From Manila to Bicol on a hair-raising, near death every 15 seconds, drive. Actually "drive" is not the appropriate term. A better word would be "passing" because that's what it is really all about. The rule of the road seemed to be: pass everyone as often and as many times as possible. We pass the car in front of us, the two cars behind pass us, we pass the three cars in front of us... and this all happens at the top speed that the car is capable of driving. If something prevents your car from driving at its maximum speed then it must be passed.

To make the situation worse, the roads are very narrow and only one lane each way. People sit on the white line on either side of the road and children play inches away from the reckless traffic. Flimsy bamboo huts are lined side-by-side just feet beyond the white line. Life seemed to have no importance. The people sitting on the white line were not concerned, the children playing and their parents were not concerned, and especially the reckless drivers were not concerned for anyone's safety. All vehicles raced by at top speeds, passing through residential areas, which stretched continuously along the roads throughout the island of Luzon. I estimated that I could see, on average, three different people every second for the 13 hour drive. By that estimate, I must have seen 140,000 of Luzon's population, all within a few feet of our car.

Our vehicle was the style of a jeepney with a long bench on each side stretching from front to rear. I was told that a jeepney could hold 50 plus passengers; 11 on each bench, 3 or 4 in the front seat, more than 20 on the roof, and 5 standing on the rear bumper.

Between the benches was an isle but it could not be used for walking as it was packed with boxes, coolers, and luggage. It seemed to be too much as we planned to be gone for only two days.

Our driver was one of my wife's brothers. He was an expert driver, just like all other drivers in the Philippines although they would all serve time if they tried those driving habits in the States. The passengers consisted of myself, my wife, nine of her extended family, and two people I have never seen before. The two strangers never said a word to me and their butt space on the bench and their three large boxes in the isle sure took up a lot of much needed space. After 10 hours we stopped and those two passengers and their boxes got out.

Once we reached the Bicol province the corpses of crashed vehicles were common along the side of the road. Even the cabs of semi trucks were reduced to a ball of twisted metal. All appeared to be fatal accidents, not just for the driver and passengers but the people sitting on the white line, the children playing, and anyone in the bamboo huts that did little to slow down the tumbling vehicles. I had difficulty imagining how they were going to remove some of those crashes and I guessed that's why they were still there.

Our mission for this trip was to visit the place of my wife's childhood. Her family moved away from the area after she completed elementary school to escape the rebels who were hiding out there. At that time, the rebels were formed with the idea of overthrowing the corrupt Marcos government. It didn't take long though, for the villagers to realize that the rebels were more corrupt than the dictator that they planned to overthrow. Even on this trip we went through several armed military checkpoints in search of remaining rebels. I was told that the recent texting on cell phones was what put an end to the rebels. The villagers would text the rebel's every move to the Philippine military.

After 13 hours we reached the city of Lagaspi. This city looked like another suburb of Manila, just like every other town and city we raced through. The only noticeable difference was that this city was at the base of the active and still smoking Mayon Volcano, the most perfect cone in the world.

The last eruption was months earlier and the city was still digging out and repairing roads from that lava flow. The first floor of two-story cement houses was completely buried. All non-cement buildings simply disappeared. To add to the devastation, this was the same area that was heavily hit by the floods from typhoons a year ago. Entire subdivisions washed away and thousands died.

The next day we made the 45-minute drive from Lagaspi to my wife's birthplace of Taladong. That town was simply a few houses alongside the road so it didn't take long to see everything and meet everyone.

We then went back through Lagapi and ventured as far up the perfect cone that the surviving road could take us. Guides were then to take us on foot from the end of the road up the side of the volcano. On our arrival we learned that it had been seven months since the guides made the trip. The trail was buried in lava and was still hot.

Neither my wife nor I wanted to get back in the Jeepney for the 13-hour return trip. We said goodbye to the family and the Jeepney and decided to stay a couple more days then fly home.

The next day one of my wife's fourth-cousins and her husband took us to a nearby province in their new pickup truck. The "drive" turned out to be four hours as we raced through so many more villages identical to the countless villages before.

The roads were narrow, winding, and loaded with heavy pedestrian traffic. Other vehicles on the road were trucks, jeepneys, tricycles, and motorcycles, all of which would stop in the middle of the lane whenever they see a potential passenger.

In addition, every so often the villagers would spread their recent harvest of rice or nuts or cracked coconuts over one lane of the road to dry, sometimes the left lane, sometimes the right lane. This added additional obstacles for our Indy 500 race.

When flying through one village I realized that I had never traveled that fast in a car before. I peaked over the front seat at the speedometer and estimated our speed in miles per hour. It could only be an estimate as the speedometer was in kilometers per hour and only went to 180 KPH and the needle was bouncing off the far right side of the gauge. I estimated our speed through that village to be 120 MPH. The seatbelt didn't work so I tightened my double handed death grip on the little handle above my door and looked out my window to my left. As if I wasn't terrified enough, what I saw absolutely shocked me. A red colored vehicle was passing us. I released one hand and reached for my camera strapped to my belt and took the below picture.

We stopped for lunch at a "resort". I guess I am spoiled after living so many years on Saipan because that building, in no possible way, resembled anything close to what I would consider a resort. The sign at the gate showed that the term "vacation" was still evolving on the island of Luzon but at least it was a start.

The activities at this resort were extremely limited.

We started our day trip to that province late and stayed longer than we had planned so our return trip was at night. That didn't slow down the driver any but did add an additional danger. Every village had 2 or 3 religious precessions where they, mostly children, carried a large cross and the others carried candles. They took up the entire lane forcing both directions of traffic into the same lane. I counted 15 of these precessions on our return trip, each one required reducing our speed from somewhere near 180 KPH down to zero as quickly as possible so we wouldn't wipe out the town.

At night the drivers would drive with their low beams on. That is until a car approaches from the opposite direction. Seconds before impact, both cars would turn on the high beams as the vehicles blindly hurled past each other at great speeds. The vehicles switch back to low beams once they safely pass. Twenty-five years ago I asked my driver in Borneo why they did that. He said something to the effect of: It is necessary to light up the road so the other driver can see you.

Once again in the Philippines, I was surprised when we completed the drive alive. Even the thousands of people we passed sitting on the white line survived our trip. Still I felt that this trip, as well as every other trip I took in the PI, was not worth the hours of pain to my butt and back from the jeepney and the extreme risk of human life.

My wife and I caught the plane from Lagaspi back to Manila. That same night we heard that the Mayon Volcano erupted again after we left. At the time I wasn't sure if I should be relieved to be alive or disappointed that I missed it. It turned out to be a minor eruption so I was disappointed as I sure would have gotten some great pictures, especially if I was on the cone at the time.

No comments: