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By Mariejo S. Ramos @MariejoRamosINQ

For a group of cycling enthusiasts used to traversing busy urban streets, the 3-kilometer ascent to the hilly Sitio Target in Angeles, Pampanga province, has always been a grueling—but fun—fitness challenge. 

Until they saw how the same ordeal had been a longtime, everyday reality for a local Aeta community, where the children must make the arduous climb on foot to return home after a day in school.

There is actually a school near their settlement up in the mountain, but it holds classes only up to Grade 8. So the older Aeta kids would have to walk about 5 kilometers daily to attend classes in the upper grades at another school in a lowland village.

When some of them need to help their parents earn a living, selling flowers or root crops, they also have to go on foot—and with a heavier load.

One such student is Dyna, 13, who comes from a community of about 200 Aeta families at Barangay Sapang Bato.

Lester Babiera, the creator of the advocacy page First Bike Ride, met Dyna while biking with some friends in Angeles last month.

“As we were taking a rest after coming from the mountain, we met Dyna and her friend Nerissa. Dyna told us that there was a stream nearby, and she was really curious about our bicycles,” Babiera said in an interview. 

“Then I asked her: Do you know how to bike? Do you want to try it? She said yes, and we shared her story on our page.”

Chance encounter

Babiera took the chance encounter as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young Aetas.

“If bikes help us here in the city to move with relative ease, why not them [in the remote areas]? They have to walk for great distances carrying their vegetables and flowers to sell in the busier areas of Angeles. But if they have bicycles, it’s going to be easier for them,” he said.

Within 24 hours after starting a donation drive online, Babiera was able to secure nine bicycles for Dyna and her friends, courtesy of netizens who read about the teenager on the First Bike Ride page.

Babiera and his group eventually managed to solicit a total of 20 bikes for the beneficiaries.

According to Babiera, there are about 500 young Aetas in Sitio Target, where residents generally don’t think twice about sharing what little they have.

Most of the children who own bikes in Sitio Target are not members of the indigenous group, but they are willing to share their bikes with their Aeta playmates. 

Dyna herself learned how to ride a bike by borrowing from other kids in her neighborhood.

‘A miracle’

On Feb. 7, Babiera and his group, along with other donors, delivered the bikes to their young recipients in Sitio Tar-get. The gifts came complete with helmets, bike locks, slippers, food items and a manual on safe biking. Dyna was so happy about the donation, calling it “a miracle” for youths like her who have long dreamed of having their own bikes, he said.

Babiera launched his advocacy in mid-2020, months into the lockdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, when restrictions on public transportation forced many wage earners to buy bicycles.

“I just thought of creating a social media page that would encourage more people to ride a bike, because most people then, including myself, thought it’s dangerous and intimidating,” he recalled.

Clamor for bike lanes

First Bike Ride was part of a broad coalition of cycling advocates who recently called out the government over the delayed setup of a protected bike lane network in Metro Manila, a project supposedly funded under the Bayanihan 2 law that was enacted last year.

Babiera said he never really thought of turning his hobby into an advocacy, but he realized that it’s a sustainable life-style choice worth promoting. 

And after he met Dyna and the Aetas of Angeles, it has also become an act of compassion worth spreading. INQ

IN PHOTOS taken by Jilson Tiu: The donated bicycles solicited by First Bike come complete with helmets, bike locks, slippers, food items and a manual on safe biking

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