‘GOT YOUR DRIVING GLOVES READY?’
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
MACTAN AIRPORT, CEBU- I spotted the black retro-styled Buddy Holly spectacles from a mile away. Behind the wheel of my brother’s grey Kia Sorento with the modified front grille, the one we had featured in an EVO Route story back in our third issue; I drove to the Arrivals Terminal of the Mactan Airport to pick up my quirky associate, Edrich Santos. I am convinced Edrich suffers from a mild case of schizophrenia because one of his multiple personalities is an English esquire with an almost obsessive compulsion to drive anything with an engine and a steering wheel. His mental situation and moral fibers have been questionable since the day I met him, but his fanatical passion for driving cars was so intense that we just had to bring him into the Evo Team, for good or ill.
The preppy little tyke was smartly dressed as usual, in cream slacks and a canary-yellow polo shirt with the collars pulled up around his neck. He didn’t have his black leather driving gloves on, so I knew he wouldn’t ask me if he could drive just yet- but knowing him, that moment would arrive soon enough. The cockney accent came on quick.
‘Lovely weather we’re having today, aren’t we ole chap? I could use a spot of tea right about now,’ he said as his nose twitched uncontrollably under those Buddy Hollies. I knew I had to cut him off right there before he flew off the handle too early.
‘Alright, cut that limey shit out right now, we’ve got serious work to do!’ I barked at him as we rolled out of the terminal and headed for the hotel. He pulled out a little orange prescription vial from his knapsack and swallowed two small blue pills in a gulp that almost didn’t succeed. I then began to brief him on our controversial assignment for Evo Magazine Philippines.
‘Look, this ain’t no holiday, so try and keep it together as best you can. Tomorrow we pick up Deakin and for the next bastards through five different islands -yes, islands, which means we’re going to have to ship the cars via RORO (Roll-On, Roll Off) through treacherous open seas, then rack up some serious mileage in Cebu, Negros, Iloilo, Mindoro, then back to Manila via Batangas,’ I explained the itinerary to him as we passed the Mactan Bridge.
‘Thank you, Lord…’ he whispered to himself silently. I could sense his desire to reach for his driving gloves, but I quelled it and continued…
‘Pay attention, for chrissakes. We’re going to be covering the infamous Manila Sports Car Club in a historic Mille Miglia Nautical Run through the Visayan Islands. It’s never been done before but these guys don’t care. They just want to drive their fabulous vintage sportscars through as many roads as possible, through hell and high water if necessary, just to get back to Manila with the right to say they did it without engine failure, heart failure, or any incidence of car-napping, road rage, or violent accidental mishaps- and honestly, I don’t blame them. If I had a ’66 V8 Corvette Stingray or a fire-apple-red Jaguar E- type convertible, it sure as shit wouldn’t be sitting in my garage like a goddamned punished school boy. These aren’t stale, soporific sedans; these are sports cars, my friend, and they must be unleashed. So they’re going to risk everything on this trip, just for the sheer unadulterated fun of it- and you’ve got to admit, there’s a certain poetic nobility in undertaking a balls-out insane adventure like that especially since the average age of these guys is 50… So don’t take this light-heartedly. It’s going to be extremely nerve-racking trying to keep up with these guys. They don’t wait around for nobody, and they sure as hell won’t be waiting around for a bunch of spoiled journalists ruining their fun just so they can have their bloody picture taken. This is their gig, remember that, and if we intend to be a part of it then we have got to keep up the pace- which is bound to be frenetic no matter how you look at it. These guys may be old but they are serious racers and they don’t ever slow down. The only ace in our sleeves is this thick white envelope filled with 100,000 Pesos worth of Petron gas vouchers; we’ll use these to keep the buggers at bay- or at least we’ll try…Now, are you clear about the kind of situation we’ve gotten ourselves into today?’
‘Brilliant, just brilliant…’Edrich was beside himself at the prospect of the next several days. ‘And what car will we be driving? Obviously not a sportscar since we’ll be a three-man crew, so what then. A really good SUV perhaps? An X5, a BMW X5 would really be splendid and would have no problem keeping up with those ‘Vettes and ‘Stangs carving through the mountain roads… or perhaps a Porsche Cayenne, mmm that would be the ticket now wouldn’t it? I’d be happy with a Volvo XC90 to tell you the truth, or even an Audi Avant as long as it’s a turbo. So what will our chariot be on this epic journey, my good man?’ He was eager to know the answer.
We’ll… Edrich my man, with every adventure there’s always a catch,’ I said as I smirked like never before in my life. I articulated the catch: ‘We’ll be driving a Toyota Innova.’ He looked at me with a stare that was all at once blank and bewildered. ‘You got your driving gloves ready?’
COCKTAILS AT THE KILIMANJARO
After the initial shock of my introductory briefing, Edrich said ‘bring it on’ and I was impressed at his attitude. I swear this guy would be happy driving a tractor through a cornfield, as long as he had a gear lever to fondle and pedals under his feet. I’ve never met anyone so deeply enamored with the process of operating an automobile. I decided to flush him with a bit of good news.
‘You and James are staying at Plantation Bay near the Shangri-La. It’s a beautiful resort inspired by southern colonial plantation houses, African bush camps, and Mexican peninsulas. Your suite has a wooden porch that opens up to a huge man-made lagoon. I think you’ll like it,’ I said as festive Caribbean music poured out of the Sorento’s speakers like fine rum while we rumbled through the provincial roads along the Mactan coastline.
The place was an Oasis. We checked in at the front desk and as expected, there was an enchanting lagoon behind it lined with palm trees and dotted with little islands with hammocks. Fantasy Island, that 70s TV show with Ricardo Montalban and his assistant Tattoo came to mind as we hopped on these miniature stretch-jeepneys that took us to the Yucatan House, where they would be staying. Then it only got better. The good-sized room was charmingly decorated with plantation-style furniture and oil paintings of colonial mansions. The bathroom was somewhat lavish with coral-stone finishes and deep marble tub. I tried to tip the bellhop after his elaborately rehearsed welcome spiel but he refused to take my money, inviting me instead to open the dark wood-louvered doors to the patio, where we found two deck chairs staring out to – an empty lagoon! I knew this was too good to be true. They were draining and cleaning the gigantic lagoon outside the Yucatan House. It looked like a skateboarder’s paradise, only there were no skateboarders. Luckily, there were other lagoons around the resort that still had water in them, so Edrich and I began our search for a good bar where we could claim our welcome drinks and maybe get a bite to eat. We ended up at the Kilimanjaro.
Ah well, what can I say? I would have been happy sucking down an exotic-looking welcome drink in any poolside bar, what more in the Kilimanjaro, a boathouse-type affair surrounded on all sides by pool water and Neverland-style faux-rock formations with slides and waterfalls and coconut trees and floating cocktail bars and bikinis – Hugh Hefner would feel right at home in this joint. When the club sandwiches arrived, I briefly entertained the notion of scrapping the whole plan and hunkering down in this pleasure palace for the duration, making the whole story up as I sipped piña-coladas on the front porch.
After lunch, we decided to look for the first few members of the Manila Sports Car Club at the Nikkei Hotel, and by this time Edrich had put on his driving gloves and commandeered the Sorento. I knew he would probably develop a hernia or something if he didn’t get behind the wheel of a car soon, so I threw him the keys and popped open a can of beer. Edrich relished the experience of getting lost in Cebu City and when we finally found the small, nondescript hotel, the first couple of sportscars arrived.
At the end of our adventure we were left with the impression that the sportscar group was organized and led by two men; one of them, our point person in the Manila Sport Car Club, Mr. Jorge See, rolled into the parking lot in a gorgeous 1963 E-type Jaguar XKE Series One Roadster. When I shook his hand upon arrival, the pleasant Chinese-Filipino part-owner of Yakult showed me his Cherry Red convertible and said he was prepared to dispel all false preconceptions about the difficulties of maintaining a Jaguar, by leading this pack of adventurists through some of the most challenging roads in the country, under some of the most challenging weather conditions of the season. The smile that was on his face that day remained intact throughout the entire odyssey.
Immediately following the Jag was Engineer Fernando ‘Ding’ Vitug II, a 64-yer-old contractor and civil engineer who drove an Ocean Blue Mustang Convertible with a 289 engine. Aside from its classic good looks, I asked the engineer why he admires his car so much and he said, ‘Because it never conks out on me. It’s got a four-speed automatic transmission with air conditioning, but on the first run, I went top-down all the way. It was a bit crowded driving within the city limits today, but once we hit the highway we were going 70-75 mph.’
I proceeded to the question of fuel consumption and he said ‘it consumed a total of 44 liters from Manila to here.’ I love the color of this ‘Stang, a refreshing improvement from the faded Argentinian Blue it used to sport several years back. The first to give props to a revered name in a muscle-car engine restoration, the Engineer acknowledged the overhauling work of Ken Kepner from Angeles City, who services practically all the members of the Manila Sports Car Club. I asked him why he chose to bring the Mustang on this legendary trip and he replied, ‘Well, I could have brought my Miata because the rule here is if you’re over sixty years old, you are required to bring a vintage sportscar – but I decided to drive the Mustang anyway because if I brought my Miata nobody would look at me, so what’s the point.’
These were the only two cars we saw today because I had to leave and attend my sister-in-law’s birthday dinner at Ginza, a stylish Zen-like teppanyaki restaurant on the old Banilad Road that looks eerily similar to the House of Blue Leaves from Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 1.
THEY CAME, WE SAW… THEY LEFT!
Thursday, March 9, 2006
MACTAN AIRPORT, CEBU – The adventure and the real work begins today. Edrich was powerless to resist the allure of the sportscars and has already joined the rest of the Manila Sports Car Club, riding shotgun with Joe La’O and his Midnight Green Corvette to get a head start on some driving impression for the story. We knew that it would be a daunting struggle catching up with these speed demons, so I agreed to send him along with them to be our eyes and ears inside the cars. Meanwhile, I was back in the Arrivals Terminal in the Sorento waiting for our photographer, James Deakin.
He appeared shortly after ten, and to my surprise, he had bought an assistant with him – his six-year-old son, Alex. My first thought was ‘poor little kid, he has no idea what he’s gotten himself into.’ And, in fact, I don’t think even Deakin himself completely understood the gravity and dangerous implications of our assignment. We would be traveling at breakneck speeds almost the entire time, risking road carnage through some pretty hairy mountain passes. He himself would be literally sticking his neck out at over a hundred kilometers an hour in order to get the photographs required to do this story justice. There’s also the risk of car napping, maybe even kidnapping, who knows, anything could happen- pirates at sea plundering all those valuable sportscars from the RORO ferries, raging typhoons, maybe even a tsunami… it was terrifying just to think about it. Alex was smiling, but not for long, I thought, not for long. We exchanged morning pleasantries, and then I laid it on them hard.
‘I know you guys are tired but we’ve got no time to waste. The sportscar boys are already headed up the mountain to a place called Tops; it’s the highest point in Cebu. If we haul ass now, we may be able to catch up with them for some photos. You got your camera ready, Alex?’
‘Yeah,’ he responded in his six-year-old lips, ‘but I’m hungry…’
‘Yeah, do we have time for lunch?’ Deakin continued his son’s query.
‘Lunch? Lunch is for wimps. We are warriors! Now dump your bags in the back and get in! We may as well baptize the young Deakin today,’ I thought, there would be no better opportunity – and he seems to be willing enough. Before we knew it we were halfway across the Mactan Bridge, and that’s when the trouble started.
I didn’t realize it but I was driving like a drunken lunatic. I was determined to catch up with the Club so I careened past JY Square and headed up that long and winding road that leads up to the Marco Polo Hotel, formerly Cebu Plaza. At first, the Deakins were laughing and cracking jokes, but by the time we hit the Trans-Central Highway, Alex’s face turned green. My cell phone rang; it was Edrich: ‘Get your asses moving,’ he garbled over the phone ‘we’re almost at the top! You’re missing some pretty spectacular roads!’ No time to waste, I thought, so I stomped on the throttle as if it was a cockroach trying to get away. Then Alex began to cry. The drastic shifts in altitude were simply too much for him – getting on a plane, landing in Cebu, getting into a car driven by a twitchy maniac, weaving through traffic like a headless chicken, then climbing up a mountain through twisting roads – his ears were popping like firecrackers and he couldn’t tell up from down, left from right, right from wrong. We stopped at a clearing on a cliff before he could throw up in the backseat.
For what it was worth, the view from this clearing was magnificent – vast, rolling, emerald-green hills and lush foliage, nipa huts, and bahay kubos scattered playfully across the landscape. It was a perfect place to take a breather. Deakin found a little mound of soil under a flame tree, where he perched himself on in order to take snapshots of the breathtaking vista. Alex was feeling good in no time and was soon running around taking photos of his own with his little digital camera, breathing in the crisp mountain air. Deakin was mesmerized by the view and wouldn’t leave his perch under the flame tree – until he started to itch. The mound of soil he had been standing on for at least fifteen minutes turned out to be a red anthill. By the time he realized this rude fact, maybe a hundred aggressive red ants had crawled up the pant legs of his jeans, chomping away towards his scrotum and causing him to dance and flail around like a marionette. I never knew Deakin could wail like a woman when the situation demanded it, but the pain of a hundred warrior ants on an all-out offensive on human skin must have been a sensation he had never felt before. The vertigo that had consumed Alex moments earlier had now turned into fits of hysterical laughter, and at that moment, I heard an ominous rumbling noise coming from up the road.
Jesus, what is that? It sounds like an approaching storm; rolling thunder coming down the mountain like an avalanche. It got louder and louder, my heart began to race. Then it hit me like a blast of wind to the face – V8! Several of them. My eyes widened and there they were, one by one – yellow Stingray, blue Stingray, green Stingray, red Jaguar, red Camaro, blue Mustang, white Mustang, followed by a white Beetle, then a yellow ’55 Porsche Spyder, then a green MG TF roadster – it was an electrifying hit parade of truly awesome-looking sportscars and they were flashing past us at the speed of lightning, even the white Volkswagen.
‘There they are!’ I screamed at the top of my lungs, ‘let’s roll!’ Deakin vigorously brushed off the last remaining killer ants from his legs and balls and grabbed Alex as he jumped into the Sorento, camera in hand. We peeled out of the muddy bluff like a gateway car after a bank heist, leaving a cloud of dust behind us. We tracked them as best we could, the Sorento performing adequately despite its worn-out brake pads. After a few eye-crossing corners, Edrich called and informed us that they had not reached Tops yet; they had taken a scenic detour on the other side of the mountain and were now making their way to the famed view site overlooking the entire city of Cebu.
We turned and followed them into a steep upgrade and from here, the air got even thinner and pine trees were now lining the road; it felt a little bit like Baguio. When we got to the place called Tops we encountered the members of a group called the Performance and Classic Enthusiasts (PACE) headed by entrepreneur Jay Aldeguer, who had an all-original 1967 Porsche 912 with less than 12,000 kilometers on it, and who incidentally is one of the catalysts of C! Magazine. Kenneth Cobonpue brought his 1959 356 Cabriolet; Glenn Soco had his Boxster, and I also met Christopher Tiu, a toy-store owner in his mid-thirties who owns a 1984 Guards Red Porsche Carrera convertible.
‘I woke up this morning and it was raining,’ he began to tell the story of how the day started.
I said, ‘Why don’t we just bring the Subarus?’
And he said, ‘Ah bahala ka, we’re going top-down!’ So I had no choice; I ended up taking out my Porsche – but I’m very happy and I don’t regret it at all. It was a beautiful drive, drizzling all the way up, but when we hit the top of the mountain, it just cleared up. Lito Ignacio in the Spyder said everybody should put their tops down, so from Balamban all the way up we were top down. These Manila guys are hardcore, man. I laughed and asked him which part of the drive he enjoyed the most.
‘The best part of the drive for me was going back, because the halfway point from Balamban is all downhill, so you’re really being careful. On the way up it’s the reverse, you have all these corners so you’re really pushing it. I thought the run yesterday was pretty good but it was nothing compared to today. No traffic, no obstacles. We were the hosts for the first two days so we had a welcome dinner in Chateau de Busay. We’re a very informal club and we’re all about the same age, mid-thirties, and Michael Lhuillier is probably the oldest member.’
Before my conversation with Christopher had concluded, and before the Deakins could wrap up their toilet and photography duties, the sportscars were gone.
‘They left!’ I shouted. Those two words would resonate as a recurring catch phrase during the entire trip, expressing the hyperkinetic energy and swiftness with which these guys moved. They were cheetahs seizing the opportunity to drive every chance they had, so our only option was to push our vehicle to the limit to try and stay on the heels of their trailblazing convoy.
We stampeded down the mountain like a posse of wild horses and ended up at the Off Roads Cafe to clean the cars and regroup. The Cebu Mustang Club was there and all the drivers were socializing and talking about their cars with each other as they were being washed. I had a cold beer for lunch and took the time to talk to some of the drivers while Deakin took advantage of some photo opportunities from the roof deck of the café. It was here where I met the other leader of the group, Michael Aguilar, a champion vintage racer with the build of a bouncer. Michael was a natural friend and leader who didn’t take shit from anybody, the kind of guy you would want on your side during street brawl. And although he was probably the toughest and the fastest driver in the bunch, he was also one of the most helpful. He was the only driver who went out of his way to help us pick up our Toyota Innova when it landed at the Super-ferry piers in Cebu. For him it was not a problem because he knew he could easily catch up with the rest of the group at any time; a real stand-up guy whom we got to know and admire pretty well during the trip.
After the cars were all cleaned and serviced by a team of mechanics brought in by the Sports Car Club, we headed out for the South Reclamation Project Highway for a little freeway fun, and as usual, it was a dizzying game of cat and mouse trying to tail these guys as they boomed towards the coastal highway.
The SRP is a long open seaside expressway that is tremendous fun to drive because of its excellent road conditions and water front scenery. The adrenaline rush from the speed took the better of them and pretty soon, the cars had scattered into several groups going in different directions. We decided to park the Sorento at a strategic location somewhere in the middle of SRP so that Deakin could set up his camera and be ready to shoot the cars when they showed up, which was bound to happen sooner or later because we knew their intention was to simply get their kicks by driving up down the highway.
Sure enough, the Speedster and Stingrays came thundering down the SRP one by one and Deakin was balancing on a side-railing ready to take the shots. It was all fairly straightforward and dynamic: the howling V8s barreling down the highway in all their vintage muscle-car glory. It was like a scene from some 1960s drag racing movie. The sight of all these gorgeous American classics in a Southern Philippines island was a spectacle to behold, and indeed there were several random cars that slowed down to take a good look at them – but it was nothing compared to what Lito Ignacio attempted in his beguiling 1955 yellow Porsche Spyder, similar to James Dean’s cursed Little Bastard. Listen to this: He flew towards us at about 120 kilometers per hour with the top down and his camouflage scarf wrapped around his head, blowing a tail back in the wind. When he reached the junction, he slammed on the brakes and spun the little bastard around in two or three screeching donuts right in the middle of the freeway! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This is an extremely expensive Porsche Spyder we’re talking about here, probably the most valuable one in the group, and he’s reeling it around like Hot Wheels! The smile on his face was scary: a masochistic grin followed by a nefarious giggle. I simply could not believe the sheer audacity of a man attempting stunts like that in a car that valuable on a public road! Michael Aguilar was also taking pictures of the stunt and he didn’t seem to cringe at all. I said ‘Michael, what’s he doing?!’ To which he replied laughing, ‘Relax, it’s just a replica. It’s got a Volkswagen engine – Nene Syquia built that thing.’ I started to laugh and when I turned to look back at the remarkably built Porsche Spyder replica, Lito was still doing donuts in a cloud of smoke and wicked laughter.
I took a deep breath and looked at my watch. ‘Holy Crap!’ I said to Alex, who was sitting in the Sorento absorbing all the new profanity he had been subjected to since he got here. ‘We’ve got to go the pier and pick up the Innova! Where’s your dad?’
‘He’s peeing over there,’ he answered obediently.
I waved him over and asked Michael if he could lead us to the pier since he had already been there a few days earlier to pick up the Vette. ‘Okay follow me,’ he said as he jumped into his convertible and fired up those growling through cams.
‘Fasten your seat belts,’ I shouted as we followed the Stingray, careening through traffic towards the port area.
We got to the pier only to discover that the ship had been delayed a few hours and that we would have to come back at nine o’clock that evening. On the one hand, I dreaded the thought of returning to this squalid rat-infested port, which smelled like a whorehouse at low tide, but on the other hand, we had a few free hours to finally take the Deakins to Plantation Bay where they could get some much-needed rest. When we got there, we reenergized with a few San Mig Lights and a night swim in one of the lagoons that still had water in it. Then decided to pick up the Innova first and then end the night by treating ourselves to a fine barbecue dinner at Kaona Grill, a garden restaurant on A.S. Fortuna Street owned by some friends.
Picking up the Innova was a hassle. First off, there was third-degree traffic getting to that wretched port, and when we finally got there, hordes of people were swarming the docks waiting for their loved ones to arrive. I accidentally tripped over a dead rat the size of a beaver on my way to the vehicle release office, which was housed in an old shipping container with Tanduay Rum pinup girl posters on the wall next to a picture of several different thong panties with the title ‘Thong Hits’ above it. I had to walk to several different container offices paying several different bills before finally getting the release form and the keys to the Innova, which was parked in a dark, damp corner of a parking lot enclosed by a warped chain-link fence. And just as I was finally driving out of the lot, a walrus-faced security guard stopped me and said I had to get one more clearance form before he could let me out – from another pier that was several blocks down the road. I snarled at him and kidnapped his deputy so he could tell me exactly where to go, screeching the tires in piqued frustration as I peeled away.
After finally securing the Innova, we picked up my wife Rita at Tequila Joe’s, then went to Kaona Grill for a late dinner of grilled squid, pork, tuna belly, chicken, and ribeye steak. We were exhausted and swollen and our bodies felt like rusty engines ruined by abuse, but at least our bellies were now full of good food so we decided to call it one hell of a day and get a good night’s sleep before 6am call time tomorrow.
DESPERATE NOTES AND DANGEROUS ROAD SIGNS
Friday, March 10, 2006
MARIA LUISA, CEBU – An old desk phone is ringing violently in my ears; it’s my cell phone alarm. It’s 0500, what does the O stand for? Oh my lord, it’s early…Still dark outside I jump in the shower and pack my bags, then put on a blue shirt, khaki shorts, and my driving loafers. Everyone in my brother’s house in the hills of Maria Luisa is still fast asleep- except Snowy, the little dog who left a small goodbye package for me in the middle of the living room last night… I was told by Jorge yesterday that we would be leaving sharply at 6am from the Off Roads Cafe, so I wake up Jun the driver and he takes me there in the dirty Sorento. Edrich and the Deakins are also on their way out of bed. We are all cranky at this hour of the day…5am: I don’t even have phlegm that gets up that early.
The sun is just about to peek out over the horizon when I get to the café and it is still closed, security guards fast asleep on their mono block chairs. I wake them and they let me up to the roof deck where I settle down on a Formica table to watch the sunrise and organize my cash, receipts, schedule, and other paperwork, after which I pull out my iBook and start typing. No sign of my associates or the Manila Sports Car Club.
The sun is halfway up now and it is a blinding glow, like a porthole to Heaven, so I put on my dark-tint Aviators generously given to me by Ray Ban for my trip. I get a call from Edrich and they are lost somewhere in Cebu City. Then I get a call from Jorge and he tells me they overslept because they stayed up past midnight last night. This would have rankled any reasonable person but I was actually glad I got up this early because there couldn’t have been a better atmosphere for writing and I was able to get a lot of quality work done as the sun came up over Cebu.
EDRICH AND THE DEAKINS arrive in our grey Innova, all of them dressed in C! gear. James is already stressed because he has a serious Philippine Star deadline creeping up on him like a scorpion, and to make matters worse he left the battery charger of his laptop at home – so I lent him mine and he began typing feverishly in the café, which has just opened. Edrich was bleary-eyed and Alex was sitting quietly in a corner eating his breakfast and playing on his Gameboy at the same time.
Just as I began wondering where the sportscar guys were, Jorge calls to say they are running late and will be here by 8:30; again, this would grind anyone’s gears under normal circumstances, but now even Deakin had enough time to finish his article under the influence of strong caffeine.
JORGE HAD ARRIVED with some of the other members of the group and was now briefing us on today’s 127km run to Santander, from where we will roll the cars on to a ferry that will take us to the Tampi Port in Bais, Negros Oriental. The Village People’s ‘Macho Man’ played on the café radio as more muscle-cars pulled into the parking lot, followed by a pickup filled with all the support equipment and gear.
By 8:30, everyone was here, so I doled out some more Petron fuel vouchers. Every seemed happy, although there were some rumored mumblings about Jorge having some clutch problems with his Jag. I went to check on him and he flashed me that smile that said ‘get your asses in gear, boy, because we are about to take off any minute now.’ I booked it to the café to grab the Deakins and Edrich jumped to the copilot seat of the green ’66 Stingray with the Route 66 license plate, and before Deakin could take the two minutes to save his article in a flash drive – you guessed it, they were gone.
‘They Left!’ The battle cry echoed across the land and before we knew it, we were scrambling to catch up with one door open and Deakin’s leg hanging out of it. We spotted one of the Mustangs and the red Camaro SS after some high-speed jostling through traffic and tailed them until we hit the SRP. We kept close contact with Edrich, who was by now smoking one of Joe La’O’s Cuban cigars and trying to get him to slow down, but it was an exercise in futility because once you get those powerful V8s going, slowing them down would take nothing less than an act of God – which is probably what happened because after running the Innova we were finally able to catch up with the Vettes , even surpassing the Stang and the SS, at a rotunda swarmed with jeeps, tricycles, and pedestrians near the town of Carcar.
At this point Alex was about to vomit into the back pocket of the driver’s seat and James had a deadline to sort out, so we stopped at a roadside Internet café and gave up all hope of staying attached to the convoy. I looked at my chicken-scratch notes and the only legible words I could decipher were WE NEED BONAMINE, as if the Devil himself had written them. So we stocked up on the drug after James had emailed his article and jumped back into the Innova – and would you believe the fucking thing wouldn’t start? Turning the key in the ignition slot produced nothing but a pathetic clicking noise; it was just dead as…dead. James suddenly remembered the Toyota people telling him they didn’t have time to replace the battery so we had to ask some town folks to help us push it back to life. It worked, of course, but after that ugly episode, I had officially christened the car ‘The Grey Bastard.’ After popping a Bonamine each, we were clearheaded and back on the road.
SOMEWHERE NEAR THE TOWN OF BOLJOON
IT WAS ONE NIGHTMARE after another, it seemed, and the sportscars were nowhere in sight. Deakin started to panic again, this time because he didn’t feel safe with the photos he took. He texted our publisher Ken Quintal the bad news and we took bets on how fast he would call us – thirty seconds, quicker than any of us had predicted. The calming tone of Ken’s voice mixed with the effects of Bonamine had bolstered our confidence once again – until we drove by a strange-looking sign that said PLEASE DO NOT KILL OUR CHILDREN… which made a lot of sense when we saw a seven-year-old dart across the road like jackrabbit… Then a thought had occurred to me: since we were up so pointlessly early this morning, we could have gotten a head start and waited for the rest of the group at my brother’s beach house in Alcoy – which we were passing just now – and maybe gone for a swim and a margarita. I was brooding on this for a second before Edrich called and as I was talking to him, I could hear the fierce growl of the Corvette in the background, followed by a sudden crashing noise that made my heart skip one or two beats.
‘Whoops, we just hit a pothole and almost ran over a little girl,’ he said in a quivering voice.
‘Didn’t you see the sign?’ I replied. ‘Where the hell are you guys?’
‘Just follow the road with the sea on your left until you see a big island just off the coast, Sumilon Island I believe, then keep going until you see a huge tarpaulin sign that says Maayo Shipping Company- we’re taking the RORO from there.’
‘Roger that,’ I said as we drove swiftly through fine winding roads by the beach, hundreds, maybe thousands of coconut trees flanking us on both sides as well as little rural towns with ragtag churches and lechon manok stalls. We drove through catholic town fiestas and inevitable slow-moving funeral processions. We passed dogs, hogs, goats, chickens, and carabaos until we finally stopped to take a picture of a cliffside beach resort, the name of which escapes me. The Maayo Shipping Company was not far ahead.
Loading the cars onto the ferry was an impressive sight, but not nearly as impressive as watching them sail across the deep blue Visayan channels from the top deck of a RORO vessel. These audibly and visually loud vintage icons set against a rural island backdrop were such a dazzling contrast of colors and ideas that it seemed almost surreal. The faces of the locals were flabbergasted and said: Where did these fantastic-looking things come from? And where in God’s good name do they think they’re going?
Once all the necessary clearance documents were sorted out, the owners drove their cars onto the ferry one by one like some kind of psychedelic Noah’s Ark for cars, very special cars. While waiting for their turn to roll on, I got a chance to talk to Joe La’O – whom I knew from La Salle – Walter Poik, and Dodo Macapagal, the owner of the Volkswagen Beetle.
The only foreigner in the group was a German Asian Development Bank expat by the name of Walter Poik, who hid a bald head under a jazzy porkpie hat and refused to take his orange 1969 four-seater Camaro on a deranged exploit like this one- so he hitched a ride with retiree Adolpho Sy and his 1958 Camaro SS.
Dodo Macapagal was a placid little man; the smallest in the group who drove the most unassuming car in the fleet, and at first glance his colorless Volkswagen Beetle would no doubt prompt you to wonder what this German Bug was doing tagging along with all these big flashy American muscle-cars – but when I got a chance to chat with him under the hot southern sun that Friday afternoon, I discovered there was so much more than meets the eye.
It took us roughly 45 minutes to get to Dumaguete, and during that time, I was able to get to know more about the drivers outside the context of their sportscars. Oscar Medalla, the owner of the Nassau Blue Stingray and the Shelby Cobra GT500 we had featured in issue 13, was a cool cat in his forties maybe who seemed to be the youngest and hippest of the group. In my conversations with him, he appeared to be well-traveled and knowledgeable about many things besides cars, which he knew plenty about. Behind the wheel of his eye-grabbing convertible, he wore the grooviest sunglasses of the lot, had a pair of fuzzy blue dice hanging from the rear-view mirror, and was the only driver who brought an iPod complete with speakers and a pair of real headphones – not those irritating little plugs you shove in your ears. On the RORO to Bais, he set up his speakers and provided some soothing Marvin Gaye tunes to transform an otherwise monotonous boat ride into a relaxing and fun cruise.
Oscar wasn’t the only one who traveled in style. Joe La’O brought his own personal masseuse who rubbed his back on the RORO while he chomped on a good cigar from Havana along with fellow tobacco aficionado and retired architect Tony Feliciano. He enjoyed the thrill of the adventure but was careful not to sacrifice the luxury of comfort; his Vette was modified to drive like a modern car with essential creature comforts like a stereo and a strong air conditioner. He always seemed very relaxed during the entire trip, even taking a quick catnap after a heavy lunch without ever leaving the table or nodding his head. Joe even suggested a title for the story, which summarized his own take on the trip: The Way to GO.
ONE NIGHT IN DUMAGUETE
DUMAGUETE, NEGROS ORIENTAL – The moment we landed in TMPI and rolled the cars off the ferry, we were greeted by another interesting character, a mean-looking Belgian seaman named Jan who was a three-way cross between a pro wrestler, a Hell’s Angel, and a villainous road warrior from one of the Mad Max movies. When I first saw him, he was on a very fast motorcycle, a Midnight Blue BMW R1150 GS, and was covered in black leather with a massive helmet around his head. He looked like a special-ops Navy Seal or some kind of assassin-for-hire. I checked to see if he had any firearms strapped around his waist but he appeared to be clean. He was a friend of Michael’s of course, and when he took off his helmet the intimidation factor nearly tripled – long, frazzled, dirty-blond hair with a serious face that said ‘give me a cigarette or I’ll break your legs.’
Michael introduced him to us as one of the leaders of a local biker gang and our tour guide. He had a bone-crushing handshake and a deep foreign accent but could speak perfect Tagalog and Visayan. He also knew the island like the back of his hand and guaranteed us the perfect route to get to Bacolod, on the other side of the island in Negros Occidental.
After all the cars had disembarked from the boat and were lined up on the side of the road ready for takeoff, Jan pointed at James and said ‘you ride with me.’ Deakin’s smile-turned to jelly and he replied, ‘um, ok.’ As good a photographer as he is, he had never shot cars from the back of a speeding BMW bike, but when a man like Jan makes a suggestion, your best bet would be to rise up to the challenge – and were we glad he did. The photo opportunities that came up from the vantage point of a fast and flexible touring bike were absolutely incredible. Deakin had gotten closer to the cars than he had ever been, weaving through traffic like a rattlesnake and circling each car while snapping pictures from all angles.
The coastal road itself – Rizal Boulevard, I think it was – was one of the best we’ve been on in this trip so far. It was a spectacularly sunny day and all the convertibles had their tops down, flying through the sea wind that was blowing in from the bay. This is what it was all about for the Manila Sports Car Club. This is why they went through all that trouble to transport their precious hotrods from island to island. There is no conceivable way to describe those hundred-carat feelings of freedom and adventure and pure liberated joy that came over all these guys as they howled fast and loud through this sleepy beach town with the aqua-blue ocean stretched out on the left side almost the entire time. We drove past the towns of Tanjay, San Jose, and Sibulan until we reached Talisay Beach where we cruised the bayside boulevards and palm tree-lined promenades in search for a good place to eat.
It was already 4:00pm when we decided to stop at a cozy waterfront restaurant called Mamia’s, which offered a delectable selection of Spanish-Filipino comfort food specialties. The restaurant was owned by a heavy set mestizo named Tinchu, who looked like he knew a thing or two about good food, and by the looks of the menu and the name of the restaurant, the place exuded home cooking and recipes passed on from generation of Spanish mothers and grandmothers.
We all sat around a long table and chatted energetically about the beautiful roads we had just encountered, and then we feasted on dishes like Sopa de Ajo, Callos a la Madrileña, calamares, tenderloin tips, grilled pusit, blue marlin, and barbequed pork belly. After lunch, we all sat around Jan, who planned our trans-island trip to Bacolod, assuring we would drive through the best scenic roads through mountains, fishing villages, and endless sugarcane fields and coconut forests before finally reaching the supreme culmination and symbolic climax of our trip – Mr. Eduardo Cojuangco’s famed Hacienda Balbina in the sugarcane town of Pontevedra.
The route that Jan mapped out for us would be heading north towards the mountain ranges that divide the island. We would drive back on the coastal highway towards Sibulan and Tanjay again, then straight into the sugarcane fields of Bais, near the whale-watching territory of Langit Beach, at which point we will head west towards the caves of Mabinay, then cross the border into Negros Occidental. Once there, it will be a long-haul drive up north towards the towns of Kabangkalan, Himamaylan, Binalbagan, Hinigaran then finally to Ponteverda for an exclusive lechon with the man they call The Boss.
The entire trip would take anywhere from four to six hours depending on road and weather conditions. When you are invited for lunch at Hacienda Balbina, you don’t want to arrive late, so I was deeply concerned about making it there on time. I asked Jan about the possibility of running into traffic and he replied simply, ‘what traffic?’ I was quite impressed with that answer and it was all I needed to know – Jan even offered to lead us all the way to Bacolod on his bike; it was better than any police escort we could have arranged with the local authorities.
It was time for us to separate ourselves once again from the sportscar group because we were staying at a different hotel in Bais – the Dolphin de Bais Hotel. It sounded like a decent place, but we had no idea. We asked around the people on the street and nobody seemed to know where it was or even recognize the name. We asked Tinchu, who was a longtime resident of Dumaguete and even he had never heard of it. We tried calling both the cell phone number and the landline that was given to us by our travel agent, and both numbers were either disconnected or no longer in service. Finally, Tinchu placed a call to a reliable source and after some singsong rapping in Visayan he gave us an answer that somehow registered as a warning.
‘I don’t think you should stay at the Dolphin – my friend here says that if you know what’s good for you you’ll cancel your reservations as soon as possible and stay somewhere else, like the South Seas where your friends are staying at… There’s been a resurgence of crime on the island recently.’
We didn’t ask questions, and at 500 pesos a night at the Dolphin it wasn’t worth the risk, so we took his advice and scrapped our reservations, then hired a tricycle to lead us through a labyrinth of small, narrow roads within the provincial villages of Amigo and Fatima until we got to the secluded South Seas Beach Resort.
This place was the exact opposite of how I now envisioned the Dolphin – tucked away in a tropical jungle by the beach with cabins lined next to each other on a larger, well-manicured lawn facing the Mindanao Sea. It was literally a breath of fresh sea air as we walked across the lantern-lit garden in the twilight of an emerging full moon while waiting for our room to be prepared. The rising chorus of crickets and the occasional burps of frogs and geckos put my weary mind at ease as we walked towards the fishing dock where Michael’s father had already caught a few jackfish. On the southern end of the resort’s beachfront property I could make out the pale blue glow of a swimming pool next to a thatched-roof hut housing a long buffet and several dining tables. We decided to go for a night swim after settling our bags into our room – the H2O suite – which made a decent first impression with two single beds made of thick, faded bamboo, a small bathroom, and a tiny TV set, with a window opening up to a view of nothing in particular.
I could already sense the potential for cabin fever, so the Deakins and I put on our board shorts and headed for the pool, which had a wet bar on one end that served frosty mugs of beer and mango shakes for Alex. Edrich, despite having a Cousteau-like love for marine life, curiously avoids swimming and opted to relax on one of the deck chairs. Some of the other drivers were also relaxing by the pool eating pork rinds and vinegar – Jorge, Walter, Tony, and Dolpho. Over a total of eight beers between the two of us and a too-cheap-to-resist buffet dinner of fish steak Tagalog, fried chicken, bagoong and rice, we examined a stack of photos Walter lent us from some of the international car shows he had attended recently. It was another successful day of frenzied driving, perhaps even the most successful… but the one night we stayed in the H2O suite of the South Seas Resort turned out to be one of the most disastrous.
Like some kind of cruel cosmic joke, the H20 suite turned out to be a water torture chamber, as a monsoon rain fell on us in the middle of the night. I fell asleep relatively early, but not long after I had slipped into a blissful dream-state, I was awakened by a steady drip of rainwater that leaked somewhere over the space between my forehead and my left eyebrow. In my half-asleep stupor, I wasn’t sure what was happening to me, so my first natural instinct was to jump violently out of bed like an evil spirit being exorcised from a possessed body. When I realized it was only water, my heart-pounding shock had turned to embarrassed anger, and I yanked my mattress out of the bamboo bed frame and laid it on the floor away from the leak.
My hopes for a good night’s rest were further dampened (no pun intended) by an impotent air conditioner with a busted compressor. It was like sleeping in the economy section of a grounded 747, before it takes off and the air-vent start blowing out cold air. I woke up before I could even fall asleep, it seemed, and the floor under my mattress was semi-flooded. Maybe a hot shower would do me good, I thought, but there was no hot water or a heater I could switch on. So we all skipped our showers and got dressed and packed for today’s run to Bacolod. When we opened the front door, it was still pouring rain outside and the roosters were going absolutely crazy. I mean they were crowing so hard and loud that it sounded like they were desperately trying to drive us out of the damn place. I took one last long look at the small H20 sign by the door before we finally left the room for good and just started laughing at it… It was time to leave Dumaguete.
BOUND FOR BALBINA
Saturday, March 11, 2006
DUMAGUETE, NEGROS ORIENTAL – Jollibee isn’t exactly the cornerstone of any nutritional breakfast, but we went there anyway because it was convenient and the only place we could find that served eggs and coffee. Aside from that, it was a reasonably comfortable place to outline our drive to Pontevedra.
Over breakfast and for the first time during this historic trip, I was able to catch a brief but vivid glimpse of the politics that exists within the members of the Manila Sports Car Club. In my vague recollection of the turn of events that morning, and from what I can deduce from my notes – which by now have been reduced to the textural consistency of used toilet paper – The group appears to have broken up into two factions: the first faction proposing to shorten the schedule of the entire run by cancelling the two-day stopover in the paradisiacal island of Boracay and running the gauntlet instead straight towards the island of Mindoro after our run from Iloilo to Caticlan on the island of Panay, which was our next stop after Bacolod.
The other faction, understandably in need of a little quality R & R away from their cars on a fantasy island considered one of the most beautiful and bohemian in the world, was directly opposed to the motion presented by the first faction, suggesting instead that they stick to the original plan and reward themselves with one full day and two full nights on what is probably the most sought after vacation destination in the entire Philippine archipelago. It was like climbing up the stairway to Heaven, they said, and turning around once they reached the pearly gates. The members of the first faction would be overruled.
After some serious haggling, debating, cross-examining, and politicking, the controversy boiled down to a simple democratic vote, and in the end it was decided that we would give the cars a rest in Caticlan and bum around Boracay for a couple of nights according to the schedule – which was a good thing because the possibility of a personal nervous breakdown from all this hardcore driving was now very real and could only be curtailed by nothing simpler than a mango daiquiri, the sun on my shoulders, and my toes in the powder-white sand of an island with no cars on it.
At this stage of our journey all of the cars in our group had performed wonderfully, unhindered by any real mechanical problems – except for Tony Feliciano’s white Mustang, whose carburetor intakes needed to be cleared out and regulated by mouth. The obstacle was hurdled quickly by a mechanic wearing a T-shirt that pretty much summed up the situation: If it’s got tits or tires, it’s going to cause problems.
At this stage, we had wised up to the modus operandi of the sportscar group, and we were still being constantly left behind in the dust trails of their rumbling caravan. But at least we still had a thick wad of Petron vouchers to wave around and reel them in very time they got carried away.
We were now past Tanjay, on the edge of the endless brown sea of sugarcane in Bais and Mabinay, when we hung a left towards a meandering uphill road that took us up to the mountains where the views of the valley and little seaside villages and vast green rice paddies made us feel like we were as far away as Tahiti or Bora-Bora. The air was crisp as crystal and the drive was utterly exhilarating and breathtaking for all the drivers, especially the convertibles. When we stopped on the side of the road to take in the view, I left my car door open; an awful habit of mine that started way too early and practically drove Edrich and the Deakins insane – I did this on purpose so that Edrich and his itchy throttle foot wouldn’t leave me behind by accident or otherwise, which is exactly what happened to James in the next Petron station when we drove away while he was buying some Gatorade at the mini-mart. The next several kilometers were drenched by a heavy downpour of hard rain and Edrich almost crashed the Grey Bastard into an oncoming sugarcane truck, but skillfully swerved around it on the counter-flow-lane shoulder at the very last second.
‘Goodness,’ I heard him say as I checked my own heart rate for any signs of an approaching coronary.
‘Maybe we should stop by this old church and say some prayers for the rest our trip,’ Deakin said as we pulled into these ancient catholic cathedrals where all the sportscars owners decided to take pictures and indulge in an little local history. An image that remained in my head as I confirmed our Boracay hotel reservations by cell phone on the courtyard in front of one of the old adobe chapels was Michael Aguilar’s assistant climbing up over the windscreen of his Corvette at a hundred kilometers per hour like a stuntman, physically wiping the rain off the glass with a rag.
A few minutes after we left the churches, our souls rejuvenated with the sweet spirit of adventure, we saw a green road sign that said PONTEVEDRA 20km. It was approximately 12:30pm on my watch, so I knew that we would arrive at Hacienda Balbina in time for this very important luncheon with one of the most influential and powerful men in the country. This lunch at the Hacienda was essentially the apex of our entire adventure on the road. Yes, Boracay would be a pleasant reward indeed, but it was the only island on our itinerary that we weren’t going to drive on, and some of us didn’t even want to go there. But nobody wanted to miss that lunch at Balbina; an afternoon sit-down with The Boss on his own eight-hectare turf was an opportunity of a lifetime and the very zenith of this Mille Miglia Nautical Run through the Southern Islands of the Philippines. It was all downhill from there, so to speak, and a day in Boracay was a mere respite on the grueling drive back home to Manila, where all this madness began.
We stopped for directions two or three times along the way, making sure I left my car door open if I walked more than two feet away from it, and everyone seemed to know exactly where it was. I presumed we were close by when the roadside scenery turned from random roughshod shacks and shrubs to miles and miles of mango tree orchards evenly spaced from one another. My presumptions were confirmed when I spotted some tall San Miguel signpost advertising cockfights.
The road did not seem to ever end and continued even further when a security guard carrying a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun led us into a gated estate surrounded by massive, thick, stone walls covered in bougainvillea and climbing ivy. The tree-shaded road led to a huge rubber tree in the middle of a rotunda where all the drivers parked their sportscars. The rotunda faced the main entrance of the house, which was a beautiful Spanish and Filipino-inspired villa made of dark stone on the outside and white stone on the inside, with a red-tiled roof and Vigan-tiled flooring. After parking the car, Alex proceeded to unload his luggage because he thought we were checking in at another hotel, probably the best one yet in his mind.
The house was just as impressive inside as it was from the outside – comfortable, home furniture made of several indigenous varieties of wood arranged tastefully among carabao and fighting cock motif art work and interior in a breezy high-ceilinged lanai which opened up on one end through large arches into the swimming pool and the rest of the eight-hectare garden.
As we walked slowly towards the center of the house, carefully admiring the pieces of art and framed photographs scattered around the living room, we came upon an indoor but open-air atrium patio that was flushed beautifully with natural sunlight from a thin-screened ceiling high above that allowed the elements to flow in freely.
In the center of the patio was a large round wooden table covered by a single canvass umbrella, and around the table sat the members of the Manila Sports Car Club, chatting casually and listening intently to a single magnetic figure who appeared to be sitting at the head of the table, even if the table was a perfect circle.
Mr. Cojuangco smoked a cigarette through a filter and commanded respect without even trying, perhaps because he exuded a fierce intelligence and an aura of getting things done rarely seen in any other Filipino in history. Even without saying a word you immediately understood why this man is extremely popular, and you get the feeling that if his political strategies are as effective as his business practices, he could steer our country to its most secure, stable, and prosperous era yet.
Equally gracious and alluring was the lady at the gentleman’s side, Mrs. Gretchen Cojuangco, who was charming, delightful, and a most hospitable hostess throughout the entire afternoon. Both she and her husband treated little Alex Deakin as if he was one of their own children by introducing him to their pets, a French bulldog named Stacey and a miniature schnauzer named Tati, with whom Alex had endless fun playing around with.
Mrs. Cojuangco also took charge of the luncheon itself, which was a spectacular spread of Filipino favorites and easily the most delicious and impressive meal we’ve had during the entire Nautical Run. There were simply too many dishes to try everything, so I will attempt to recall the ones that I tasted. Two tables: on the larger one, a round buffet table, sat most of the dishes – three of four different kinds of fresh native salads including one made with local ferns and a plate of green mango with three or four different kinds of bagoong (that one was a slice of heaven for me, given my hopeless addiction to bagoong); Some kind of creamy pinoy curry made of shrimps and coconut milk; Bistek Tagalog, a delectable traditional recipe made with tender beef, a perfectly rendered and seasoned sauce, and large rings of grilled onions swimming in the sauce; wooden platters of grilled barbecue including succulent chicken inasal on skewers and enormous pieces of plump, meaty sugpo; I believe there was also a kaldereta of some kind, and squid grilled to perfection next to a platter of pancit. There were also other seafood dishes like blue crab and baked fish.
On the other table to the side sat a whole roasted lechon, its skin cooked just to the point of crispiness where it crackled like a potato chip between your teeth, the layer of fat underneath it oozing a flavor that almost brought me to tears, especially when eaten together with the soft juicy pork meat of the pig smothered with a little sweet lechon sauce, which was probably homemade. I am salivating just writing about it.
Of course, there was a selection of all the different varieties of ice-cold San Miguel beer – Pale, Light, Dry, and Strong Ice – so I cracked one open and enjoyed my lunch with the rest of the gang under the umbrella. It was a fascinating lunch to say the least and for lack of a better adjective, punctuated regularly by praises for the cooking. Did I forget to mention a totally-to-die-for sinigang?
After lunch they brought out coffee and more food, desserts this time, a colorful array of native delicacies and fresh tropical fruits like bibingka, suman, cassava cake, and mangoes to keep going, but equally if not more difficult to resist the temptation – so I caved in and served myself a slice of warm bibingka.
A tour of the sprawling eden-esque garden was a pleasant way to walk off the calories, and Mrs. Cojuangco was more than willing to lead us through it. The centerpiece of the garden was the biggest, tallest, most dramatic Indian rubber tree I have ever seen in my life – maybe three or four stories high, like a small building. Being a passionate environmentalist herself, Mrs. Cojuangco planted the three more than twenty years ago, and today it has grown into a majestic tree-climber’s paradise; an intricate work of natural art with a cornucopia of thick branches sprouting out and upwards from the central trunk, then falling back down to the ground to become solid roots, giving the impression that the branches are raining down all around the tree. I have never been called a tree-hugger before, but today I wanted to embrace this rubber tree and thank it for being so incredibly beautiful.
We strolled leisurely around the garden listening to Mrs. Cojuangco’s many funny and interesting anecdotes about life on the Hacienda, passing several varieties of trees and ilang-ilang and birds cages that used to house the family ferrets, until we came upon a serene lotus pond with dozens of tranquil little lily pods floating on the calm, mirrored surface.
A few grassy-green yards away from the pond was another beautiful structure Mrs. Cojuangco was most proud of – a modest but immaculately built Spanish chapel and family mausoleum with a gloriously ornate altar inspired by an Opus Dei priest in commemoration of the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary.
It was quite an experience walking through this garden, I thought to myself as we hiked back to the house. Jorge nudged me on the elbow and said, ‘Now we are going to see the motorcycles.’ Apparently, there was a bike house down the road from the main entrance rotunda, and Mr. Cojuangco was going to treat us to a viewing of one of his more prized collections. I didn’t want to miss this part of our exclusive tour of the Hacienda so I quickly made a pit stop in one of the guest bathrooms. It was in here that I discovered that the Cojuangco’s home in Balbina was not only infused with a sense of taste and style, but also with a sense of humor – while standing in front of the urinal, there was a sign directly in front of me that read PLEASE COME CLOSER, IT MAY BE SHORTER THAN YOU THINK.
We followed our host down the road to the bike house flanked by a detail of bodyguards in polo barongs, and when we got there, we were like toddlers in a toy store. The main attraction seemed to be a six-cylinder inline Gold Wing, but there must have been at least twenty different bikes, including several Bimmers, Harleys, Hondas and Trophies. Each one of them was pristinely kept and meticulously maintained by a team of professional mechanics. After seeing all these gorgeous bikes, I wondered whether we would get to see his even more impressive collection of cars, but I later discovered that they were not kept on the grounds of the Hacienda at that time.
Though our memorable afternoon in Hacienda Balbina was coming to an end, our generous host still offered us a merienda – and when we patted our bellies and politely declined, he still insisted on taking us all to dinner that night at Bacolod’s finest Japanese restaurant, Kaisei. Our visit to Hacienda Balbina may have been over, but the experience would continue until way past sundown.
Goodbyes were said, photographs were taken, and hands were shaken as each of the members of the Manila Sports Car Club straddled and strapped into their respective speedster. James wanted to take a picture of the man we came to know, if only for a day, but when Alex innocently walked up to him to say thank you and goodbye, Mr. Cojuangco bent down towards him and said with a big smile, ‘goodbye buddy – and take care of your dad.’ To which Alex replied, I will – may I take your picture?’ The Boss agreed without hesitation and Alex left Pontevedra with the only solo shot in the group – after all, aside from being a corporate titan and a respected leader, the man everyone called The Boss was before everything a generous friend and a loving family man.
IT WAS ABOUT FORTY kilometers of high-speed countryside and coastal driving from Ponteverda to the city proper of Bacolod, through more sugarcane fields, coconut trees, and rice paddies on the Eastern side, and the Panay Gulf channel between Guimaras and Iloilo on the Western side. Passing through the rural towns of San Enrique, Valladolid, and Bago, and trying our best to waltz around the sportscars for a magic opportunity to snap a photograph, we were constantly reminded that as Filipinos we were all native residents of one of the most picturesque archipelagos in the world. I’ve never seen so much healthy foliage and postcard-pretty farm scenes in my life. It was as if the masterful oil paintings of Fernando Amorsolo himself had suddenly come to life before our eyes as the impossibly green hills and valleys unraveled past the side windows of the Innova. Remember the opening frame from the movie Apocalypse Now? Before it burst into napalm flames on Jim Morrison’s cue? That was a common scene on this trip through the jungles of the Visayas – and in fact, that movie was shot in this country. I can only imagine what it was like for these sportscar owners – excitement, exhilaration, and adrenaline constantly pumping through their veins, the freakish sound of their engines screaming against the wind, and the absolute anachronistic spectacle of American and European vintage sportscars roaring through a South Asian rain forest like it was Le Mans in the summer of ’66… It’s hard to believe but it really did happen.
When we reached Bacolod, it was a refreshing sight to see a new sportscar join the tribe – so refreshing that it cast a huge shadow over the Manila cars and almost reduced them to mediocrity. It was Philip Garcia’s rare and stunning burgundy-colored 4.2-liter 2×2 E-type Jaguar Coupe, which he bought after several years of persistent bidding and proffering from my uncle Bobby Aboitiz, and which was voted the most beautiful car ever by BBC Top Gear in the UK. We all parked to ogle at the sexy cat before checking into the elegant L’Fisher Hotel on Bacolod’s bustling main boulevard, Lacson Street.
The minute I walked through the glass double-doors and cross the limestone green marbled floor of the Hotel’s lobby, I knew this one wasn’t going to give us any problems. It was lavish for Bacolod’s standards and seemed to be the best one in the heart of the city, with a classy restaurant encased in crystal facing a tempting lagoon that was actually a swimming pool, the kind that looks so much more romantic at night. Another plus about the Hotel’s location was that it was a block away from Kaisei, the Japanese restaurant we were going to have dinner that night. Our room was first rate, with soft pillows and thick blankets and an air conditioner that meant business, if you catch my drift. There was a good-sized flat-screen TV, of course which the Deakins appreciated since they intended to catch up on their cartoons and Formula 1 races. So we settled in and showered and spruced up for what was to be, in my opinion, the best restaurant meal we had during this trip.
It was a typically elegant one-story post-and-beam Japanese restaurant made of light cedar-wood and adorned with large, round, hand-painted paper lanterns. There were several lacquered black tables in the main dining area and each one of them was taken. On the left side of the restaurant were separate private dining rooms sectioned off by wood-paneled doors that slid on grooves, and shoji screens made of mounted rice paper. Our party must have occupied all the rooms with the dividing doors between them slid open to fit one long table that sat at least fifty people.
Our host arrived on time and soon after menus were passed around to take our orders. Between all of us, we may have ordered everything on the menu. Every variety of expertly hand-rolled sushi and the freshest Maguro, Ebi, Saba, and Sake sashimi imaginable was first presented to us in several little plates, followed by baskets of crunchy golden brown shrimp tempura; then came big steaming bowls of delicious sukiyaki filled with a wonder broth of noodles, vegetables, tofu and thin slices of sweet soy beef. The main course arrived on sizzling teppanyaki hot plates carrying delicious bite-size cubes of ribeye steak and chicken alongside an equal amount of bean sprouts, peppers, onions, and shitake mushrooms. There were also several teriyaki dishes and two or three orders of grilled Gindara – all of this tasted, enjoyed, and ultimately digested slowly and completely over the course of a three-hour dinner with the complement of good chopsticks, good conversation, and continuously replenished bowls of Japanese fried rice.
You can just imagine what an utterly satisfying and pleasurable dinner this turned out to be – and after topping it off with some brewed coffee and a nightcap at the hotel bar, our first night in Bacolod culminated in a dreamy undisturbed slumber that fully recharged our biological batteries for tomorrow’s long drive to San Carlos.
SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2006
L’FISHER HOTEL, BACOLOD CITY – I woke up leisurely after a full eight hours of deep sleep and walked down to the café to have breakfast with the Deakins – garlic chicken tapa, fried rice, and two runny sunny-side-up eggs with a few equal doses of white vinegar, Tabasco sauce, and Knorr seasoning.
We immediately met up with the rest of the sportscar contingent for another great run through the vast corn lands of Bacolod and up through Mount Kanlaon in the central-nothern part of Negros to get to the opposite side of the island for a lunch in the town of San Carlos facing the Tañon Straight and the island of Cebu in the distance. The route was planned, guided, and hosted by the Boss BMW Bike Club from Dumaguete – of which Jan and Michael are members – as well as some of the members of the Bacolod Thunder Bugs Bike Club, which was founded by Philip Garcia.
For twenty kilometers of open road we drove through the heartland of the Visayas guided by clear blue skies, a radiant sun, and near-perfect road conditions as poetic passages from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road flashed through my mind’s eye every time we passed one of the other cars. All our life’s sins were washed away by nothing but the freedom of an open highway and once again, as I watched the Stingrays and the Mustangs and the Jaguars and even the Volkswagen zoom by in a flash of fantastic color and sound, we were angels in flight.
As the roads opened up even more, so did our engines, and we charged forward like a pack of wild animals towards the municipality of Murcia at the northern foot of Mount Kanlaon which made a lot of sense when I discovered on the map that Murcia was shaped like the upper torso of a rampaging bear. Jan was tremendously efficient in making sure we extracted the most fun and photographs from our drives and that none of the cars made a wrong turn and got lost; his keen guidance was essential to the success of our wildly divergent runs through the island of Negros.
Fairly soon after passing several rolling rivers forming their arteries through the topography, we began our climb above sea level and there were monumental mountains everywhere, as far as the eye could see and in every faded distance towards the North and in the South you could barely make out Kanlaon Volcano.
The temperature dropped steadily on our ascent and pine trees started appearing on the sides of the zigzagging road, and it was here where we met up with more Bacolod adventurists – another Thunder Bug by the name of Ponce Rivero had joined the group in his Marakesh Red BMW R1100 GS, and for the first time on this mainly two-door expedition a sedan had snuck its way into the ranks: Manolet Lamata, a tall Spanish haciendero with a deep and somewhat intimidating voice, was also a friend of my uncle who had driven up his regency-red with Burlwood interior double-six Daimler Sovereign. With its fluted radiator grille and boot lid, two petrol tanks, and Connolly leather and wool carpet interior, the new addition to the lineup looked regal and unique next to the sportscars, which were now a little weathered by all the steady mileage.
Señor Lamata took us to a tourist view site with a gazebo on the edge of a cliff overlooking a waterfall near the bottom of a deep chasm. The place was called Prayer Mountain and it was here where Edrich grabbed the wheel of Jimmy Cervantes’s British Racing Green MG TF in order to satisfy his own personal desire to compare the car’s handling characteristics with his own Miata at home.
Edrich had his driving fix through some interesting and enjoyable roads all the way to Carmel’s Inn in San Carlos, where the bike clubs treated us to a Filipino lunch of menudo, fish, and deep-fried calamares.
Lito Ignacio was the first and only member of the sportscar drivers to detach himself from the rest of the group before the journey had ended. The long road to Pontevedra was a tremendous accomplishment all by itself, and work commitments had forced Lito to pack his bags and send his infamous little Spyder back on the first RORO out of Bacolod – where it was accidentally scratched on the fender during embarkation.
On the parking lot of Carmel’s after lunch, I met Mickey Guevara and James Lim, who were watching Lamata’s Daimler overheat from the burdensome climb up the mountains. As mechanics hydrated the two engines Mickey said, ‘Listen to those engines – it’s like some kind of rhapsody or symphony…’ I laughed and took another healthy swig of a local Chinese wine called Vino Viagro before rounding up the boys for a quick shot to the pier, where Deakin, bless that sonofabitch’s twisted heart, captured the greatest group photograph in Evo Philippines history.
Between four healthy males with bellies full of fire and brimstone, the Innova was now beginning to smell like a big bag of gas – so we rolled down the windows and followed the Thunder Bugs to the grand pier, which had no ships anchored by the mooring at the moment and was wide open and empty as a shopping mall parking lot. With the pier surrounded on all sides by a devastatingly blue ocean under an oil-on-canvass arrangement of cumulonimbus clouds and the quiet silhouette of land in the far distance, this was simply the perfect place to choreograph all these cars together and capture a truly magical photographic moment that would earn the honor of becoming Deakin’s desktop wallpaper for many mesmerizing months – and might even still be there.
It was a group shot of all two-door sportscars, so we were forced to exclude Lamata’s Daimler lest we create an imbalance in the composition of the picture – so we shot it separately but in the same location where it displayed a distinct character of its own. I assumed Mr. Lamata understood this, so I didn’t bother explaining it to him during the shoot – which may have bitten us all in the ass later on that day.
‘They left!’ I heard Alex scream as the sportscars roared out of the pier before we could scramble together our gear and hop back on the gasbag. But alas, they were out of fuel so they sent Ponce Rivero to look for us and lead us to the Petron station where they were waiting for their vouchers. After a brief episode of directional confusion, we were all gassed up like fixed junkies and back on the road towards the town of Salvador Benedicto, where the Mayor and her husband had a merienda of local delicacies awaiting for us in their enchanting tree house compound.
We took the same road back towards Prayer Mountain, passing through some pretty hairy off-road cliffside passes that the vintage cars took on like real men, but when we reached Salvador Benedicto the roads had improved dramatically, thanks to the care and maintenance programs of Mayor Cynthia De la Cruz and her congenial husband Nene, who was the former Mayor of the township. The roads were as smooth and manicured as a country club driveway, with healthy evergreen pine trees planted all along the sidewalks. It was a free-flowing rollercoaster ride of classic cars as we dipped and turned around easy bends until we finally reached the Mayor’s residential mountain fortress – which was an interesting cross between an Ewok Village and a Filipino-style Swiss Family Robinson home; a quaint and breezy collection of gazebos and cogon cabañas scattered around the mountainside, interconnected by little wood-plank suspension bridges and pathways surrounded by sweet pineapple plots.
Like most Filipinos entertaining in their humble home, the De la Cruzes were extremely hospitable. They had fresh brewed coffee prepared for everyone, as well as cold beers swimming around in a red Coleman cooler filled with ice and water, thick slices of refreshing pineapple, homemade suman wrapped in banana leaves and sprinkled with sugar and coconut shavings, also moist fluffy puto, pig’s blood stew and pan-fried plantains.
Around the table Nene, Cynthia, and their son Mark – who is the Vice-Mayor – spoke enthusiastically about their promising plans for the future development of their town.
‘The government gives us very little money, but we intend to do the best we can to turn Salvador Benedicto into a tourist town in this part of Negros,’ said Nene with a smile, knowing exposure in our magazine would do its part in this endeavor. ‘We are building a cable car that will transport tourists down to the waterfalls from Prayer Mountain. And around this area, you will notice we have a little bit of everything; on the drive back you will pass through hundreds of little chocolate hills like the ones you see in Bohol, as well as cascading rice terraces like the ones you see in Banaue. We have it all here; we sent farmers to Baguio for a year and a half to study and perfect the fine art of planting rice in terraces.’
I was impressed with their passion and love for their hometown and promised to talk about it at length in this story – which at this point has blown magnanimously out of proportion and grown from a simple car article into an epic travelogue and cultural character study.
Before we left to drive through the chocolate hills and rice terraces, I went to the bathroom in the back room of the tree house and ran into several loaded M-16s propped up against the bamboo wall next to stacks of locally produced walis tambos, soft-whisk brooms they gave to each of us as a friendly parting souvenir.
The image of fire spitting hotrods and convertibles peeling out of a provincial parking lot and leaving behind nothing but a cloud of dusty silence was now becoming all too familiar. Our rearview mirrors had by now seen many hands waving goodbye and there were still two more island to traverse before our final blaze-of-glory burnout from Batangas to Manila.
Just like Nene said, we drove through the dusky twilight casting its reddish glow on hillside carve out with giant steps of rice-paddy terraces patterned just like the ones you’ll find in the mountain province. And rolling over in the distance towards the horizon like jolly green goose bumps were the endless chocolate hills mimicking Bohol’s prime tourist attraction.
The next destination on our southern pilgrimage was the Casino Filipino back in Bacolod City. Edrich was now driving Joe La’O’s embattled green Stingray and was enjoying it immensely despite not being completely comfortable with its unique personality. ‘I love the horn man,’ he said, very classy and tasteful – not offensive at all.’ And Tony Feliciano’s white Mustang finally gave in when the fuel pump overheated somewhere near Mambucal.
While I was driving and James was taking pictures, a conversation between us erupted and eventually led to what we now refer to as the Lamata Scandal.
‘Lamata went up to me during the merienda and asked out of curiosity why he wasn’t included in the group shot at the pier,’ he started the dialogue.
‘The shot was all two-door sportscars; his Daimler wouldn’t have fit in you did tell him that, didn’t you?’ I responded nonchalantly with my eyes on the road.
‘Well sort of…’ he continued.
‘What do you mean sort of? What did you tell him?’ Alarms warning up.
‘Well, I kind of told him that we were doing a story on the Manila Sports Car Club, and that’s why we didn’t include him in the picture.’
‘What?! Are you nuts? Philip Garcia isn’t part of the MSCC and his Jag was center stage in the shot – James, you gotta sort this thing out, man. We don’t want any bad vibes from these southerners. I mean the guy’s a friend of my uncle’s – and we have mutual in-laws or something, so whatever you do, don’t piss him off.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll clear up this mess when we get to the casino,’ he assured me when all of a sudden a blanket of black clouds came over us, then collapsed in a violent shattering rain that followed us all the way back to Bacolod. For the first time on this trip, I had begun to feel the dreadful pangs of homesickness and depression.
On the driveway of the casino, the rain came down stronger than it ever did on this wretched adventure. I stayed in the front seat watching Deakin through the rapid wipers of the windshield as he ran towards Lamata with a newspaper over his head. They spoke briefly, and then James ran back to the car with a baffled look on his face.
‘Well, that didn’t go down too well…’ he said looking somewhat bewildered.
‘What? What happened? What did he say?’ I asked anxiously.
‘He said Forget It!’
‘What? Forget it? What do you mean? He said it like that?’
‘Yeah he said Ah Forget It! Like he was angry.’
‘Like he was angry? What the hell did you say to him? Are you sure he was angry?’ I was officially in panic mode now and was starting to stutter.
‘Well he sounded like he was angry – he sounded like he was downright pissed if you ask me – ah just forget it! He said, then he just walked away.’
‘We’re doomed,’ I said with a resigned look on my face, ‘just doomed… are you sure he was angry? I mean, sometimes mestizos can be a little… abrasive. You know what I mean? That’s probably just the way he talks.’
‘I sure hope so…should we go down?’
‘Forget it, James, you’re just being paranoid. I’m pretty sure he was just busting your balls – let’s go back to the hotel; I need a beer.’
THERE’S NOTHING LIKE A FONDUE DINNER to ease the hard-boiled tensions of a long day on the road – especially one that ended with a respected Southern gentleman being insulted beyond repair by a band of patronizing toffee-nosed magazine snobs. When we got back to the hotel room Deakin had drowned out his worries with six beers and a greasy calzone, and was now making irrational Formula 1 bets with a fellow motor-journalist halfway across the Philippine archipelago. He was squatting and bouncing on his toes an inch away from the TV in his black briefs, slapping the glass screen repeatedly and shouting obscene cheers at Fernando Alonso as he struggled to take the lead in today’s all-important race. Alex was feeding off his dad’s manic behavior and was laughing hysterically while jumping from bed to bed like a drunken rock star.
‘Oh no,’ I said to Edrich shaking my head, ‘the Deakins have finally gone insane… Do you have any Valium?’
BAD LUCK IN BATCHOY TOWN
Monday, March 13, 2006
L’FISHER HOTEL, BACOLOD CITY – It’s still pitch-black outside and Lacson Street is empty except for a few rogue cabs and crazies; the lobby of the hotel is as quite as a moonlit cemetery. We are yawning and checking out at the same time in order to meet up with the rest of the group before they leave us again and catch our next god-rotten RORO ride to Iloilo, on the island of Panay. I stapled a mental postcard of Boracay on the dashboard of my mind just to remind myself that we would be there in about a dozen hours. My mood was never good this early in the morning and visions of the island was the only thing that kept me from being vocal about it.
The drivers were hauling down their bags and the sportscars were warming up in the garage of the other hotel down the road, so we were early enough to make sure we didn’t miss the boat – but then Deakin left his son’s milk in the hotel mini-bar and wondered if he had time to quickly drive back and get it. With these unpredictable characters, it was a fifty-fifty crapshoot.
‘Go for it,’ I said, ‘Edrich and I will stall ’em – but do it quickly; they’re all gassed up already, so our vouchers are useless this morning?’
He thought about it for a moment then decided to bite the bullet and sped back to our hotel to get the milk. As soon as he turned the corner I heard a V8 explode into life and saw the blinding headlights of Ding Vitug’s blue Mustang emerge from the ramp of the underground parking. ‘Here we go,’ I thought to myself as I pulled out my cell phone and got ready to send Deakin a text message.
Jorge’s Jag climbed out of the bat cave a few minutes later, followed by the yellow and blue Stingrays, so I decided to motivate James a little by sending him a simple two-word text that I knew would zap him with a jolt of urgency – THEY LEFT.
A split-second later the Grey Bastard skidded into view and Deakin Jumped out saying, ‘those mother…’
‘I’m just kidding,’ I interrupted him quickly; ‘they’re all still here. I just wanted to make sure you got here.’ He laughed nervously and said ‘drink your milk, Alex’.
It was still dark by the time we got all the cars rolled on the ferry, so James was able to get some interesting night shots of some of the Mustangs. On the boat, I found myself half-asleep in the passenger’s lounge, staring at the typically senseless Filipino sign that read FOOD AND DRINKS NOT ALLOWED INSIDE THE AIRCON. My eyes hovered lazily between that and some sexy cheerleader movie with Tommy Lee Jones showing on a wall-mounted TV screen.
I’m on the starboard deck now staring out into the ocean as we make our way west towards the port of Dumangas in the province of Iloilo, on the southeastern side of Panay. The sun has just risen out of the horizon and the breeze blowing in from the sea is soft and cool. The sky is full of clouds but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to rain. This RORO vessel is bigger and faster than the previous ones, with a 30-man crew all working together to drive this barnacled hulk 10 or 12 knots across calm, dull greenish, and cobalt blue seas. After passing another ferry, I can make out the shadowy silhouette of a landmass in the distance.
Tony sat down next to me and offered me one of his special cigars, and as we smoked, we talked about the Mille Miglia and how far we’ve all come together on this nerve-cracking Nautical Run. I mentioned that his Mustang took a real beating and he said with a melancholic smile and eyes fixed out on the ocean, ‘Yes it did… but you know what? It was all worth it… to be with all these good people, who share the same interest and passion… It’s been a lot of fun.’
I nodded and blew thick smoke out into the salty wind. Then Jorge joined us and started teasing Tony about something or other, the way he always does with everyone else. I think he called him a pimp or something, which cracked me up good. The chuckles we were generating attracted Dodo and Dolpho, who had their own sense of humor to share. I asked Dodo if he was related to the President and Jorge answered for him and said only by his height and by the mole on his face – more laughter on the starboard deck.
Pretty soon most of the guys – Michael, Oscar, Joe, Ding, Jimmy – had gathered around us and they were laughing and making fun of each other as we floated past Guimaras. These were grown men with families, responsible professionals, and hard-working Captains of Industry – but right at this moment, and for pretty much the entire duration of the run, they had become high school kids once again, in Puma sneakers and Chuck Taylors, goofing around with their very expensive toys. They ragged on each other and drank booze and stayed up late and took risks with their cars simply because it was fun….Sure, they had their differences here and there – the Boracay issue was one of them – but in the end they all respected each other the same way they respected their cars: with a great deal of genuine love and admiration. I saw this remarkable camaraderie manifest itself during these downtime conversations on the decks of the ROROs. The way Michael would tease Oscar about his weight, or the way Jorge got excited when he talked about upping the ante and planning a sportscar run to China next year. China. In a few days, they would all be back in their offices and homes going through the routines of their everyday lives – but today they were juvenile delinquents on one of the great rides of their life, and they were all laughing together because they actually did pull it off, like they always knew they could.
THE GREY BASTARD had by this time been driven on four island, five provinces, across three different RORO ferries over the course of five days – so when we rolled it off the boat in Dumangas it already had a unique odor of its own inside the cabin: a funky, vaporous amalgamation of human gas, feet, langka, body odor, perspiration, junk food, Jollibee burgers and walis tambo.
In Dumangas, Joe took the lead in his Vette with a shepherd-looking fellow who led us through the streets of La Paz, the home of good batchoy, until we found a good panaderia where we could pick up some boxes of warm bread. I couldn’t help noticing the smooth, refined whine of Joe’s V8, and the way it disappeared effortlessly ahead of us with a punch of the gas pedal. It’s a good thing we were stymied by traffic in the streets of downtown Iloilo or we may have been left behind yet again.
It was on the next turnoff towards the Breakthrough Waterfront restaurant that our convoy had experienced its first accident with another person – a bicyclist who got hit by the MG TF when it cut a corner past a jeepney. It caused a stir for a few hours but there was no real permanent damage done to either the cyclist or the TF, so Jimmy spent some time in the nearest precinct to make sure no lawsuits were filed and no ill feelings were harbored. We then had a huge beachside breakfast of barbecued chicken, liempo, alimango, sinigang, and fish next to some large aquariums filled with scorpion fish and moray eels, after which we visited the Miagao church for some more photo-ops with the cars.
Miagao was already near the southernmost tip of Panay Island, near the border of Iloilo and Antique, so after passing the town of San Joaquin we crossed the border and made a complete U-turn heading north now towards Hamtic in the province of Antique. The entire drive to Caticlan skirted the western edges of the island, so we had the northern part of the Sulu Sea on our left between us and Palawan the entire time. We passed historical sites I never would have cared about in my younger days, like the Malandog Marker, where what appeared to be the biggest town in Antique, known as San Jose de Buenavista, and from there it was essentially a 66-kilometer straight shot up north to Tibiao Point, passing the towns of Belison, Patnongon, Bugasong, Laua-an, and Barbaza.
Approaching Culasi, near the northern hook of Antique, I started getting delirious from road fatigue and began seeing hallucinations of the long white beach in Boracay. I never thought I’d say it, and I think I even promised myself I never would after the third grade, but out it came: ‘Are we there yet?’
Finally, after about 67 more kilometers of silent agony through the towns of Sebaste and Pandan, we crossed the border into Aklan and reached the golden gateway to paradise – The Welcome Center in Caticlan.
RETURN TO PARADISE
FOR THE FIRST TIME IN EIGHT DAYS during this southern sportscar saga I had removed my driving loafers and put on a pair of beach slippers – which I wore the entire 36 hours I was on that weird island…. It felt strange for me to be returning to Boracay after 10 years – especially since it had been virtually invaded over the past decade by every city slicker I know, and every foreign exiled fugitive escaping a life, a wife, or a crime scene in some dreary European country thousands of nautical miles away.
As I sat on a vibrating wooden bench on the Le Soleil banca, scribbling on my notebook as we chugged along towards the island, I began to worry whether I would be disappointed with what I saw. I remember the place as I would remember a truly euphoric dream, a celestial vision of intense pleasure and hedonism that was real and tangible for a few days, and then suddenly vanished in a hard spank of reality. I grew up thinking there was a better world continents away from the country I was born in, and even sought to explore those continents as comprehensively as time and money would allow – but setting foot on the celebrated sands of Boracay first in 1990, then in 1996, made me realize that I did not have to travel very far to reach Paradise. In fact, it was the citizens of those very lands I was taught to seek out who left their homes and families and personal histories to risk culture shock and dysentery and to travel far and wide to come here, not only to visit but to actually live; to settle down here and establish their own lives and families.
For many people of many origins and cultures and personalities Boracay was the Ultimate Destination – and I don’t mean that in any Lonely Planet sort of way. For atheists the island was heaven on Earth, the Final Frontier in the mad search for the perfect lifestyle, free from the hard knocks and hassles of what many refer to as the Rat Race, and engulfed in a beauty that can only be described as Godly… and the last time I was here I understood why.
Almost anybody who has visited this fabled place has at one time or another entertained the notion of packing it all up and moving here, falling victim to the beach bum myth even for a temporary length of time – because, as anyone will tell you, it is not just a place, but a tranquil state of mind and an experience that falls somewhere in that limbo between a flash of Buddhist enlightenment and a hallucinogenic drop of LSD 25.
But today, I fretted, was going to be different. Money and tourists had naturally fluxed into the island en masse, I guessed, and the experience might be radically different from what I remember. There was only one way to find out.
ALTHOUGH I HAD NOT BEEN HERE IN 1O YEARS, my connection to the island was not entirely invisible. In fact, it was somewhat lurid. I had been commissioned by the Philippine Daily Inquirer through a friend, fellow journalists, and the Boracay habitué Teddy Montelibano to investigate the brutal machete murders that took place a few years back in one of the island’s most talked about hilltop beach houses, La Dolce Vita, by interviewing its prime suspect, a German mechanic by the name of Uwe Friezel. I thought about those dark times when I spotted the red pyramid roof of La Dolce Vita nestled near the highest hill of the island as we approached the beach, which still looked like a line of powdered sugar on the edges of the coastline albeit acupunctured with Smart advertising flags and anchored with bancas of every shape, size, and color.
Yes, the place has definitely developed… like a voluptuous teenage breast constantly being coddled, fondled, and sucked by everyone – politicians, for engineers, tourists,students,resorts, corporations, laborers, drug addicts, pederasts, murderers, the government, everyone…and just like that same teenage breast, I have to admit the island is still naturally beautiful and sexy and attractive, but in a different way. Because the island has attracted all manner of human deviation, it has curiously become what it has always wanted to be: the most unique place on the face of the Earth. Genetically, they come from the same family, but you could probably call Boracay Amanpulo’s rebellious, artistic, bohemian black sheep brother – and after thinking about that statement for a moment you begin to understand why everyone wants to go there. It is perfect island bohemian unlike any other place in the world, loaded with interesting things to do, places to go, people to meet, and stories to take home – if and when you do decide to go home, because not many people do, and that’s not an exaggeration. I’ve honestly lost track of how many of my own people friends have made Bora their residence at some point in their lives – and I am hardly the only one who can make that claim. How many friends do you know? See what I mean.
We landed here on a Monday during the off-season and the place is bubbling with hippy-dippy beach-bum-beatnik action; Woodstock meets Margaritaville meets The Beach, with a dash of, shit I don’t know, Divisoria, for lack of a better term – and when the fireball sun goes down there’s a definite dose of Ibiza that’s palpable throughout the island. It may not be the Zen-like gateway you had in mind when you felt the desperate urge to disappear from society for a while, but it is still an escape – and for writers like me it is an endless yarn of fascination strung through literally hundreds of bars, cafes, hotels, and restaurants serving food and alcohol for thought. Tree-huggers and granola kids will still cringe at the thought of a billion-peso Shangri-La being constructed along with the host of other resorts, and there is still a part of me that wishes this virgin island would remain exactly that – but the fact is Boracay has now finally found its true identity and has settled comfortably into its own skin, however wild and reptilian that might be.
Le Soleil de Boracay is one of the better places you can stay at on the island; it’s in the middle of Station Two, where all the groovy action takes places, and offers you the charm and ambience of the Mediterranean in a colorful beach house-style hotel with rooftop trellises, Gaudi-esque tiles, rockpile pillars, and ceramic dolphin fountain on front patio. After checking into our cozy rooms we went to the back of the hotel, where there was a white-tile swimming pool surrounded by a wooden deck with rattan recliners, a poolside bar, and a stone arched wall that shot water spouts and fountains into the pool. It was a perfect base camp for weary travelers. After settling in I called some friends of mine – Ramoncito Nieto and Javy Villa-Abrille – who had moved to the island some years ago to escape a troubled past and start a new life in the palm trees. We made plans to meet up later that evening.
Edrich, who had also joined the development bandwagon, had bought some beachfront property some time ago and was also in the process of building a small hotel; he skipped off to check on the job site while the Deakins and I wasted no time in grabbing a beer in the beer in the beach bar outside our hotel. The place was called the Paradise Grill or something, and we watched parasailers fly past the sunset from there while some natives constructed the most elaborate and impressive sandcastle I have ever seen.
A few more beers prompted us to conveniently settle down on a candlelit banig table on the beach in front of the restaurant next door, a popular pizza place called Aria owned by another friend and Boracay pioneer, Juan Elizalde. I called Juan’s supermodel girlfriend Bianca Araneta for some dinner recommendations and she suggested we order the quattro formaggi or the Aria Special, so we ordered half of each and a bowl of pesto pasta for Alex. The wood-burning oven-baked pizza was absolutely delicious: warm, toasty, and crunchy thin crust with fresh, tasty toppings and lots of gooey, long-stretching melted cheese.
The intoxication process was tempered by good food and a digestive stroll through the Elizalde’s D’Mall, Boracay’s open-air shopping arcade where hopeless consumers can get their commercial fix by window and counter-shopping in store-huts bearing familiar names from the mainland like Bench, Nothing But Water, Andok’s, Mongkok, and the Hobbit House – which looks more like the Tolkienian dwelling hole than the Malate original ever did.
I lost the Deakins inside D’Mall and found myself walking briskly down the main beachfront avenue past barbecue stalls and pedicabs until I reached the Tourist Center and Police Station, which was right beside Asya, the bar and restaurant Javy managed. The place was a little out of the way, down a dark alley off the main drag, but when you got there, it was like discovering a well-kept secret. It had the feel and atmosphere of a tastefully designed luxury spa, with lots of teak wood, ambient lighting, and manmade water structures like little fountains and a pool surrounded by a tailor-made jungle of exotic flora arranged by the experts of Mabolo.
The boys had just finished dinner and were drinking rum-coke in a table near the bar with an English lad by the name of Carl Humberstond. It felt good to see old friends with permanent tans and relaxed wardrobes that articulated the inner peace that had replaced their dark pasts, so we ordered more drinks and immediately began catching up on each other’s lives. In our younger, wilder years we had all flirted with, dabbled in, and downright abused all the substances we could get our hands on, and tonight we had somehow randomly found ourselves drinking and laughing and generally enjoying the good life in an island paradise free from the sins of the past – and the funny thing is we were all indirectly getting paid for being here.
All my bar tabs on the island would be paid in fully by the home office in Manila, so I ordered several more rum-cokes to toss down before we staggered out of Asya and into the mardi gras madness of the Boracay night like a bunch of vampire hobos. Javy howled at women as we walked, and Cito seemed to know everyone on the island. Our first stop was at a nearby bamboo bar called Charl’s to listen to a local band play classic rock covers to a crowd of customers on the beach.
From Charl’s the moved on to a funky place called Juice, then inevitably to Plazaleto and the always-popular Hey Jude, where I ran into fellow journalist Natalia Diaz. A strange woman had walked up to Javy and asked him if he had any drugs – unfortunately he had nothing to offer but a tongue in her mouth, which she ostensibly accepted before we proceeded to the bar to shoot some tequila. The scene got really weird after that. A French dude freaked me out when he started dancing on the table like a drunken monkey, so I bailed out of there and paid someone a ridiculous amount of money to take me back to my hotel in his bicycle. I don’t remember this part but according to James and Edrich I barged into the room, woke them up abruptly with a cacophony of hiccups and song, then passed out on my bed leaving them to deal with my brutal booze-fueled snoring, which began the second my head hit the pillow.
MY HANGOVER WAS NOT AS PAINFUL as I predicted, and I got up at a reasonable hour to claim a big Filipino breakfast in the hotel café. My head cleared up further when Edrich invited us for a cool swim at the fabulous Fairways hotel up on the cliff near Station One, where we lunched on steak sandwiches and enjoyed the hilltop views of the island and its surrounding beaches. The most pristine stretch of white sand ran down the spine of Station One in front of the swankier resorts like Friday’s, Waling-Waling, Pearl of the Pacific, and the White House, so it was here where I did most of my ocean swimming near a sandbar, away from the green waters and beach combing crowds of Station Two.
From here, I took a tricycle back to Asya to meet Cito, who took me for a ride around the island on what appeared to be the perfect Boracay vehicle: a bright-green John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle. On an isolated island where there are no cars and traffic is ruled by trikes, bikes, and ATVs, the Gator, with features like a 12-volt DC outlet, a heavy-duty front suspension kit, a high-capacity alternator kit, and high-altitude jets, is the equivalent of a Land Rover. The yellow bucket seats were comfortable, especially after we picked up a few cold beers in a roadside store and rumbled our way with the sun on our shoulders towards the Choy Cojuangco property near Station One, where he was going to show me another ideal Boracay vehicle – this time one that floats.
The Cojuangco property was a dense 12-hectare hilltop jungle landscaped with an overgrowth of tropical trees and shrubs. We carved our own trail with the Gator’s heavy-duty floating radials, thrashing through thorny bushes and rolling up steep canyons with butterflies and bayawaks crossing our rugged path. The rustic acreage scaled a ridge and then cascaded down the other side, revealing the sea, which was less than a hundred yards away. Still buried in a forest of indigenous trees, we drove down a partly paved hiking trail in order to access a hidden beach, tucked away between jagged cliffside rocks. It was here, Cito pointed out, that foreign nudist would go skinny-dipping and sand romping away from the prying eyes of curious perverts like ourselves.
There was nobody there today, but what was there, parked on a trailer on the beach was probably the fastest speedboat on the island – a cigarette boat with two 300-horsepower V8 outboard engines. The boat used to belong to my brother-in-law Christoper Darza, until he sold it to Choy Cojuangco in Boracay, where it sank, then was raised and salvaged into a fully functional speedboat albeit a sparer one with no cabin. One of Cito’s responsibilities on the island was to take care of the boat and fire up those huge engines once a day, so he pulled off the canvass cover and took me aboard to take a peek while he ignited the V8 and cleaned them with water. The sound of the engines startled me a little and I nearly slipped as I climbed onto the boat. Although the owner had removed the cabin to create more space, there was still a small lavatory. The trim was very simple but the control panel was not – a complicated arrangement of switches, gauges, and dials corresponding to the boat’s myriad technical features. It looked more like the instrumentation panel of a small aircraft than a motorboat.
On the highest point of the Cojuangco property, where I assume he has plans to build his main beach house, is a skeletal frame tower with a flimsy fire-scape ladder you could climb to reach the small scaffolding on top and enjoy, however shakily, a 360-degree view of the whole island – which was breathtaking to say the least, especially after four beers.
From here Cito pointed out the 1500 square-meter tract of land that was for sale, and while my knees wobbled we discussed everything from the fortunate scarcity of drugs on the island to the potentially lucrative prospect of exporting fresh mangoes to the United Kingdom – an idea he had been toying around with Carl, who claims that a decent glass of mango juice in England does not exist.
All this mango talk left me craving for a shake, so we drove the Gator back to Asya and ordered some fruit slushies at the bar before going up to Javy’s shack on top of the police station, where we found him asleep with an unopened condom packet on the floor next to his bed.
WE rustled him out of bed and walked to a dive resort owned by a genuine English knight who hung up his armor years ago and left his royal pedigree in hoary England for a new life in the tropics as a divemaster and innkeeper. It was the weather, he said, that tipped the scales for him and drew him into the island, and the purchasing power that kept him here long enough to start a business and a family. His only complaints were the new jetty port – a grotesque eyesore that greeted visitors as they crossed the channel towards the island – the occasional droughts that would leave the islanders without any clean running water, and the crippling cases of corruption that contaminated the political administration of the island.
My hours on the island were numbered and I wanted to take home with me a perfect memory of the famous Boracay sunset, so we left our poolside table at the dive resort and walked down to Station Three to a beatnik little reggae bar that looked like something Robinson Crusoe would have had the imagination to build had he smoked enough hash. It was called the Red Pirate and it was nothing but a dark hut decorated with Bob Marley posters and strings of colorful lightbulbs inside and a lounge with furniture made of driftwood and tree trunks outside on the beach. Listening to the obscure Rastafarian melodies while sipping on a beer and soaking in the atmosphere, the first thing that came to mind was Survivor: Jamaica… or a leftover set from bizarre peyote-addled remake of Gilligan’s Island.
She wasn’t the proprietor of the place nor was she a waitress but Claudette the brunette was known as the piano lady of Boracay. She took our orders and served us beers while reprimanding a scruffy little mutt that furiously tried to snare a stray cat taking refuge in a coconut tree that was bent just enough for it to reach the nuts in a quick shuffle.
The sunset floored me, and when it disappeared below the horizon and darkness fell over the island. Javy left to go the White House to pick up a group of guests who were going to have dinner in Asya. The Deakins were supposed to meet us but they got literally carried away by the whole parasailing experience, so we headed back ‘downtown’ and picked up eight barbecue sticks and a bag of pickled singkamas on the way. Cito was irked by a stoned foreigner with blue-tint shades who thought we were tourists and tried to show off his status as a local by saying a few Tagalog words to the barbecue vendor. Naturally, he was taken aback when we both started conversing in fluent Tagalog, and he just walked away.
Cito, who has always been a genuine friend, invited me to his home to have dinner with his lovely wife Julian and his adorable daughter Sofia. He had built a work-in-progress tree house on top of his ukay-ukay store near Freddie Webb’s house, it was complete with bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bamboo balcony fitted with gigantic Xenon speakers on all sides of the cogon ceiling. It was here where the gracious and hospitable Julian made sure we had enough rum and ice to go with a delicious home-cooked supper of grilled liempo, pork chops, pinakbet and rice.
I asked Cito if he ever worried about thieves in the night and he said never because he was good friends with the local cops and he showed me an unusual weapon he kept in the house for security – a three-and-a-half foot tail of a ray known locally as buntot pagi that if whipped against human skin could release a deadly venom.
Carl showed up soon after and we all had a great time shooting the breeze and listening to light rock n’ roll, the style that’s perfect for a starry night on an island with a cool amihan blowing gently through the balcony. I was slightly burdened though by the fact that I had to leave the island at six o’ clock the next morning; my stay was much too short and there was still so much to do and see and talk about with my friends. I mean this was Carl’s first time in Bora and he had already been here for five weeks and was planning to stay for five more, possibly even come back for good – ah, there it is again, the entrancing spell of the island that afflicts all first-timers and is nearly impossible to snap out of.
Before we got too drunk and sentimental, Cito took me to a handicrafts store in the nearby market with his motorcycle. The owner of the store owed him money so as a parting gift he told me to choose any two items in the store, so I picked out two bamboo and white linen lamp shades that I knew my wife would love. After that, we said our goodbyes and had one of his boys take me back to the hotel in the motorcycle.
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
It was too early in the morning to get struck by a lightning bolt of cruel déjà vu. I was back on the vibrating wooden bench of the Lhuillier’s Le Soliel banca scribbling on my notebook and staring at Boracay from a distance. But the cruel part was that the talcum powder beach was getting smaller and the island was getting further away from me… or rather I was getting further away from the island, on my way back to Caticlan to get back on that cursed Innova and make our way back home to Manila.
The puka shell fantasy was over, I thought. It was time to wake up and face the grim realities of life. It was a miserable departure, but I sought comfort by knowing the island will always be there. It may continue to morph and reinvent itself every few years, but only a tsunami can wipe it out permanently – which is not entirely out of the question. And the next time I visit Boracay – which hopefully isn’t another 10 years from now – it may very well be the over-exploited tourist metropolis everybody fears it might become. But for now, it will remain the Valhalla it always was.
MAMA TOLD ME NOT TO COME
I WAS STARTING TO HATE THE ROROS NOW. Those two nights on that euphoric island had spoiled me and I was beginning to despise everything about these rusty old beer barges, bellowing their foghorns and bouncing along the surf like gigantic water buffalos. There was too much paperwork to fill out and too many clearance offices to go to, and there were never any comfortable places to sit – and when I finally found a decent seat on the upper deck, it turns out it had just been freshly painted. So I left that ferry with a green ass-print on my shorts… but I didn’t care. I just wanted to get home. To my wife, my dog, my bed, my TV – Yes, it was all starting to get to me now. The flames of adventure were starting to flicker and our minds and bodies were starting to burn out.
We had arrived in Mindoro on the verge of collapse. By the time we docked in Roxas City and dragged our feet down to the belly of the beast to squeeze our way into the Innova, our mental faculties were in bad shape. The thought of getting into a car and driving almost triggered a nervous breakdown for me, and even Edrich was beginning to hate the Innova. From here on in it was a race against the clock and there was neither the capability, the inclination, nor the time to enjoy anything about the final leg of the journey. We just had to drive as fast as we could to the other side of the island to catch the final ferry to Batangas and hopefully make it to Manila by 9pm, because Deakin still had his live Counterflow radio show to do.
I honestly don’t remember much about that last long haul in Mindoro, that final zombie train to the end of the line. The drive was long, dull, and cumbersome, and as the barren countryside flashed past, I just stared at it until I fell asleep. James had used up all his memory sticks so he packed up his camera for good and Edrich had finally run out of things to talk about.
We caught the last sunset cruise out of Mindoro in the nick of time, and I passed out on one of the cabin chairs for most of the ride home. When I woke up, I stepped out on the deck and it was already dark. Many of the passengers were slowly coming out so they could lean on the railing and stare out at a pale yellow moon that was so large and full that it appeared to be guiding us towards the port of Batangas. I felt hypnotized by it in my utter exhaustion, so I just stared in silence…then I heard the click of a camera close to me. It was Michael taking a picture of the moon. I looked to my left and there were Jorge and Tony looking out towards the glittering night-lights of Batangas as we approached. Beyond them I could see everyone was out on the deck again – Oscar, Joe, Dodo, Dolpho, Ding, Jimmy – and they were once again laughing and talking excitedly about what they had just accomplished, and planning on how they could top in next year… and here I was, a complete basket case of metal and physical exhaustion, bleary eyed and seasick, and these guys looked like… like they hadn’t had enough. Michael was already talking about driving to Leyte or even to Thailand, and Jorge was talking about driving to Shanghai. They probably would have driven their sportscars to that fat moon up there if they could.
Jorge looked at me and said, ‘you look tired, Mari.’
‘I am, Jorge,’ I answered. ‘I think I’m going to sleep for three days.’
Then Michael threw in one of his one-liners, ‘Eh lasing na si Mari eh,’
The three of us started laughing, and then I said, ‘But it was a great experience; it really was.’
I knew I wouldn’t get a chance to say goodbye to any of them, so I shook both their hands right there and said, ‘thanks for letting us tag along.’
‘Anytime,’ they said.
Moments later, I disappeared to the carport down below to beat the crowd and found the boys already waiting for me in the Innova. Deakin knew he had to get to the radio station in record time, so he got behind the wheel for the first time in days. I hopped in right before they anchored and when the drawbridge finally opened to let out the cars we were the first one to roll off the boat and drive out of the pier. It felt good to be ahead of the pack for once.
‘Alright boys,’ Deakin announced, ‘I’ve got a radio show to catch in one hour, so fasten your seatbelts and hold on to your panties, we’re gonna drive Deakin-style now, right Alex?’
‘Right!’ young Deakin replied. The kid had grown up a hell of lot these past few days, and although his mom must have been worried sick by now, I knew his dad must have been very proud. He switched on the radio and the opening riffs of Three Dog Night’s ‘Mama Told Me Not to Come’ starting rumbling out of the speakers. He turned up the volume a few notches and as we entered the highway, my cell phone beeped. I checked the text message, thought for a moment, then punched back a few keys to reply.
‘It’s Jorge,’ I said, ‘they’re still back in the pier waiting for us.’
‘What did he want?’ James asked as he blasted down the expressway.
‘He was asking where we went,’ I said, ‘I think they were going to have dinner.’
‘What did you tell him?’
‘Well… I told him we just left.’
James looked at me and stared laughing.
‘Home, James,’ I said as I strapped on my seatbelt.