Monday, December 28, 2009

Road trip

This is my column today.

For the longest time now, my friends and I have been thinking of going on a long road trip through towns and cities we have never set foot in. We told ourselves: Wouldn’t it be a great idea if we packed provisions into a car and just drove —no specific destination in mind and just stopping wherever we fancied and spending the night wherever we felt like it?

It really sounded like a great idea and the more we thought about it, the more exciting it became. There are a lot of towns and cities in this country that are just there, waiting to be explored. There are a lot of churches waiting to take our breaths away, a lot of beaches waiting to be dipped into, a lot of panoramic views of coastlines and mountains waiting to be marveled at. And so it was decided. We set aside three whole days between Christmas and New Year—a period we thought was ideal as everyone else would be on vacation—and during which time we were supposed to forget about time.

The journey started at the South Luzon Expressway as we were set on traversing through the little known towns of Batangas and Laguna. We should have seen the signs right there and then at the SLEX when it seemed one million other people had the same idea as ours. Worse, everyone it seemed was just as eager as we were to escape the congestion of the metro. Reality check number one: Long holidays do not translate into empty roads; in fact, it’s the other way around—long holidays mean more people pouring into roads creating monstrous traffic jams.

As everyone knows, the SLEX is one of the worst places in the world to be in since last year, thanks to the ongoing construction of the Skyway. It seemed construction activities had been temporarily halted for the holidays because when we passed by the area last Saturday, there was hardly any worker in sight. Unfortunately, it seemed whoever is in charge of the Skyway construction also conveniently forgot that—holidays or not —the SLEX is still the main thoroughfare for those traveling south of Metro Manila; it still needed to be cleared of construction debris and still required people serving as traffic aides. Naturally, there was heavy traffic at the SLEX.

Things turned from bad to worse at the Santa Rosa exit where vehicles were hopelessly jammed a kilometer away. There were just too many vehicles trying to get into a two-lane exit thus producing a funnel effect. Our hearts sank at the realization that everyone else seemed en route to the Tagaytay area. We should have turned around right there and then and headed somewhere else but our minds had been set on having lunch at Sonya’s Garden at the fringes of Tagaytay. To be fair to the SLEX people, they did make things a little easier a few meters from the exit by assigning additional personnel who collected toll fees directly from drivers. One wishes this kind of out-of-the-box thinking happened every day.

Special memo to the SLEX cops who ride on patrol cars and station themselves like menacing dogs at certain exits: Instead of trying to apprehend drivers who cut through queues at the exit, it would actually be a lot more helpful if you assist drivers right where the gridlock begins so that drivers don’t find themselves in situations where they are left with no other choice but to cut queues just so they don’t miss their exits.

This paradox happens a lot in the streets of Metro Manila where you find traffic cops hiding in certain intersections ready to ambush motorists who commit trumped up traffic infractions such as swerving lanes. If these people get out of their hiding places and actually do their jobs as traffic managers rather than as apprehenders, there would actually be much less traffic on the road. But then again, there’s not much money to be had from being nice and from helping others.

Anyway. We braved the long arduous drive to Tagaytay. It could have been a scenic, refreshing drive if it were not for the fact that traffic was at a virtual standstill. We left Manila at 9 a.m. We reached Tagaytay Public Market at 1 p.m. How Tagaytay City intends to become a major tourist destination is a source of wonder when it cannot even get vehicles to move at a decent pace at the lone thoroughfare that cuts through the city. The city needs to seriously get its act together and begin putting in place strategic plans to cope with the increasing volume of vehicles. There has been a lot of development happening around Tagaytay (the very narrow road that connects Tagaytay to the town of Talisay is now site of many development projects) and sadly, the development is not matched by corresponding investment in public infrastructure such as creation of diversion roads. The road trip to the Tagaytay area was sheer torture with a few temporary distractions provided by roadside signs that didn’t make sense. One such sign said: “Exit to Batangas here” and there was an arrow that pointed down right to a grassy knoll. The exit was 200 meters farther.

We had lunch at Sonya’s Garden. The food was great (an eat-all-you-can set meal of fresh organic salad, heavenly bread, pasta, desert and fresh Dalandan juice) although a little expensive at almost P700 per head. The great idea behind driving all the way to Alfonso, Cavite to get to Sonya’s Garden is to escape the madding crowd and to commune with nature in a secret hideaway. Not anymore. Sonya’s Garden used to be a lovely garden. It is now simply a dining place. When we were there last Saturday, there were at least 200 cars at the parking area and the turnover was quite brisk. We were amazed to discover that there were already three dining areas. The area where we had our lunch easily sat 200 people. The whole place is still overgrown with foliage but there is hardly any place for people to sit and be still. Yet another painful reality check: Success kills a great idea. Corollarily, business and the environment remain mutually exclusive concepts.

We tried to continue with our planned road trip toward the Calatagan and Nasugbu areas but were disheartened by the heavy traffic. We decided to turn around, suffer the Tagaytay City gauntlet in order to get down to Talisay en route to the Southern Tagalog Arterial Road Tollway (yup, that’s what STAR Tollway means, contrary to common belief that the highway was named after Batangas Gov. Vilma Santos Recto known as the Star for all Seasons in show business). Driving through the STAR Tollway was quite a breeze except that the highway was just too dark for comfort—not a single light post in the whole long stretch!

The planned road trip had been jettisoned in favor of a weekend spent on the beaches of Lobo, Batangas. At least we’re on a beach that offers fine sand and which seems, so far, on the fringes of the tourism map. This means we were practically the only people at the beach. We arrived Saturday night at a resort that offered rustic accommodations. Finally, some peace and quiet and lots of time spent reading and meditating.

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