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‘Expressing’ myself for half a thousand kilometers, as 20 turns 21

There’s this classic Madonna song from 1989, and it’s titled “Express Yourself”. I think I just did, but in a different sense, as the much-despised 2020 faded into oblivion and a fresh 2021 blazed in. The pop superstar made her point in less than 5 minutes. As for mine, well, it took all of 7 hours and 600 kilometers.

But don’t be fooled by those 7 hours. It truly felt like being uncaged, released from all those months of being incarcerated in my house, no thanks to a deadly novel respiratory virus. The feeling was similar to those of animals being released into the wild after a lifetime of being kept in cages or zoos. Free again, in a quite figurative and literal sense. Cabin fever, begone!

I just made my first long road trip in a year (yes, in my profession as a motoring scribe, a year without going on a road trip is like a food writer not being able to sample new dishes to write about, or a fashion writer not being able to see new clothes being modeled), and I did it by driving on all the expressways spanning south and north Luzon, and for free at that.

So, while most people were waiting for 2021 to arrive, I and a co-driver set out for Batangas City at the southernmost end of the Southern Tagalog Arterial Roadway (STAR), and waited for the time when all toll roads would be free of charge.

Earlier, San Miguel Corp (SMC) and Manny V. Pangilinan’s Metro Pacific Tollway Corp (MPTC) jointly announced free passage on all expressways from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Christmas day and new year’s day.

We started our run from the Batangas City entry of STAR at 11:45 p.m. of Dec. 31, our ride being a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle), the world’s best-selling PHEV SUV and Europe’s number one plug-in hybrid, as claimed by its manufacturer. Our car was essentially running on two motors—an electric one powered by a 13.8-kWh large-capacity battery and a fuel-efficient 2.4 liter gasoline engine. With the distance we were about to cover, the Outlander’s power plants meant there was no range anxiety. Personally, I loved that we were using the Outlander for such a trip not just because the technology involved represented the future of fuel-efficient and sustainable motoring, but more so because of the cruelty-free component: The Outlander didn’t have to use animal skin nor animal-based leather to cover the seats and the steering wheel.

When our wheels started rolling 15 minutes before 00:00 of 2021, we knew we had a truly long road, and night, ahead of us. We would be passing through seven provinces (Batangas, Laguna, Bulacan, Pampanga, Tarlac, Pangasinan and La Union) and six cities in Metro Manila (Muntinlupa, Paranaque, Taguig, Makati, Manila, and Quezon City) via six expressways: STAR; South Luzon (SLEx); Skyway; North Luzon (NLEx); Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTex), and Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLex).

There was only one rule: Drive responsibly and defensively. That meant no breaking speed limits. If the driver felt sleepy, then the well-rested other should take the wheel.

We exited STAR and entered SLEX in Santo Tomas, Batangas at around 12:30 a.m. of Jan. 1, after being treated to some fireworks along the way somewhere in Lipa, Batangas. Before 1 a.m., we were on the newly opened Skyway Extension 3 section, connecting SLEx and NLEx. By 2 a.m., we were on SCTEx. At exactly 3:30 a.m. we were in Rosario, La Union, the northernmost exit point of TPLex. It took us three hours and 45 minutes to drive over 380 km, with average expressway speeds of between 85 and 90 kph. The remaining two hours and 30 minutes gave us enough time to head back south on TPLEx, SCTEx, and NLEx before exiting with a few minutes to spare before the toll barriers went down at 6 a.m. in Bulacan.

We were driving on a deadline, for sure. But that didn’t take away the bliss of expressway driving with nearly no other vehicles on the road, and all the toll barriers raised up in temporary “truce” with us road users. The “RFID war” would have to be waged some other time.

For the excess of 600 km that we drove from Batangas City to Rosario, La Union, and back to Balintawak in Quezon City, we got a free pass on a total of P1,757 in toll fees. On ordinary days, we would have paid P95 for driving 41.9 km at STAR, P96 for 36.1 km at SLEx, P164 for 16.1 km at Skyway stages 1 and 2 (the 18-km stage 3 is still free this January), P390 for the 130 kms of NLEx/SCTEx, P311 for 104.3 km at TPLEx, and another P311 for the trip back at TPLEx and another P390 for the return trip at SCTEx/NLEx.

Yes, I got to “express myself” all right in the first 7 hours of 2021, at no actual cost but time. Time that I would have plenty of once I slept off the rest of the first day of the year.

(Although the total travel distance of 600 kms already included the writer’s trip from her place of residence in Las Pinas to Batangas City via SLEX and STAR which was also toll free because it was taken after 10 p.m. of December 31, the time for that travel of approximately one hour was mistakenly not included in the computation. Adding that travel time to the total would technically make it a seven-hour trip instead of our original 6-hour headline and still give her an estimated average of less than 100 kph for the 600-km plus distance. – Ed)

Timeline of a 600-km trek from Batangas to Rosario, La Union and back to NLEX

10:30 pm of December 31, 2020 – Departed from Las Pinas for Batangas City through SLEX and STAR Expressways

11:45 pm – Start of the trip at the Batangas City entry of STAR Expressway

12: 30 am of January 1, 2021 – Exited STAR and entered SLEX in Santo Tomas, Batangas 

1 am – Entered the newly-opened Skyway Extension 3 section, connecting SLEx and NLEx

2 am – Entered SCTEx in Pampanga

3:30 am – Reached Rosario, La Union, the northernmost exit point of TPLex 

Before 6 am – Exited at NLEX

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