Thursday, January 19, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: Like a Bat Out of Hell

I have rented a lot of vans during my travels in the Philippines to travel to places mostly because the price is right and it is convenient when traveling in a large group. For about $50 a day, I can have a van and a driver at my disposal to drive me anywhere I want for the entire day along with as many of my closest relatives that I can fit inside. So on Christmas morning with the family van still broken down, all we had to do was make a few phone calls and we had a van and driver lined up.

After staying up until the wee hours of the morning opening presents and catching a few hours of sleep on “the rack,” I awoke at eight with the understanding that we were supposed to be ready to leave by nine. My hosts emphasized this repeatedly as if they were worried that I wouldn’t be ready. So at about a quarter until eight, I went up to my room, changed, packed my bag with camera and other necessities for the day and still have five minutes to spare. After thirty minutes of standing outside being entertained or should I say entertaining Richard the Dog, whom the family says is too ugly to be stolen and eaten, the rest of the family was ready and we set up the mountain to meet the van at the church. (Everything seems to revolve around the church doesn’t it?)
The roads out of Baguio City all head in the same direction... straight down. Grades of 20% or larger are normal there when you are hard pressed to see 10% in most of America. Every driver who drives a lot in steep territories knows to downshift to let the engine be the brake and preserve the real ones. Our van driver was no different in that respect and so as we wound our way down the torturous mountain, we passed a few vehicles but nothing to worry about. We stayed between the lines, we didn't go over the edge and we lived to pass go and collect our two hundred bucks. But had we been playing Monopoly in the States, we would have gone directly to jail immediately afterwards.

As we rolled out of the valley and into the lower provinces where straight roads are more common than not, the drive pushed the metal to the floor... literally and I watch the speedometer rise from 30 km/hr until it pegged out at 120 km/hr. Now to you speed freaks who are fluent in conversion and know that 120 km/hr is only 75 miles/hr, let me give you a little background on road conditions in the Philippines.

A) In America, walking on the road is generally frowned upon where in the Philippines it is normal. In fact, laying out your recently harvested rice to dry in the middle of the road is normal. Heck, if you get to your buddies house and decide to leave your bicycle leaning in the middle of the road, it will still be there when you get back and not flattened 25 yards down the road.

B) In America, most cars travel within a few miles per hour of each other mostly because we have posted limits that are enforced. In the Philippines, if they have speed limits, they rarely have signs and they are never enforced.

C) In America, the majority of road users are on vehicles that are capable of going the posted speed limit. In the Philippines, a carabao commonly share the road at a leisurely 1 or 2 km/hr. kuligligs and pedi-cabs can go upwards of 7 or 8 km/hr, tricycles 25 to 30 km/hr and the average vehicle at 60 km/hr simply because they rarely get a chance to go faster with all the other slower moving vehicles in the way.

So when I saw the speedometer of our van pegged at 120 km/hr, I knew trouble would soon happen and I wasn't disappointed. The first tricycle appeared on the horizon and with over 80 km/hr speed differential, gradually stepping on the brakes wasn't an option anymore. The driver had to jam them to the floor causing the seatbelt (thank god this van had seatbelts) to tighten uncomfortably around my waist.

Everyone rocked forward with the momentum but we got safely slowed down and were following the worried looking passengers on the tricycle as an insane six inches away. Back and forth we swerved, the van with bad shocks doing the shimmy, as the driver intently gazed the oncoming traffic for a gap. Not room enough to pass but just a gap. After fifteen minutes of swerving he finally got the opportunity and hit the gas as we shot into the lane of oncoming traffic which coincidently had oncoming traffic headed right for us. Fortunately for them and us, they decided to hit the brakes and swerve onto the shoulder to let us squeeze by not only barely missing them but nearly hitting the front of the tricycle we just passed with the back of the van. The drive glanced up in the rear view mirror, grinned and mashed the pedal to the floor. Game on.

The normally three hour trip went on for an hour and a half as the driver alternated between accelerating and full on braking occasionally causing me to put my forearm up to create a protective brace between my upper torso and the seat in front of me to prevent my face from implanting into the back of it. Sometimes we would get up to the peg just on the 120 km/hr line but more often than not, some other slow moving vehicle, and at this speed all other vehicles fell into this category, came into view forcing him to slam on the brakes before he pegged it out. Whenever we weren’t accelerating or braking, we were violently swerving back and forth looking for away around the jeepneys, van, tricycle, bicycle, carabao, person or drying rice blocking our forward progress.

As I have stated before, I inherited part of my mother’s carsickness gene and am prone to carsickness when in violently swerving vans, planes and such so I was extremely thankful that I had self-medicated with some Dramamine, the drowsy formula, before leaving. That and my sleep deprived senses allowed my mind to function only enough to grasp what was going on without getting too worked up about it and to allow for bodily self preservation when the breaks were slammed down. My wife, who never gets carsick, started getting green behind the gills and eventually puked on the floor right behind the driver. I would later learn that this was not due to carsickness but at the time, my thoughts were, “You go girl, puke all over this guy’s van and maybe he’ll get the picture”… and he did. Immediately he slowed down and upon reaching a cemetery that we were planning on visiting anyway on our way to Pangasinan, stopped and got out to survey the situation. My poor wife was embarrassed but I wasn’t and in fact kind of relished the fact that the driver was now cleaning puke of the floor mat while we were paying respects to the dead.

My wife’s father, who died of malaria when she was ten years old, is buried in an above ground cement coffin as were everyone was in that particular cemetery but us. It is a poor person’s cemetery where the crypts are so close together you can’t even squeeze between them and in case of a dead spouse or child, are stacked one upon the other like Lego blocks. Weeds and trash are everywhere in this overcrowded stack of concrete blocks but signs are everywhere of those still remembered. Filipinos are very reverent of the dead and usually journey at least once a year to visit them and to leave small tokens like flowers, cigarettes or candles... something to let passersby know that this one hasn’t been forgotten. The last time I had visited my wife’s father, we had left flowers and lit cigarettes. This time however, we put some flowers and stuck three small candles to the crypt and for good measure, added a yellow plastic bag of puke to the neighbor on the right. While we laid store bought gifts my wife gave a part of herself and what can be more personal than that.
All too soon our time to push on arrived and we all piled back into the van to drive the few remaining miles through town to the house where my father-in-law’s side of the family was having their annual family reunion. I won’t bore you with the details but as per custom, there was food enough to feed an army and like starving soldiers, we gorged ourselves and sat back in the shade to talk and have a good time. The highlight of the afternoon were a group of young girls showing off their dance moves only to be out done by a small three year old boy with all the right stuff. At one point to the delight of the crowd, he even took off his shirt in a strip tease, waved it like a lasso over his head and tossed it into the crowd. If I had thought to record it on tape and submitted it to America’s Funniest Videos, I would be ten grand richer as we speak.

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