In many societies, riding a bicycle is a skill almost synonymous with knowing how to read and write. And in this day and age, with the rise of the analog-collecting subset of the hipster movement and the countless Hollywood remakes and reboots, the biking culture gets its much-deserved reawakening as well. Here in the busy streets of Manila, however, a resourceful group takes things to another level, one where traveling on two wheels becomes one recreational activity that is not only green, but also humane, educational, and pro-local.
Social entrepreneur Bryan Benitez McClelland partnered with the much-regarded Gawad Kalinga (GK) community development organization in 2003 to establish ‘Bambike,’ or bamboo bikes, a socio-ecological product and business created mainly to provide sustainable livelihood to rehabilitated GK communities. The foundation hired community members to become Bambike builders in hopes of ending their lifelong poverty by hand-manufacturing bikes made of natural bamboo and abaca materials for a living. But it wasn’t until last year that Bambikes gained more traction when they became a new way of touring the capital’s historic Intramuros. The launch of Bambike Ecotours Intramuros is a fresh alternative to walking and riding horse-drawn kalesas around the Walled City. The Bambike tour undoubtedly gives the riders a unique experience as they take in what has remained of the 64-hectare landmark since the Spaniards, Americans, and the Japanese took over during their respective colonial eras.
“Other options [to see Intramuros] are riding pedicabs or kalesas, or walking, and we find that by biking, you get a different perspective than any of those, because you’re more in tune with your surroundings, you’re in control, and you’re not covered, so you get to interact with the architecture and the environment a lot better,” McClelland explains.
When 30-year-old McClelland decided to discover his “Filipino-ness” seven years ago, he returned to his Filipino mother’s homeland and really took his time in exploring his roots from that side of the family. The Filipino-American, who grew up in Connecticut, used to visit the Philippines only for the summer and holidays, but with his sudden interest in the Filipino way of life, he later found himself moved by its humble but vivid culture.
Thus, the birth of the Bambike that saw McCelland use his background on environmental science and management to help some of the country’s poorest people, who virtually had nothing but their innate inventiveness and desire for a better life to bank on. “[I realized we could] utilize the raw materials that are growing here in the Philippines, take advantage of the Filipinos’ skilled craftmanship, and then design and learn the manufacturing processes to be able to run it,” the University of Pennsylvania graduate adds.
The Bambike Ecotours is another movement that has stemmed from the idea, now bringing in the tourism and marketing aspects of the business. “Developing Bambike Ecotours is currently our priority,” reveals McClelland. “We’re now looking at places such as Marinduque, Boracay, Iloilo, Ilocos, Negros, as well as Tagaytay—down to Taal Lake, maybe. We’re not going to do this all at once, maybe just slowly. I’m trying to identify partners in each of the areas and develop the model that can replicate what we are doing here throughout the Philippines.”
The Ecotour, which visits ten famous sights within the walls of Intramuros, including Plaza San Luis Complex, the San Agustin Church, Plaza de Roma, Puerta Real Gardens, Cuartel de Santa Lucia, Maestranza, and Fort Santiago – with a detailed history of Jose Rizal’s stay, lasts 2.5 hours and burns around 200 calories. “It’s not a very grueling trip, but it’s a nice, casual way to justify the lunch that you splurged on,” McClelland quips.
“As a kid, I was very exposed to family trips, summer camping, going out, doing expeditions, and appreciating nature,” the self-confessed outdoorsman admits. “Riding bikes as a kid was a fun pastime and a great way to get around. That has never really fallen out of my life.”
“I’ve been riding a bike ever since I can remember; I do it for practical purposes, as well as for pleasure. It’s a fantastic mode of transportation. You don’t need to put gas in, you don’t need to pay for a gym membership, and it’s the greenest way to get around,” McClelland shares.
At the moment, not only does the Bambike Ecotours office in Intramuros offer the complete guided tour twice a day every week (except Mondays) at P1,200 per person, you may also choose to rent a Bambike for yourself at P300 per hour. However, quite a number of people have already bought their very own Bambikes—some ready-made bikes are available at the headquarters, but you may choose to have one tailor-fitted according to your liking. At present, the Bambike Team has sold around 200 units to both local and foreign buyers.
The next time you find yourself in the area, why not refresh your memory of Intramuros by trying out the Bambike Ecotour? Combining the thrill of cycling, care for the environment, and nationalistic awareness, it’s one ride that has proven to take anyone’s body, mind, and soul back to the past, so that others may see a better future ahead of them.
This article was first published on Explore Philippines Issue 5