Monday, October 6, 2008

The Rules of Engagement For Driving In the Philippines

Starting Up the Mountain

The rules of engagement when driving in the Philippines are much different than the rules of driving in America and no I didn't make a mistake by saying rules of engagement for that is exactly what they are. Driving in the Philippines with an American perspective is not for the timid or the weak. I'll try to explain what I mean.

The first thing that I noticed on my way from the airport to my home away from home in the mountain top city of Baguio, is that signs or lane markings, which are few and far between, are more suggestions than rules. I've seen lots of cops pulling people over to shake them down for bribes but I have yet to see one pulled over for violating any law or road sign. For example, most of their roads had lane markings but as I have said, these are merely suggestions. If there is no oncoming traffic, a two-lane road, one lane marked for each direction, becomes a one-way five or six lane expressway, hills or blind corners not withstanding. If you are passing three cars on the inside as you sweep into a blind corner as far over into the oncoming lane as you can get, you merely honk your horn to let the three on the inside know you are passing and to warn any oncoming traffic that you might be coming. In America, rules would dictate that this maneuver never be attempted and if it were, the inside cars would speed up to protect their turf to prevent you from cutting them off and oncoming traffic would have only enough time to ponder where that horn sound was coming from before smashing head on into you. In the Philippines, the inside drivers give you some room and the outside lane oncoming traffic will actually slow down and let you pass. It amazes me every time. When at some point you do meet oncoming traffic, everyone merges back together into more or less single file in your rightful lane until the coast is clear or at least blind to the driver.

I've been writing this as if the main mode of transportation happens to be cars and trucks but in actuality, in parts of the Philippines these are a minority. In your journeys along a highway, you are just as likely to spot a jeepney, motor trike, kuliglig, carabao, people on foot, chickens, dogs, goats, etc as you are a car or truck. The road is the easiest path and thus becomes the most likely to be used path by all forms of life. The drivers of the faster modes of transportation skillfully swerve around these human and animal obstacles along with potholes the size of houses, piles of dirt, rocks, abandoned vehicles, or people drying and threshing their rice on the only flat hard surface available to them. These inanimate objects in the road were always well marked by other inanimate objects such as rocks or piles of dirt so there was never any need for anything reflective or glowing that might show up better in the dead of night.

In the Philippines, the most important part of a vehicle is not the steering wheel, the tires or even a motor. I've seen vehicles without combinations of these parts perfectly able to function in the Filipino road driving culture. However, if these cars lacked a horn, even brand spanking new off the showroom floor, they were damn near useless. A few of the hundreds of functions a car horn is used for in the Philippines are to let people know you are passing them, to let them know they can pass you, to warn oncoming traffic that you are passing on the outside of a blind curve as I stated before, to warn wayward carabao, chickens, dogs, and pedestrians off the road in front of you and for awhile, I believed merely for the shear pleasure of tooting your own horn. I reached this latter conclusion after seeing my driver honk randomly during the wee hours of the morning when not a car, warm blooded animal or inanimate object was in sight. It was only later that I learned that this last rule should be modified to read ward off evil spirits before crossing a bridge in the dark. Who knew?

Part Way Up the Mountain

After six hours in a van, my ass started growing roots into the hard futon like seat of the van and dawn slowly started lighting up the horizon. As if we couldn't plan it any better, the flat rice patties of central Luzon were giving way to the mountains of northern Luzon. As the road turned alongside a river crashing down from the mountains, the van I was in slowed down from road speeds upwards of 25 miles per hour down to about 1 mile every hours or so. The van, one of them nose less jobs with the engine between the driver and the passenger side, began emitting smoke from the access flap before we had gotten a third of the way up the mountain. The driver looked at it as if it were merely a minor annoyance and continued on with pedal to the metal in first gear. As we approached the curve, the smoke really began to thicken and I was starting to realize that it wasn't a thickening of the smoke inside but from outside the van. Only when we rounded the curve did I understand that it wasn't from our van or even smoke but rather it was steam. There on both sides of the roads where there was actually a little pullout instead of the normal rock face and sheer cliff, lines of cars heading down the mountain were hosing down breaks on one side and those heading up the mountain feeding thirty radiators on the other side creating huge billowing clouds of steam. We pulled into the line of those filling up their radiators and soon along with two quarts of oil for good measure, were heading up the mountain at a snail's pace. Many times I thought about hopping out of the van to stretch my legs, grab a bite to eat from some roadside vendor, soak in the view and then walk up the hill a few paces to catch the van still struggling gamely along all the while. I didn't only because I figured the van’s owner might take it as an insult.

At one point on the road up the mountain off to the right was a shear drop into the river below with not much room between where we were. I decided to lighten the mood by jokingly asking if this was the type of vehicle that we always read about in the American newspapers that were plunging off cliffs killing the occupants. Instead of a knowing laughs, my hosts merely nodded and pointed to the upcoming curve and told me that a van had plunged off there last week. My stomach dropped as I fell back into silence. Later on I would actually see a wrecker truck winching the twisted remains of a vehicle from the side of the mountain and piling up the pieces along side the road.

Outskirts of Baguio City

The trip up the mountain ground on and at times it seemed impossible to tell if we were heading forwards or backwards due to the slow speed of travel. But the driver kept at it only stopping twice more for radiator water and once for more oil. It basically underwent a complete transfusion of vital fluids by the time we reached the top. There under a sun well up in the sky, Baguio City, Philippines which has a population of a quarter of a million people, was sprawled out on the mountain ridges, peaks and valleys all before me. I would later learn from experience, that there isn't a straight or flat road in all of Baguio. If you were standing on any street, you were by default standing on a curve and the road was heading uphill or downhill. At one particular point as we crossed through town, the road only six or so feet wide and went uphill following a knife ridge that dropped off almost straight down on both sides. Every time I passed this point heading uphill, all I could see out the windows was sky and lots of it giving the impression that one was in some sort of van airplane that was taking off at the pace of a slow walk. Finally, we reached the home of my fiancĂ©’s parents attached to the side of a cliff. From the road that passed by ten feet in front of the house, it was only about 20 paces to the far side of the house where from the balcony at road level, I could look down some 50 feet into the valley below but at least the floors were flat.

Baguio City


Murf said...

Wow..and I thought I lived close to my neighbor. Do a lot of people blatantly look inside other houses as they go by or do they pretend not to when they really are?

R. Sherman said...

Thanks for the photos.

We Americans are spoiled when it comes to driving. Paris traffic is the worst I've encountered. If one does not remember and heed the adage, "He who hesitates is screwed," one will find one's self curled up crying in the middle of an intersection with no place to go.


Saur♥Kraut said...

Thanks for the tour. But.... you said 'fiance' and I thought you were married? Is this a retro post?

And did you ever end up getting pulled over by a cop and having to bribe him?

Beau said...

Actually rode up that mountain once long ago- I remember a big stone lion on the way up the mountain. And cool, fresh air- it was beautiful. And the driving... what an adventure!

Murf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Editor said...

Fiance? Were you previously engaged to a man, Ed? :-)

Ed Abbey said...

Murf 1 - Actually, your window would look over your neighbors roof or be at dirt, ten feet beneath their foundation. Baguio City is just straight up and down. The closest you could come would be looking in the neighbors window across the valley.

R. Sherman - We sure are spoiled. Everytime I come back from a trip overseas, I always feel so relaxed driving on our roads.

Saur - Yes this is a retro post that I rewrote. This probably occurred in 2002. I haven't gotten stopped for bribes but I have gotten stopped when visiting my mother-in-law's place of employment on a military base. A white guy always makes the guards tense their fingers on the triggers and makes me sweat a little. Since my MIL is close to the generals, a mere mention of her name gets me in anywhere I want to go. But I never get over those first tense moments.

Beau - That lion is still there and always a welcome site because I know I'm almost "home".

Murf 2 - You are confusing me with that question?

The Real Mother Hen said...

Wow quite an adventure that was :) it makes me wanna visit the country sometime in the future.

Ed Abbey said...

Mother Hen - You should, as your probably know, Filipinos are very familiar with Singapore so you would fit right in. Me being white and upwards of two feet taller, stick out like a sore thumb. Never-the-less, I always enjoy my trips there.

Murf said...

Fiancee is used if you are engaged to a female. Fiance is if it's a guy. Boy, and here all these years I thought you were a real ladies man. You didn't make my gaydar go off once. ;-)

Ed Abbey said...

Murf - I never knew their was two spellings depending on which side you were on. My gaydar never went off either!

sage said...

I love the photos! Beautiful countryside and interesting description. Sounds like driving in Tegucigalpa--I can't believe I once road on the back of a motorcycle there

geri said...

I love Baguio, it would be a great place to retire, unfortunately I don't know their dialect which is kind of hard to learn. Lucky you to have connections :)

Ron said...

What a terrific read... I almost got sick by your description of the van ride though. :) It sure sounds like an exciting place. I'll have to ask my neighbor what his experiences were like now.