Subic, Zambales, the Philippines
February 15, 2009
I had never been a Subic person. I didn’t mean the town, but SBF (Subic Bay Freeport Zone), which I found a tad contrived.
The bay area was a Spanish arsenal repository more than a century ago, and more recently, it housed the controversial American naval base. When the Americans left in the early 90s, the area was converted into a commercial and entertainment development zone.
Navy SEALS gave way to Marine World seals doing tricks, barracks to boutique hotels, commissaries to beachfront restaurants and duty-free shopping centers. Throw in the obligatory casinos, yacht club, and water sports facilities – viola – there was a world-class tourist trap.
To me, it had the appeal of, say, a manufactured boy band that had all the hair-gel sheen and toned-muscle vigor but none of the soul.
When my fellow road-tripper, Ki, suggested one Sunday morn to go to Subic, I was less than thrilled. I had always loved road trips, but I hoped for a more “culturally” enriching destination. Still, the road-tripper in me prevailed and off to Zambales we went.
To my delight, we were off to a good start. The spanking new SCTEx (Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway) was a surprise. The drive was so smooth; we could hardly feel any traction. It cut through mountains (either by halving them or tunneling through them), which in turn cut the travel time to Subic to less than an hour from its NLEx (North Luzon Expressway) tollgate. Finally, a public works project that worked. (I heard the exits were few and far between, though.)
The view from the car window competed with sleep. Picturesque rice fields and barren hills flanked the expressway, and otherworldly lahar deposits from last decade’s Mount Pinatubo eruption could still be seen.
It was a Sunday, a day after Valentine’s – we imagined sizeable crowds, decked out in designer shades and sandals. Instead, we stumbled upon surreal solitude. Where were the groggy party people having late breakfast by the beach? Or entire families gorging themselves with buffet lunches?
The Korean and Japanese tourists monopolizing the jet skis? Or the LV-toting matronas making a beeline for the shops?
We realized the fun in beachcombing was more in people-watching than in shell-collecting. There was none of the former and all of the latter. We even played hopscotch on the highway without turning into freshly-squeezed road kill!
It was short of being a ghost town, until we saw an abandoned structure. Then it really felt like an area after an exodus. FedEx, which had its Asia Pacific hub in the erstwhile military airstrip, had just moved its operations to cheaper China a few days before.
For the most part, I didn’t know where the hustle and bustle had gone. Blame it on the economic crisis, perhaps. Or maybe it was just an unusually slow Sunday.
No matter, to me it was a refreshing respite: to have lost the crowds and just breathe no one else’s air. It was a Subic experience I finally liked.