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.