The Gates of Hell

july blog chicago

Chicago June 2017

One of the things I did not foresee as a result of traveling to urban-planned cities like New York, Boston and Chicago was how it tends to reinforce what a former supervisor once put to me decades ago: “things need not be the way you have gotten used to.” At that time, his context was that he did not have to live life the only way he has gotten used to which was to stay in Manila and raise his kids here. He has since  successfully migrated with his family to Canada where he enjoys a better quality of life.

It’s a thought that has become more and more tempting to entertain these days  as I realized to my dismay that my visiting nephews were spot on when they  blurted out: “I’ve never seen anything worse, Uncle!” This was after a usual 30-minute drive that took us 4 hours (i.e., 10pm to 2am) to complete on a Friday night. Definitely a significant regression from their parting comment when they last visited the country six years ago: “They don’t practice road courtesy here in the Philippines, Uncle!”

Back in 2013, best-selling author Dan Brown drew a lot of flak for depicting Manila as a city of “six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, horrifying sex trade.” Thus, compelling one of the key characters in his book Inferno to remark: “I’ve run through the gates of hell.” 

Alas on most days, “gates of hell” is an apt description of Metro Manila especially for those of us who do not call Ayala Alabang or Dasmarinas Village our home.  Its two major thoroughfares  EDSA and C5 offer compelling testimony to the metaphor.  Volumes of vehicles beyond the capacity of the road.  Undisciplined drivers who would create 6-lane queues in 2-lane roads. Motorcycle riders who weave around vehicles like they were on drugs. Pedestrians who cross anywhere they wish even if a pedestrian overpass is 10 steps away.  Drivers and passengers who throw their litter outside their vehicles.  Petty thieves who have a field day grabbing tablets and cellphones from unsuspecting passengers who seek to drown their anger and  boredom by immersing themselves in social media.

july blog phil star metro manila

EDSA Traffic – Photo Owned by Philippine Star

Cursing the Darkness

How did we get here?

A recent  engaging conversation with my Uber driver led me to one realization. We created this monster for ourselves.

We Filipinos put a lot of premium on “diskarte” or finding a way where there is none.  While this is a praiseworthy attribute of gritness in trying times, it has become our weakness as well as a city if not, as a country.  Case in point:  motorists doing counterflows on their own and drivers forcing their vehicles into lanes that are already clogged.

This, rather than lack of infrastructure, coupled with our lack of discipline as a people are ultimately to blame for the hellish nature of Metro Manila traffic.  I often get warned about tourists from mainland China who visit Hong Kong being rude and all as they don’t fall in line.  We are actually that way most of the time in our roads.  The unwritten rule for many is – me first before you. Motorists not giving way is more of a rule than an exception.  You signal that you are turning 200 meters before the turn and vehicles from behind will make sure you don’t make that turn because they want to get ahead of you.  Your hood is already positioned for your left or right turn complete with the recommended turn signal and oncoming traffic will still try to squeeze their vehicles to block you. Pedestrians are about to cross where they are supposed to and oncoming vehicles would speed up to cut into their path.

And then there’s our  motorcycle riders who would put Evil Knievel to shame. It never ceases to amaze me how most of these riders would  weave in and out of their lane like they have protective body armor around them which they don’t.  There was a time when the middle of the  road was a safe haven. Not anymore.  Even if you are supposedly entitled to your right of way, you would need to move to the right to give way to oncoming hordes of motorcycle riders who rule over the middle of the road.

Not to forget, there’s also our undisciplined drivers of buses and jeepneys who behave like they own the road.  They drive outside their designated lanes and stop and pick up passengers wherever they please.  Over the years, my family and I have memorized parts of EDSA where there really is no traffic but where their unchecked practice of hogging the lanes creates one: Balintawak exit,  EDSA Munoz, SM North EDSA, EDSA-Cubao underpass, Guadalupe and Magallanes interchange.

Our buses are daily reminders of the favorite go to food of many Filipinos: canned meat and sardines.  Thanks to the fact that during rush hour, commuters outnumber buses. As a result, conductors and drivers could easily exceed their daily quota. The practice of  reminding passengers who are already standing to please move back to accommodate more people is a given. Never mind if you could literally exchange faces already with other passengers.

As for our government, while I tip my hat to patient and determined traffic enforcers assigned all over the metropolis to ensure that we somehow survive our daily bouts of hell on earth, I have yet to see something that justifies the steep taxes that  it takes from our hard-earned salary every 15 days.  Our MRT and LRT break down every day. But because they are left with no other alternative, majority would patiently queue at MRT and LRT stations for  a kilometer or more.  When the current administration asked for emergency powers to solve the traffic in the metro I excitedly listened to the senate hearings to know more about their master plans. Unfortunately, all I heard was what the previous administration did incorrectly and pie-in-the-sky solutions like putting in place cable cars all over the metro and imposing coding schemes  2 days out of 5 days.

The endless cycle of unrepaired roads and roads under  repair with no prior warning and no advice as to completion target along with the still unsolved queue of license plates and driver’s license cards are a  continuing  testament to how much catching up our government has to do with respect to the withholding taxes that they systematically deduct from our salaries. Meanwhile, our senators, congressmen and other government VIPs continue to insulate themselves from our traffic problem with their assigned traffic escorts and security detail.

I often wonder why foreign investors continue to be optimistic about the Philippine economy and why real estate developers continue putting up condominium units and shopping malls. Don’t they realize that one day, the volume of vehicles on the road will get to a tipping point where you are literally better off walking to and from Makati or BGC than taking a vehicle even if you live in Quezon City or Taytay?

july blog new york

New York June 2017

Despite the fact that we have quite a number of alumni in this country from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and other Ivy League schools abroad, despite the fact that we have been blessed with our own fair share of the best and brightest intelligentsia, for reasons that still escape me, no government administration has successfully solved our worsening traffic situation.  Isn’t this the city that houses our top universities like UP, Ateneo and La Salle? Isn’t the Asian Institute of Management found here?

Sometimes it’s a lot easier to dream of an alternative life in urban-planned cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and New York.  No wonder I now hear of parents who openly encourage their children to seek citizenship abroad.  Take the example of my officemates’ parents. They live in a millionaire’s enclave in Metro Manila. Yet they constantly remind their son to aspire for citizenship in Canada due to quality of life issues. They just can’t imagine how their grandchildren would survive Metro Manila in the coming years.

Lighting a Candle

What to do?

Depending on how determined you are to put an end to your daily bouts of gates of hell experience, here are 10 alternatives to cursing the darkness and surrendering to despair.

Migrate to your city of dreams

As they say, “if you can’t stand the heat in the kitchen, get out.”  This is the most radical as it involves a literal uprooting of oneself. But if your heart and mind are into it, nothing can stand in your way. This would entail lots of research as to which city this is as well as the requirements to make such a migration happen. Lest you forget, you need to ensure that you will be economically productive.  I actually have a friend who pulled this off quite successfully. She spent months getting interviewed for jobs in New York before finally landing one.  Today, she is gainfully employed in the city that never sleeps and living the American Dream despite Donald Trump’s presidency.

Migrate to provincial cities

Yet another one which is less radical but just as significant would be to transfer residence from Metro Manila to provincial cities like Tagaytay, Nuvali and Lipa down south or San Fernando, Clark and Baguio up north.  The thing is these cities have also started to show signs of following in the footsteps of the traffic hell of Metro Manila. Compared to EDSA and C5 on most days though, these cities offer a welcome respite.  Hopefully, their city governments would learn what not to do from the urban mess that is Metro Manila.

Renew your ties

You can also use your time in traffic to renew your ties with your friends and relations.  If you’re driving, make sure you leverage your car’s  Bluetooth so you won’t get fined for using your cellphone while driving or worse figuring in a traffic accident.  If you’re commuting, there is always texting, Viber and Messenger to catch up with your relatives and friends and schedule that much delayed reunion and get-together.

Meditate

One of the blessings of the internet is that  now more than ever, there are more apps that you can download which promote mindfulness. Easily, there’s Buddhify, Headspace and Calm. These are very affordable apps which provide guided meditation suitable for driving and commuting.  They do not only offer productive retreats from the traffic, more importantly, they help you center yourself to take charge of your life.

Learn

You can also use the traffic to listen to audio books if you’re driving. If you’re commuting you can watch podcasts and instructional  YouTube videos to learn a language or a new skill. Quite  a number of Ivy League schools have also invested heavily on making their courses available online. Easily, there’s Berklee, Harvard, Brown, Yale, Princeton among others. There are also one-off webinars which provide certification credentials that you can add to your resume.

Leave early to exercise

If you really hate wading through traffic and seeing the worst side of Filipinos as drivers, commuters and pedestrians, wake up really early. By really early, I mean 3:45am.    This way, you can head off to the gym and vent all the negativity of living in the metro to your exercise of choice.  By the time you finish your workout, you would have skipped traffic hell and even have a lot of time to prepare for the day by enjoying a morning cup of coffee while you strategize how your day would go.

Catch up on your playlist

Again, thanks to the information superhighway, your time in traffic is also the best time to catch up on your favorite musical artists. For the record collectors, there’s Discogs – the world’s largest online store for used and rare recordings of al formats. For contemporary singles and albums, there’s Amazon. In the Studio with Redbeard is the ultimate go to for the classical rock enthusiast while Rolling Stone and Spin for those who wish to experience the best of both contemporary rock and classic rock are excellent websites.

Take Uber or Grab and sleep it off

Forget about what our government is not doing, and focus on what is available despite the LTFRB. Leave your car at home and take Uber or Grab. Check out how trustworthy the driver is through his/her past ratings and always send a text message to your family  detailing the make and plate number of the car you took,  then sleep it off.  Not recommended though for those who sleep like “mantika” (i.e., used cooking oil)  as you could fall prey to  petty or even  heinous crimes.

Use Waze

Drive smart by leveraging the power of GPS-based navigation through the streets and alleyways of Metro Manila. By inputting your destination in  Waze before leaving your parking or your garage, you spare yourself from the hassle of trying to figure out when and how in the world the traffic would end.

Work from home

Finally, as a result of the worldwide movement towards work-life integration, more and more companies are encouraging their employees to engage in alternative work strategies. In our office, for example, our senior leaders encourage us to deck at least 1 to 2 days a week to work from home. Thanks to the power of technology, anyone in the office can easily reach you to a point where it’s as if you’re actually in the building. You not only get to have a break from Metro Manila traffic, you also help the environment by lessening  your carbon footprint.

july blog boston

Boston June 2017

When all else fails,  remember that  there is no such thing as a perfect city. There are only trade-offs.

I remember my conversation with a  cab driver from Singapore. When he learned  I was from the Philippines, he launched into a spontaneous it’s-more-fun-in-the-Philippines conversation. When I offered that in Singapore everything works and there is so much order, he offered that it’s better in the Philippines since you can say anything against the government and still live the following day.  When I pointed out that there is no traffic in Singapore, he countered that the Philippines is much better because it has so many spectacular resorts compared to Singapore. When I shared that I’d rather live in Singapore given the choice because of its access to cutting edge technology, he pointed out that Singapore is so small that they’ve ran out of places to build homes to a point where they now build underground and even under water. In contrast, the Philippines is much bigger it’s just that people tend to concentrate in the urban centers.

In the end, maybe Dale Carnegie is still right in this day and age: “It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.”

Perhaps one day, our gates of hell would eventually be our gates to heaven on earth.

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When Andy Met Nathan

“Life is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” St. Augustine of Hippo once wrote upon realizing the value of getting out of what you consider familiar and therefore, comfortable.  Up until last month, I have not really paid that much attention to the wisdom that grounds this exhortation of sorts from St. Augustine.  At least not to the same extent that I have learned to appreciate it as the month of April comes to a close.

You see,  I have never really been a big fan of traveling. I would rather stay at home, spin some records, play the guitar for my wife, play board games with my kids, read the latest from James Patterson  and attend to the endless tasks that are crying out to be done.  In fact, this is precisely why  I have always delegated the task of arranging our family travels to my wife who has been as passionate about it as the first day we met.   But a recent surprise rendezvous of Andy with Nathan in the city of Hong Kong made me take a long hard look at St. Augustine’s reflection.

Andy is the name of the tour guide who was assigned to accompany  my family. It also happens to be the name of my father in law who has been an exemplary  father to me and to my wife as far back as I can remember.  Like my father in law, Andy was a very jolly person who loved his job with passion and dedication. You could sense this in the way he carried our conversations and the way he  conducted himself  from day 1. We were like repeat customers he has had the privilege of serving over the years.  He would regale my kids with magic tricks and impress my wife and me with interesting trivia you would not   find in travel guides about Hong Kong.

Nathan is the name of the road in Hong Kong which served as our temporary home for the 4 days that we were in the city.  It also happens to be the name of  my youngest nephew who is based in Canada. Like the kaleidoscope of  possibilities that await Nathan given his having been born in Canada, Nathan Road kick started my fascination with the many engaging chapters that comprise the book that was  our trip to Hong Kong. Here are 10 of them.

Despite the fact that the Philippines is no longer the sick man of Asia and is, in fact, poised to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world today, we clearly have a lot to learn from the world-class airport of  Hong Kong.  Their airport and the attendant services you could enjoy within its premises – from its awe-inspiring architectural design to its WiFi for everyone provision, from its  walkalators to its dining areas, from its connecting trains to its well-paved  roads,  – remind me no end of Singapore’s   Changi Airport.

If Paris is the City of Blinding Lights in Europe, Hong Kong could easily qualify as Asia’s answer to Paris.  Its myriad of electronic marquees, giant vidiwalls and neon signs that are lit up practically 24 x 7 have a way of making you forget that you have an itinerary to follow.  They seem to be saying, whatever it is that you have scheduled to do for the day, it can wait.  Stop, look and wonder how they could have put all of these blinding lights and kaleidoscopic colors together.  Which I guess is also why for tourists like me, the idea of walking for hours in this great city  is a very enjoyable experience.  There is so much to gawk at, so much to marvel at, and so much to sample. Alas, there is not that much time.

To be sure, there is also traffic in Hong Kong.  Its public transport system is so efficient, however,  that its daily traffic is not as unnerving  as the one you would experience on weekdays in the major roads  of Manila. We got to experience this first hand when we boarded one of the double deckers plying Nathan Road. Unlike our buses in Manila which bus conductors normally fill to the rafters like canned sardines, the double deckers of Hong Kong are never standing room only affairs. There was also no need for conductors as you paid either by way of a reloadable card or by paying exact fares via fare boxes next to the driver.  Buses here have fixed loading and unloading areas which you would know about before you board the bus because it’s indicated in the loading and unloading areas. Drivers appear to be more disciplined even if you could hardly see traffic enforcers on the road.

Techno thriller writer Tom Clancy used to wax poetic about Disney being the happiest place on earth.  You’ll never really get to appreciate where Clancy was coming from until you actually set foot on Disneyland. The one in Hong Kong may not be as sprawling and as massive as the one in Orlando but it definitely is much more awesome as our Enchanted Kingdom in Sta. Rosa, Laguna. The devil as they say is in the details and the creative minds behind the original Disneyland in the U.S. went to great lengths to ensure that the magical experience we associate with Disney would ring loud and clear even in Asia.  I lost count of the magical experiences that our trip endowed my family and me but my  top 3  would have to be  the Iron Man 4-D aerial tour of Hong Kong, the Mystic Manor musical ride, and  Mickey’s PhilHar Magic. Of course, if I were the thrill-seeking type, rank 1 would have to be the Star Wars HyperSpace Mountain Ride, the Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars and the  Toy Story RC Racer Ride.

I have always been fascinated by dolphins from the first time my kids saw their first dolphin show in Subic to the first time we were accompanied by Bohol fishermen as the dolphins pranced and danced along our boats.  Ocean Park did not disappoint as it presented an ecological conservation-centric dolphin show to an auditorium filled with stars truck visitors. From their characteristic sing-song sound to their graceful aerial jumps, the dolphins of Ocean Park held our attention like iconic rock stars we’ve been waiting to visit the country.  An unexpected bonus which was just as compelling as the dolphin show was my family’s very first cable car ride.  Partly thrilling, partly scary, it was a ride like no other we’ve taken.

Prior to our trip to Hong Kong, I was warned by well-meaning friends and relations that most of the people at Hong Kong are not as engaging and as warm as the Filipinos. To be blunt, they even warned that a number of them are openly hostile if not rude.  Not true if our 4 days in Hong Kong were to be used basis.  On more than two occasions, smiling Hong Kong nationals who were passing by would offer to take our pictures as they saw how we fidgeted with the selfie button of our mobile phones. During our night market explorations, quite a number of the merchants were nice enough to engage us in small talk and even allowed us to haggle. The tour guide who accompanied us on our last day was just as cordial and as pleasant as Andy.  He even knows about the best diving places in the Philippines as he is a frequent visitor of our country.

This trip, of  course, would not be complete without the obligatory sampling of the vinyl stores of Hong Kong. Thanks to the internet, 3 of the top 10 vinyl stores of Hong Kong were practically walking distance from Nathan Road.  The 3rd and last store in our list rewarded me with almost a dozen vinyl titles that have eluded me in Manila.  Due to budget constraints, I settled for two albums that I’ve been looking for for the longest time: the original sound track of Forrest Gump and the debut album of  Two Cellos.

Thanks to the Bull Runner blog, I was able to zero in on a tried and tested running route near Nathan Road. I am, of course, referring here  to Kowloon Park. Turns out it’s also connected to an elevated promenade which offered early morning runners with  a breathtaking view of the Hong Kong harbor and its  spectacular skyscrapers.  But I was not prepared to be further mesmerized as I accidentally discovered yet another promenade along the Hong Kong harbor when I ran from the Avenue of the Stars to as far as the running path would take me. Consequently, my target 5km for the day eventually ended up as an 11km run.

Two boat rides representing the factual and the fictional all the more made this trip memorable.  The former was by way of Hong Kong boatmen who made their living from the sea.  They gave us a tour of  the Hong Kong harbor which included the floating restaurants, the houseboats of real-life fishermen and the  yachts of the rich and famous of Hong Kong.  According to Andy, before Hong Kong became a first-world commercial hub, it was at its core a fishing economy. The fictional ride was courtesy of a funny Disney boatman who took us on an imaginary tour of Tarzan’s home at Disney.  Despite the fact that Tarzan’s treehouse was undergoing a renovation, the said boatman’s funny antics made the boat ride enjoyable and engaging.

I also have this trip to thank for educating me about the premium that many tourists place on buying jewelry from Hong Kong as we toured what is possibly the most famous jewelry factory in the city. I was surprised to see autographed pictures of famous Filipinos who have actually set their foot in the factory.  We were welcomed by a veteran sales man who gave us a very fascinating overview of their company. He was so good that even if I was not looking forward to the tour, I actually almost forced my wife to buy a jewelry or two from them.

Two decades ago,   my first corporate supervisor shared how traveling to  other countries have a way of putting to question how you currently live your life.  You get to inevitably  realize that you need not live the life that you’ve known all your life.  There are, in fact, numerous alternatives to what you’ve gotten familiar and comfortable with. And travel is the surefire route to get to know about those alternatives.  So to my wife’s surprise, I now  find myself  competing with her in plotting the dates of our next travels together. New York, London, Tokyo, Berlin, Boston,  and Chicago, we just might actually visit you even before we hit pay dirt with those lotteries.

This blog is lovingly dedicated to Elaine.