row2k Features
Rowing Travelogue: John Tracey Reports from the Philippines
July 21, 2023
John Tracey

I'm very fortunate to have rowed in many venues across the United States, as well as a few in Europe. After my "Epic Rowing Road Trip" in 2012, the blogs from which row2k so graciously published, I said to myself, "Where can I go from here?" My answer was, "Well, Self, clearly you need to embark on an Even More Epic Global Rowing Road Trip."

As such, I was pretty excited as I contemplated my first row in a far, faraway country-the Philippines (which, from Boston, is close to 180 degrees on the opposite side of the planet, making this my first rowing experience in the eastern hemisphere and Southeast Asia).

I had made all the necessary arrangements-finding the Philippine Rowing Association Facebook page, contacting them about a month prior and sending several messages back & forth. As the days approached, I grew more excited. They sent me the WhatsApp contact information for their head coach, Nicanor (Nic) Jasmin.

I contacted him the day before I was to come to the boathouse (June 11th), and he said he'd meet me at the boathouse at 6:00 AM. Finally, my wish would come true...I was going to row in the Philippines. In Manila.

A few words about the driving and the Crocodiles

One of the best ways to truly understand how different life is in the Philippines versus the U.S. is to drive a car there. I rented a car in Manila with Avis, which is my go-to rental company. I have rented cars in Italy, Mexico and Hungary, and I live in Boston, which is a pretty insane and intense place to drive. I love driving in strange new places, and I love the freedom of having my own car. I figured, why should Manila be any different?

It's a lot different-especially from the developed world. Not unlike Mexico, where I stayed for two weeks in March 2022 and did not, unfortunately, get a chance to row. In that situation, the Avis rental agent was a little sketchy and the roads and traffic were pretty bad. But Manila was a whole new level of crazy, and the roads and traffic brought forth a whole new level of chaos. On the larger thruways, there are bus lanes (on the left); U-turns that abruptly bring an end to the left-hand lane (sometimes the two left-hand lanes); right lanes reserved for motorcycles, tricycles (motorcycles with a 3rd wheel and seats for transportation), and "Jeepneys"-former WWII Jeeps converted extensively into Mad Max-type public transporation buses.

There are also random lane divisions that make no sense (the division usually merges back into one, but not always, and there's no way to tell if that will or will not be the outcome) and "Crocodiles"-ubiquitous traffic authorities who are not police. They work for the government, officially to try and bring some order to the chaos of Manila's endless traffic.

But let's face it, their real purpose is to bring in extra revenue for the city-and, I'm quite sure-their personal bank accounts. The rental guy warned me, "Watch out for the Crocodiles," and I said "Yeah yeah, no problem." Famous last words. But you see, in Manila they plaster enormous "TOURIST" stickers all over the front and back windshields of all rental cars. Lots of them. You stand out like a sore thumb. They might as well just put a giant sign on the car that says "SUCKER."

I got suckered. As I drove along with Evelyn Romero, my sweetheart and the reason for my trip, we came to one of the zillions of lane divisions, and as I was trying to figure out whether to go left or right, a uniformed guy waved me down. So of course I stopped. I had no idea what the trumped-up charge was, but he said that because of my enormous mistake, I would be required to take a 3-day class on how to drive in Manila.

We protested like crazy, which I'm sure was exactly what he wanted. Three thousand extorted pesos later (about $55 U.S.), along with a lot of Tagalog chatter (Tagalog is the primary language in the northern part of the country and is pronounced "ta-GA-log") between Evelyn and the Croc, and we were on our way. I think I even handed over my last few U.S. $20s, just to make sure we could escape (he was more than happy to take them).

So the whole thing ran me about $90. I was not amused, but now I had truly learned about the Crocodiles. I rationalized that it was an education, and that education is typically not free. I also realized that these guys are 1) not armed; and 2) standing as pedestrians on very busy roads. As a result, I figured that 3) it would probably be pretty easy to just look ahead, pretend I don't see them, and keep going, acting like an ignorant tourist (not a hard act to pull off). So that, my friends, was my first and only run-in with a Crocodile.

Rowing at La Mesa Dam-"It's the rainy season"

It was overcast and raining as Evelyn and I drove to La Mesa Dam, the reservoir for Manila's drinking water and a beautiful venue for rowing. Surrounded by lush Philippine vegetation, it's quite large-more than 3k from one end to the other. Coach Nic was there, along with an armed government official of some capacity. There are armed guards at every mall and many storefronts in the city, and many have machine guns. But this guy just had a pistol. He was also super nice and helped me with my boat.

I was thrilled to be rowing in a single, which I had confirmed with Nic the day before (he said rowing singles would be preferable). Not only was it a single, but it was the boat used by Cris Nievarez, their national team sculler, who had rowed at the Tokyo Olympics and qualified for the 2024 games in Paris. As such, the boat and oars were both painted with national team colors. I was truly honored. Nic was about my height, in great shape, and as friendly as they come.

As we pushed off from the dock, I made it my mission to just follow him. He began with the pick drill, which was comforting. The pick drill is everywhere my friends-don't think you can avoid it just because you're in a different hemisphere. We rowed to a buoyed 2k course (Nic put it in himself) and began paddling down, chatting the whole way. As we paddled, the skies opened up, and a monsoon-like rain absolutely drenched us. It was very warm and humid-the humidity is on a completely different level, even compared with Boston in July-and the rain actually felt great. It also added a surreal aspect to what was already an incredible experience.

Being in a foreign country that is REALLY different from the United States, I felt out of my element most of the time. I actually kind of thrive on that, which is why I love to travel, but still, my contradictory personality also loves routine. (Most of the time, I stay close to home and putter and do the same thing over & over and am very happy.)

Being back in a single on some flat water brought it all back home...the muscle memory, the feel of the water against the oars, the serenity of moving the boat, the unique peacefulness and meditative feeling of gliding through the water-all that stuff. I could be on Mars and, if they had a boathouse and a single, I'd feel right at home.

As we rowed and got drenched in the super warm rain, it felt like heaven. Nic explained to me, "there are two seasons in the Philippines-summer, and the rainy season. The rainy season is just starting." Apparently. It lasts for several months, roughly our summer-June through August (apparently, the weather actually does cool off a bit during our "winter" months).

On our way back, the rain let up, and when we arrived near the finish line, which is closest to the boathouse, we saw another sculler. Nic had explained that there were supposed to be two visiting scullers, but I was the only one who had contacted him the day before, so he didn't feel bad not waiting for the other guy (also from the U.S.).

In any case, the other guy, whose first name was Justin (Nic's last name) is a coach at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. He had taken a "Grab" car-the Manila version of an Uber-and they got lost. Not hard to do. He managed to get a single and find us on the 2k course. Having already rowed a fair amount with me, and apparently feeling pretty confident in my proficiency, Nic told me I could go ahead and add some pressure-he would hang with the other sculler.

So I was off. The skies cleared a bit-just enough to let in gorgeous rays of sunshine and make the water glisten with that silver post-rain sheen. I took up the rating and pressure but, having not rowed for several weeks, and feeling the heat & humidity, I saw my heart rate shoot up. So I mellowed a bit and decided not to kill it. I figured I would have the rest of the summer to resume attempting to kill it on the Charles.

I pulled up to the dock, where Evelyn was waiting with umbrella and camera in hand. A sweeter, kinder woman I have not met, which is why I flew halfway across the world to meet her (and my instincts, happily, were right on the mark).

After our row, Nic told me more about Cris Nievarez. His is a story that should make all rowers feel proud. Literally, someone whose life was completely changed by the sport. As with many Filipinos, Cris grew up in what we would consider extreme poverty. He was born and raised in the small town of Atimonan in the province of Quezon (we visited Evelyn's hometown of San Andres, which is down the coast, and drove through Atimonan on the way there and back). He began rowing at the age of 15, encouraged by a hometown friend who invited him to try out for a spot on the national team. Only four years later, Cris won the gold medal in the men's lightweight single at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games. Two years after that, in 2021, he qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, where he competed as only the third rower to represent the Philippines in the Olympics in the country's history.

As I said, it was a great privilege to be able to row Cris's boat in my first-ever row in the Philippines. I have enormous gratitude to the Philippine Rowing Association and to Nic, who woke up early on a Sunday morning just to meet me. Nic and I have become friends, and I look forward to spending more time with him when I return. My goal and plan is to go back this coming winter and hopefully meet Cris-I'd love to do an interview for a longer row2k piece on this amazing athlete and young national hero. And while I'm at it, I plan to row in more Asian countries as I continue my global rowing expedition. Stay tuned.

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