Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bleachers' Brew #281 Into the blue yonder

This appears in the Monday October 17, 2011 edition of the Business Mirror.

Into the blue yonder
by rick olivares

When you’ve studied abroad, traveled to over two dozen countries where you’ve wined, dined, partied hard like a frat boy, basically lived the life, there’s a certain point where you ask yourself, “What am I doing with my life?”

Paul Cuenca asked himself that one too many times. But on the north face of Mount Kinabalu, Cuenca asked himself that rather angrily. Baking under the hot sun, basically not feeling too good during the ascent, he was in the process of reciting a litany of his gripes and woes.

He had lived in Malaysia for several years where he worked in one of his father’s overseas ventures. Cuenca moved back to the Philippines where he “did the restaurant thing” and other businesses. In dire need of a vacation one time, he reconnected with his Malaysian friends for a vacation to revisit “the outdoor stuff” he did a lot as a kid.

When he was a child, while others were off to Hong Kong, Singapore, or the United States for summer vacations, or even the beaches, Paul was brought along by his father to farms, mining sites, and underdeveloped lands off the beaten track. His first love was football but he soon found himself spending more time fishing, mountain climbing, and trekking. “My father was off working and he left me there to figure things out,” recalled Cuenca.

Years later and much older, while hanging some 12,000 feet high up on his descent of Mount Kinabalu, Paul had an epiphany. Looking around with the clouds below him, the cobwebs in his mind were suddenly cleared away. The Political Science major (Claremont Colleges) surveyed the majesty around him and thought to himself, “This is what I want to do.”

This is the exact "This is what I want to do" moment of Paul on the North Face. 

Upon returning to Manila, he quickly set about forming a new company (a one-man show that he runs out of his home in Urdaneta Village) that would promote adventure tourism. “Most Filipinos do the shopping and food tours when they travel,” said Cuenca. “If you look at the Americans or the Europeans, they prefer to do the adventure tours. I am not saying that going to Boracay is bad. What I am saying is that there is definitely more to see and experience than beaches.”

At first, Cuenca’s “Intrepid Adventures” specialized on tour packages in his old stomping grounds of Mount Kinabalu where he offered mountain climbing, scuba diving, trekking, and wildlife photography. He eventually branched out his adventure tours to Indonesia, Indochina, Taiwan, and Mongolia.

Paul takes great pride in having personally done all the adventure tours. “When people make inquiries about the tours, there are a lot of questions asked,” revealed Cuenca. “In my experience, if you are unable to answer them using first hand knowledge, that puts off people. You have to be able to answer anything and everything that is related to gear, the trail, safety, the lot, and questions like – ‘what to do when you get altitude sickness’ and ‘what if I don’t finish it?’ That is why my pre-trip briefings are very exhaustive. I show clients maps, pictures, and video of what I do.”

Cuenca doesn’t believe in organizing tours for large groups. “Large groups lose the sense of intimacy,” he clarified. “I prefer small groups of 12 and below. But the ideal number is anywhere from six to eight. Not only is it more manageable but it is more fun.”

Intrepid Adventures is into sustainable adventure. He prefers to take “adventurers,” as he calls his clients, to places like Sipadan Island, the Spratly Islands (Malaysia), Mt. Guiting Guiting (Romblon), biking tours in Lukban Quezon, Jogjakarta (Indonesia), and far flung countries like Mongolia. “You don’t want to be going where everyone else is, right? And many of these adventurers prefer the quiet and solitude and the fact that the places we go to are not packed like a mall.”

Cuenca related a story when he was applying for a visa to go to Mongolia (it turns out that you don’t need one for short stays), the Consul asked him if he was going there to work. “No, I’m a tourist,” replied Paul.

Contemplating life in Mongolia.

The Consul raised a questioning eyebrow and asked once more, “A tourist? Are you sure you want to tour Mongolia?”

For Mongolia, the inaugural tour was for a clientele of 50-year olds (with a few twentysomethings joining in) to experience a nomadic lifestyle. “When they found out that there was no signal for their mobile phones in the outdoors, they were distraught,” laughed Cuenca at the ‘predicament.’ “People feel so dependent on technology. But after a day, they were all right.”

“When you lie in bed at night, you heard the hum of the air conditioner, a car passing by, the sound of neighbors partying… in Mongolia, the silence was deafening. You only hear the rustling sound of the wind. One of our adventurers brought his iPad where he had this celestial map application. We had a blast looking at all the stars. It was a communion with nature.”

Nowadays, Cuenca is building his local tours – on mountain bikes – from Quezon to Tagaytay to Sorsogon and elsewhere. Along rice paddies and carabao trails and jungle paths.

“In all my travels and tours, what I have tried to do give people a chance to see things and places in their pristine and natural state. I don’t think we should be building hotels in these places that will eventually spoil the natural beauty of the place. I believe that adventure tourism is perfect not only for the provinces but for the whole Philippines. Now when I am on that rock face, I think back to my childhood when my father let me to figure things out for myself. And now I ask, ‘What took me so long to do this?’”

Paul was my classmate and football teammate in the Ateneo Grade School (he played keeper and I was fullback). I remember how difficult it was for me to attend football practice under Bro. Jess Oscariz. I didn't have the means to get to Ateneo nor the spikes to use for practice and play but Paul came through one day and gave me a pair of boots. I never forgot that and when we reconnected on Facebook last year, I wasted no time in thanking him once more (even if it was decades later). I am so happy to have reconnected with my old classmate and I hope to join him in Mongolia and some of his other adventure tours next year (I have to get in shape first).

For more information on Paul Cuenca and his Intrepid Adventures packages check out 

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