Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Oh My God! Look Sir!

Our van service driver, Roger Jr., as we call him, picked me up this morning at 6 a.m. for a trip to the Manila VA Regional Office. We got onto the North Luzon Expressway at the Angeles City – Magalang entrance and headed south toward Manila. I stared sleepily out the passenger side window watching as farmers winnowed their rice crop or burned the resultant waste straw. Why they burn it, I have no idea. They burn everything here; I hate that. I shrugged off that vexing question and settled in for the hour and a half ride to the U.S. Embassy.

Suddenly I was snapped out of my reverie, “Oh my God! Look SIR!”

I turned toward Roger and saw him pointing at the oncoming traffic on the other side of the median. A jeepney was careening crazily from side-to-side 100 meters or so ahead of us. Roger was already slowing down as the ancient, out-of-control vehicle took one last wild swerve into the center median, caught its right front wheel in the soft ground and flopped over on its right side.

We gasped as a dust cloud enveloped the crashed jeep, and then we were past it. “I hope that thing isn’t full of people,” I prayed aloud looking back. I knew my hopes were in vain, because people tend to pack themselves by the bunch into cars and vans over here. It’s amazing how many they can fit in. Sometimes its like watching the little clown cars where one person after another climbs out, and 10 minutes later, they are still debarking. Folks around here are a lot smaller than Americans, so they can really pack ‘em in too!

By the time we could get stopped, we were 50 feet past the wreck site. Three "good samaritan" cars were already parked behind us, and more continued to pull over. Even more cars had stopped on the other side of the highway. I was relieved that people were stopping to help.

Before the dust had settled, the driver appeared from the other side of his turned over vehicle. He frantically scrambled to the rear entrance of his flipped jeepney and crawled half in. He began pulling out items, and then a woman in jeans crawled out, followed by a young man. Passersby were now assisting, and one reached in and pulled out a small boy, who looked to be 5 or 6 years old. People of various ages and gender were starting to stagger out or were pulled out by others. I’d seen enough.

“Come on Roger. Let’s get to a call box and call for an ambulance.”

There’s no 911 here, so the call box was the best option to get help fast. We piled back into our van and sped off. In less than a mile we found an emergency phone, but before we could get out, I saw a caravan of four ambulances speed past us toward the toppled jeepney. I was amazed and thankful to see help was on the way, and so quickly.

“Rog, that is even a faster response than you can get in the States. Wow!”

For the next 20 or so miles, we talked of watching the jeepney flip over, and the amazing aftermath. Roger was overcome with emotion at first, after seeing that children were involved, so I did all the talking for awhile.

Here are my conclusions after what I saw today:
1) My faith in the goodness of Filipinos has been buttressed and increased. People were falling over themselves to stop and help.

2) If you’re going to have a car accident in the Philippines, have it on the North Luzon Expressway.
3) The emergency response system on that expressway is very very good.

4) Jeepneys are inherently unsafe at high speeds, and shouldn’t be allowed on superhighways.

As I’ve remarked before, I’m much more impressed with the way people in this country react to accidents and mishaps than, for instance, the way folks react to similar instances in the supposedly more advanced country of Japan. I don’t like to say negative things about any group of people, but the Japanese could really stand a dose of human kindness, Filipino style. Read this earlier post that explains exactly what I mean, based on my own anecdotal experiences in Japan.

We could only speculate what caused that jeep to go so violently out of control. It appeared to be overloaded, so maybe the suspension failed; or it could have blown a tire, or perhaps ALL of the above. On the way back, we inspected the road surface and could find no skid marks at all, so it seems the driver never even tried to apply the brakes, if he had any at all. Then again, I don't see how he could -- the way that jeeney was fishtailing; he probably couldn't even FIND the brake pedal. If there are any mechanics or crash experts out there, feel free to interject with your insights.

Anyway .... Another day, another adventure.


Amadeo said...

Hi, Phil:

Sorry, but I was actually snickering when I read this account. No, not on account of the accident, but because of your descriptive narrative of driving conditions in the old homeland. About packing it in – passengers galore, as long as there is enough to sit and hold on. You ought to go to the distant provinces where this practice has been elevated to art. Guinness ought to send their agents there. A motorbike, like the “habal-habal”, some call them the “skylab”, can cram in as many as eight or ten passengers. Even a regular bike can hold 5/6 passengers. And the TPU jeepneys and buses are unbelievably packed, to the rooftops literally.

The other extreme. My son-in-law here gets grumpy when we take his vehicle and there is not enough seatbelts for each passenger including kids, even though he drives a big SUV. Before I bought my own, I kept quiet about the size of the vehicle. It is a full-size Ford (F-150). But now I call mine – my little Sherman tank, and he just smiles.

PhilippinesPhil said...

You're right Amadeo, and EVERY vehicle gets the same treatment over here. Last year, on an outreach to Catbalogan, Samar, I created a game for myself observing traffic from my 3rd floor hotel terrace. I actually counted a family of 7 somehow squeezed onto a single scooter! And not a helmet amongst them.

Now I'm snickering at you and your typical American gas guzzling habits. I watch the news and all the interviews of whining Americans talking about gas prices. It's ridiculous, since Americans ARE the problem. (not me of course!) We shouldn't complain about the costs to run our "tanks" when we know full well they are "gas gulpers." Of course, I didn't hear you complain, so present company excluded, eh?

Well-to-do Filipinos these days, and there seem to be a lot of them, are also buying huge SUVs. I think the thinking is: "It doesn't matter HOW MUCH gas costs. I'm rich and I can afford it." It's a blatant display of consumerism in a place where most people can't afford a bicycle. To be fair though, many of the SUVs here run on diesel, so they ARE a bit more efficient than those in the States.

niceheart said...

It's a good thing that help came right away. Oh, those poor children. They should really stop overloading vehicles there. It's way too dangerous.

I am proud of my fellow Filipinos especially when I hear stories like these.

PhilippinesPhil said...

And well you should Sweetheart, I mean Niceheart; Filipinos have many admirable qualities.

Overloading isn't the half of it. Here's a partial laundry list:

Kids sit on drivers' laps. Children, even infants, on motorcycles. Inoperative or barely working brakes, bald tires, burned out headlamps, turn signals and brake lights. Pedestrians walking two and three abreast in the street, or walking across the street without looking...

I suppose I'm just being an over-worried, anal American. On the other hand, Filipinos have the ability to be carefree and contented no matter what. How do they do that? Bahala na perhaps?

Ed said...

In my experience, the only requirement for a jeepney was a horn, pedals and a steering wheel. All other things were optional.

Since the Philippines is the cell phone capital of the world in terms of per capita use, I'm not surprised about the quick response. What amazed me more was that the ambulance could squeeze through the congested traffic that fast.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Ed, your experience is mostly correct, although there is supposedly a requirement to have your vehicle thoroughly inspected every year. In reality, this seems to only apply to foreigners.

The well-off keep their cars in immaculate order anyway, and the poor guy with a 30 yr-old beater would be off the road if he had to pay to meet all the minimum standards. The government is between a rock and a hard spot in trying to manage this issue. It's an impossible situation for them.

Oh yeah, EVERYONE has a cell here, even the poorest trikedriver. These folks can text faster than they can speak. Hardly anyone actually speaks on their cells. I LIKE that. I hate sitting in a restaurant or at the airport while some fool yammers into the air next to me. Grrrrrrr!

The problem is you must know the actual number of the emergency service you want. Each area has its own number for that purpose. That's why we headed down to the callbox.

Edward, you haven't been on the NLEX for awhile. Since they finished the refurb of it and started charging about $2.50 one way on it, the traffic flies on that puppy. It's smooth, fast, and the traffic is much more sparse than before. I love it. It feels exactly like a superhighway in the States. So, usually there is NO congestion until you get off the expressway.

I have NO problem paying the bucks for the speed we now have on getting to Manila. It's cut the time getting to the capital by over half. Most folks maintain about 100kph, the speed limit, for the entire trip. Speeders are stopped and ticketed at the final tollbooth, based on cameras and radar.

You can see the cops walking along the queues at the tolls handing out tickets and collecting fines. Its the only way cops can catch speeders since the primary police transport are old model motorcycles. The system works great, and it looks like even rich people get zapped, which is VERY unusual in this country. The Rich over here are definitely above the law, and that's no exaggeration.

Hmm. I should have made this a separate post, eh? grin.

niceheart said...

I am like you, phil. I am also a worrier and over-protective. I guess you're right. It must be that ugly 'bahala na' mentality.

Ed said...

I like their system of speed control. Maybe the states should adopt that here.

Amadeo said...

Have they now painted lane lines on those new expressways?

And yes, for a small handout one can whiz through the smogtests in the provinces.

When I am in the province, I drive an old Mitsubishi L200 on diesel that gives very good mileage.

But, Phil, remember unlike there, diesel costs more here in the US than gasoline. Thus, economy-wise, a gas engine is less in cost and less to fuel it.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Surely you are jesting about the painted lines?

The "handout" as you call it, is the mark of a 3rd World country and it IS unfortunate. In Liberia they called it "dash." Want to get to the head of a long line, pay up. And if you're very rich, you don't even have to show up. Pathetic, but money talks in poor countries. Its a fact of life in most places of the world.

I'm not talking about cost when it comes to gas vs. diesel. It's the efficiency. We can go all day long in our diesel powered van, but in our gas powered stationwagon, you could almost watch the needle drive down to "empty."

Americans make choices of convenience and comfort over conservation all the time. MOst Americans have several cars per family and never use mass transport, compared to the rest of the world where car ownership is rare beyond belief.

The gas crunch in today's world is the USA's fault. We are 5% of the population and we use over 25% of the supply. No getting around that.

Amadeo said...


I have to agree with you on the gas consumption here in the US. The last figures I read and this was a while back were that the average US vehicle registers about 10,000 miles of travel each year. But Californians registered more, 12,000 miles a year. And there are over 30 million vehicles in the state, thus almost like a ratio of one vehicle for each resident.

And I was not jesting about the question on the dividing lane lines. If I recall correctly there were no lane lines in the south expressway when last I traveled there. But I have no recollection for the north expressway since I went through it as passenger probably only once last year heading for Subic. I had paid no particular attention because in Paris there are also no dividing lane lines in their big thoroughfares.

Of course, I could be wrong about my recollections.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hey Amadeo, I'm glad you didn't take my remark about US gas guzzling personal. Americans burn up a lot of fuel, BUT we are also THE world's economic engine. Our economy is what sparks and drives the world's economy. Still, I hope the current situation wakes us up and we start to develop alternate fuel sources, and NOT just oil!

The NLEX has about the same standards as a US expressway. Fairly good shoulders, and yes, plenty of painted lines. The South expressway, at least as far as I went on it also has lane lines.

I have noticed that lanes here are viewed more as a suggestion than anything else. Many times drivers simple straddle them to keep their "options" open.

Driving here is more "art" and localized skill; in other words, when driving here it seems best to "go with the flow." Unless you are obviously a foreigner of course, in which case a cop in need of a few bucks will pull you over to shake a few bucks out of you for simply driving like everyone else. Oh well....

Ed said...

Driving in the Philippines is definitely not for the timid. I wouldn't be afraid to drive there but since when I am there I never have a map and rarely know where I'm going, I just hire a van and driver and sit back and enjoy the ride and the sights.

Nick Ballesteros said...

Hey Ed. I have driven a car on the streets of Manila! Even took a trip to the province of Quezon one time! Does that make me an Evil Knievel? *grin* Seriously, they say that when you can navigate the roads of Manila, you can drive anywhere else.

Phil, your post made me grin inspite of myself. Ironically, I have seen camping and trekking teaser posters that ask whether you have survived a night without electricity and mobile phone, and without a convenience store in sight, and communed with nature, and taken a ride on top of a jeepney? Adventure awaits you with camping trips! Many do love taking a ride on the roof with their bags in tow, but I don't think I will be doing that anytime soon.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I can manage just fine behind the wheel here, but like Ed, the lack of directional signs are the catch for me too.

Transportation is cheap and easy here anyway. I was finished with my VA appointment early this morning and I didn't want to wait the whole day for the free VA van to take us home. So, for less than $2 I caught a taxi to the bus station. For another $3 I was soon on my way back to Angeles City.

The good thing about the Philippines is that you can always get "there" from "here!"

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