Thursday, August 31, 2006

24 Hour Relay Race, Part IV

(This story is getting a bit long, so time to break it up. Folks are always complaining how long my stories are. I apologize ahead of time, but just try to think of it as several stories in one, as most tales are anyway).

Part IV – In the Heat of the Night

After the first mile, only two things concerned me: staying cool and maintaining the pace. In order to do the second, it was imperative to do the first. With nine of us running, we had very little time to get our core temperatures down before the next run. We were averaging less than 6 minutes a mile, so basically we had just over 45 minutes from the end of one mile to get ready for the beginning of the next. The most efficient way to do that was through the strategic application of ice on those areas of the body where the blood is the closest to the surface with the most flow. Thus, we discovered that the wrists and the neck are the best places to cool off the quickest. Also, I found that putting ice cubes inside my hat and letting them melt down my face and neck was exquisite. Without ice, we could NOT have continued past the first three miles. No way.

It seemed I had just started to feel almost normal again when my name was called to get ready. My running mates had all managed to continue their quick times, so it seemed that in spite of the heat we were going to be pushing each other to keep on keeping on. I recognized that that was the true nature of a relay race like this – athletes pushing each other, for the “team” and for personal satisfaction. It was a beautiful concept and all, but we were basically at war, and as such, we continued our individual battles against the sun’s blaze as we fought to keep our paces from flagging.

My second mile passed, about as effortlessly as the first; in fact, it was a second faster than the first at 5:15. What was missing after mile number one was the surge of energy we had previously picked up from the initial excitement of kicking off the relay. There was very little fanfare after that, so from mile number two on, it was all legs and lungs.

The afternoon passed mechanically. Each runner fell into the routine that best suited his makeup. As for me, immediately after each mile, I went to the coolers full of ice and water and chilled off. While icing down my neck and wrists, I guzzled water and Gatorade to replace the gallon of sweat I had just lost. Normally, in any other competitive race, after running a mile or any distance for that matter, I’d simply rest and THAT would be the primary consideration. Not so in a 24-hour relay in the height of summer, because there was a whole lot more to think about.

This morning I spoke to my brother on Yahoo Messenger asking him if he had read anything yet on this post. He had, and being a damn good runner in his own right back in the day, he remarked that he didn’t know how he could possibly have kept himself loose for each mile for that long. He hit the nail on the head. THAT was one of the toughest considerations of the relay, and because of it, I could never really rest between each grueling mile. I’d drink and ice down and then I’d walk around to stay loose; we all did. Every other mile or two I’d mosey over to the nearby college gymnasium to visit the restroom, which by the way, was air-conditioned. Needless to say, we took a lot of potty breaks.

The hours and the miles rolled on. The heat took its toll on all of us, but after 8 miles, one of the runners had to pull out. I was surprised that he lasted through the hottest of the day, and it was only as the sun finally winked out that he called it quits. If you look at the mile times, and I will include them in the next post, you might be surprised that he was the only one to fall out. Heat prostration is deadly, and even when it doesn’t take you down all the way, as it begins to roll you up, it tears away the will to do anything but lie down. The primary symptoms are queasiness, then nausea and absolute weakness and malaise. Go back and look at the ages of these fellows; most were between 14 and 16 years old! I doubt if I could have found 9 runners in my squadron of marines who could have done what we were doing, and these guys were young kids, although obviously pretty amazing ones.

After 10 miles, just five of us were maintaining paces in the sub 6-minute range. I was managing to stay around 5 minute 15 seconds per whack, only George and Jesus were close to me, although not quite as fast. The other runners began calling me “the running machine,” because I kept pumping out almost identical miles. I liked the nickname and I wanted to live up to it. I knew I wasn’t the best miler out there, but I wanted to establish myself as the most consistent. Even after 15 miles I was still “the machine,” but as the clock counted down into the very wee hours, I made a serious mistake.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

24 Hour Relay Race, Parts I, II and III

Part I – The Ortegas in Modesto

How disheartening is it to have to write a story twice? That’s what I’m doing now, and I have only myself to blame. Its happened to us all, the computer crashes and takes out the entire manuscript, one completely and frustratingly finished. I should have blogged it as a draft, or I could have saved it into an email, but after three years of no problems whatsoever I let my guard down. I should have known that Microsoft would eventually screw me – THAT is the moral of THIS prologue. Anyway, on with the show.......

It was mid-June 1977 when Ray Ortega, a fellow marine in my squadron, asked if I wanted to run a relay race with his twin teenage brothers in Modesto, a small city about two hours southeast of us. The prospect of such a thing intrigued me. It would be a 24-hour relay with nine runners doing a mile at a time. I had never heard of such a thing, but it sounded like a great way to test one’s will and endurance. It took me all of 5 seconds to agree to do it.

Ray drove me out to Modesto the following Friday. We got a delayed start, so by the time we got out on I-5 it was late evening. Ray and I were not close; we had very little in common other than being members of the same squadron on Alameda Naval Air Station. We served in MAG 42, a composite outfit with two very different types of aircraft – heavy lift helicopters called CH-53 Sea Stallions, and single seat attack aircraft, the venerable A-4 Skyhawk.

What I remember most about that Friday night is my relief that we made it to Modesto without dying or ending up in jail. Ray had a late model silver TransAm and he flew it more than drove it. I spent much of the trip scrunched down in the bucketseat with my eyes closed or looking anxiously over at the speedometer, which mostly showed us going well over a 100. At one point I peered over at the dash and could see nothing but darkness. A sick realization came over me, and I confirmed my suspicions asking him, “Ray, did you just turn off your headlights?”

He answered matter-of-factly, “Yep, that way the cops can’t see me, and if they can’t see me, they can’t clock me.”

I suppose it made sense to him, and I must admit that it did get us there a few minutes faster than otherwise. THAT was Ray.

I felt like I had returned from the Twilight Zone once I entered the normalcy of the Ortega home. They were a wonderful family, originally from Guatemala, but you would never know it to be around them. They lived in a typical American split-level house in an ordinary American subdivision. It was warm and bustling and I was immediately made to feel quite at home.

I met most of the other runners including Gus and George, the Ortega twins. They were a breath of fresh air, not at all like crazy Ray. In just a few days they would head down to San Diego to submit themselves to the rigors of marine boot camp, an ordeal only slightly tougher than what was to come the next day. They wanted to be marines just like their brother; well, I hoped not EXACTLY like him.

Actually, I was the one who wanted to be like THEM. They were quite the ladies men. Both had bookend little blonde high school sweeties that followed them around like lovesick puppies. On second thought, I DIDN'T want to be like them, I wanted to BE them. I had turned 20 just two days before and still hadn’t been on a date. I know, I know, it’s hard believe!

We ate lots of spaghetti and drank lots of fluids to get our bodies' reservoirs stocked up for the next day's "impossible" exertions. Even so, I knew no matter how much I ate that it could never be enough, but I gave it a shot and shovelled it down. It was after midnight before the place quieted down some. It was a very lively household! With the race not starting until noon, there was no need to get to sleep early, the plan being to sleep in as close to the start as possible. That sounded fine to me; I love my sleep.

Part II The Ordeal Begins

As planned, we got up late the next morning. For breakfast we continued where we had left off the previous night, eating heaps of pancackes, eggs, bacon, toast, jelly, and washing it all down with quarts of milk and orange juice. Our tanks were definitely topped off as the time to head out to the track approached.

Most of the 9 runners were soon regathered there at the Ortega house. In the naked light of day I watched them scope me out as I did the same to them. All athletes do this. Put more than one in the same room and watch them size each other up. All they knew about me is what Ray had told them and I think he had bragged my running abilities up pretty good. My impression of them was that they all seemed to be in strong lean shape. I judged myself to be in the company of some fairly serious runners, although they sure looked young.

With just over an hour before the crack of the starter’s pistol, we loaded up the vehicles and caravanned out to the college track. I helped unload coolers of food, ice, water, and drinks. Soon, we had an out-and-out camp on the grassy infield area just on the other side of the pole vault lane. We had everything we needed to make us and our camp followers comfortable for the next full day: Three or four beach umbrellas, a couple dozen different types of lawn chairs and recliners, folding tables and chairs, and a dozen blankets spread out on the thickest grass.

Being an outsider, I hung back and tried to figure out what was expected of me. I pitched in where I could, but mostly I stayed quiet and observed. To everyone’s credit I was rarely left by myself for long; folks were always coming up to me and introducing themselves and wishing me well. Everyone asked me about my being in the Marines and how well I knew Ray. Mostly I got lots of “good luck out there” concerning the relay, and “is it hot enough for you?” concerning the weather. My impression: Modestoites are nice people.

Speaking of the heat! If you have ever been to the valley areas of Central California in summer you know how intensely hot it gets. The sun is a fearsome blast furnace and clouds, when they dare to make a showing, are soon reduced to hazy wisps. Being outdoors in Modesto in late June causes the human body, even at rest, to give up its moisture by the gallons per hour, and by midday, a normal person’s energy level is about the same as that of a lifeless rag doll. Rational people swim in their pools or stay indoors huddled around their air conditioners, but not us!

It was almost 12, and despite the heat, quite a few spectators came out to support us. Admittedly, most of them were parents, friends, and girlfriends; although a reporter from the local newspaper showed up. I began to feel like I was a part of something noteworthy. Here’s a portion of the article he wrote entitled “World’s Record Effort…” It was published on June 27, 1977, in "The Modesto Bee" the Monday after the run.


“What is this compulsion to set a world’s record in long-distance skateboarding, raw egg eating, see-saw riding and telephone booth stuffing?

Whatever it is, the season has started and for many, the Guinness Book of World Records can be credited, or blamed, for the inspiration that can lift an ordinary person into fame, however fleeting.

As the weekend heat pushed above 100 degrees, nine Modesto runners kicked their heels into the cinders at the Modesto Junior College track…Calling themselves the Modesto City Runners, they are Rick Simental, 14; Philip Spear, 20; Steve Hurst, 14; Jeff Pezniak, 16; Rick Salas, 16; Tony Bettencourt, 16; Jesus Alberto, 18; and twins Gus and George Ortega, 19
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The running was almost upon me and as always in similar situations, I became edgy with nerves, my stomach jumping and bobbing from proverbial butterflies. All nine of us anxiously kicked our legs out, first one, then the other, all while shaking loose our arms at our sides. I’ll bet Neanderthals did the same thing tens of thousands of years ago as they restlessly prepared to run down and spear to death wooly bison. It seems to be the natural action of any man before attempting something extremely physical, especially when it involves running.

The first man to toe up to the start line of course was one of the twins, George. The boys' high school track coach called down the time and when it reached exactly noon he pulled the trigger of his starter’s pistol. “Crack!” George was off and the 24-hour relay had begun.

Part III – Nine runners On a Quest…

George set an amazing initial pace for such a long-term endeavor. I’m sure he was showing off for our little crowd of spectators, and as one of the primary organizers of the event it makes sense that he wanted to set the bar high for the rest of us runners. The heat seemed to have little effect on him as he just about strutted his 4 laps around the track. He passed on the baton to the next runner with an impressive time of 5 minutes 10 seconds. I nodded approvingly and applauded his effort thinking, ‘Okay, I can do that. No problem, ….I think.”

The other runners sought to continue to run with George’s élan and their times were also all under 6 minutes. When it came time for Jesus to run I took even greater notice. I had been looking forward to watching him run; the guy just looked like a natural. Sure enough, he flew around the track, throwing cinders behind him with every muscular stride, and passed off the baton UNDER 5 minutes at 4:54:6. ‘I wonder if he plans to run many more of those over the next 24-hours?’ I thought.

I was eighth in line to go and my guy was out on the track. “Spear, Phil Spear! YOU are next up!” one of the moms was keeping track of the rotation and calling out the names of the next to run. I soon saw that a lot of logistics – thought and planning went into something like an officially timed relay race. Without all the volunteers, there was no way we could have done it. We needed people to man the stopwatch, to log our times and yell out lap splits, to keep us stocked in snacks and drinks, to watch the runner’s order, and to make sure each finishing runner was not in physical distress. The runners needed to concentrate exclusively on running, and all those people made it possible for us to do exactly that. On that note, my first time in the relay barrel was fast approaching.

When the 7th runner started into his “bell lap,” I took my place out on the cinders about 10 yards before the start line. My butterflies immediately exploded into full-blown adrenalized eagles. I couldn’t wait to get that baton and do what I’d come there to do. It was time to earn my free victuals and drinks. I bounced around on my toes, adjusted my glasses and reset my baseball cap low over my eyes. When the 7th runner was half way through the final turn I became stationary for him to see as his “target.”

I held my left hand directly out behind me, toward the approaching runner, his grimacing face a vision of concentration and pain. My fingers were tight together, my thumb stretched out from them to give him the ideal receptacle for him to slap the baton into. When he was almost upon me, I took off into a run with my arm still stretched toward him. I could easily hear his rapid and noisy breathing. I kept my position to the outside of his so as not to interfere with his finishing strides, all the time trying to match his pace. He slapped the baton into my hand just as we crossed the finish/start line and I began the first of my many miles.

Even now, 29 years later, I recall the joyous feeling of being in perfect shape and taking off powerfully into that first of many miles. The track was wonderful – not too soft with just the right amount of bounce. I breezed through the first lap in 68 seconds; in awe of my own speed, I realized that it was much too fast. Excitement and adrenaline was doing its work well, so I decided to let it. My half-mile split was quick too, on pace for a 5 minute mile. By then, I knew I was going to have a decent first mile time, so I decided to “float” through the last two laps. With my pace in energy saving “overdrive,” I easily loped through the final half-mile and handed off the baton to Gus Ortega with a respectable time of 5:16.

My straining stride turned into a stiff-legged amble as I watched Gus dash off with the baton around the first turn, and THAT is when the full impact of the 100+ degrees of heat beat its way into my senses. As my breath came under control I made a beeline for the hose and its cool stream of water. Two other runners were still taking turns under its gentle splashing flow. I knew from our times that our physical shape was not going to be the question, no; it was going to be the insidious heat. Whoever managed to deal with the heat would manage to finish the relay. I realized then that we would never have a shot at any record times, and instead we would be lucky to simply finish the thing as a team.

Part IV.... To be continued....

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

International Distress

A buddy from Arkansas asked his sister to ask me about the time I inadvertently sent out a double international distress signal to anyone happening to pass by the American Embassy in Liberia.

I was an embassy guard and young; it was my last day on duty in Africa. Its tough to say this, but I was leaving in disgrace. I had married four days before and had done so against orders; but the way I saw it, they were not valid orders and I had solid ethical reasons for thinking so…. I thought I had a baby on the way.

I was having a great career in the marines up until then. I had made my fateful decision in the face of my company commander, who warned me of dire consequences from all the way across the African continent where he had his headquarters in Nairobi. Being a stubborn cuss, I went ahead with my marriage.

For months I had stood my post in the embassy, mostly without incident. Out of the hundreds of days accomplishing my duties, I’d only had a couple of minor "blooper" screw up moments.

Once, a couple of young American backpackers had come inside the embassy lobby on a Saturday, and I had let them leave their packs with me while they went down to the cafeteria. I should have searched them first, but I knew them well and knew they were okay. Just my luck, the Master Sergeant in charge showed up and demanded to know if I knew the contents of the packs. I got a real dressing down for that one – ouch!

The only other time that I had officially messed up was at the end of a midnight to 7 a.m. shift. A critical key was missing from the Post 1 key box. The marine who had signed it out had put it back on the wrong hook, but I couldn’t find it in my exhausted state. In my frustration, I fired back at the "boss" as he gave me the "third degree" and I came pretty close to being insubordinate. He "locked me up" into the position of attention and I took my medicine with another chewing out, after which I apologized for my misstep of temper.

There WAS one time though, where I messed up when no one saw me, and it could have been THE most serious. Once again, I was on midnight shift, and cleaning my revolver, as all watchstanders were required to do at sometime on that shift. I think it was two or three a.m. After wiping off the last of the cleaning oil and rechambering my five .38 caliber rounds, for some unexplainable reason I went back into cleaning mode, noticing that there was still some excess oil under the trigger. Without thought, I pulled it back and immediately realized with horror that I had cocked my loaded pistol. Luckily it wasn’t hair triggered; close to panic, I stuck my thumb into the hammer mechanism to prevent an inadvertent firing. I must have kept it like that for ten minutes until I finally forced myself to carefully remove my thumb pad. Slowly and gently I let the trigger return to its uncocked position. Several marines every year accidentally discharge their weapons doing equally unmindful things, or just being idiotic, like playing quickdraw in the mirror; and it always results in being sent back to the States in disgrace. Eventually, I too would return under a dark cloud, but for a different reason.

My last shift ever as a United States Marine Corps Embassy Guard was on the 3rd of July 1978. My wedding had been on July 1st and even though I was in trouble for going through with the marriage, I was given July 2nd off to "enjoy" my honeymoon. My last watch was to be at Post 1, right inside the front door of the embassy.

Before relieving the mid-shift Post 1 guard in the lobby, just before 7 a.m. the oncoming dayshift watchstander raised two U.S. flags in front of both the consulate and the ambassador’s residence. So, to begin my final day as a Marine Security Guard, that’s what I did, and with all the military ceremony and solemnity expected of a squared away marine, even a so-called "disgraced" one like myself.

I had always enjoyed the morning ritual of raising the flags. Cradling the tri-cornered folded American flag against our chests with folded arms, we marched straight and proud to each flagpole. All embassy personnel and anyone else in sight of the flag raising was required to stop and stand silently and respectfully. It was kind of cool being the center of attention, knowing all eyes were on you.

Upon arriving at the flagpole, we unwound the lanyards and clipped the rings to each end of the flag, the top clip to the blue, the bottom to the red. Then, taking one step back we raised the flag briskly to the very top of the pole and then tied off the rope. After which, we snapped off a sharp salute, immediately followed by an about face in marching.

After raising the second U.S. flag in front of the colonial style ambassador’s residence, I marched smartly back to the embassy lobby. I accepted the logbook from the offgoing marine and made note of my acceptance in the same book. I took my seat next to our Liberian receptionist and settled in for another and final eight hours on guard. Moments later, grinning and shaking his head, the sergeant whom I had just relieved walked back in the front door of the embassy. He beckoned me over to the window and pointed at the top of flagpole. My heart dropped into my stomach, and my stomach fell to my knees. There, flying proudly, was the American flag that I had just raised…and it was UPSIDE DOWN!

And that wasn’t all. My marine comrade snickered, "How did you manage to raise BOTH flags upside down man? Are you sure marriage hasn’t done something to your head?" He laughed and continued, "I’ll fix it Phil, but you’re going to hear about this until the day you leave!"

Forlornly, I replied, "Well, I guess it’s a good thing I’m heading back to the States tomorrow then. Damn, I can’t believe I did that…both flags? Are you sure? Damn!"

"Yep!" He passed back out the glass double doors, stopped, came to attention and marched back to the flagpole to "fix" my inadvertent international distress signal. At that point, clearly, I was the one in distress. To this day, I don’t know how I managed to do such a boneheaded thing. It had happened to a couple of the other marines, but I never imagined I would do it. I’m sighing now, just thinking about it.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Driving in the Philippines, an Outsider's View

Driving here – leave your road rage at the terminal.

Since attaching Sitemeter to my blog, I’ve noticed that a good number of folks reading my
posts are searching for information about retiring and living in the Philippines. I aim to please, so I figure why not write about something truly unique to this place, like driving. In fact, driving here is unlike driving anywhere else, although it is quite similar to what I saw in Liberia. The other day, on my way home from school, while I was tooling happily along on my scooter, it occurred to me how much I’ve had to adapt to here when it comes to driving and walking the roadways. Right away, I started to write this post in my head. I’m sure all you bloggers know exactly what I mean.

My primary advice to other pensioners such as me, now driving the hi-ways and bi-ways of this country, is to first of all remember you’re retired. Theoretically, there should be no need to get impatient or upset. Having said that, believe me, you WILL get mad; sometimes you just can’t help it.

Road rage – it is an emotional virus that has infected many in the USA. Try to eject it from your soul. If you’re an American, chances are, you will struggle with this one. I did and still do at times, but it’s much less a problem since I started getting around on a scooter. The scooter keeps me from having to “deal” with blocked or slowed traffic, a primary source of frustration while driving in this place. I LOVE my scooter!

Still, when I think of other places I’ve driven in the world, I have to say I’d rather drive here than some of THOSE crazy spots! For instance, I’ve never driven in Korea, but I have never been more "concerned" as a passenger. When a Korean taxi driver sees a traffic light, evidently to him it means, “Damn the RED lights! Full speed ahead!” Perhaps I’m being unfair, since I mostly make that observation as a backseat taxi fare. The other thing I remember about Korean city streets are vividly horrible crash remnants of squashed sedans where they had either crashed into each other, or just got squashed by the equally crazily driven buses. Give me a Filipino driver over a Korean any day!

The problem with American drivers is that many of us refuse to think outside of what we are used to back home. Here is the problem as I see it; we Americans can’t control our tempers. For example, back home, if we hear a horn and we are behind the wheel, we immediately turn around angrily to see who the hell has a problem. Come on – you know you do! (There’s more on the use of the horn below). We take umbrage with every imagined slight. Get over yourselves Yanks!

Marco! Polo! .... Ever play that game in the pool with your kids? Or, maybe when YOU were a kid? Well, when driving in the Phils, I liken the use of the horn to that game, only without having to look for the response, “Polo!” Before I came here, I wouldn’t touch the horn unless I was pissed at another driver, or if I wanted to get a friend’s attention. Here, you beep to tell other drivers and pedestrians that you are there. It is a warning that you are coming, probably passing, so just be aware and don’t hit me or get in my way. In other words it’s like saying, “Marco!” “Marco!” “Marco!” To hell with the “Polo!” So here’s the deal … Use your horn, and use it ALL the time! You cannot use it enough when you drive over here. In fact, people EXPECT you to use it. In the space of a mile, I probably beep my scooter’s horn 20 times! It’s hard for us Americans to use it, but you gotta honk over here and profusely.

Another “different” thing is the use of headlights. It seems to me that local drivers use their headlights as a signal to anyone in front of them, either those they are passing or those they are bearing down on, that they ARE COMING! Usually, when passing, they use both the horn AND the lights. My suggestion, if you see headlights coming straight at you, “chicken” style, apply your brakes immediately and liberally; and I mean “liberally” in the GOOD sense of the word! Do NOT think like you would back home that just because you are minding your own business in YOUR lane, that the guy playing chicken with you should be the one to give way. Nope, not smart if you want to live. He’s warned you that he’s committed; he’s coming, no matter what. Brake and prepare to pull over. That’s right; let him run you off the road. It’s his country; you just drive here. Let it go and live to drive another day.

When driving here there are many things to consider. As I try to think of them I have to get my mind back to a stateside way of thinking. After four years, most of the intricacies of getting around on Filipino streets now seem normal to me. For instance, driving here is about position. You must establish it by using the bulk of your vehicle. I even attempt to use the concept on my scooter. Believe it or not, pedestrians and bicyclists use this tactic as well. I’ll give you an example: Streets narrow to one and a half lanes all the time here, and for all number of reasons. Perhaps a truck has parked in a narrow spot, or maybe a slow moving tricycle is causing a moving impediment to traffic. When steering your car past one of these chokepoints, it is important to do so with conviction. If a car is coming toward you, flash your lights to announce your intention to pass around the obstruction and to establish position as you make your way around it. You can do this even if the oncoming vehicle is fairly close, but ONLY as long as he has time to slow down for you. A normal local driver will not object to your causing him to have to put on his brakes. On the other hand, try that maneuver in the US and your looking at a serious flare-up of road rage. The American driving outlook is, “How DARE you cause me to apply my brakes; you bastard!”

Another consideration I had to adjust to is that the roads here belong to EVERYONE, including pedestrians, bicyclists, tricyclists, horse carts, and yes, even carabao. Technically, this is true in America as well, but in reality, US drivers believe that roads are for cars ONLY. I can certainly attest to this selfish attitude after decades of running and bicycling the streets and roadways of my home country. I always strove to stay as far to the side of the street as was safely possible, but there were times that I had to run or bike a little further into the roadway. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had irate American drivers scream epithets for causing them to slow down as they passed me. Once, a thrown beer bottle hit me, still half full of suds. I KNOW that Arkansan HAD to be mad to waste beer like that! Americans like to sneer at the road conditions here, but no one would ever do such a hateful thing in the Philippines. Drivers here constantly have to slow down and patiently wait before passing foot traffic and bicycles with sidecars. They will beep as a warning and carefully pass. So, from personal experience, for the most part, driving in the Phils CAN be much more civil than in the USA.

Having said that however, Filipino drivers can ALSO be mean and selfish. I once stopped my car to let an old woman cross the street and that act very nearly cost her her life. A man driving a small truck swerved around me honking like crazy and sneered something angry at me. The old woman had to spring back out of the street as he missed squashing her by scant inches. The lesson of that story, don’t stop for pedestrians.

And that leads to your next lesson concerning crosswalks. For those foreigners visiting and mostly on foot, crosswalks here are a deathtrap. It is rare to see any Filipino driver actually stop at one to allow foot traffic to cross. Instead, they will honk and step on the gas. I have no idea why they do this, but that’s how it is. My last trip back to America I was shocked as I approached a crosswalk at the airport in Las Vegas and ALL the cars stopped for me! It threw me for a loop. I'd forgotten how that's SUPPOSED to work.

Here is another bit of driving advice: Ride the brake! I keep my left foot on the brake pedal ready to mash it at all times. You MUST be prepared to stop, and quickly. Just today I was scootering along and a kid, without a look to the right or left, simply walked across the street in front of me. I’ve seen trikes do this, I’ve seen bicyclists and vehicles do this. It never ceases to amaze me when it happens, and I cannot fathom the apparent suicidal nature of this action, but it happens regularly. Not everyone acts like this, but even its only 5 or 10 out of a hundred, that’s a lot. There are other reasons to ride the brake – such as, inoperative brake lights on the vehicle in front of you – SURPRISE!

Another problem with American drivers is we take everything PERSONAL. Drivers here WILL take ridiculous actions sometimes impulsively, or more likely out of a typical selfish attitude. There is no doubt that a large percentage of Filipino drivers are horrible at it and THAT can cause conflict. Here is where our cultural differences come into play. In the States, when two drivers happen into a quarrel, whether because one feels he has been cutoff by another, or for a whole number of possible offenses like tailgating or “unfriendly” passing, we will not shrink from yelling, honking or worse. That kind of adversarial behavior is NOT normal here. It’s just not done. In my four plus years I’ve only seen “the finger” used two or three times. Instead, there might be an “angry” horn or even a cross word, but it ends quickly. In other words, road rage is almost nonexistent, except from some of the Americans who live here.

Another reason to be careful is the dubious condition of the road surfaces. Where I live, streets are always coated with a film of sand when its dry, and slippery patches of mud when it rains. I’ve dropped my scooter twice because of the always-slick condition of the roads. Luckily I sustained only minor injuries, but it could have been worse. It isn’t just about speed; a driver must be aware of the street itself. For instance, in Manila I have seen missing manhole covers left like that for days. If my driver had not seen the gaping holes and swerved in time, broken axel time for sure.

Overall, there is a lack of traffic control devices, such as stop signs, traffic lights, lane markings, speed limit signs and traffic officers. In other words, if you like driving any way you want, as fast as you can go, this is the place for you. If your car has the power, you can gun it and go as fast as you want. I wouldn’t suggest it, but you can get away with it – there are no police vehicles that can catch you. One of my buds told me this story: He was speeding and came upon a police vehicle with guns drawn. He blew past them and they fired away. They didn’t bother to try to go after him, knowing they’d never catch him.

Speaking of the cops, you CAN expect to experience “a shakedown.” They aren’t paid much and like most non-1st world police officers, they are not averse to padding their pay with “ancillary” funds. The drill usually consists of two or three of them standing on the side of the road. They will flag you over depending on who you are. They feel especially safe pulling foreigners over, and once they do, they will start “fishing.” They’ll check your license and registration for irregularities, and if nothing is found, they might mention that they have a “police fund” and would you like to donate?

When I first got here I missed a miniscule one-way sign. A motorcycle cop turned on his siren after I was just 20 feet into the one-way. I didn’t even know what I’d done wrong. Right away I figured I’d be out 500 pesos in no time. Around here, they simply take your license from you if you don’t “pay the fine” on the spot. Interestingly, even though he acted brusquely, he was okay. I used the word “sir” at least twice per sentence and apologized profusely for my "stupidity." He asked me if I wanted a break, which confused me. “You mean like 500 pesos?” I asked uncertainly. He chuckled demanding, “Do you want a break or not?” “Oh, yes sir. I would appreciate that!” He let me go with a laugh.

Last month my wife was on her way across Manila on the way to Cavite. Our driver was behind the wheel, and the van was full of family members. A cop pulled them over and demanded to see papers. Everything was in order, but he demanded 100 pesos anyway. Rather than to continue to be detained, my wife forked it over. It’s a good thing I wasn’t there, because I wouldn’t have given him squat, but that’s the kind of thing you can expect here.

A last story on local cops…a buddy of mine was on his cycle, his girlfriend on the back. My friend always “used to” teased me about my wear of a helmet while I ride my scooter, saying a “real” man would never wear one. I teased him back, “Just wait, you’ll get pulled over and you’ll see why I wear one.” Sure enough, as I was saying, he was on MacArthur Blvd and it was bumper-to-bumper stopped. My pal found himself immobile right in front of four officers and there was no room to “run” because of the traffic. All four of these cops were on cycles and NONE had helmets. My friend made a HUGE mistake. He made a show of writing down the ranking officer’s badge number remarking, “I don’t see YOUR helmets.” The officer took a step back and pulled his pistol saying loudly, “Are you resisting arrest!?” My bud knew the jig was up. He threw away the badge number and paid the cop. The lesson: NEVER show ANY of these people up. Be nice, polite, and say “sir” continuously AND mean it. You don’t have to pay off the little bribes, and I will NEVER do so, now that I’ve been here for a while and know the ropes. Take the ticket and pay the 100 pesos down at the LTO to get your license back. No biggy. Keep paying these guys on the street and they’ll keep doing it.

Getting my local license was a new experience. I used my New Jersey driver’s license to basically “trade in” for my Philippine license. Like a lot of foreigners, we use a “handler” to help us with the dealing with the “system.” My first question to them got nothing but blank stares, “Where can I find a driver’s manual?” Evidently, they are rare indeed, if they exist at all. I’m sure they have driving rules here, but since I didn’t have to take a test, I don’t even have a hint as to what the rules might be. I assume they go by international driving law, but I couldn’t tell you for sure.

My wife had her license stolen when she was mugged not long after we got here. (A man on a motorcycle snatched her purse off her shoulder as she got out of her car. She tried to fight for it and almost had her arm pulled out of the socket. There IS a lesson there!) Unfortunately, she had both her New Jersey license and her local license, so she had to take a test. Yeah right! Someone gave her a test with answers already filled out, so I can’t even use her to find out what might be on the “test,” which could provide a clue as to Filipino “rules of the road” if she had actually taken it.

I realize this post is a bit on the "stream of consciousness" side, but I’ve written it over a week’s time between schoolwork, playing with the kids and watching events unfold in the Middle East. Sorry about that.

Anyway, to put it succinctly, Driving in the Philippines is a “trip!” Pun intended.


(Another entry under the topic of retiring in the Philippines and living in the Philippines...enjoy!)