cycling through the corridors of history: war, peace, and corregidor

truth be told, i did not expect to have such an overwhelming response when i set out to organize a bike tour of corregidor island. it was a rather selfish idea actually: i just needed a few other people to accompany me as i explore the island on two wheels. i have been on this historical chunk of rock twice, and although i had an opportunity to bike its well-paved streets during the first corregidor aquathlon, i did not really get a sense of place, even as i passed ruin after ruin. but when i put the invitation out there, i quickly filled all the available slots, and i was managing a big group of bikers and non-cyclists eager to pedal and walk their way around corregidor.

corregidor island is located on the mouth of manila bay. although closer in terms of proximity to mariveles in bataan and naic, cavite, it is actually part of cavite city, which along with manila, is nearly 50 kilometers east of it. access is available from mariveles where you may hire outrigger boats, or from the cultural center of the philippines complex. sun cruises has a monopoly on the ferry services from manila to corregidor, which is a little unfortunate because the sales associates i dealt with were not the most helpful in terms of arranging the trip. they often flipped on previous statements to the extent they denied having ever said them, and were not always very responsive. since we planned to camp on the island, i asked if it was possible to bring stoves, and she said no, saying that we should just cook the traditional way with "stones and tweaks".

but my complaints about the reservation staff are a minor setback, and on a beautiful saturday morning, i woke up with a start and realized i was going to run late to my own assembly time, so i dashed out of the house with my huge backpack on. someone biked alongside me in buendia and remarked about the size of my bag. although there were many cyclists en route to CCP, i was conspicuously the only one burdened by that much weight. it was a good thing that the stretch of road from malugay to the suncruises ferry terminal was completely flat. we loaded our bikes onto the ferry and i concluded immediately that the limit i was given -- which was 25 bikes -- was nothing but a very random number. the front deck of the ferry clearly could have accommodated more.

our departure from manila bay was slightly delayed by employees of manulife -- including one lawyer friend -- who spent an afternoon touring corregidor as part of their summer outing. nevertheless, the trip took no more than an hour and a half as promised, and pretty soon, the ferry's staff were unloading our bikes onto the pier. our guide harry was already there on his motorbike, waiting to take us around. after our things were deposited at the south dock, we asked for a few minutes to prepare. and pretty soon, we were off to see the island. the route is pretty much established. from the south dock we pedaled towards the malinta tunnel, and made several stops until we reached the island's tail end, where a grass runway is located. in between we also stopped by the japanese garden of peace, the filipino heroes memorial, and the kindley airfield, where a new landmark to commemorate the jabidah massacre has also been erected. the guide volunteered that this event is said to have been the catalyst of the moro insurgency, although my own knowledge of politics in mindanao would trace the struggle for self-determination to have started much earlier, just after the spanish-american war. henry then pointed to an island just off the tip of corregidor, which they referred to as hooker point, supposedly because this is where women of pleasure were brought during the time of the american occupation.

the story of corregidor can be traced to the arrival of the spaniards. corregidor's unique location at the mouth of manila bay made for a perfect garrison and gatekeeper: it was both a military checkpoint and a place for customs inspections. it became a rather vibrant and teeming community during the time of the americans, who built dormitories to house soldiers and workers. at its peak, corregidor had its own tram system, a cinema, chapels, schools, a golf course, excellent housing, hospitals, a lighthouse, an airport. on top of that, it was fortified with a formidable coastal artillery, the most powerful of which could have damaged planes and destroyed the largest ships at the time, even if they were 16 miles away. the americans divided the island into 4 sections, and filipinos, with the exception of very few officials, were not allowed topside. when i asked this of our guide, he said that discrimination was really intense during that time, and was probably the reason why the buildings built for filipinos by filipinos and japanese seem to appear in better condition following the carpet bombing during the second world war. the construction methods employed at the time were impressive: even the walls of these buildings were made with pure cement rather than hollow blocks, and supported by imported bethlehem steel, which ironically does not come from israel, but the US.

the fall of bataan, now remembered as the day of valor, in fact took place earlier than the capture of corregidor -- it was the last to survive the japanese campaign in the archipelago, and even the last outpost in the pacific to hold off the enemy during the protracted pacific war. it held out a while longer until a period of intense warfare over the course of two days exactly 72 years ago this month, when the japanese imperial army rained fire and brimstone on the island to impale manila's ability to defend itself from naval attacks. the japanese threw everything at corregidor island. the failure to capture it was becoming an embarrassment, and it prevented the japanese navy from attacking through manila bay. they bombed even hospitals, and poured acid that ate through the steel of the island's harbor defenses. corregidor, or fort mills to the americans, is not the only island on the narrow entrance of manila bay: there are others there equally armed, even to this day. the japanese succeeded following a battle that lasted 2 days, and american and filipino troops were herded to mariveles where they began the infamous bataan death march to san fernando. but the japanese are not solely to blame for the damage endured by corregidor during world war II. when the americans sought to reclaim the strategic island, they bombed it for over the course of several weeks, employing tactics which would now offend rules of war, but the retreating japanese forces survived briefly by taking shelter in the malinta tunnel -- the last spot on the rock to have evaded the americans. the amount of explosives poured over corregidor was such that history books describe the explosions over malinta hill as similar to that of a volcano. only after a few days would silence reign inside the tunnel, with the americans succeeding in its recapture of corregidor following that siege.

the aftermath of the two battles waged on corregidor was devastating: not a single living thing was left breathing, left standing. it became a barren, scorched rock. years later, in an effort to green the island, president quirino poured seedlings from a plane, and a decade later, there rose a forest. the marcoses are credited to have introduced wildlife once again, and it was during the time of cory aquino that the residents were sent away, and roads were built to accommodate tourism. corregidor suffered still after the wars when filipinos, hungry and enterprising, sneaked into the island armed with acetylene torches to steal the cannons that survived the two battles that took place here. today, corregidor is a pleasant island that welcomes tourists, whether they are inclined to explore it on bicycles, the trams, or on a pair of sturdy legs.

there is no longer a local community here, but there are "permanent" residents: people who work at the hotel, offering a variety of services to visitors. there are also sari-sari stores and souvenir shops anywhere between the docks and the museums and lighthouses top side. monkeys (long tailed philippine macaques) now number in the thousands, and they are known to come down from their perches late in the afternoon, picking out ticks from other monkeys on the asphalt road. the ruins are all that remain of corregidor. and of course, there are the blood-stained stones. after the bike ride that took us to the last remaining batteries, where decades have not erased the vestiges of war -- there are still craters there that mark where bombs fell -- i biked back to our campsite. we still had dinner to take care of. when night fell, there was a crazy idea to march towards malinta tunnel. armed with torchlights, it appeared different: halls were bored on the sides of the tunnel. they were very deep, and one even functioned as an infirmary during the war. hundreds of people died in malinta, and it is said to be the most haunted place in corregidor. i saw nothing there, although my armpits were wet with sweat when we went inside.

we continued our evening walk by proceeding to the pier to drink. we weren't nearly done yet, so we continued at the campsite. many of us passed out that night that 5 tents were left empty. the following day, few of us rose early enough to either go for another ride or the trail run i was imagining in my sober head. but i didn't mind too much. i had achieved my purpose, which was to see corregidor on two wheels. i wouldn't mind going back, this time weighed down by less alcohol, and armed with more power in my legs.