Roadtrek Rookie

- Bill Velasco -

I had been hearing about the Toyota Roadtrek for three years, and always in glowing terms. It piqued my interest to see the grizzled, skeptical, experienced motoring journalists talk in glowing terms with wide grins about their experience.

The first stop for Toyota’s Road Trek 4: Magical Mystery Tour was Toyota Commonwealth, 6 a.m., Wednesday. It would take the intrepid (a word for people who blindly take on challenges they are totally unfamiliar with?) group of us into strange new territory. Twelve teams of three journalists each were given maps and clues to complete along the way, taking them through the busier parts of Metro Manila and a long and winding road (obvious use of a Beatles reference there) through Quezon and Rizal. Well, actually, some of us with sheepish grins probably ended up somewhere else not on the itinerary, but kept it to themselves. Some claimed the driving was the easiest part, as their wits were stretched to the limit in deciphering the riddles that would lead to their next destinations.

The format was simple: the first day would be the test drive itself, in this case, the new star of Toyota, the Altis, and the new edition of the best-selling reliable Vios. The next days would be fun in mysterious locations we would only be apprised of upon our arrival at the airport.

All in all, it was an exciting, tiring day, both physically and mentally, save perhaps for those whose only contribution was sleeping in the cars. They really were that comfortable. The common feedback was that the Altis handled so well, some drivers actually missed landmarks and clues, while the Vios was the picture of maneuverability.

The second day – after feeble attempts to sleep early – we all gathered at the ITI airfield beside the domestic airport, where we would be finally informed of our destination. Those who missed the first day were razzed that they would end up doing none of the work, and have all of the fun. Or so we thought.

The big surprise was that we would be going to El Nido, the tropical paradise in Palawan. The immediate challenge was overcoming fear of enclosed places, as we were shepherded onto 18-seater turbo-prop planes, a first for a handful of us. Soon, though, we were slicing through the clouds, marveling at how big the Philippines was, and how limitless nature seems. The photographers couldn’t stop snapping away, as the morning sun reflecting off the glassy sea under a fluffy bank of cumulous clouds provided indelible, one-of-a-kind, but fleeting images. Just a peek at what lay ahead.

Finally, a slice of island, then another, and another, loomed ahead. We hit the landing strip, stirring up dust that would settle in wait for the next aircraft to sputter in. A rondalla greeted us with native songs, and we teased some of our elder companions that they had been here long ago, and that these were their long-lost children, serenading them in welcome.

We were served native refreshments as the next planes came in. A few foreign tourists caught a glimpse of our raucous laughter, which was soon silenced when we were handed the menu of activities. Hmm. Dividing the labor would probably be the biggest obstacle of all. After all, in this place, who would want to work?

We were soon on a boat churning the calm seas heading to Miniloc. It was a refreshing experience, being absolutely surrounded by nature, with the occasional bird flying overhead, and more than a few pink or white umbrellas billowing under our slipstream. Jellyfish. Luckily, most of them had perished in the heat. Well, lucky for us. Soon, we were traversing an opening between two hilly islets: God’s gateway to paradise.

First, we had to catch our breath, as the majesty of nature was overwhelming. Every island was made of proud mountains of limestone shrouded in lush plant life, where monitor lizards, birds like kingfishers and other colorful creatures were protected by law. Time seemed to stop, or slow to a crawl, and many editors and producers back in Manila undoubtedly wondered why their reporters in the field were suddenly out of reach. Truth be told, several cell phones suddenly found themselves switched off, or hidden in cottage bedside drawers. Well, we did have a lot to focus on.

There was only one rule: one member of each team had to try all the activities. Knowing my teammates, that would be me. My more senior teammates Dong Magsajo and Jeff Reyes would do all the heavy lifting (of bottles and mugs) for me, not to mention the most unsavory, intimidating but necessary of all challenges: unlimited massages. That would leave the more mundane tasks that they had done before: scuba diving, snorkeling, rock climbing, kayaking, island tours, bottom fishing and a coastal clean-up. There were also the tempting facilities open for use, volleyball, badminton and basketball.

The staff of Toyota Motor Philippines made absolutely sure we were prepared for the daunting assignment of enjoying ourselves. The food selection at Miniloc was overwhelming, the view stunning, the attention touching. A wide array of Filipino, Chinese, Italian and other foods made us feel immediately at home, which is easy when you can’t get up from your chair after eating so much. The remaining half of the day was for the challenges we were willing to take. Our more experienced comrades took the grueling assignment of the famed massages. For a junior like me, that would have to wait.

I took the most unfamiliar challenge first: scuba diving. The newcomers took a short briefing from Miniloc’s divemasters, explaining the signals to safely submerge in the water just off the wharf. It was hard to get used to breathing through my mouth, but a small price to pay for the rewards ahead.

The initial dive was chilly, then suddenly warm, like passing through doors to another world. The silence enveloped us, and we peacefully floated through the colorful stillness. I craned my neck around, fascinated by the brilliant colors of the fish that lazily drifted by, unmindful of the intrusion. There were a few species I had never seen before, and dozens I had seen in aquariums, only these ones were ten times bigger. Alone with your breathing, you feel your heart slowing down. There was no deadline, no beeping cell phone, no mad rush through standstill traffic. It was the most relaxing fifteen minutes of my adult life.

Next, the similar experience of snorkeling. The main limitation was that you had to stay near the surface, like being stuck in an upper box of a great ballet. You were close, but couldn’t move closer.

After a great dinner on the star-shrouded beach, the night was filled with acoustic music provided by the resort staff. Inevitably, technology took over, as some members of media retreated to the poker lounge, the others stayed outdoors to play mixes from their iPods and laptops.

The following day, we were each left to our own pace. The younger ones and newcomers got up relatively early (meaning before noon), and tried to take on as many challenges as we could. The small cove invited us to kayak through cracks in the limestone cliffs, and brave the waters for another round of snorkeling. Along the way, we collected some of the refuse thoughtlessly left by visitors who had gone ahead, actually relishing the task.

Lunch and rock climbing were on yet another island, which meant another boat ride. Soon, we were on a well-stocked strip of sand, on the ground savoring Japanese and local cuisine. I thought it best to check the climb off my list first, instead of weighing myself down. Holding off instant gratification proved a satisfying breakthrough.

After lunch, the banca boys challenged the seasoned journalists to a game of volleyball, and unmasked us for the armchair athletes that we were. This necessitated another round of eating, of course, to take the taste of sand out of our mouths, a product of having our collective butts kicked by the locals.

The evening provided the greatest surprise of all. A silent boat ride in the dark (it felt like a scene out of Bad Boys 2 or some similar drug smuggling epic) led us to another island, where Toyota had set up a United Nations buffet of Asian cuisine. The program included native dances and songs that thrilled us as much as foreign tourists. This was quickly followed by the video of the past days’ events, and the awarding ceremony.

Upon our return to Miniloc, the enjoyment continued, as our more experienced companions promptly got drunk, and started going down memory lane, singing along to their canned music. Frankly, I would never have guessed they carried around those kinds of songs. The climax was probably the Vic Sotto-Dina Bonnevie-Sharon Cuneta medley from way, way back, but it was hard to tell, because they kept going long after it still sounded remotely like singing.

All along our slow flight back the next morning, we were thankful to Toyota for a lasting memory that filled us with gratitude. And boy, do we love our jobs.








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