Sunday, December 2, 2007

Driving in the Philippines

As a foreigner visiting the Philippines for the first time, I am used to traffic laws that are generally obeyed through a system of enforcement and social contract. I come from a place where lines in the road have actual meaning, vehicles travel single file, and if cars, trucks, and motorcycles travel two or three abreast they actually build roads 3-4-6, and even 8 lanes wide. Needless to say learning to drive in the Philippines was not only culture shock, it was a daunting experience.

It all began as I arrived at the Cebu international airport on my first visit to Asia a few years ago. I disembarked the plane into the dark warm evening. It was late; I had been traveling for roughly 30 hours including a 6 hour layover in Hong Kong. All I wanted to do was sleep. But alas, the queue for customs was to be dealt with first. This was my first experience with the infamous bureaucracy of the Philippines. With my typical luck I was the last person through the system, having picked the wrong line to stand in. My eyes were heavy, and I was exhausted. Luckily I had an American sitting next to me on the plane who actually had some valuable hints about changing money, and navigating Cebu. Once through the airport, I hailed a cab and watched in awe as we drove to my hotel in the city. My sleepiness evaporated. The streets were packed with cars motorcycles, bikes, and people. All were at least three abreast going in both directions with passing going on both right and left. There were frequently lines painted on the roads in Cebu (unlike other parts of the Philippines), but it made little difference to the driving public. Also I became fairly quickly aware that there was little or no police traffic control. Yes there are police, but enforcing traffic sanity doesn’t seem to be part of the job description. At best they direct the flow at intersections during peak hours. I had considered renting a motor bike until I saw this madness, after which I told myself driving here was something I would never do.

Well that was then, now I own a powerful (by Asian standards) 150cc motorcycle, and have actually become quite used to driving here. I actually enjoy the daily commute to Dumaguete from my countryside home. More or less a motocross road rally, it really wakes you up. I have even taken to text messaging while riding with one hand. Well let’s say that it is possible, but dangerous, and not recommended. Some advice to those who might like to join in on the organized chaos; take it slow, and if possible do your learning in the provinces outside the city madness. Some musings and observations follow which may prove helpful, or may in fact drive you to never consider riding a cycle or driving a car here.

My first experience riding a motorcycle was while I was staying in Moal Boal for a month. I was treading water, deciding what do and where to go in the Philippines. A Philipino friend of mine suggested Moal Boal as a nice and inexpensive resort town to hang out. Nearby Panagsama beach is a scuba diving mecca for international tourists. I was considering learning to dive, but an ear infection prevented me from diving for a month. As it turned out two weeks would have been enough there, what with the influx of tourists and plethora of working girls. But that is another story. I mention it only because after two and one half weeks, I was ready to try anything to get away from the local scene. So desperation overcame fear and I rented a motorcycle for a day. I had a blast. The country roads were usually sparsely traveled, and you could often go for several kilometers without seeing a car. However, Ceres buses are something to be feared and given wide berth. I have often mused to myself that if anything kills me on the road, it will be one of these big yellow terrors of the highway. To get a true sense of the widely dispersed and frequent Ceres Liners as they are called, you really need to take a ride on one. This is something I happened to have experienced during several commutes back and forth between Moal Boal and Cebu City. To get the full effect sit in the back seat. While not the most comfortable ride, this allows you to look out the front window and see what lies ahead as the bus careens down the road at 70-90 KPH. Now keep in mind these are narrow roads, most often concrete, but often as well gravel or worse. The busses are standard wide busses. Simply put, they use most of the road and don’t use the brakes unless a prospective passenger pops out of the bushes and waves a hand. Even then often as not, unless a scheduled stop, they will only slow down facilitating the jumping on of the passenger. The drivers do indeed know what a gas pedal is and the horn as well. And if I am to be saved from being run over at the last minute by one of these road demons, it will be the sound of their distinctive horn as the driver accelerates towards a congested road full of babies, motorcycles, and pedestrians, as well as dogs. On one occasion I was sitting in the back of one of these buses as we approached a school zone. My expectation was for the driver to slow down as would happen in the U.S. but to the contrary, this guy, despite a crossing guard and several dozen school girls on both sides of the road, accelerated and laid on the horn. I had visions of pigtailed girls and petticoats flying as we approached, but miraculously, the crowd dispersed as we sped by horn a wailing. I came to understand this was normal, an organic seemingly undisciplined flow of events played out again and again everyday. Words to the wise, if you see yellow in your peripheral vision while driving, give wide berth. Death by Ceres Liner would be swift and absolute.

Anyway my first two day bike rental allowed me to experience mountain roads which disappear into trails, remote villages, and a gentle introduction into the “rules” of the road in the Philippines.

There are no stupid dogs in the Philippines.

Or shall I say not many. Natural and artificial selection has weeded out the most stupid ones. However there is this peculiar trait of all Philippino dogs to lie in the middle of a hot road even during the day. Why this is mystifies me and many other foreign visitors. Perhaps a Philippine native could explain. What this means is that besides pedestrians, motorcycles, tricycle taxis, cars, and bicycles going every which way on the roads, there are dogs often lying in the middle of them. Unfortunately I found one of the few stupid ones while riding 50 kph at night about midnight, and dare I say the hard way.

I had migrated from Moal Boal to Dumaguete City in Oriental Negros, again on the recommendation of an acquaintance.
In Dumaguete one really needs transportation to see the area, as there are no taxi cabs, They have motorcycles with multi passenger sidecars called tricycles or pedicabs. These elaborate and ornate conveyances, while efficient, are not practical for long distances. So after about a week I broke down and rented a motorbike for two days. Later, after deciding to stay in the area, I bought a motor bike. My first one was a 125cc Chinese Honda knock-off. A total of $785.00 with registration fees and a years worth of insurance. A bargain, and nearly disposable at that price.
I am an experienced motorcycle rider, having owned several 650cc size bikes at home. I also once owned a 250cc Bultaco Matador trials bike, which gave me some of the most valuable riding experience for traveling in the Philippines. I would loosely compare city riding here as a trials style ride in traffic. Lots of low speed feet up navigating. Riding in the rural province areas is actually bonafide trials riding. Often in rural settings there are large boulders in the road, deep washouts, piles of stone or sand, and many other kinds of hazards. In towns and cities, you are challenged to dodge suddenly stopping tricycles,(often they have no brake lights), pedestrians that have no fear, and more pot holes and road hazards than you could imagine. In addition when it comes to parking in Dumaguete, often you need to ride up on curbs and high side walks to park in front of stores., all with out stopping first.

OK, back to that dog. I was going home late one evening traveling at about 50KPH. At night wild dogs often roam in packs, and other not so wild dogs are on the prowl as well. I spotted a solo canine crossing the road in front of me at a short distance, as is the norm here, a toot of the horn was issued to hurry him along. But instead of continuing his path, he reversed direction and with no time to swerve, I hit him straight on. The bike’s front wheel went into the air as I hit him squarely in the back. I braced myself and held on and avoided dumping the bike, fortunately I didn’t fall and kept on riding. The dog did not fair so well, but I didn’t stick around to find out.
Speaking of horns and their function, I found various degrees of purpose and use in the Philippines. In Cebu the horn is a vital tool. It is used by everyone all the time to warn unsuspecting vehicles, pedestrians, and animals of your approach. Not considered rude or insulting, it just is the way they drive. A friendly toot as it were. Actually, this is a good idea considering the chaotic traffic and varied sizes of vehicles. However in Oriental Negros, the horn is seldom used, due perhaps to the polite nature of the people. This however makes things a little more difficult unless you adopt the cebu style for yourself, which I sometimes do especially at night in traffic.

What traffic Lights

Dumaguete is unique in all the Philippines. It has the highest ratio of motorcycles to cars of any Philippine city; some estimates put the number as high as 5,000 or more. They hold the record for the largest motorbike rally in the Philippines when they gathered 2,000 bikes for a charity ride. So you can picture lots of motorbikes not blowing their horns excessively and the balance of traffic being motorized tricycle Pedi cabs, usually without working brake lights or turn signals. Dumaguete is a small city, but a city none the less, with rush hours and lots of congestion at various times of the day. If you want a relaxing drive through the city travel at night. The streets are literally deserted after 10 or 11 in the evening. This is shocking to a foreigner at first, who might be used to constant traffic day and evening.
OK, now the real eye opener. There are no traffic signals or stop signs in the city of Dumaguete. At first you wonder how this is possible. Why aren’t there bodies strewn all over the road? Where is the grid lock? The amazing thing is there is neither. (traffic police do assist at major intersections during peak times) Somehow, there are unspoken rules and a sophisticated social contractual agreement among drivers. All I can say from experience is that if you keep your eyes open, and head up it is relatively easy (if not somewhat nerve wracking) to navigate the city.

Organized Chaos

The secret is no one actually stops. It is a synergistic organic flow with eye contact and unspoken protocols governing actions. Passing on the right is against the law, but it is done, so forget that western convention. The trick is to not stop or put your feet down if on a cycle. Once you drop a foot, you are dead in the water. Secondly when dealing with oncoming Pedi cabs from right or left at an intersection, make eye contact with the driver, he will not run into you despite what it looks like. Ceres buses as stated earlier are to be avoided and stopped for. Don’t mess with those puppies! Generally I approach an intersection watching for opportunity. Sometimes that might be a car or a pedicab that I can use as a blocker to oncoming traffic. In that case I stay next to the vehicle and let him proceed across the intersection while I keep him between the traffic and me. Other times I see a stalled cab trying to turn and I sneak by him after looking both ways to find a gap. The process can best be described as polite chaos. There is no road rage here; it is not in the nature of Dumaguetians. While persistence pays off, hostility is absent. It is an amazing thing to watch, and even more bizarre to first experience. Most Philippinos grow up on motorbikes. They are all accomplished riders. Well not all of course, but most are very competent. They will not run into you. What is difficult to get used to is the practice of oncoming traffic turning inside you to make their turn. Basically they politely cut you off and go behind you. Be very careful turning right at an intersection. Once used to this conventionit is no problem. Also it is the practice to enter a busy street by traveling on the wrong side against traffic hugging the sidewalk until an opportunity to cross over presents itself. To say the least this is a bit unnerving at first.

I would loosely divide traffic in Dumaguete into 5 classes of vehicle/driver.
young hotdog bike riders:
These people both men and women usually in their twenties effortlessly weave and bob between all other traffic going from passing on the left to right and in the oncoming lane of traffic. Generally they travel significantly faster than the other traffic.

Cars and passenger trucks: generally limited in their ability to navigate like a bike, they often just pull out in front of you to get anywhere.

Pedicabs; The three wheeled motorcycles with sidecars used for hauling up to 10 people, (designed for four or five) livestock, or even an entire household of furniture. There seems to be no limit to what they can carry.
Often they have no lights of any kind. Watch out for sudden stops, and unforeseen U-turns with out warning. These are an art form as well as transportation. Never follow one too closely.

Busses and large trucks. Ceres buses… I need say no more. Large freight trucks and busses will often take up 2/3 to ¾ of the narrow roads, they will not yield ground. Be diligent.

Everyone else, meaning relatively sane riders and bikes who stay in line, not too many of these, usually older people, or 125cc bikes with entire families aboard. Up to 5 persons Ma, Pa and the kids. Or a group of teenagers, usually in threes going to school, or out for the night. These 100-125cc bikes are the family cars of the Philippines.

Roads, a political tool

Roads in the Philippines are varied and go from one extreme to another. Often alternating from gravel, macadam, and concrete every 1-2 kilometers as you drive along. The best are concrete roads, and in reality I am impressed that there are so many concreted surfaces even up in the mountains. Cement is cheap in the Philippines and everything from roads, houses, fences, furniture, even headboards for beds, can be found made of concrete. The roads are constructed not using large automated paving machines, but one 90 pound bag of cement at a time. Labor is cheap, cement is cheap, so you will see 50 guys schlepping bags of cement to make a road. Hand screed (smoothed), and finished, it is amazing how fast they actually get the job done.

Watch out for sudden drop offs, both on the shoulders, and as roads transition from concrete to other media. These drop offs can sometimes be as much as six inches. Watch local traffic to get a clue as to the path of least resistance. I often let a local rider “Rubber Duck” for me. This U.S. trucker’s term just means you let him guide you through the pitfalls ahead. If no one is ahead of you on rough dirt roads, watch the tracks in the road for an indication of the smoothest path. Be aware this might be close to the shoulder on a mountain road with a 300 meter vertical drop off! Use your own judgment and go slow. That said, going too slow can be as dangerous as going too fast. There is a happy median which after a little practice you will discover for yourself.

I am discovering new things about driving here even now after many months. It really is a matter of going with the flow, watching carefully, and most importantly: ride within your own ability. Have Fun!

1 comment:

einoj said...

I enjoyed reading this article. I found it while searching for "driving school dumaguete city." I'm a Filipina and I found it amusing how you described your experiences on the roads in our country and how you defined the types of drivers. :)