Our first overnight stay was in Punta Bulata in Cauayan, Negros Occidental. It's amazing how Toyota manages to find nice resorts like this tucked in the corners of the country. The food in Punta Bulata wasn't good--it was great. There was lechon, grilled prawns, marlin and the Negros specialty, chicken inasal.
I was watching Boom eat when I realized where he got his nickname. There would be a full plate of shrimp before him, I'd look away and eat a few bites of my lechon, and when I glanced at him again--boom!--only shrimp shells remained.
After dinner, the band came on, the beers came out, and we all started filling up with high-octane alcohol. When the band's set ended, Vernon whipped out his iPod Hi-Fi boombox/life partner. As our blood alcohol went up, the songs became cheesier. At one point, we found ourselves all belting along to Sharon Cuneta's ‘To Love Again' (yes, from Vernon's iPod). I still don't know how to describe the experience.
The next day, the vehicles were shuffled, and our team was assigned a roomier Innova on our way to the lunch venue that was Lake Balanan. The way to the lake wasn't a proper road anymore--it was more like a rally course. There were muddy surfaces, loose rocks and broken paths. Wow, I thought Toyota must have faith in the Vios and the Innova. These vehicles didn't have four-wheel-drive systems like the Hilux or the Fortuner. I then had newfound respect for the Innova, because despite its seemingly inadequate 2.0-liter, 136hp gasoline powerplant, we were taking the dirt trail at a quick pace.
We gorged on more local food, then headed to our last overnight destination. Inside our team's Innova, there was a battle between the jarring, uneven road and our post-meal drowsiness. Sleep won hands down, which was how I found myself alone and ruminating.
The Negros province zoomed by the windows, and--as with all good road trips--I took advantage of the respite from the shoots and deadlines, and simply relished the personal introspection.
In the afternoon, we arrived at the Atlantis Dive Resort in Dumaguete, another oasis discovered by Toyota. There was enough time to swim in the pool, then shower and change before dinner and the awarding ceremonies. As we were finishing our meal, I realized the Road Trek was about to culminate, and I went back to my earlier question: Was the experience diminished?
At first, the answer seemed to be yes. Toyota's event had become a victim of the scope and ambition of the previous editions. It was getting harder and harder to top it year after year.
But as I looked around me, everything still felt the same. Some guys were ogling the fire twirlers; the Toyota top brass were drinking with us; Toyota girls Elijah Sue Marcial, Ana Agregado and Paulyn Dalisay were as pretty as ever; and we were all in a new destination talking about the great drives we'd had.
The answer is no, then. The experience might have been different, but given the fact that it still happened--despite an economic downturn that was beseting the global auto industry--it was still a magical experience.
As the winners of the challenges were being announced, we were surprised to hear our names called. Our team finished third, but we were totally elated nonetheless. It turned out we'd aced the sign-reading challenge, and that pulled our average score up.
Maybe it was predetermined that we place third, the combination of our individual efforts and accomplishing the challenges all coming together with the right pieces for our small victory. Or maybe we were just lucky, a random throw of the dice.
Whatever it was, I learned one thing: You may not believe in them, but it never hurts to pay attention to the signs.