Friday, December 30, 2011

Kuya's Philippine Journals: A Day Unlike Any Other - Part I

Originally posted February 2, 2006


New Year's Eve day was a bright sunny affair and upon waking up with the broken rooster, I noticed there was a slight intensity to the fireworks that were going off at four in the morning that I hadn't noticed before. There were much larger ones going off more frequently sending thunderous roars echoing up the steep valleys of this mountainside town. A hint of burnt sulfur hung in the air. The favorite day of all Filipinos had begun.

I spent the morning packing my luggage because only parts of it would make the upcoming trip with me and the rest would follow later. I carefully wrapped all my souvenirs in dirty laundry to prevent breakage and eliminate any unnecessary searching. I mean who in their right mind would want to riffle through someone else's dirty laundry? With bags packed and carried downstairs, there was little to do but eat and take a nap so I did both.

When I woke in the early afternoon, I noticed another increase in the firework explosion levels. Barely a minute would pass by before another explosion would fill the vacant air with noise. My mother-in-law, youngest brother-in-law, my wife and I caught a ride to the bus station in the town center and within minutes had grabbed seats on a Victory Liner that would take us to Tarlac City in the lower provinces where we would spend New Year's Eve. In America, getting tickets on a bus at the last minute on a very popular traveling day would be all but impossible but in the Philippines it was very easy. You just got on the bus and if there was an available seat, you were good to go. About fifteen minutes later, the bus backed out of the station and we were on our way down the mountain.

The bus conductor came by asking how far we were going and punching out tickets accordingly with the appropriate price. The four one-way tickets for the entire five-hour journey cost me $16.00 U.S. The bus made several stops along the way dropping off passengers and picking up others. About fifteen minutes into the trip the bus stopped and only the driver got out to spend several minutes picking up some fresh produce at a roadside stand. He would make another solo stop for several minutes just outside of Tarlac City to deliver the produce to his wife who met him at their front gate. Not only did he give her the produce but he walked her inside and lingered for a few minutes longer before coming back out to the bus and taking us the final kilometers. Nobody seemed to mind, which reinforced that I was in a world much different from my own.

It was much warmer when we got out of the air-conditioned bus around 8:30 at the Tarlac City station. Unlike in the mountains of Baguio City where jeepneys are the backbone of mass transportation, in the lower provinces tricycles rule the earth. A tricycle is your basic small motorcycle with a sidecar attached and has a top speed of perhaps twenty miles per hour. Walking out to the street in front of the bus terminal, the view was full of them buzzing this way and that like a mad swarm of mosquitoes. Several of the other passengers were already at the curb trying to hail a tricycle to take them to their final destination but weren't having any luck. But as soon as this white guy stepped up to the curb, immediately a dozen tricycles swooped in and jockeyed for position to be the one to get my business.

Now all during my trips, I have seen tricycles with four or five passengers crammed inside the sidecar or hanging onto the side, often times with several sacks of rice or crates of produce stashed on top. So despite their size, I assumed that they must be quite roomier than they actually looked. As my wife and I stuffed ourselves into one of the tricycles with our suitcase and handbag, I suddenly knew what an unhatched chick felt like. My head was pressed between my knees, which were pressed against the luggage and my wife had wedged herself into the remaining available space, which wasn't much. I was very happy that she was petite or I would have had to strap her on top. In a high pitched mosquito like whine that made me want to wave my hands past my ears to shoo it away, the motorcycle driver revved the engine, released the clutch and we crawled out into the rest of the swarm heading this way and that on the road.

At the first little uneven crack in the road, the bottom of the sidecar bottomed out on the axle beneath in a spine-crunching bang causing me to slam my head against the ceiling. The driver immediately slowed down and looked to make sure nothing was broken before gunning the engine and going full throttle again. Every little bump, all three thousand four hundred and thirty seven between the bus station and our destination, caused the little carriage to smack hard against the axle. If I hadn't been wedged like an embryo in my little egg like sidecar, my spine would have been in pieces but the tightness of the quarters actually worked to protect me. That or my wife absorbed the worst of the blows.

As we navigate the narrow roads and alleys for twenty minutes, I felt as if I were a courier delivering a message to a general on the front lines during World War I. Evidently Filipinos tire of lighting huge fireworks when nobody is around so as soon as a tricycle made it's way down their street, they made a point of setting off the largest explosive available in the road right as we drove by. Firecrackers, flares and small bombs were bursting everywhere causing you to instinctively duck and at least three times during our ride, a blinding white light would flash for a painful split second before one of the sonic boom firecrackers went off within feet of our tricycle. The concussive pressure wave would slam my exposed side like a wide board and the resulting boom would send me into a temporary deafness followed by ringing in my ears. My wife screamed reflexively each time but there was nothing to be done except grin and bear it because I couldn't move my arms to plug my ears or wrap them protectively around her. We were wedged that tight.

We made it to our destination intact (both us and the tricycle axle) and after "hatching" or extricating ourselves from the tricycle, we paid our fare and limped up the driveway. For the privilege of feeling like an unhatched chick rolling down a mountainside, I paid $0.60 U.S. which was $0.20 more than what my mother-in-law paid her tricycle driver who had been right ahead of us the entire time. As an American, you must learn the language and the prices or prepare to pay more. Shell shocked and tired, I greeted the awaiting relatives who were preparing food enough for an army for the impending celebration that evening. By the light of the fireworks now exploding in a steady roar overhead and all around, I looked at my watch and saw that it was now nine o'clock... three hours until midnight.

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