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Maneuvering Manila

BY LAUREL FANTAUZZO February 29, 2012 11:19am

Back in Iowa City after months in the Philippines, I was walking at night when I noticed a car slow down beside me. The driver turned and locked angry eyes with me. Then she pressed her foot on the gas, as if her speeding away would deliver her disapproval faster. A second driver did this, and then a third, all of them pausing and then rushing from me with peeved looks. I was baffled; was my face suddenly a problem that required fleeing as a solution?

Then I realized what was bothering the drivers so much. Instead of using the sidewalk, I was walking next to the parked cars, in the middle of the street. Even though I’d been home at school in Iowa City for the past few weeks, after seven months in Quezon City, I hadn’t yet shaken my Philippines habit of walking in the middle of the street, instead of using the sidewalks.

Even though I’m a slow walker, I like walking. I tried to walk in Quezon City as often I could. Whenever I walked with friends, and I wanted to use the slightly broken sidewalks of Teachers’ Village instead of the smoother, middle-of-the-street ground, they’d chuckle at me. “But we might get hit by a car!” I would say. “Ay, Laurel,” they would reply, and I could hear what was unsaid in that Ay: You silly America-born mixed-race Fil-Am, this is how we do things here, don’t worry so much. And so we would keep walking in the middle of the street near vehicles so fast, they seemed like very large projectiles for us to dodge. Tricycle drivers, especially, never quite seemed to know their own dimensions, just the level of speed and the shape of the zig-zags they wanted to achieve with their tiny diesel engines.

The author would ride a jeepney when she couldn't walk in Manila. Nicole Oberfoell
Once, while in a cab paused in traffic near the GMA-Kamuning MRT stop, I heard my driver cry out “Uy!” His intuition had sensed a break in the chaotic but wordlessly understood protocol of traffic; I glanced up in time to catch a tricycle zipping down the opposite lane, just as another cab was taking a left. The collision seemed almost gentle—a mere tap—but the tricycle toppled over and its driver disappeared under the heap of his sidecar.

My cab driver pressed his brakes hard in disbelief. We waited and stared. The toppled tricycle looked sad, like a small, beached whale. Then we both audibly sighed when the tricycle driver climbed out through his sidecar opening—Job emerging—hopped down onto the road, and stood with his hands on his hips, head cocked at the driver who’d tapped him. The driver responsible for the collision shrugged. Together he and the tricycle owner maneuvered the tricycle back to standing position. “Masuwerte talaga!” my driver said, and that was a Tagalog vocabulary lesson I never forgot.

There are no tricycle drivers in Iowa City—just the occasional drunken frat boy on a scooter, with no sidecar—but no one wants me walking in the middle of the street here anyway. I sheepishly stepped back onto the American sidewalk.

When I’m not walking here in the States, seatbelts, too, are an element of transportation I’m still getting used to again. Last week I found myself in the back row of my classmate’s van in Iowa City. Whenever I rode in the rare car that had seatbelts in Manila, and I struggled with the straps, the Filipino occupants of the car would usually smile sideways at each other, and I would again receive the unsaid message; my caution was silly, marked me as a fretful American. So I would let the seatbelts go, the flaps unused at each side of my lap.

I did the same in Iowa City, picking up the simple straps, then deciding they were somehow foreign and too complicated. My seatmate looked at me with some concern. “You should wear your seatbelt,” she said, and my sheepishness returned.

I realize it’s a sweeping generalization to say that Filipinos don’t care about transportation safety. Once, early in my Philippines stay, I got into a rare cab with seatbelts and did buckle myself in. The driver smiled at me. “Don’t worry,” he said in English. “I’m a good driver. You’re safe with me.” And I was.

Later, toward the end of my time in Quezon City, I asked a woman in Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Tomas Morato how I might get to the GMA-Kamuning MRT stop. She told me jeepney directions, but I asked her for walking directions. “That’s so far!” she said. “You might not make it! It might be dangerous!” I assured her that I liked walking, and so she reluctantly gave me the left and right turns I should take. I was ten minutes into my walk when a van slowed beside me. I tensed automatically when the tinted driver’s side window came down. But it was the woman who’d given me walking directions; the van advertised her catering business, and she’d followed me because she was worried. “Hey!” she said. “Let me give you a ride! It’ll be safer!” I assured her I’d be all right, and she shrugged and smiled and let me go.

During a November visit to Batanes, I thought the smallness of the island would mean that residents would be more lax about traffic safety. The winding, cliffside roads have sheer drops to the churning ocean below. It can feel like you’re the only one on the road for many kilometers, because sometimes you are. People use motorcycles or bicycles as their main conveyances, with some occasional trucks and an infrequent daily jeepney plying the main island route.

That’s why I was a little surprised to find that Basco requires motorcycle helmets, and that police will stop and ticket bare-headed drivers and riders. So I dutifully put on a borrowed helmet. No one reproved me for that.

More than once, though, the Batanes wind blew my helmet off. When I felt that happen, my helmet spinning into the middle of the road, it felt like the Philippines itself was mussing my hair, reproving me for my caution, the wind as its hand. You silly Fil-Am, thinking a helmet will protect you, thinking you can plan your fate. Your destiny is your destiny, whatever vehicle you choose to ride, whatever way you plan to get wherever it is you’re trying to get. Let go.

But I’d always stop and put my helmet back on anyway. - HS, GMA News

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