fireflies invade the city

below is my article on the 10th tour of the fireflies, which came out today. i wrote this article in record time. under two hours i think, during an extended lunch break. it shows a lot of my biases, really. i've been very interested, lately, about reducing the size of my carbon footprint, and i bike, essentially to contribute to a more liveable city. photos of the tour are available in an earlier entry.

The 10th Tour of the Fireflies
Text and photos by Alman Dave O. Quiboquibo

My friend Ferdinand “Popsie” Suplido traded his bike helmet for the dried stem of the banana plant, which were kept together by a series of wires around his head, resembling a cap. In the middle of his bike’s handlebars was a whole bunch of bananas, which after over four hours under the sun, had grown dark spots and had dehydrated. Still, at the end of the ride, he and his fellow bikers wolfed down the fruits as though nothing else could be eaten. To complete his attire, Popsie parked his jersey and cycling shorts. Instead, he wore a sash also from the plant with the words “Super Saging” pasted on it, and wrapped dried banana leaves around his thin waist.

This certainly was not the usual attire most bikers would wear. But Popsie was part of an unusual event. Along with an estimated 6,000 bikers, Popsie participated in the 10th edition of the Tour of the Fireflies, a yearly event which gathers together bike-enthusiasts from all over the country to celebrate Earth Day and promote cycling as an alternative and sustainable means of transportation. This year’s tour began at the Tiendesitas in Pasig City, then cycled around seven cities in Metro Manila at a relaxed pace of about 12 to 15 kilometers per hour. Children as young as 5, and more senior cyclists over the age of 80 managed to keep pace with the bunch, which included the whole gamut, from professional racers and adventure riders to weekend warriors and recreational bikers.

Biking in the country has evolved on many levels, and local bike shops are doing very serious business. Many activities are organized weekly, and there are already large biking groups that do weekend rides. Only recently, the island province of Guimaras played host to the 3rd International Mountain Biking Festival. Two weeks ago, Subic was the venue for the 2nd Terry Larrazabal Bike Festival. But the Tour of the Fireflies is not only the biggest annual biking event, it is also the mardi gras of biking. Other than Popsie, about 20 other costumed bikers participated in the event. Some bikers dressed as colorful fairies with wings, while others used natural and indigenous materials to spruce their bikes, and even themselves. One biker very creatively fashioned a robotic insect costume from recycled and painted plastic bottles, while another one wrapped himself in tissue paper to resemble an Egyptian mummy. When they had reached Quirino Grandstand for a mandatory 10-minute rest, the heat had caused him to sweat so much, his costume started to tear!

And it is no joke to bike around in a costume, particularly when the route takes you around major thoroughfares in Metro Manila. From Tiendesitas, the mammoth peloton of over 12,000 wheels of various kinds – mountain bikes, road bikes, BMX bikes, tandem bikes, single-speed utility bikes with cute little baskets in front, and even lesser known recumbent bikes and lowriders – stopped vehicular traffic for at least 20 minutes in Julia Vargas Ave., Pioneer St., Makati Ave., Gil Puyat Ave., Roxas Blvd., España Blvd., Quezon Ave., Timog Ave., East Ave., Circumferential Road, Kalayaan Ave., Kamias Road, Anonas St., Aurora Blvd., and C-5. The entire tour was just a bit shy of 50 kilometers, and for many of the participants, this was the longest they had ever cycled.

When I told a foreign colleague that I would be busy the whole of Sunday morning running around Metro Manila to photograph the tour, he immediately asked: but there aren’t any fireflies here. And this is precisely the crux of the Firefly Brigade’s advocacy. Fireflies are nocturnal, bioluminescent beetles that produce a cold light to attract mates (and, while not intentionally, prey). But more than just being pretty-looking insects, and along with many other creatures, fireflies are actually winged environmental indicators: their presence (or absence) is a measure of how clean (or dirty) the air we breathe is. Fireflies have fled the metropolis because of its dirty air. The firefly has thus become a metaphor in the campaign for clean air.

Home to more than 11 million urban dwellers, Metro Manila is the most densely-populated region in the Philippines, with the highest concentration of cars and industries that contribute to carbon emissions that, by any standard, are off-the-charts. The Firefly Brigade warns that if nothing is done about air pollution, we may soon follow the fate of the fireflies, and disappear ourselves.

So the advocacy for an alternative means of transportation is very clear: having one less car on the road is already a step forward to having cleaner air, and perhaps, a more liveable metropolis. When Popsie’s Super Saging attire was declared the winner of the costume contest, he recalled his experience in an adventure race in Europe. He noticed that in many of these advanced countries, bikers had their own lanes, where they didn’t have to compete against other vehicles. Whereas in Metro Manila, many drivers see bikers as competition for road space, and worse, even as a moving nuisance. Even during the Tour, participants had to dodge other cars invading the peloton, and were often honked at by angry motorists for holding traffic.

It is a pity that there are currently no special lanes dedicated to bikers. Also, there are few areas where riders can park their bikes. I currently live in Makati City, and whenever possible, I use my bike as often as I can. And not just on weekend trails in Bataan or Sta. Rosa, but to attend my language classes and even to run errands, like rushing to the grocery, meeting up with friends for hot chocolate or tea, and sometimes (but not often) even for a late-evening round of beers.

In the last 10 years, the tour’s participants have increased to astounding numbers. It means that there is a huge base of bikers in and around Metro Manila. But whether or not the participants completely understood the idea behind the tour is something else. When the tour ended, bikes were loaded onto racks fixed on top of sedans and attached behind SUVs, and their owners drove off to their homes, forgetting the reason behind the tour. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt – perhaps after biking close to 50 kilometers, they must be very tired; or maybe they live really far away. Popsie and his wife – who also a biker – with their prizes and their costumes tucked inside their bags, chose to pursue and prove the Tour’s advocacy: that it is possible to bike through Metro Manila’s roads even without police escorts or a support crew.
Alman! You're back!

Anyway, meeting you was really great even though it was only a couple minutes. I was actually extremely nervous to approach you. But I can't help to think that if I would pass up the chance, I would regret it in my lifetime. So I did. You know I'm such a huge fan of yours and it was very cool to finally meet you in person.

BTW, thank you for coming to Daet and also for being so nice to everyone, including me. I most admire your writing skills and of course the way you balance your work and life outside the workplace. I hope I can do the same. More adventures to come! God bless!

Adelle, OP
Re: Hello
hi adelle. meeting you was really awkward, in a good way. when you stopped me on my tracks at the beach, i immediately thought "where-have-i-met-her-and-why-can't-i-remember-her-name?" scenes like that don't normally happen to someone like me, although i have to say that i was mighty flattered by your kind words. when i began this blog, i had no fantasies of being read by strangers. i just wanted to provide myself and my friends a record of the things i do with them. i'm glad that people who are not privy to the realm of my experience find my tales worthy of reading. i now think that i have a responsibility beyond me and myself, but a larger, broader audience who are silently watching my life unfold with all its sordid details. do keep reading and tell more of your friends about my blog, haha! i have been to daet before, actually, i wonder if you've read that entry. again, it was nice meeting you. i'll post our picture here soon. :D