[I wrote the following piece in November 2012 and, somehow, never found an opportunity to publish it. As time passed and its topicality receded into the distance of irrecoverable days, I have turned back to it as more than just an anecdote. So many months after the event, I think it captures more than just a moment in time, a few hours of a day when an American presidential election was taking place thousands of miles away from where I was traveling to a nearby city.]
While the election results were just beginning to be counted on Tuesday evening, November 6, 2012, it was early Wednesday morning here in the Philippines. The only ATMs on my small island that accepted my American bank card had been "offline" - so I was told -since the first of the month, and rather than throw away much-needed money on a Western Union money transfer, I decided to buy a ticket on one of the shuttle vans that zoom past my house every hour to use the ATM in the nearest sizeable city called Tacloban.
I knew a dispatcher for the van company who arranged for the van to pick up my girlfriend and I on the highway just before dawn. I always bring my girlfriend along for protection. She protects me from being overcharge for everything from soft drinks to house rent - since everyone suffers from the delusion that all foreigners are millionaires. It was my first ride in a van in almost five years. (I haven't ridden in a car, dear reader, since November 8, 2007.) On climbing inside the van, I was relegated to the rumble seat nearest the sliding door. There wasn't a seatbelt in sight and as soon as the van hit cruising speed (approximately 80 kph), I also noticed that all the "oh shit" handles near the ceiling were missing. With the window open, I had to cling to the sliding door whenever the highway took us veering to the right and onto my girlfriend's knee when it took us to the left.
Having traveled often on the highway aboard a trike or on the back of a motorcycle, I knew that the internationally-observed rules of the road were regarded rhetorically in the Philippines, like friendly advice rather than enforceable laws. And many drivers on the roads had either never bothered to acquire a license or had one that was expired, simply because they couldn't spare the money for the fee. This meant that even the most rudimentary driving regulations were ignored - ones like not passing on a bridge or on a hill or a curve.
All manner of conveyance known to history, from wagons drawn by water buffalo, pedicabs and motor scooters to jeepneys, SUVs, vans, buses and trucks all travel these spindly highways. Right of way is negotiated only in the breach. The speed at which the van was moving made the passing world into something of a green and grey blur of coconut palms, rice paddies and wooden shacks. And people seemed to glance at me as I sped past their inscrutable lives. I latched onto a certain view of trees and houses and engaged in the fantasy of living with that view always before me. Everything I knew started and ended there - my boyhood, school days, my first encounters with love and death. But when I opened my eyes I saw a different view sliding past me - another group of people, another arrangement of destinies.
The speed of the van became more alarming when it drove that Wednesday morning past uniformed boys and girls on their way to school. I saw the usual number of women with babies stapled to their chests,who are everywhere in these overcrowded islands. And toddlers scampering within inches of the highway seemed inured to the life-threatening passage of buses and trucks that do nothing more in warning than give short blasts from their horns as they explode around curves.
Imagine a busy two-lane highway slicing through the heart of your neighborhood, with homes, grade schools, basketball courts, and meeting halls all abutting within a few feet of it. For reasons that are hard to explain, this is precisely what a typical provincial barangay is like in the Philippines. It's as if the houses were situated that way before the national highway was put there, when it was a dirt and gravel road. And rather than require that houses too close should be moved or removed, the highway was laid down smack on people's doorsteps.
Speed limits through these barangays are posted at a maximum of 60 kph (nearly 40 mph). Since delivery trucks and passenger buses are on tight schedules, they go as fast as mechanically possible. If one of them should lose control, which happens occasionally, the flimsily-built houses would offer little resistance as they careened straight through them.
Dogs laid and men stood on the highway's brink as if to say, "Go ahead. Hit me!" But the true heroes on these highways are the pedicab, or"multicab" drivers - bicycle-driven taxis for one or two passengers. Unlike Thailand, where the bicycle is in front, or Vietnam, where they're in back, Philippine trishaws, modeled on the motorcycle trikes, with the bike mounted on the left. This makes the steering a lot harder, but it also exposes the driver to the brunt of traffic.
It seemed that around every curve there was one of those large signs with the cryptic message ACCIDENT PRONE AREA. Areas don't have accidents. People do. What made the message on the signs more emphatic was the sight of some of them grotesquely bent out of shape. Had the sign been in an accident? There were also signs that read SCHOOL ZONE and REDUCE SPEED AHEAD, to which my driver paid no attention. I wondered how many Filipino drivers on these highways understood what the signs meant, since English is spoken sporadically, at best, in these provinces. I have found that my knowledge of Spanish has actually got me quite a lot farther in breaking down the formidable language barrier here than English.
We covered about a hundred kilometers in two and a half hours, with an average speed a measly 40 kph. The breakneck spurts of speed, that momentarily made the journey feel like a marathon roller coaster, had been neutralized by the nervous jockeying for a break in passing every trike or pedicab or wagon. I withdrew all my cash from the ATM, and when I finally made it home it was going on 1 pm - Midnight Eastern Standard Time. I turned on my TV, expecting the worst when I tuned to CNN. But Barack Obama had just been declared the winner by Wolf Blitzer. I double-checked the BBC to make sure it wasn't another 2000 election night gaffe. But the BBC had also declared the winner. I called out to my girlfriend, who had patiently endured the campaign year along with me, and she was pleased enough to come tome and give me a hug.
On my way to town a while later in the day, I asked the trike driver if he had heard the news. He was either oblivious or indifferent - it was impossible to tell.
In his book, Essays of Travel, Robert Louis Stevenson captures the peculiar aspects - for the traveler - of a road:
And now we come to that last and most subtle quality of all, to that sense of prospect, of outlook, that is brought so powerfully to our minds by a road. In real nature, as well as in old landscapes, beneath that impartial daylight in which a whole variegated plain is plunged and saturated, the line of the road leads the eye forth with the vague sense of desire up to the green limit of the horizon. Travel is brought home to us, and we visit in spirit every grove and hamlet that tempts us in the distance. Sehnsucht—the passion for what is ever beyond—is livingly expressed in that white riband of possible travel that severs the uneven country; not a ploughman following his plough up the shining furrow, not the blue smoke of any cottage in a hollow, but is brought to us with a sense of nearness and attainability by this wavering line of junction. There is a passionate paragraph in Werther that strikes the very key. ‘When I came hither,’ he writes, ‘how the beautiful valley invited me on every side, as I gazed down into it from the hill-top! There the wood—ah, that I might mingle in its shadows! there the mountain summits—ah, that I might look down from them over the broad country! the interlinked hills! the secret valleys! Oh to lose myself among their mysteries! I hurried into the midst, and came back without finding aught I hoped for. Alas! the distance is like the future. A vast whole lies in the twilight before our spirit; sight and feeling alike plunge and lose themselves in the prospect, and we yearn to surrender our whole being, and let it be filled full with all the rapture of one single glorious sensation; and alas! when we hasten to the fruition, when there is changed to here, all is afterwards as it was before, and we stand in our indigent and cramped estate, and our soul thirsts after a still ebbing elixir.’ It is to this wandering and uneasy spirit of anticipation that roads minister. Every little vista, every little glimpse that we have of what lies before us, gives the impatient imagination rein, so that it can outstrip the body and already plunge into the shadow of the woods, and overlook from the hill-top the plain beyond it, and wander in the windings of the valleys that are still far in front. The road is already there—we shall not be long behind. It is as if we were marching with the rear of a great army, and, from far before, heard the acclamation of the people as the vanguard entered some friendly and jubilant city. Would not every man, through all the long miles of march, feel as if he also were within the gates?