MANILA, Philippines – Pedicab driver Rommel Balbona has had no income since Caloocan City was placed under quarantine in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although the 25-year-old Balbona struggles to walk due to an orthopedic disability, he had been working as a pedicab driver in Caloocan City for 3 years. It was his family's main source of income.
Due to restrictions preventing pedicabs from operating during the quarantine period, Balbona and his partner Gina Cabalse relied on government assistance to get by. They had rice and canned goods, but going for months without income was becoming increasingly difficult.
Without assurances of finding a new job, Balbona decided to take the risk and leave Metro Manila to search for a job in his hometown, Sorsogon City.
Unable to afford transportation, Balbona opted to use his own pedicab to bring him and his partner to Sorsogon City instead.
"Kaya po ko nagbalak umuwi ng Sorsogon, gawa po na hindi na po kasi kumikita nang maayos sa pagpe-pedicab sa Caloocan. Kaya nag-isip na lang po na kung may makakatulong po sa amin do'n na mabigyan po nila ako ng kabuhayan, hindi na po ako babalik ng Manila," he explained.
(I planned to go home to Sorsogon because I no longer earned much from driving my pedicab in Caloocan. I thought if somebody could give me livelihood back home, I would no longer go back to Manila.)
The long journey
On June 29, bringing everything they had in Caloocan City, Balbona and Cabalse started their 550-kilometer journey to Sorsogon City in their pedicab.
They had been on the road for 3 days when a member of the Bicycle Scouts Project, an initiative established by cyclists in the Philippines dedicated to helping those in need, spotted them in Alabang.
Upon seeing the handwritten signs on Balbona's pedicab, Bicycle Scouts member Gabriel Nolasco asked them to stop by the side of the road so he could give them food.
Balbona had written his destination on the front and rear of his pedicab to avoid getting flagged down by potential passengers.
Hoping to draw support for the couple, Nolasco took a photo of them and posted it on Facebook. It instantly went viral.
"Habang binabaybay namin ang Alabang, isang mabuting rider ang nagmagandang-loob na harangin kami at bigyan kami ng makakain at piktyuran habang nagpapadyak," Balbona said.
(While we were passing through Alabang, a concerned rider stopped and gave us some food, and took a picture of us as I continued to pedal.)
The post reached Karen Mercado, one of the team leaders of the Bicycle Scouts in Sorsogon.
Hoping someone in the area could help the family, Mercado shared Balbona's photos to the organization's Facebook group.
This quickly inspired members of the Bicycle Scouts Project to find the couple so they could safely reach Sorsogon.
As Balbona passed through Calamba City in Laguna, a fellow Bicycle Scouts member took the opportunity to give him P1,000 and get his contact details so the network could easily reach out to him.
Soon enough, a group of Bicycle Scouts offered to tow the pedicab using their motorcycle from Calamba City to San Pablo City, where another batch of volunteers waited with a small delivery vehicle.
Bicycle Scouts founder Myles Delfin shared how the organization worked together to trace Balbona's location and assist the couple on their trip.
"This time around, what the community did was to spread the word and take local action wherever it was needed. The work of supporting them was passed on to different teams and members that were local to the places that Rommel and his family passed through," he said.
In a span of 3 days, Balbona and Cabalse finally arrived in Sorsogon City at dawn of July 2, thanks to the help of the Bicycle Scouts Project. (READ: An extra push: Help pours in for man who bikes more than 12km for wife's treatment)
"Nagpapasalamat po ako sa mga rider na tumulong at naghatid sa akin," Balbona said. (I'm thankful for the riders who helped bring me home.)
Balbona and Cabalse are now in Sorsogon City's quarantine facility at Mercedes B. Peralta Senior High School for a 15-day quarantine.
Once that's done, Balbona is hopeful that he would find a new source of income. If given the chance to take on a better job, Balbona said he will not be coming back to Caloocan City.
"Sa mga may gusto po sana na tulungan po ako sa panghanapbuhay, pangarap ko po sana ang makabitan ng motor ang pedicab ko," he said. (To those who would want to help me earn a living, my dream is to attach a motorcycle to my pedicab.)
Those who wish to help Balbona may reach him through his mobile number, 09515452482. – Rappler.com
Martin Louise Tungol is a BS Development Communication student at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. He also works as a freelance writer and photographer, covering festivities and other local events.