Whenever I go hiking in Mindanao and the Visayas, there is the inevitable step of riding a habal-habal. Motorcycles customized to accommodate several passengers at a time, these iron beasts of burden are the lifeline of mountain communities in many parts of the country.
We Filipinos did not invent the motorcycle, but we invented the habal-habal, just as we fashioned the tricycle and the jeepney to suit our needs (and body sizes). On top of extended seats and extra shock absorbers, wooden planks are sometimes added so that even more people can fit, which is why it is also sometimes called “Skylab”—a reference to the space station and its solar panels. The more common appellation, however, is “habal-habal,” which literally refers to the act of animals humping each other—a colorful evocation of the rough and bumpy ride.
“Riding the habal-habal is an art,” my medical school classmate Daryl Dagang once told me. The son of the first T’boli doctor in South Cotabato, and now a doctor himself, he invited me to join an outreach in Sultan Kudarat before we entered medical school.
He was the first to tell me the rules that have concretized in my mind through the years: You have to balance your weight, position your hands properly lest they get numb, and make sure you have secure footing lest the pipes burn your skin. The most difficult challenge is how to fall down gracefully—and safely—whenever the habal-habal skids or loses power. The key is not to panic and to just follow the lead of the driver.
If riding a habal-habal is an art, driving it is nothing less than a skillful performance. Going uphill on those rocky and muddy roads with several passengers (including one in front of you, sitting in the tank) is a task not only for the fuel engine but also to the leg muscles of the driver. This joint force of man and machine—the habal-habal and its driver—is unmatched by any form of public transport I’ve seen. Asimov would have called this force a cyborg.
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I can sense how the habal-habal offers its young drivers a sense of liberty and excitement. Free to go beyond their communities, they make connections in the city and all the villages along their route. And while for them it is work, I can also feel their adrenaline rush when navigating the treacherous sections of a ride. Because there is no real definition of where the road ends and the trail begins, how far you can reach is often left to the driver’s skill. “I’m the only one who can come up this high!” boasted one, after we, thankfully unscathed, completed an arduous ride in Davao Oriental—at over 1,000 meters above sea level.
The challenge of the ride, however, is just part of the exigencies of their everyday lives. A few months ago I read the inspiring story of Leon Abella, a habal-habal driver in Cebu who graduated at the top of his high school class. Orphaned when he was only nine years old and without financial support, he managed to finish his studies by using his earnings as a driver to support himself.
His predicament of having to fend for himself is shared by the drivers I have encountered. Some say habal-habal driving is more lucrative than the limited alternatives, which include small-scale mining, farming and working in construction projects. But even so, they only earn a few hundred pesos a day, which is barely enough to support themselves and their families. Thus, there are those who resort to “sidelines” such as sex work, while others turn to crime—even as they themselves are often victimized by criminals.
Then there is also the very real risk of accidents. I nearly had an ankle fracture when our overloaded habal-habal hit a bridge in Davao Oriental, but it could have been much worse. In 2012, a habal-habal driver and his four passengers were killed when their vehicle collided with a passenger bus in Leyte; many other accidents never make it to the news.
Attempts to regulate the habal-habal have been mounted by lawmakers, but none has made it to law, perhaps because such a process will also call attention to the shortcomings that have made the roads dangerous, in some cases nonexistent, in the first place.
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My favorite time to ride a habal-habal is at dawn, when the sun casts a benign and glorious light over the land. The pineapple fields of South Cotabato, the banana plantations of Davao, the high mountains of Bukidnon: I have seen them all from the passenger’s seat of a habal-habal. There are times when I have to hold on for dear life—and times when I am too distracted by a mote that lodged in an eye (tip: Always wear sunglasses)—but there are also times when exhilaration takes hold, and I say a quick prayer thanking God that I live in a land of promise, a beautiful land.
Perhaps these moments of wonder are the reason why, when I was younger, I found it easy to romanticize the habal-habal as the vehicle that takes me to my mountain adventures.
But I now know that to characterize it as such is to turn a blind eye to the conditions that make it what it is, and the social realities that delimit the possibilities for its drivers and their families. When I tell them, in response to inquiries and unspoken dreams about life in Manila, that they are better off in their homelands, surrounded by forests, blessed by fresh air and fertile soil, they are not convinced.
If only the habal-habal drivers could see the beauty I see when we are looking at the same mountains and valleys. If only life in the hinterlands weren’t as precarious as a habal-habal ride.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.
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