Thursday, December 22, 2005

Driving license-less

With the millions of public utility vehicles plying all kinds of routes in the Philippines, and with the price of vehicles tucked way above the range of ordinary pockets, learning how to drive is never a necessity but here in the Republic of Palau, it’s an entirely different story.

Almost everybody drives a car because there are no jeepneys and other means of public transportation except taxicabs, and you just could not flag them down anytime because you have to call them at their station and wait for them to fetch you wherever you are. The minimum fare is $2.00 (how I miss Davao where taxicabs would even be willing to wait for you while you eat breakfast or take a bath!).

I bid goodbye to my P3,000 and enrolled in a 10-hour driving class in Davao City a week before our flight. The jeepy we were to practice on was manual, and there were two sets of everything- clutch, brake and accelerator, steering wheel and the instructor occupy the other one so there’s really no worry, you’re not driving alone.

Co-reporter Aurea and I took the 50-item written test for the driver’s license under the strict supervision of a huge policewoman. Fifteen minutes later I got my score- 2 mistakes, not bad but the written test is worthless if I fail the actual driving test.

I finally borrowed the company car assigned to us (I call it tarak-tarak because it is just a little bigger than a matchbox car) to practice last Sunday afternoon after my co-employee Denice volunteered to be my instructor.

In Palau, 99 percent of the cars are automatically-operated cars and 98 percent of the cars are right-hand drive cars so it needs adjustment to get used to it. From the start he showed me the differences in slow and fast speeding, demonstrating how it would feel to drive past 50 miles, careening down the curves and slowing down then taking up speed again until we reached our barracks (that’s what we call our boarding houses here).

When we stopped, a brown Lexus car whizzed by and stopped right in front of us. What we didn’t know was that our boss’ wife had been chasing us for the past few miles. We received a brushing off from her for over-speeding. The speed limit here is 40 miles per hour and overtaking is a crime(uh-uh, what a way to start the lessons).

We went to the parking lot of the international airport which is perfect for steering wheel exercises, left and right turning, 180 and 360-degree turns, braking, etc. I was starting to enjoy and get the feel of the wheel when a police officer pointed at us. My first instinct was to speed up and flee but Denice motioned me to stop. I braked and the police officer leaned over the window.
“May I see your license?” he asked.
For seven full seconds, there was complete silence. My heart was beating so fast and loud I wondered if the officer heard it. Then I stammered, “I don’t have one yet, sir,’
How come you’re driving a car? “I’m still practicing sir,” I nervously replied.
“This is not a practice area,” he declared.

My fears doubled because I realized just then that Denice also did not possess a driver’s license although he had been driving in Palau for the past four months. Known for being hot-tempered and sharp-tonqued, my fears tripled because I was afraid Denice might just engage the police in an argument and we’d be sure to land in jail overnight until we will be bailed out or until the time when the apprehending police officer goes on duty again. I prepared for the worst but surprisingly Denice apologized and the police must have been in a good mood because he forgave us and we fled from the airport.

I heaved a sigh of relief and took over the wheel again after a few miles but when I glanced at the rearview mirror, a police car was right behind us. I swerved and became nervous, pulled at the curb and started to shake with nervousness that Denice took over the wheels again.

My lessons were completed when rain suddenly fell and it was already dark. It was another aspect of driving I haven’t tried before- the glare of the headlines from oncoming vehicles was painful and the road was slippery and wet. One wrong turn and you’re sure to be at the receiving end of a string of curses from a local resident.

Denice did everything possible to distract me, turned on the radio to a rock station full blast, turned on the wiper fast, asked me to look somewhere else, operate knobs while that I had to concentrate so hard on driving, lessons I never learned in driving school.

Yesterday I had my first taste of real driving- almost two hours of maneuvering rough roads that look more like a dried-up river than a road. I had to hold on to the steering wheel for control most of the time. Judging from the pale face of my Palauan companion, I must have driven like hell (50-60 miles, I thought the speedometer was set at kilometers!)

I’m going to get a schedule for an actual driving test with a Palauan police officer next week to be able to get a professional driver’s license. I hope to high heavens I won’t get nervous and fall straight to the sea with the examiner. That, I’m sure might be enough ground to ban me from the country forever.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Panic packing

Only intense pressure at the eleventh hour can make me tick in packing up my things for any trip I take and this had always worked for me in the past but last week the system failed. I knew the trip I was going to make was to be an exemption from all other out-of town trips I’ve taken because I was leaving the boarding house which has become my haven for the past three years for good.

Our flight for Manila was scheduled at 7 a.m. on Tuesday last week. On Monday evening I went to NCCC mall to buy a bath towel and other necessary items, lined up at several counters to pay for my purchases while the precious time I should have spent doing final packing ticked by.
Minutes later, I was frantically stuffing things into my luggage bag, knowing that my choices were either to take them or leave them behind, never to see them again. My sentimentality won, and I had a hard time trying to coax the zippers to close as my luggage bag was loaded with unnecessary items.

My cellphone kept on ringing, messages flew in and I was getting irritated because I was under intense pressure. I should have been wise enough to turn it off or turn the ringer to silent mode to be able to concentrate on the task at hand. Multiple messages came from Grace, chiding me for still not showing up when the despedida party they were holding was for me.
When the clock struck midnight,I was almost finished but still had to deliver a roll of newspapers to columnist Jojie Alcantara at her house. Thanks for buddy Jun who came to the rescue and delivered me in his motorcycle.

At 4 a.m. I was still in Lanang, groggy with all the drinks the group plied on me since we went bar hopping when Celina texted she was going to fetch me from the boarding house. I barely made it home before she arrived stopped by and caught struggling with the huge luggage bag down the 12 steps of stairs.

Domestic flights passengers were only allowed 20 kilos of baggage and mine totaled 30 kilos. I painfully paid P367 from my wallet for the excess 10 kilos. I had to drag my super-heavy luggage bag over to the second floor of the tenement where Kuya Ariel, hubby of news editor Gigie lives in camp Crame that day and drag it across the hallways and down the stairs again the next morning.

I texted my younger brother in Marikina to come and save me from the excess baggage but changed my mind when we were informed that international flights allow us to check in 70 pounds of baggage.
I wondered what made my baggage too heavy but I dared not open it because it require me two weeks to put it back together. I hate to remember the agony I went through in dragging the heavy luggage all over the Ninoy Aquino International Airport until I was finally able to check it in.
Whew, relief!

The Customs in Palau answered the puzzle. They are not equipped with x-rays and had to literally and manually inspect all items in your suitcases, and I mean EVERY item. The Custom official took everything out, shook my clothes and blankets and jeans and scrutinized all items, including underwears while everybody looks on. It made me cringe inside but was hardly able to suppress my laughter when I realized that I forgot to change the five and 10 peso coins, and more loose change totaling to almost P400 from my alkansya to bills. I couldn’t put them in the garbage can, so I have no choice but to stand watch as the huge Customs official tore through the newspaper wrapping and saw my loot.
I also brought a stuffed monkey curtain hugger (couldn’t leave him behind as he held my curtains for the past two years), books, and an odd assortment of objects no sensible traveler would ever think of carrying.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Runaway Bride

The hallway of the trial court was deserted. It was stiffling hot but I had to brave it to go to one trial court branch to get a copy of a case decision before leaving for the office to write my stories for the day.

I've always hated going to the third floor of the Ninoy Aquino Hall of Justice because all the outlets of the aircondition units in the different rooms are out facing the hallway, making the place feel like one huge oven but I couldn't altogether avoid going there.

As I turned a corner from the stairway, I heard the wailing of a child and wondered what a child could be doing in that hot inferno.

What I saw made me wish I had captured the scene on the lens because there, in the humid hallway was a bride in a flowing white gown, complete with a long face veil and make-up (alas, too heavy of it) carrying a child about a year old and trying her best to make the little boy stop crying.

She tried to dance the boy to silence, alternately threatening to throw him over to the open window and promising to buy him toys but the boy just went on shouting and wrestling with the bride, filling the hallway with deafening noise until everybody went out to help the bride with her difficult job.

After a few minutes, the boy decided to stop crying. Just like that and the group trooped back inside the courtroom to continue the interrupted wedding.

I peeked into the judge's chamber out of curiousity and discovered that the little boy would not come near anyone else but her mother, who was the bride.

After two years covering the justice beat everyday, we were already used to it and in fact we have learned to love the crowd and the various people going in and out of the building.

One morning Bobby (of the other paper) and I had to squeeze through a thick crowd of dressed-to-kill people in the municipal trial courts hallway who were waiting for their turn to enter the courtroom. The whole entourage were perspiring in their transparent barongs, the ladies in their long gowns. Soon two little flower girls starting screaming with the heat while mothers rushed to silence them.

The groom, a man in his late twenties kept fanning his bride with a paper fan. Colored perspiration was starting to run down the bride's face (from too heavy make-up) but there were just too many couples to be wedded ahead of them.

Also squeezing to pass through right behind us were four juveniles handcuffed to each other followed by two policemen, apprehended for petty theft, one of them answered when I asked him.
To sum it up, the hallway was a merry mix of people dressed silk gowns and barong, casual clothes and people in handcuffs and orange t-shirts (residents of the city jail).

Suddenly, there was a warning for everybody to vacate the trial court because a phone caller said a bomb was about to explode in a few minutes. Everyone scampered off to safety, except for Bob and me and some employees. Bomb scares at the trial court was not new for us but we went out just the same.

There before the small stalls offering photo copying services was the heavily-made up bride, running towards no particular destination while looking for her companions. She got separated from her groom-to-be in the scramble to get out of the building. I almost stepped on her trailing gown when Bob and I chased her for an interview but we were unable to because her relatives, who were also looking for her called her. She ended up being married to her groom under a mango tree outside the justice hall.

It would be wise for brides-to-be to think twice before investing thousands of pesos on an elegant wedding gown and be married in the midst of suspected criminals in handcuffs, police authorities who guard them, trial court staff and a lot of strangers, but whatever makes you happy, do go ahead, (expenses are yours anyway...). Besides it's a unique setting, don't you think?