The story I’m about to tell is the reason for this blog. It happened more than two years ago, on the first day of 2019, a good time to be talking about beginnings and journeys. But I’m sharing it now in 2021 as a metaphor for the pandemic times we live in.
B and I like to think of ourselves as road trip veterans, even if our road trips took us only to points around Luzon that our limited time and resources could accommodate, and to places we are familiar with. We love traveling by land—the feel of sitting inside or driving a car and watching the scenery change, passing through towns and cities we had seen many times before, and observing how they changed over time. Trying out new roadside restaurants or returning to old favorites was the highlight of our road trips. We like revisiting places and discovering that a new diversion road had decongested the traffic that seemed to worsen as the years went by, and to see that the main expressway from Manila to the north had grown more miles and therefore bridged the distance in less time.
That New Year’s Day, we were on the road, traveling to see an old friend visiting from the U.S. We set off from Baguio in the north where we spent New Year’s Eve. We took a turn in La Union that would bring us to Luzon’s western corridor—the towns in the province of Pangasinan leading to the coastal town of Santa Cruz in Zambales where we would find our friend, who was spending his time at his family’s home.
Since we had traveled this road before, we knew our way around and would have arrived at our destination with only the road signs to guide us. But because we were smartphone owners, we did what smartphone owners do. We asked Google Maps to show us the way: a quicker, more accurate route to our destination, please.
And so Google gave us a shorter route, not the one we knew from memory. It told us to take the turn at Bugallon which we saw would cut across the mountains separating Pangasinan and Zambales. “Great,” we thought! A new route to reduce travel time. We had never heard of this route before and were glad to “discover” it. “Cool!”
Once off the highway, the cemented road gave way to asphalt. Not long after, the asphalt disappeared and became a dusty lonely mountain road. Still we were unmindful that there could be perils ahead. In front of us was a green van and one or two vehicles coming from the opposite direction. Still cool, we thought. We were gaining altitude, the air got cooler and the Pangasinan plains soon came into view below. Not bad, we thought.
Because Google Maps said there was a road, we believed it. We were on it. It just forgot to tell us it would lead nowhere because it was as yet unfinished.
A good 30 minutes must have passed before we started to doubt that the road would lead anywhere. There were no houses and no people around us anymore. No street lights because there was technically no road. Still, we chose to believe Google Maps (and for some reason there was still a mobile phone signal). It was only when B started to worry about our gasoline levels and the apparent absence of any sign of a gas station, that we decided that the turn we had taken was a wrong one.
Nevertheless, we continued on, reaching the end of the road where we found what looked like a small sari-sari (variety) store one one side of the road, and something like a basketball court or a small barangay hall or a school on the other (I could no longer remember). The point is there were a group of people, houses, a community. We parked, got off the car, stretched our legs and asked whether the road led to Santa Cruz. No, they said, the road ended there.
From the Bugallon turn off to where we were must have taken 30 to 45 minutes. In other words, we were probably going to lose an hour’s travel time. We headed back the way we came, and soon found ourselves in the main road once again. We gassed up not far from the turn and the gasoline station owner instructed us, as if we didn’t know, to take the usual route and to consult Google Maps or Waze.
During that whole time we were up the mountain, I was taking pictures of the scenery and screenshots of the Google Maps route. Those screenshots are gone, accidentally deleted from my phone, but I managed to recreate them from Google Maps.
The map still shows a road going to Santa Cruz, which was our destination, but it was not Santa Cruz town proper. Rather, the road reached only the edge of the town up in the mountains linking the two provinces. The main road (in blue) stops at some point in the middle of the mountains, but the road trip adventurers that we were, we assumed that there would be some secondary road leading down the other side of the mountain to the coast to our destination.
Anyway, the bottomline is Google Maps was/is wrong, and we were had. I wonder how many other motorists decided to take the long road only to find it leading to a dead-end cluster of houses that I now believe wasn’t even territorially Santa Cruz. Someone should at least put a sign at the turn off that the road leads to a dead-end.
We didn’t make much of a fuss of that mis-adventure because we were on a leisurely road trip. We took it in stride. Had we been on a tight schedule rushing to meet an appointment, it would have been a different story. True, our friend was expecting us sometime around or just after lunch, but our arrival time of 3:00 p.m. was not so very much off the mark and the warm welcome we received made us forget our unscheduled detour.
I’d been meaning to write this story since January 2019 but I kept putting it off. Too busy to sit down and process the experience, and to bother creating a blog for it. I thought of posting it last year, just after the pandemic started but eventually lost the motivation. Now, a year after lockdown, I finally did it, spurred I think by the fact that I could no longer locate the video I took. I need to write it before all the other photos get deleted and my memory fades.
There’s also a lesson for lockdown times, the likes of which we have never seen before. We think the road is set, we know how to reach our destination. Often, we get help from technology. But we never really know what lies ahead. Something could happen that will stall our journey or take us down a different path altogether. Often there’s nothing else to do but accept things, and with the right frame of mind, continue pushing forward. We’ll get there, sooner or later.