It's always fun to be a tourist in your own country.
Such is always the point behind every Toyota Roadtrek, though now on its 7th year, you have to think that they must be running out of destinations by now. As it turns out, they haven't.
For the 7th running of the annual Toyota Roadtrek, we were to go to a rather unusual location to sample the local life, the sights and sounds of the province of Leyte. It was an unusual destination compared to the past ones, especially since the Roadtrek caravans in the past have been to Iloilo, Boracay, Dumaguete, Palawan and Davao. To be in a sleepy province like Leyte seemed a little odd at first, but as we were about to learn at this year's Roadtrek, there's always something new to discover on the way.
Awaiting us at Tacloban's regional airport were several examples of Toyota's latest vehicles. Leading the way were a pair of Toyota's gas-electric hybrid, the Prius, followed by the newest versions of the Vios and the car that started the Roadtrek: the venerable Innova.
After settling in to our respective rides, we were off to our first stop for the day: the picturesque San Rafael Farm in the town of Babatngon. I was surprised to find a place like this in Leyte, with lush greens, plenty of fresh air and a very serene atmosphere. The rain (in the wake of Typhoon Chedeng) oddly made it an even more relaxing environment, and I could only imagine spending a whole day here just to relax and enjoy the weather.
However, in keeping with a tight schedule, we were soon back on the road after we completed the first challenge. We were fortunate enough to be behind the wheel of the Prius, undoubtedly one of the most high tech cars in the country. It's build around being efficient, though in our hards, we had it at power mode all the way.
After a good drive, we were in for a treat, as we were about to enter a true Philippine landmark: the San Juanico Bridge. The bridge connects the two provinces of Leyte and Samar, and traverses several small islands, making for some great scenery and a great drive. The fact that this bridge was built by our late president and authoritarian dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, as a gift for his beloved wife, Imelda, or the fact that this is the longest over-water bridge on our 7,107 islands, or the numerous pictures our convoy took simply can't do due justice to the breathtaking view while driving this great bridge.
After the photo ops, we were back on the road again, this time heading into the heart of Tacloban City, the capital of Leyte province. We were bound for another stop at the Santo Nino Shrine, which, upon hearing of the name, gave me a notion that it was perhaps a big cathedral dedicated to the baby Jesus. When we got inside, it was a whole different matter.
Apparently, this shrine was Imelda's tribute to her people in Leyte. I was expecting a cathedral of sorts, but instead it was a mansion and guesthouse, with each room having a different theme from a certain region in our country. The artifacts are indeed fit for museums, but for me, it stands more as a symbol of the first family's opulent lifestyle, not to mention the absolute power and unparalleled prestige they had during Martial Law.
As a Filipino, I really feel that it should be torn down, with its exhibits of ostentatious (a word that I have never, ever used before in a story) wealth after two decades of autocratic rule being auctioned off, with the proceeds going to improve more concrete things for the country. I do respect the effort the volunteers from Tacloban have made to manage and maintain this place, especially with what I can assume to be very little funds, but for me, it really is a symbol of corruption from our republic's darkest years.
The Santo Nino Shrine is really a place that gave me mixed feelings about Leyte. However, as many of us know, Leyte is also the place where a generation of Filipinos and Americans had their finest hour with the fulfillment of three historic words: "I shall return."
It was on that spot in Palo, Leyte, way back in October 20, 1944, General MacArthur landed along with the entire U.S. 6th Army to begin the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese rule in World War 2. Many of our elderly have told us stories from the war and the Japanese occupation that followed from the Bataan Death March to the wanton destruction and war crimes. The Leyte landing by MacArthur, his generals and our President in exile, Sergio Osmena and other military officers marked the beginning of the end for Imperial Japan's Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and freedom for what is arguably our greatest generation.
Oddly enough, a lot of Leyte's sights are really about our historical past. Toyota, however, is all about the present. And the future. Of course, Toyota gives the public 2 of the best value for money propositions available on any showroom floor with the Innova and the Vios; 2 great cars that boast of Toyota's Sure Advantage of reliability, efficiency and everyday usability. But the Prius is something different. If there is one car locally available that really gives a glimpse of the future of motoring, it has to be the Prius. It's taking a while for it to become a regular sight on our streets, but hopefully the pricetag can come down enough for most to afford one as a realistic everyday car and not just a luxury.
After seeing the sights of Leyte, it was time for us to bid farewell to Tacloban, and head on out for the drive to Ormoc, our last stop. When we get there, we leave our faithful Toyota Prius behind for the trip to Cebu.
Some say the annual Toyota Roadtrek is just about R&R; just a trip to kick back and chill. For me, it is a trip to get to experience something different, something that many of us never really get to do and see, especially when we're so focused on where we're headed and not where we are.
To many of us, our history is just something we read about in books and learn in school, nothing more. But with just a day's drive through Leyte, many of us got in touch with a history that we would otherwise never get to see and experience. Sometimes it's a past we would like to forget and sometimes its a past that we should be really proud of, but whatever our history holds, we are all a part -and a product- of it.