From road trip to road rage in just half a day (or how I went to Batangas and ended up in Quezon)

Rich New Yorkers spend their weekends in the Hamptons.
Metro Manila’s coño kids — and their coño parents — spend them in exclusive resorts in Batangas and Laguna.
For bonafide members of Quezon City’s cream of the crap — such as, for instance, myself — weekends are generally spent inside their apartments, usually in a vain search for a clean pair of underwear.
But recently, something else came up — as something always does — ensuring that my life (such as it is) hews as closely as possible to the storyline of any tacky, low-budget, late-night television sitcom.
On the last weekend of May, I got invited to a beach wedding in Batangas, prompting me to rearrange whatever passes for my social calendar.
It wasn’t difficult.
As a result, my plan to stare at the ceiling for two days was moved to the weekend previously allotted for thumb-twiddling and/or humming.
But let me just say that I almost didn’t make it to the ceremony.
However, that’s getting ahead of the story.

That’s what rich friends are for

Of the few times I visited Batangas, I never had to fork out a peso — at all — to cover costs related to food, drink, lodging, and transport.
A few years ago, after an acquaintance picked me up in a van, I spent the weekend visiting a beach, lounging in a Tagaytay condo, and — get this — drinking the night away, all for free.
All I had to do was to be my charming, sophisticated self — cracking old jokes until told to shut up and get some more ice.
Yes: that was the life.
This year, after running out of bad karma, it was payback time.
A friend, his small family, and I were offered free food, drinks, and overnight accomodations in one of the beach resorts in Batangas — all just to attend another close friend’s ceremony.
The invitation came with a set of requirements.
Besides being requested to wear linen shirts, khaki pants, and sandals, we were also asked to take care of our own transportation.
Surprisingly enough, as someone who rarely wanted to leave my apartment, this barely discouraged me from going.
After all, my fellow guest agreed to drive me to the venue since he was going on an extended vacation with his family in the area anyway.
Our small delegation included his wife and son, a smart boy who is too young to realize the repercussions of having me as his godfather.
And during that Saturday afternoon, as we were cruising along the South Super Highway, the boy’s mind was on something else: the beach.
This was manifested by his continued interest in repeating the set of instructions on how to get to the resort.
It was like clockwork.
Every kilometer, he made an announcement, telling everyone that we should get off at the Maharlika Highway exit towards Sto. Tomas, Batangas.
But the boy’s attempts to help us navigate would prove to be futile.
Even before we reached Lipa City, we discovered that half of the instructions were about as useful as a dial-up modem.
Only upon entering Lipa City proper — which was still an hour and a half away from our destination — did we realize the enormity of our troubles.
A rotunda sat on the middle of the highway, flanked by a huge McDonald’s outlet which, in turn, cut the road into two directions.
Thankfully, the instructions — posted on and downloaded from the resort’s website — made no mention of these two structures nor the general direction which we would take.
But we all ignored that setback.
All three adults in the delegation considered themselves fairly experienced travelers.
The ceremony’s best man (who was behind the wheel) once lived in the East Coast with his family and I (the groomsman) once got lost in the subway — on New Year’s Eve at that — without being mistaken for a terrorist, a panhandler, or some Filipino hick living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Years later, we missed a midnight train from Virginia to DC but our streetsmarts led us back to our hotel where our wives were waiting for us.
On separate occasions, both of us were also able to survive visiting two other continents with nothing but chutzpah and common sense to guide us throughout our trips.
But at that moment, one and half hours before the scheduled ceremony, as the car encircled the rotunda, we finally came to terms with our fate.
No amount of adventures in any foreign location were about to controvert our situation in Batangas. We were not only lost, we were absolutely, unquestionably, undisputably lost.
To quote a popular saying, we were fucked.

Lipa City is Makati on Valium

As we came to grips with this inconvenient truth, we attempted to do what appeared logical to three fairly-intelligent but lost adults at that time.
We drove into the city, madly, blindly, like three mice for whom a nursery rhyme was composed.
And as we traveled on its streets, we came to realize that Lipa City was Makati on Valium.
Like the Philippines’ premier business district, it had one-way streets more common than the signature accent of Leo Martinez.
Every time we made a wrong turn, we had to go around the block just to get back to where we were.
This occurred a couple of times while looking for a P. Torres — supposedly the location of a Mercury Drug store — which would then lead us to a Padre Garcia.
However, the route information that we had failed to indicate what P. Torres or Padre Garcia was.
Were these streets, districts, or neighborhoods? Or were these simply random names of dead or fictitious people designed to confuse cityfolk confident of their navigational skills?
We didn’t know and we didn’t care.
Our goal was to get to a resort in Laiya as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, another thing got in the way.
Vehicles in Lipa City traveled at the pace of the Philippines’ judicial system.
On more than one occasion, even though the road ahead was clear of any vehicle, pedestrian, or potential road kill, jeepneys rarely accelerated.
Instead, they moved at the pace of a fully-loaded shopping cart pushed behind by a senior citizen suffering from arthritis.
After receiving directions from five to six tricycle drivers and a couple of pedestrians, we were convinced that we were on the right track.
We got on what appeared to be a national highway that we believed would take us to our final destination.
That is, until we saw a school named after a certain Governor Rafael Nantes.
In the blink of an eye, our car slowed down, moved to the shoulder, and attempted to make a U-turn. We took the wrong way and was already heading toward Tiaong, Quezon.
Good thing the driver knew who Nantes was: he was the Governor of Quezon.
Only when we reentered Lipa City did we get correct directions from an old guy on a cane, sitting on a bench by the roadside.
When we asked which way Laiya was, he was so shocked that he was able to stand up without using his cane.
He then volunteered to give us specific instructions on how to get to the resort.
His directions were proven correct.
But we still arrived an hour late.
Fortunately, our hosts waited for us, ensuring our participation in their blessed and happy ceremony.
Not long after, all of us were already enjoying the reception.
As I drank crisp, ice-cold, and most importantly — free — beer, I remembered a quote I first encountered in high school while reading Robert Ludlum’s The Osterman Weekend: “It may be better to travel, but it is even better to arrive.”
I took a long pull on my beer and got myself another bottle, hoping that the trip back to Manila wouldn’t be half as bad.
It wasn’t. I traveled with an economist.
But that’s the subject of another blog entry.
Picture of Southern Tagalog Arterial Road from Batanggenyong Online.

A heavy toll on the Batangas Port

Editorial cartoon

LIKE all government infrastructure projects, the Port of Batangas was built and conceived with the best of intentions.

A facility located within an economic growth corridor outside Metro Manila, the Batangas Port is expected to boost local and global trade, unlocking huge possibilities to support the country’s continued economic expansion.

Once in full swing, the port would also help lift the Philippine shipping industry out of its rut.

Since nearly 90 percent of all goods around the world are transported by sea—including the ones entering and leaving domestic shores—the port is envisioned to form part of a seamless logistical system, allowing companies to ship their products to and from any point in the country and the world at the least possible cost.

But as with any well-planned, well-funded, and well-intentioned government project, the Batangas Port has its own share of hitches and obstacles.

Bankrolled by a low-interest, long-term Japanese loan, the facility has very little to show for except its excellent potential, which has been sadly left unrealized.

Owing to low shipment volumes, the private cargo-handler tasked to run the port’s domestic terminal has yet to turn in a healthy profit from its operations. This, ten years after the company secured a concession to manage the facility’s domestic shipments.

Fewer cargoes, in turn, were brought about by the lack of necessary road infrastructure within the area.

Not only has this discouraged companies from using the port, the absence of road networks linking the facility to main highways have increased transport costs, forcing shipping and trucking operators to endure inefficiencies in the country’s capital.

Thankfully, with the recent completion of various highway projects in Luzon—including a flyover connecting the Batangas Port diversion road to the port proper—logistics companies may yet give the facility another chance to prove its capabilities.

But that may come later rather than sooner.

As soon as the government announced that a flyover and an access road to the port was nearly complete, the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation requested the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) to levy toll fees on all vehicles using the very same highway project. The request was made because the Japanese bank may already be eager to collect on a P336 million loan which was used for the road network’s construction.

However, once the proposed fee secures approval, it will only give companies another reason to avoid Batangas altogether.

Since it is already more expensive for shippers and truckers to use the port, collecting toll fees on the said highway would threaten Batangas Port’s ambitions to become an alternative to Manila’s harbors.

As it stands, commercial entities in both the transport and logistics sectors are already reeling from the effects of record oil prices, forcing many operators to seek a rate hike. A local association of trucking companies has even compared their operations to a “dead horse,” indicating that rates they currently charge for moving cargo may not even allow them to break even.

Imposing the toll fee—simply on the recommendation of a Japanese agency, however altruistic—would surely make the port fall off the logistical radar screens of these trucking operators.

Although the PPA has announced it will review the Japanese bank’s request, the undertaking, however important, is not enough.

While it is always prudent to scrutinize any proposal—especially if it involves any fees—port officials should nevertheless draft a counter-proposal calling for the fee’s deferral without compromising the government’s obligation to settle loans for the road project.

After all, at stake is a terminal which, if saddled with toll charges, may further suffer from inactivity, diminishing whatever remains of its advantages, both real and imagined.

Published in BusinessMirror’s January 17, 2007 issue. Editorial cartoon by Jimbo Albano.