enough that if you stay behind one for any length of time you will arrive at your destination with black soot all over your face. A full face helmet will help but I can't tell you how many times we arrived at our destination with me looking like a raccoon. Needless to say, riding a motorcycle anywhere near Manila is usually not the most enjoyable experience, and getting out of Manila's traffic is like a breath of fresh air, literally.

Once we got off the toll road, we started heading down the two-lane highway dodging Jeepneys and trikes until we finally made it to Naic, which is where the cutoff point from the main road to the smaller road that continues along the coast is. I was hoping there would be some kind of sign or something that indicated that there was an intersection. They were the only two roads shown on the map so I figured there had to be something. There was nothing that I could see, and we soon discovered what looks to be a major road in the atlas, can turn out to be what most would consider, a road the size of a small alley way.

We did eventually find the alleyway that led to the road we were looking for, and it turned into a great ride. There was no real traffic to speak of, as the road started winding its way up through mountains along the coast. The black Duke was finally going to be capable of stretching its legs. I could open it up and start to get the feel for what the bike was really able to do as we worked our way through the mountains. The views were getting stunning as you looked back along the coast all the way to Manila. It was hard to imagine all that traffic we had just been through. When you looked at it from up where we were, it looked quiet and peaceful.

The road continued to wind its way through the mountains until we came across what appeared to be some sort of resort development. I had read about a few resorts that were further south and was not expecting to see one here, but we decided to go, have a look and see what it was all about. There was a gate at the turn off, but the guard let us right through when we told him we just wanted to have a look and asked if they had a hotel.



We made our way down the mountains to the coast on what was quite a long road considering it was a private road intended for the access of this resort development only. When we got to the beach, there was a hotel, but it looked like it had seen better days. There was moss growing all over the walls, the parking lot was broken-up asphalt, and any exposed wood had been eaten away by termites. We continued on down the road which was now following the coast as it twisted its way around a cove up over a peninsula and back down the other side to another cove. In the other cove, there was another hotel. It was a bungalow type hotel and there was a very nice golf course winding its way through the jungle and next to the beach.

We stopped and asked if they had any rooms, which they said they did but when we went to have a look at them, the majority of the bungalows were all torn up and or falling apart from all the termite damage. The bungalows that were available had been reconstructed where the old wooden ones were previously and were wisely made of concrete. It was in such a mess I was surprised they were actually open for business. There were a few people staying there, but it appeared, they were only there for the golf. We decided to continue down the coast to see what else we could find.

The road continued on again making its way up over another peninsula and back down to another cove. However at the top of this peninsula ridge there were some condominium units, that from a distance looked quite nice with a spectacular view down the coast towards Manila. But when we got closer it was apparent they were in about as good of shape as the hotel. Moss on all the walls with crumbling concrete.

The next cove past the dilapidated condominiums was the end of road. There was a small park along the beach with some picnic benches and little huts. The park was quite nice with a beautiful beach tucked away into this cove. but It looked like it was rarely if ever used. The road from the condominium units was partially covered in moss and it was apparent there was not much traffic.

Keep in mind all of what we had just ridden through was all part of the same resort development. I don't know how many hectares this place was, but it was extensive. I stopped at a sign near the condominiums on our way out and there were lots for sale that had some magnificent views. If you were to buy one and build a place there you would have basically had the entire place to yourself other than the few golfers and what looked to be a few residents in the condominium units.

Someone had some grand ideas about what this place was going to be, and what it could have been. It did have all the elements to be a wonderful resort, condominium, housing development but for whatever reason, after they put in the roads, the one condominium development and the hotels and golf course it appears nothing much else has happened since then. All the buildings were slowly starting to fall apart, and the roads were on their way to being reclaimed by the jungle. The only thing that still looked to be in good shape was the golf course. Of course, I imagine keeping grass green in a jungle would not be that difficult, but someone had to maintain it, and they seemed to be doing a good job of that at least.

You see a lot of grand ideas here in the Philippines, that someone has put a lot of money into, but that never really came to fruition. I did not know it at the time, but this was to be one of many developments that seemed to be slowly returning to the jungle. My wife talked to one of the guards when we stopped at the cove with the golf course. He told her this development was owned by a Korean guy or a Korean company, that had come in with the idea of developing it into a world-class resort. Something tells me that they were sold a lot of BolaBola along with the property.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Black Duke - The KTM 640 - Part 2

We rode back up to the gate of the Resort and turned south heading towards Nasugbu following the mountains along the coast. It was early in the afternoon, and I figured we had plenty of time to make it to Nasugbu where I was hoping we could find a place to stay for the night. The weather was still overcast with a light mist, but the road was still relatively dry. It was again a beautiful ride with almost no traffic.

There were not a lot of people living along this road, and a large portion of the road went through a Philippine army base which looked to be nothing more than a jungle. However, I was still on the lookout for broken-down trikes, dogs, goats, water buffalo, or the errant school boy using the street as a basket ball court. All of those items and more are typical on the roads throughout the Philippines, but if you get off the beaten track, they get fewer and fewer. However, you usually see something, and we had ridden for well over and hour and the only signs of life we saw were a family of goats in the road. We stopped for the goats, and I had a look at the atlas just to make sure we were going in the right direction. As far as I could tell from the atlas, everything looked OK, and as long as we kept following this road, it should lead us to Nasugbu, so we continued on.

Another hour passed, and the road started to head back down towards to the beach out of the mountains. I could see signs of life below by the beach. I figured this was a good sign we were heading in the right direction, and we were getting closer to Nasugbu. These signs of civilization soon turned into a gate which was a bit troubling. Why would there be a gate in the middle of a main highway?

We stopped at the gate. The guard came out and asked us where we were headed. I told him we were heading to Nasugbu. He looked at me funny and replied, you can't get to Nasugbu this way. This was not the news I was expecting. I scratched my head and tried to explain to him that the road had to continue on to Nasugbu since this was the only road, and we had not passed any intersections or any other roads since we left the cutoff for the resort. My newly acquired Philippine road atlas clearly showed the road continuing on to Nasugbu. I did not think my published in the Philippines road atlas would contain Bola-Bola, would it? Of course, my telling him the road had to continue was not going to change the route of this road, so I asked him where the road went.

Bola-Bola Map


He told us that the road continued to the beach where there was a resort. Hmm, well I asked if they had any rooms as I figured it was getting late, and we could just stay there for the night and sort out the inconsistencies between the road atlas and the actual road tomorrow. He walked back into his guard shack, made a call and returned with the news that yes they had rooms available and let us through the gate.

We made our way down to the beach and to the resort, which to me looked completely empty. The only people around were another guard at the entrance to the resort and the lady working behind the counter. There were no other vehicles parked in the lot, and I got the feeling we were showing up in the middle of the low season. It looked like the resort was pretty decent, at least there was no moss on the outside of the buildings and the buildings were not crumbling, so we parked the motorcycle and went inside to inquire about a room.

The receptionist was ready for our arrival as she had been forewarned by the guard at the top of the road. I asked about a room, and she replied, yes they have rooms available for 1700 pesos a night. I said perfect we will take one. After which, she proceeded to tell me that the 1700 pesos was per person and that there was a minimum of a three-person charge. I looked at her and said huh? Can you repeat that again? This time she brought out the calculator as she told me about their convoluted room rental policy, which basically boiled down to, we needed to pay for three people even though there were only two of us! For those who don't want to do the math, it would end up being 5100 pesos or $121 per night, for what amount to a Motel 6 on the beach, in the middle of nowhere. 5100 pesos for a hotel room in the Philippines is not cheap. You can get a four or five star hotel on the beach in Boracay or Manila for less than that.

I rolled my eyes back and said, don't you think that is a bit much? I would think 1700 pesos for both of us would be a more reasonable price? Sorry sir, that is how we price our hotel rooms, here have a look at or pricing information on this brochure. She pulled out the hotel brochure, with pictures of a very lovely looking hotel and the complicated pricing information. It had pictures of a swimming pool with lots of people around and a nice little restaurant and bar next to the pool. I looked at the brochure and then looked around the hotel and said, are you sure this is the right hotel? The pictures in the brochure don't look like the hotel I am standing in. Yes sir, this is the hotel. If you have a look over there you can see the pool. I looked. It was half full of water with a bar/restaurant that looked like it had not been used in at least a couple of months. However, it did have a vague resemblance to the brochure.

I looked at my watch. It was still only four in the afternoon, so I figured screw it, we can ride back toward Naic and take the turn off that I saw marked with a sign, to Tagaytay city. I knew there were a lot of hotels around Tagaytay since it is a big tourist destination for Lake Taal. Besides I wanted to go to Nasugbu, and we were going to have to go that way anyway, since the road we were on did not continue to Nasugbu. I handed her back the brochure and said thanks miss, but I think we will head towards Tagaytay and find a more reasonable place to stay. As we walked out the door, she reminded us that the price included three breakfasts. I think she was trying to say I was fat?

When we got on the bike and started heading back the way we came I could not get it out of my head why this woman was trying to extort money out of us? The hotel was very obviously empty, or nearly so and rather than make 1700 pesos, she made zero. It was a little understandable considering the hotel was quite literally the end of the road and there were no other hotels around, but it still did not make sense. This was a little different than my taxi driver experience when looking for the KTM dealer, at least he was going to get the fare for the day regardless, but this woman ended up with nothing.

I have seen this same type of thinking here in the Philippines before. It usually always involves a foreigner, who a Philippino thinks he can make a large amount of money from. A good example of this would be trying to hire a trike to take you a mile down the road. If a Philippino is hiring the trike, he knows what the fare should be for the mile-long trip. In this example let's say the standard rate is 50 pesos. Now if the foreigner wants to hire the same trike for the identical trip, he is going to be charged as much as possible. In this case, the trike driver will charge the foreigner 200 pesos, and to be fair, the foreigner usually never questions it. I mean let's face it 200 pesos or $4.50 is not that much for the same length taxi ride in any Western county. If the foreigner is a little wise to the constant over charging, he might argue a bit and get the fare down to 100 pesos. However, he is still paying twice as much as a Philippino would. Now, if a foreigner argues that he knows what the standard rate is, and he is only going to pay 50 pesos, many times the trike driver will refuse to take the fare. He would rather get nothing from the foreigner than give him the ride for the same price a Philippino would pay. Philippino pride maybe? Who knows, I just give them zero.

We headed back down the road at a pretty good pace since I already had an idea of what was around each corner. It started getting dark just after we got on the road heading to Tagatay, and the mist that had been hanging around all day started to turn into a light rain. The joy of riding slowly started to disappear, and I began looking for the first place I could find to stay for the night and at the same time questioned whether or not I should have paid the extortion fees and stayed where we were.

Fortunately, we came across a quaint little hotel just outside of Tagatay. They had a decent room for 1200 pesos per night, and it had a nice Italian restaurant. We unloaded the bike, took a shower and had a good meal. Pizza I think. It turned into a pretty great day and ended nicely.

The next morning, we got up early and checked out without eating anything. We figured we could find something to eat nearer to Tagaytay, and we had to stop for fuel. I thought it was going to be a great day. The rain had stopped, and all that remained was a bit of a hazed mist in the air. The visibility was still good, and the roads were dry. However, when I started up the bike in the morning, the valves were making more noise than usual, and it got me a bit worried. I figured I would keep an eye (or ear in this case) on them and see how they were sounding after the bike warmed up, and we had put some miles on it. I figured they would be OK, at least until we made it to Manila the next day. I was planning on taking the express way back to Manila so it would not take us long once we returned to Batangas from Nagusbu.

When we stopped for the night, it was dark, so we could not really see anything around the hotel. As it turned out we were in a hotel that was just off the rim of the Taal volcano, so when we went down the road about another 10 kilometers, it started following the rim of the volcano, and there were some beautiful views.

Lake Taal and the Taal Volcano are basically the same thing. Lake Taal is a crater lake inside of the larger Taal Volcano which we were riding down the rim of. However, in the middle of Lake Taal, is another tinier volcano that makes an island, and it also has a smaller crater lake inside of it.

Lake Taal & Taal Volcano on a Misty Day


It is truly majestic and along that highway, there are numerous hotels and restaurants all exploiting the magnificent view. By the time we were on the outskirts of Tagatay, we decided to stop and get that breakfast we were waiting for. We found a nice restaurant just off the road with half of the restaurant hanging over the rim of the volcano with wide-open views down to the lake and the smaller Taal volcano.

Before we stopped I was continuing to listen to the valves as we were riding along and the sound coming from them had increased dramatically since we left the hotel. Things were not sounding good, but I figured we could get something to eat and then ride more towards the main business district of Tagatay and find a gas station where I could fill up with gas and take a closer look.

We had a great breakfast while taking in the view . After we finished eating, we climbed back on the bike and headed towards the business district of Tagatay. I soon realized the problem emanating from the valves was a lot more serious than I first thought. About two minutes after we left the restaurant the sound started to become more of a grinding sound than a simple knock or ping, and I could feel the engine misfiring now and again. I immediately pulled into the first gas station I could find as I realized that riding the bike any further could cause serious damage, and this was not something I was going to be able to fix on the side of the road. Unfortunately, this was the end of what was turning into a very nice ride, and we were never going to make it to Nagusbu.

I called the KTM dealer and explained what was happening. They graciously sent a truck down from Manila to pick us and the Black Duke up. It took a while for them to come pick us up, but fortunately, we broke down in a great spot. We spent the time looking in the different shops along the rim road, and sitting on a restaurant deck having a few beers while taking in the view.

As I suspected, the problem was a serious one. A valve bearing was fried, and since it was an older bike, they would have to order the part from KTM, which would take at least two weeks, this is the Philippines after all and nothing happens fast here. As it turned out this was the end of the Back Duke, for us anyway, and was how we ended up taking the Orange Crush on our little adventure around the rest of the Philippines.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The KTM 690 Enduro (Orange Crush)

When the black Duke was in the shop waiting for the new bearing, that I had no idea when it would arrive, I thought it would be a good time to get the luggage rack design fabricated so we would be ready to go once the part came in. The design software on my computer that I used for the rack design also allows me to plot out full-scale drawings, which could be used to make a cardboard mock-up of the rack. I decided it would be a good idea to make a mock-up of the rack design out of foam board, to make sure it would fit before I got it made of Aluminum. Once I had the foam board mock up finished I took it over to the KTM dealer to try it on the bike.

When I was at the dealer testing my mocked up part, I started chatting with one of the sales associates about how disappointed I was due to not being able to ride and how much I really wanted to get on the road. Well, as any worthwhile sales associated would do, he took this opportunity to tell me they had another bike available for a bit more money. It was a newer bike, had dirt bike size rims and tires, and already had some excellent mounting points for a rack. It was a 2008 version of the KTM 640 with a slightly bigger engine. It was also an enduro type bike rather than the super motard type bike the 640 was.

A motard bike is a cross over bike that works well on the street and the dirt but is geared and has suspension and wheels that are designed more for the street. An enduro bike is also a cross over bike but is the reverse of the motard bike since it is geared and has the suspension and wheels designed for the dirt. It is a slight difference, but it can make a big difference depending upon what kind of terrain you will be riding on the most. I did not know exactly what the roads were going to be like in the Philippines where we were intending to go, but based on what roads I had ridden and driven on, I had a pretty good idea. That idea told me there would be many pot holes and broken-up roads, lots of dirt roads, and lots of road constructions, along with a lot of fairly decent concrete or paved roads. Either bike would have worked, but available tires for street bike sized rims that work well in the dirt are minimal, and the dirt bike suspension can handle rough roads better. This made the enduro type bike a more attractive option.

He then introduced me to the Orange KTM 2008 690 Enduro or "Orange Crush" as I have heard the KTM 690s called before. It is a fuel injected bike, and it was definitely more suited for our intended purpose of touring around the Philippines considering the rough roads and many dirt roads I was expecting. I was immediately fond of the bike after taking it for a test ride, but the higher price was making me a bit tentative. I had already paid additional for a bike than I intended so paying even more was making me cringe. He offered to credit the full amount I had paid for the Duke 640. All I had to do was pay the difference. I told him I would have a think about it and let him know.

When I got back home, I went through our finances and figured out I could afford to pay a bit more for a bike, but not his asking price, so I called him and made an offer. He said he would check with his manager, which may or may not have been the case. It was irrelevant as my offer was the price I was prepared to pay, and if he did not accept it, I was happy with the black Duke.

After about four days of not hearing anything on either the part arrival date or the offer, I decided it was time to take things into my own hands. I started looking at ordering the part for the black Duke from the US. I would have to pay express shipping and Philippine duty so it was going to be more expensive, but at least I could get the part quickly and get the black Duke back on the road. I called up the dealer to get the exact information on the bike as I wanted to make sure I ordered the correct part since returning it was not a viable option.

About an hour later after calling to get the information on the bike, and luckily just before I was about to place the order for the part, I got a call back from the dealer telling me they would accept my offer on the 690. This was excellent news. I picked the bike up the next day and said good-bye to the black Duke. It was a short romance between me and the Duke, and it was a good one up until the point it decided to chew up a bearing. It was a fun bike to ride, and I would not be opposed to owning one again. Now it was just me and the 690 which would still need a rack made up, so we could put some luggage on the bike. However, it would be relatively simple to fabricate without any design. Other than that she was ready to go.

As it happened, right about the time I was picking up the 690 a friend of mine was in town and was heading up to Pampanga for a few days, so we decided to ride the bike up there and join him for a day or two. I figured this would be a good shakedown ride on the bike to make sure everything was ok, and if there was not any problem we would ride further north along the west Coast of Luzon through the Zambales Province to Alaminos and 100 Islands National Park.

We packed the same bags we had used for the trip on the Black Duke, and I bought a cheap set of saddle bags to hang over the back fender of the bike. We were not able to leave Manila until the late afternoon which was not ideal, since traffic was going to be a nightmare, but once you get a little north of the city near Balintawak you can get on the North Luzon expressway.

There are only three expressways in the Philippines, and there is a grand total of approximately 286 kilometers or 177 miles of Express way. There is the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) which goes from North Manila to Mabalacat/Angeles City area, The Subic to Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) which runs from Subic Bay to Tarlac City and then there is the Southern Luzon Expressway (SLEX) which goes from South Manila/Makati to Batangas. They are all toll ways, but they can save you vast amounts of time since there are rarely any traffic jams on them, and even if there are, they are still quicker than taking the two-lane highways. You can never make good time on the two-lane highways since they are always crowded with trikes and jeepneys, and you have to go through the center of every little town.

When we left our place in Manila, I thought it might be a good idea to try and not use the EDSA because of the traffic. The EDSA is a four land ring road but not an expressway and during rush hour it gets heavily jammed up with traffic. This was a mistake and I should have known better since, it does not matter what road you take in Manila anytime near rush hour. Traffic in Manila is awful. I mean dreadful, I am sure there are similar places in the world with horrendous traffic, but I don't know how it could get any worse than Manila. Every road in and around Manila slows to a snail's pace if not to a complete stop, and it can take hours to go even small distances.

You have some advantage being on a motorcycle since you can split lanes or pass on the side of cars, basically any available piece of roadway and or even the sidewalk at times can be used to try to get around traffic. However, in spite of being able to go between vehicles or use the sidewalks you will still inevitably be held up in traffic. Buses, cars, trucks, trikes, jeepneys and motorcycles will all be crammed into the lanes and any available space in-between, with everyone jockeying for position. What should have taken us 45 minutes, ended up taking us over two hours. When we finally made it close to the freeway entrance it was dark, and as we were about to get on the freeway an issue with the bike began to appear.

The issue with the bike started showing up when I would chop the throttle. The bike would stall and have to be restarted. It was rather annoying, especially when it happened at a stop light, in the middle of traffic or some other inconvenient location. I could ride around the problem once I began to notice when it was happening by blipping or giving a bit of throttle when I pulled in the clutch to stop. This would usually eliminate the stalling problem, but not always. When we were moving along it was not a problem and the only time it was really annoying was in the stop and go traffic, so once we got on the expressway and out of Manila, it became less of an issue.

When we finally got to Pampanga, we met up with my friend, got something to eat, had a few beers, and then went to our cheap hotel to check-in and unloaded the bike. When we took off the saddle bags, I noticed they were not doing so well. The design of the motorcycle and the bags put the bags to close to the exhaust, and it was starting to melt the bags. I had put some heat resistant tape on the bags before we left Manila since I had already noticed they were a little close to the exhaust for my liking, but it obviously had not worked. I needed to pull my plan forward of getting a rack made up and purchasing a good plastic luggage box before we could go anywhere.

Fortunately, I was able to find a decent luggage box or Givi box as the brand is called and found a little fabrication shop to build me a rack to mount it with. It took about eight hours to get the rack finished and it turn out to be a good strong rack that only cost me 500 pesos. I was more than happy with it.

The shop itself was a rather interesting affair. It was nothing more than a shack on the side of the road, with dirt floors and what looked to be at least 50-year-old metal fabrication tools. He had a little press break, a drill press, a cutting torch, an arc welder, a small lathe, a rotary grinder and a nice big bench vice along with various other hand tools. It wasn't much but it was more than adequate, and I was rather impressed by how quickly he could fabricate up a rack. There are a lot of these type of shops throughout the Philippines, which is convenient to know if you ever need any metal fabrication work done. They are also very good at making the side cars for trikes and for adding bling to jeepneys among other things.

With our luggage, problem solved and the bike running well despite the stalling issue. We decided to continue our ride and head over towards Subic Bay and up the coast through the Zambales province towards the 100 Island National Park. (To be continued)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Open Road - Clark to Subic Bay


I don't consider myself an unsafe rider.  I try to apply common sense and prudent practices when riding.  Which in the Philippines, means you need to slow down when you are going through populated areas, especially when you are in any sort of school area, be cautious when you are passing a trike or jeepney since you never know when they are going to pull off to the side of the road or make a quick left-hand turn, and at no time feel you have the right of way.  Yield is the name to the game.  People will pull out in front of you without looking or even when they are staring right at you.  If your blood pressure rises every time someone cuts you off or does something stupid on the road, then riding or driving in the Philippines is not for you.  Riding in the Philippines can be and is a gratifying experience most of the time, and I have ridden on some of the most enjoyable roads I have ever ridden here.  Once you get used to it, your enjoyment level goes up, but you have to have the right attitude.  

I find most drivers and riders in the Philippine are courteous, and they are fairly consistent in what they do, which to me means you can be safe.  Motorcycles and trikes will pull out in front of you, but they will pull into the road using the side along the road until they get up to speed not unlike a ramp to an express way.  Trike drivers will usually use hand signals by using their left hand and looking behind them if they are going to make a left turn.  Buses will honk their horn every time they pass and so on.  So once you understand the signals you just go with the flow.    
   
There are some peculiarities but again once you get used to them; they are not an issue.  One of the more peculiar things to me anyway is the unusual way of slowing traffic in front of schools, churches or at check points.  The way they slow traffic is by barricading one lane on either side across the road about a 100 meters apart.  This has the effect of slowing traffic since you have to zigzag from one lane to the other until you have passed the opposite barrier.  It is truthfully no different than adding a chicane on a race track.  Nevertheless, a chicane really has the effect of increasing the number of minor or low speed accidents while reducing the number of major or deadly high speed accidents.  The big difference here is that there is also apposing traffic, and if you happen to be going by when the students are arriving or leaving, you have cars zigzagging with students all over the place.   I am not sure if this is the safest combination, all though most drivers do slow down considerably when going through one of these obstacle courses, and you see them everywhere so they must be working right?

I am not opposed to "opening it up" so to speak, and I enjoy taking a bike at higher speeds now and again.  I have done a little club racing in the US, and that is by far the safest place anyone can ride a motorcycle at high speed,  and I don't believe the speeds achievable on a race track can ever safely be achieved on a public road.  However, I don't see the harm in kicking it up a few notches if the only people you are putting in harm's way are willing participants, the higher speed can be achieved relatively cautiously considering the conditions you are riding in, and you're agreeable to paying the traffic fines or accept the consequences of getting caught by Johnny law.   
  
We left Pampanga early in the morning and took one of the other three express ways here in the Philippines to Subic Bay.  This is a relatively new express way and for those looking for a four-lane  expressway with almost no traffic or  impediments such as pesky traffic enforcers, people pulling out in front of you, or the errant water buffalo or dog in the road, this is your road.  I had taken this road before on a Motorcycle, when I was here on Holiday.  I rented a 400cc Honda and my then wife to be, and I made the trip on this road in a considerably shortened length of time.  I was amazed at how little traffic was on this road, how nice and smooth the road was and the minimal number of on and off ramps.   It is an express way with fencing to keep out stray animals or people, and it is reasonably straight with good visibility around any corners.  This is definitely a road where you can relax a bit and hit the higher gears on a big bike.     
           
There are, however, certain requirements before you are  allowed on any express way here in the Philippines, but they are not unreasonable and really are there for your safety and the safety of anyone else on the express way.  First, you have to have a 400cc bike or above, which makes sense, since allowing small displacement bikes or trikes would take the word express out of the description.  You also need a helmet.  It can be almost any kind of helmet you choose since there are no helmet specifications that I know of in the Philippines, and you need to be wearing long pants and shoes that cover your ankle.  Flip-Flops or open-toed shoes are not allowed.

If you meet all the above requirements, you can and will be able to have a nice little nearly empty express way ride from Pampanga to Subic Bay, or from Tarlac to Subic bay, for that matter.  The determined velocity for a said trip is entirely up to you and what you feel comfortable with.  The posted speed limit is 100kph so you will need to keep that in mind.   

On this particular journey, we did not make it as quickly as we made it before, but we did blow any cob webs out of the engine that happen to be there.  The 690 was running great other than the stalling issue, but since I had figured out how to ride around it most of the time, and we were no longer in stop and go traffic it was only a minor irritant. 

Subic Bay Freeport Zone & Johnny Law


Subic Bay is mainly known for the American naval base that used to be there prior to 1992.  After the Philippine, Senate decided not to renew the military base agreement with the United States in 1991, shortly after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, Olongapo city annexed the newly acquired base with the intention of turning it into a Freeport zone similar to Hong Kong and Singapore.  The economic Freeport zone has had some limited success.  On the whole I think it has been positive.  Subic Bay is a relatively nice place, and seems to be a bit more organized than many other Philippine cities of the same size.      

The one thing I also discovered about the Freeport zone is that it appears to be the only place where they regularly enforce the traffic laws, for foreigners anyway.  I discovered this while coming up to a stop sign.  As I was rolling to the stop sign and beginning to slow down in preparation for the stop, I noticed various other vehicles ahead of me slowing and coming to what I would refer to as a "California" stop.  Which means you're not really stopped your just slowly rolling as you look for traffic both ways before you hit the gas and continue.   Since my standard philosophy of riding in the Philippines is to go with the flow, I proceeded to the stop sign and performed a California stop the same as everyone else.        

I did notice a man standing near the stop sign with a yellow vest on, but since I was basically doing exactly what everyone in front of me was doing, I figured there would not be any problems, would there?  He would treat me the same as everyone else wouldn't he?  I think you already know the answer to this, but I am going to tell you anyway.  No he did not, as soon as I started to hit the gas, he ran out into the street and started blowing his whistle motioning for me to pull to the side of the road.  I obliged and pulled over, where he proceeded to ask me if I knew why I was being pulled over.  I looked at him and quite honestly replied, no I do not.  He then explained that I had run a stop sign.  I looked at him and said you mean the same one I saw five people roll through before me?  Yes, that is the one sir.  Where are you going sir?  We are going to Zambales.  Do you have a license sir?  I handed him my US license with the motorcycle endorsement.  Is this your motorcycle sir?  I replied and explained we had just purchased the motorcycle from a dealer in Manila, and the name transfer had not taken place yet,  but yes I did own it, and proceeded to show him the bill of sale and current registration.  I am going to have to write you a ticket sir.  Where upon I asked him why he did not pull any of the previous cars over that had done the exact same thing I had.  I did not see them sir.  I looked at my wife and in a sarcastic tone said, I guess I should have been wearing my full-face helmet, so he couldn't tell I was white.  My wife then proceeded to talk to him in Tagalog and convinced him not to write the ticket.  He handed me the paperwork to the bike back and lectured me on the need to pay better attention to traffic signs  while in Subic Bay.      

My wife has a very good way of charming her way out of things.  She is usually too shy to use this hidden weapon, but thankfully, she decided  it would be best to get out of there as soon as possible.   I am sure her being Philippina help the issue, and she never really told me exactly what she said, and maybe I don't want to know, but whatever it was; it worked.  I should point out that this was the first and last traffic policeman I have seen outside of Manila.  We never saw another one.

I have since heard from various Philippinos and foreigners traveling through and living in Subic Bay that it is not uncommon to get pulled over there, and I was not necessary being singled out.  Apparently, both Philippinos and foreigners get tickets regularly in Subic Bay.  I heard this from what I would consider to be reliable Philippinos and foreigners.  My advice if you happen to be traveling through Subic bay is to follow the traffic laws even if no one else appears to be.