MANILA, SEPTEMBER 14, 2008 (STAR) By Ching M. Alano - Rain or shine, come hell or high water (quite literally), the Philippine Tour Operators Association, hand in hand with the Department of Tourism (DOT) and the Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA), did not waver from its decision to hold the X-Race. A diminutive version of the internationally famous Amazing Race, X-Race gathered together a merry mix of foreign buyers, media people, DOT and PTA employees bright and early last Wednesday at the steps of DOT on TM Kalaw, Ermita.

First things first — we were each handed a shirt, team sticker, a bottle of mineral water, and a water jug. Later, the participants were each given a copy of the race rules. We skimmed through our copy and our eyes were drawn to #16: Winners shall receive the following cash prizes per team — $1,000 or P45,000 for first place, $750 or P30,000 for second place, and $500 or P20,000 for third place. But from the outset, our media team (me, co-STAR Lifestyle staffer Lai Reyes, Gianna Maniego of Manila Standard, and Vangie Reyes of Inquirer) decided we were doing it for fun, not for the fund of it.

After breakfast, opening talks, and drumroll to drum up interest in this year’s Philippine Travel Mart, running until today at SM Megamall’s Mega Trade Hall, the race was officially on.

Even the drizzle — and hovering dark clouds — could not dampen our spirits as we set off for the first stop in the race’s itinerary: Rizal’s Fountain. What fountain? Rizal has a fountain? Shame on us! Rizal Park is a mere jogging distance to our newspaper office in Port Area, but tourists know the park more than we do. I spot a taong grasa (homeless, greasy, unkempt guy) sitting on a bench and am almost tempted to ask for directions (after all, the fellow lives in the park, right?). So, we go by what’s written on the X-Clue Card: This area is shaped like a small moon (lunette), thus the name Luneta. (Now, we know!) Here, a flower lady will hand us our first task card.

That was easy, no sweat! We spoke too soon. Because for our next task, we had to work our way towards the entrapment web using a pair of wooden planks — all three of us on the same set of wooden planks. We made it — never mind the bruises on our feet and a bruised ego! We heave a long sigh of relief. But wait, there’s more: “Every member must pass through the hole without touching its sides. A hole can only be passed once.” Being petite, I shouldn’t have any difficulty passing through the hole. But an unforgiving race staffer insisted my water jug touched the side of the hole, slapping my team with a 10-minute penalty. Oh, well, after the wooden plank torture, we were x-tremely grateful for the 10-minute reprieve.

We could also use a little snack, so the fourth XTop challenge looked really cool: Enjoy your ice cream. But reading on, we found out it was just half of the task. The complete task read: Enjoy your ice cream (all five scoops of “dirty” ice cream) while dancing the tinikling. The Muntinlupa dancers came in native costumes to show racers how to dance the tinikling. I’ve always loved dancing and eating ice cream — done separately, never together. Vangie and I volunteered for the challenge, dusting off our rusty dancing feet. But we were so engrossed in weaving in and out of the bamboo poles, afraid of getting our feet caught, that we forgot to eat our ice cream. Eat your ice cream, we were reminded! The rule says: “The faster you finish eating your ice cream, the more time you get to proceed to the next challenge. You are given only one minute to do the dance.” Before our one minute was up, we had to demolish our five scoops of ice cream. I nearly choked on mine. Now, I hate ice cream!

Now, are you feeling hungry? The sixth XTop challenge tells us to proceed to the picnic grounds of Fort Santiago. Every team is assigned a plate of Filipino exotic food (surprise! surprise!) to finish. Now, that sounds scary! Thank heavens, our food challenge merely consisted of a plate of balut — one per participant — which we downed in a jiffy. The foreign buyers from another team, who opted to forego the challenge, could only look at us with amusement (or disgust?).

Nothing could have ejected us from the race, not even the threat of disqualification because one of the girls on our team dropped out for health reasons. For the record, we did not threaten Philtoa with a total ban on their press releases, insult or bribe a race official or even used foul language that would make a stevedore in South Harbor blush. We were determined as hell to finish the race. (Yes, through the intervention of one kind coordinator, we were not disqualified and yes, through divine intervention, we finished the race.)

But the X-Race wasn’t just about racing. It was also about rediscovering what makes us Filipino — the tourist sights, lights, and sounds of Luneta, the storied walls of Intramuros, the baro’t saya and barong tagalog worn by our ancestors, playing a part in Jose Rizal’s life via the “Farewell to friends,” playing the popular Filipino game called the sack race, and riding (or driving) a kalesa.

A putting challenge capped the race. We truly tried, but we just couldn’t put that stubborn ball, which seemed to have a mind of its own, inside that elusive hole. Until Vangie stepped back in and holeheartedly saved the day for our team, thanks to her golfer husband who coached her on her cell phone. How’s that for a lifeline?

A sumptuous lunch awaited all-racers — all wet, sweaty, and messy after the two-and-a-half-hour race. But before that, we were each handed a 10-megapixel digicam, the latest from Kodak.

Smile! Isn’t this the most amazing race ever?

* * * The 19th Philippine Travel Mart is organized by the Philippine Tour Operators Association (Philtoa) and co-presented by the Department of Tourism, the Philippine Tourism Authority, the Philippine Convention and Visitors Corporation; sponsored by Hewlett Packard Philippines, Kodak Philippines, the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, Department of Tourism NCR, Department of Agriculture, Pagcor, Philippine Airlines, AIM Conference Center, with special support from ROX, Air Philippines, Blue Water Day Spa, Microdata Systems and Management, Balikbayan Gear, Chase Technology, and Island Cove Resort and Leisure Park.

For more information on the 19th Philippine Travel Mart, call Philtoa at 812-4513 and Global Visions at 635-0350.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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