Saturday, January 15, 2005

Riding down from Baguio

(with apologies to George Orwell).

When I go to the Philippines I arrive at Manila Airport and wait impatiently for our driver to arrive. We need a driver because our destination, Baguio City, is about 250 KM's north of Manila. The drive can take anywhere from 5 to 9 hours depending on the weather. The first time I did the trip was in late June 2004 during a Typhoon and thus torrential rain. It took 9 hours. We go through Manila itself (that's an experience, especially during peak hour) and hit the Northern Luzon Motorway which takes us about 80 KM's of the way on good 2 and 3 lane roads.

After that it's one lane each way along the MacArthur Highway (yes, that MacArthur!), through Tarlac and points north of there. On my second trip (August 2004) the rain was coming down so heavily that as we drove through Tarlac I had to put my feet up on the dashboard to keep em dry. Once we'd driven out of the deeper water we opened the doors of the van to let the water out! Philippine TV showed aerial footage of that area the next day - it was 15 feet deep in water!

Eventually, about 30 KM's from Baguio, you reach the point where you make a decision; take the Marcos Highway or take Kennon road. In the rainy season Kennon road is often closed. (Parenthetically, we always stop at the Shell Service station just before the junction - they have a sign board showing the road state. It's a sobering sight to see a security guard patrolling the service station armed with a shotgun with the Shell Logo on the stock! It's also a sobering experience to see the signs warning of anti-hijacking checkpoints along the road - sponsored by Texas Instruments).

On my second trip there Kennon road was closed; we had to take the Marcos Highway. By that time it was maybe 9 PM and pitch black. I was sitting in the front seat next to the driver and I couldn't even see the road through the rain! Neither the middle white line or the white line on the right that marked the edge of the road. The driver was doing 80 KM's an hour on winding single lane mountain roads! Sometimes you just have to trust!

It gets better . It's a single lane each way as aforesaid. It's also a major highway with lots of semi-trailers and buses (to say nothing of trikes and jeepneys). It's nothing unusual to catch up to a convoy of 20 semi-trailers (I'm not exaggerating). Naturally our driver wants to go faster than they do so he pulls over to the left and tries to overtake. At this point it becomes a game of nerves. He's trying to drive fast enough to pass 20 semi-trailers on a two lane road and beat the oncoming traffic. If it's a trike they'll pull out of the way. Likewise with a Jeepney. A bus? It's touch and go. If you're lucky one of the semi-trailers will slow down just enough to leave a van sized gap to duck into. If not, either the bus hits the shoulder on its right or we hit the shoulder on our left (completely the wrong side of the road).

This is terrifying the first time and the second time. About the fifteenth time you realise that driving in the Philippines is different. Everyone knows the game and how to play it. I still don't know how they decide who veers and who holds the road.

I doubt I could cope with driving in the Philippines; the style is so different to the style of driving I know. I've seen things there that would cause road rage here in the US or in Australia but no one seems fazed by it. I think we could learn a lot from Filipinos about how to handle the inevitable driving incidents.

It's possible to fly from Manila to Baguio - the flight is about an hour. But the flight is on a small plane landing on a runway of uncertain quality. I prefer the drive.

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