The Summer Solstice usually finds me up in my favorite mountain resort balcony, watching wisps of fog float down, orange sun filtering through glossy grass, wet after the typical Baguio afternoon shower. But this year, the Solstice finds me battling 38 degree heat, 100% humidity in the traffic choked highways and by ways of the Southern Tagalog Region. Why?
Rich in history
The Isuzu invite for this motoring press event begins early in Illustrado in Intramuros, a restaurant that is rich in history itself. History in the making ? Curiously, our host is better known for commercially sensible yeoman-like goods like the trucks that haul the nation's freight and the diesel engines that power public transport. Or, the latest green technology in diesel combustion. At least it can claim that it is situated in the same province as Jose Rizal's home.
Paddy Schooner ?
The subject vehicle, the Alterra, is Isuzu's luxury SUV, that, image wise, is part late 20th century Ford Expedition mixed with 21st century Isuzu D-MAX LCV pick up. Looking at the brightwork detail of the Alterra, one should think this would be a sales hit for the luxury hungry new SUV buying class of China. With its considerable size and floating ride, it would be a competent addition to the fleet of Land yachts, cruising the US Interstates across wide open prairie. But no, the Alterra is only sold in two markets: Thailand, where it is assembled, and here.
The wrong tool?
With a name undeniably linked to All-Terrain, it was even more curious when the test route was revealed. We were to absorb as historical minutiae and clues along the congested coastal roads that kiss Manila Bay, commemorating the lives of the revolutionaries of the 1898 War of Independence from Spain. Visit their the gentrified dwellings they left to plot war on the colonizer in their lairs hidden in the hills. Most of the route will be through centuries old roads, with a mid day stop in what would have been high ground for a revolutionary's redoubt. Indeed it was to be a trip down any nationalist's memory lane.
Not for amateurs
Illustrado, suffocating with Isuzus parked on its cobbled plazas, served an appropriate breakfast in a cozy high ceilinged dining room. The buffet was laden with Longaniza from Lucban, beef tapa, crispy fried bangus flesh, pickled shredded papaya, salted egg, garlic fried rice and tropical fruits. A briefing by Don of Winterpine explained the thorough in-house surveying and mapping they do to constantly update the AVT navigation installed in the Alterra. With Accu-map as their partners, Winterpine isn't willing to take any chances with amateur or volunteer map surveyors.
Today our adventure into history will be guided by AVT's latest entry in the hotly contested world of in-car navigation: I-Navi. Its one of the most user friendly ones I've encountered locally, as not all Navis are created equal. Later, I was to be also thankful for the plaques installed by the National Historical Institute in the various places we will be visiting, as the history that I learned eons ago were coming back to me.
From Illustrado, our first stop was the manicured passeiggiata Plaza Armas grounds of Fort Santiago. There's hardly any vestige of its morbid past and the tortures that visited its unwilling guests. Newish office buildings around it mimic a more recent but nevertheless period style thankfully devoid of the tangle of cables. Security guards dress are in period costume while elegant open top horse drawn carriages give it a friendly tourist touch.
Namasyal pa sa Luneta
Then it was off to Rizal Park to stare in silence at the very spot the good Doctor was felled by musketry. Isuzu's contribution to the excellent "green" state of health of this great park are various segregated rubbish bins and the ecology map on the side of the greens.
The monochrome pale grey sky casts a humid pall over the only lungs of the city as we moved out to our next destination, the Aguinaldo Shrine in Kawit, Cavite, where every year, on Independence Day, the Vice President of the Land, raises the Tri-color from the balcony of the heroic Generalissimo's manse.
A Luddite's doubt
Being familiar with the area, we first found it hard to trust the Brit female voice of the i-Navi. But the objective of this historical tour was to visit the 5 destinations in the shortest possible mileage within very generous time frames. The flip-side to this is that, if we were serious about winning the considerable prizes, we should not opt for the fastest route.
Hope for Caviteños
Taking a roundabout route through Roxas Blvd and Macapagal Ave, we arrived at the rain drenched Cavite Coastal Expressway. At the Zapote end, the pockmarked and dissolving muddied pavement looked like World War One Artillery practice, though hope for Caviteños is in sight. A new interchange and the reclaimed land that will serve as the reclaimed causeway for the Coastal expressway to reach Bacoor was in sight. Work was being done but paving looks a long way off.
Another hero remembered
As expected, the Aguinaldo Highway was a congested hell of traffic light junctions and long queues, one after the other. But it was a pleasant surprise to see Bacoor and Binakayan adapt the neat sidewalk, curbs, road markings, in other words, the Bayani Fernando treatment instituted 6 years ago in Marikina. We could see that Coastal Cavite's little sea side townships are prepared for the twin onslaughts of rain and flood as the armored roadside canals are very deep.
Our I-Navi expertly guided us to the road loop around the well kept Aguinaldo Shrine. Its really quite a big mansion, in turn of the century gabled plantation style. After a few photos, we proceeded to where the i-Navi brought us, and believe you me, its not one of the easiest drives as the roads are narrow, the tricycles myriad and the Alterra, is in no way Corolla compact.
All through the morning, the late Ron de los Reyes - who is usually late at media events but was miraculously on time all the time today - threaded the wide Isuzu through the narrow lanes of the "Real" or Royal roads of Spanish times. At 25km/h to 30km/h, it must have been the trotting speed of most horse drawn or horse ridden transport of the era. Isuzu naughtily made sure that all 8 of our test vehicles were manual 5-speed, and most where in top to bottom body color white. With the low end diesel torque from the iTEQ engines, trickling along between 2nd and 3rd gear at idling rpm was to be the rule of the day.
Classifying the Isuzu Alterra at introduction 5 years ago, has always been a challenge. Initially assumed to be the Trooper's bigger sized replacement, it landed in the same category as the Thai-made Ford Everest as it has a 3-liter crdi diesel and is similar in total length. But the Isuzu's longer wheelbase and greater girth made it fit in the full size SUV category, which is populated by US-made Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition. At over 2 tons, the Alterra already out sizes the then available mid-size Chevrolet Trailblazer and Ford Explorer except in width.
Our I-Navi got us through the thick of the noon day dismissal of public grade schools, with trikes and kids swarming all over the narrow roads. We passed through towns that I've never heard off - Bucandala, Anabu, Malagasang, Sabang, San Agustin and finally we arrived at Aguinaldo Highway, past Dasmariñas and onto the Governor's Drive junction controlled by arrays of gantry traffic lights and surrounded by all kinds of SM and Robinson malls. From here, the road starts climbing and except for two 100m sections of rough asphalt, the pavement is as good as it gets. We passed familiar territory - the ranch in Silang - and climb the last 8 kms to reach the Rotunda whereby we bore right to reach Pamana.
Pamana is right on the ridge, barely 300m from the Rotunda. The views of Taal lake from its balcony is one of the best but the grey haze seemed like a dirty plastic sheet distorting the view. Pamana, a modern 2-storey bldg. with antique looking furniture belongs to the Ongpauco's of Barrio Fiesta fame. The walls are festooned with memorabilia of family members in various world tours and newspaper clippings like a Manila Times front page dated 1961.
Mild or spicy
I recall Barrio Fiesta food to be on the mild side so the Bouillabaisse or Seafood Kare Kare needed more bagoong. The Crispy Pata needed a bit more crisp and soy-vinegar sauce. On the other hand, what seemed like a beef stew was nicely spicy and so was the diced green mango and bagoong salad. The roasted chicken was tops, as the skin was crispy. It didn't need any sauce at all. The Laing was spicy enough for my taste. The desert was a wonderful choco-nut ice cream in pan de sal.
After lunch, we decided to head downhill towards Talisay. Our fourth stop is to be at the Mabini Shrine. While we were following the I-navi, a more astute group decided to go through Tagaytay Highlands even if this was not plotted on the maps. At any rate, I was determined to try the Alterra on the narrow downhill hairpins of the Talisay-Tagaytay road, which is just off Ligaya drive. Sure enough, there has been plenty of improvement when I last took this road. Its all concrete now with cats eyes, yellow lines, chevrons, substantial guard rails and a small shoulder just in case you want to dump your inner rear tire to make space for oncoming vehicles.
Now the Alterra is, again, not the right width for this kind of road, but this is where the manual came in handy. Timing my throttle lift off and feed, I could feel the Alterra hunker down on the hairpins, with the Dueler howling its low pitched scream whenever I gradually fed the power through the turn. Meantime, beautiful unobstructed views of Taal keep coming up. In fact, along numerous stages of the way are developed phases of Leuna de Taal, where living on the ridge must surely provide scenery as a welcome backdrop. All the more fun while I practice finessing the big truck through the turns.
The old haunts
The highway to the Mabini shrine is a veritable garden on both sides of the road. At a cloudy 30 degrees, Talisay is about 3 degrees warmer than up there in Pamana. The Mabini shrine, stark and probably Masonic Lodge austere, is quite a cold contrast to the surroundings. After a few photos, we were off again to Rizal's shrine in Calamba. This time, the I-Navi took us off the highway and into those back roads that you used to use. This one leads to Sala. The road is now all concrete, with shoulders and drainage. In fact I spotted the obligatory tarpaulin poster with a smiling GMA wearing a hard hat claiming the rehabilitation of this road, which still has a steel river bridge, with the wood pavement replaced with concrete. This is the same road that crosses the STAR into the old Maharlika highway, just near the STAR tollway booths of Sto. Tomas.
The Sto. Tomas toll booths are now history, having been dismantled and made redundant by the new STAR tollway plaza. From there we proceeded to crowded Calamba to the Rizal shrine. For some reason, the Rizal shrine hit the headlines during Rizal's Birthday last June 19. The stone walls of the old house were painted a lurid shade of green and there were some protests lodged in the broadsheets.
Monument to greed
From here, were to return to the Metro, again using the i-Navi's shortest route. Which meant driving through the old highway - endless traffic jams and overtaking slow jeeps and tricycles. We passed through a curious monument of history - the Nestle plant in Cabuyao - which in 1986 - showed that greed knows know bounds when the minority union picketed the factory. It was a shock at that time to even agitate for a strike as janitors there were taking home 56,000.00 Pesos a month!
Time and again, we would see the Transco Power Pylons and we would hope that the I-Navi would finally relent and tell us to rejoin the smooth and fast flowing South Luzon Tollway. But no. It stuck us to the shortest possible route. Finally, we got to the belly of the Alabang Viaduct and we were finally guided by the i-Navi to enter into the SLT at a good time when traffic was light. We got to Sucat in a matter of a few minutes and we threaded our way around the forest of columns that will support the Skyway Stage 2 Sucat exit. And not too far where the on ramp construction zone ends, is a newish melon colored mall along Sucat Road, called Santana Grove.
The layout is similar to the early semi-circular Eastwood that we know: the buildings wrap around a rotunda with a circular driveway. Serye cafe is about Filipino food and coffee served in a new look Filipino cafe: distressed brick posts, banquette seats and celadon green panels.
It was time for a San Mig Light. And kropek. Molo soup. More Kare kare, lumpiang sariwa and some lechon. There was grilled salmon, roasted chicken and prawns thermidor. Leche flan capped of another simplified and modernized version of a Filipino meal.
In the end, my team was 2nd runner up with substantial prizes. We were no match for the shortest route achieved by a team that let the I-NAVi recalculate the route every now and then. Still, our faith in the i-Navi rewarded us with a fairly good run and lots of prizes to boot. And when it was all over, we were to appreciate the last reward - a chauffeur to drive us home to our door step and a good nap while the Alterra cruised the Skyway.
And the Alterra? Fans of big-truck US SUVs will enjoy the feel, space and pace of the Alterra, [greatly diminishing in USA market share] without the big fuel bills. The Alterra is far from extinction as its frugal diesel engine delivers highway consumption between 11.90 to 12.98kms/liter, something no American V-8 could match. With multi passenger space and comfort, it's a truck maker's idea of what a luxury truck should be.
The only time I woke up was when my friends texted me to check out the new LED road lighting on a short span near the Magallanes Skyway down ramp. True enough, there it was, like night and noon, a fitting end to the year's longest day.