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.

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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.


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.


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.


History Will Teach Us Something

I was one of the  two million Filipinos who trooped to EDSA 30 years ago. This is why I’ve been meaning to look for an incisive yet succinct way of helping my children understand and appreciate it on its 30th anniversary. Without a doubt, the surreal euphoria that followed February 25, 1986 has since worn off. In its place is a mixed feeling of pride, gratitude, and disillusion. Three popular OPM compositions capture these moods without fail. “Handog ng Pilipino sa Mundo” continues to resonate with me 30 years after. The legacy of non-violent political revolt is incontrovertibly a source of pride and gratitude for many Filipinos. “Tuloy ang Ikot ng Mundo” and “Kumusta Na?” however, temper the latter and cut down EDSA to size. These two songs remind me of Hegel’s thesis and anti-thesis as well as the many opportunities we squandered as a nation after EDSA. Nonetheless, all three fall short in terms of providing a true perspective 30 years after.

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Thankfully, Randy David’s recent column entitled “The Battlefield of Memory” offers a thought-provoking reflection  on EDSA. More to the point, it provides an instructive perspective as it presents no less than 5 competing versions of EDSA. These versions are presented in the context of Milan Kundera’s insight occasioned by the end of World War I. To wit: “hatreds withdraw to the interior of nations…the goal of the fight is no longer the future…but the past, the new war will play out only on the battlefield of memory.”

One version of EDSA that is competing in our battlefield of memory is the reformist military version which regards  EDSA as essentially the culmination of their fraternal struggle to free up the military from being used by a corrupt regime to perpetuate itself in power. Those who subscribe to this version assert that their faled coup d’etat against  Marcos was what gave Cardinal Sin, the church and civil society the opportunity to amass at  EDSA.

There is the version of the church in which Cardinal Sin mobilized the Catholic faithful through priests, nuns and seminarians to come to the defense of Enrile and Ramos who were holed up in Camp Aguinaldo to avert bloodshed. The resulting scenario where rosaries, flowers and statues of the Virgin Mother literally  overpowered the tanks and the choppers sent by Marcos and Ver “was nothing short of a miracle.”

The third version is that of the civil society which made EDSA happen through a combination of the organized groups led by the left and the ordinary middle class Filipinos who were moved to  support both Cardinal Sin and the group of Enrile and Ramos. The former led a protracted campaign that started even before Martial Law was declared. The latter could be said to have awakened as a result of the former’s organized agitation even if  they were strangely absent in EDSA by choice.

And there is the version of the Americans which saw EDSA as a political turning point that might destabilize the Philippines and therefore risk their political interest in the Asia-Pacific region. Hence, their offer first to fly Marcos and his supporters to Clark Air Base and eventually to exile them to Hawaii to avoid violence and political unrest.

It is interesting to note that these 4 competing versions collectively complement each other. Together, they remind me of an insight once offered by the late Dr Ramon Reyes of the Ateneo. In his book entitled The Ground and Norm of Morality, Dr Reyes reflects that as mankind marches though history, the continuing dialogue among individuals and groups allow it to widen and deepen its understanding of what is true and what is good. No one person could possibly monopolize this. The moral standpoint of humanity has evolved and continues to evolve precisely because of this continuing dialogue among individuals and groups. At the heart of this continuing dialogue is our conscience which he asserts is the ground and norm of all morality.

 The fifth version is where Randy David’s reflection becomes a call to action. This is the version of Bongbong Marcos who is currently running for vice president According to David, Marcos is “banking on the power of amnesia not just to redeem his father’s name, but, ultimately, to recover the billions in bank accounts and properties that the Philippine government has seized from his family. He might yet succeed – if we fail to make memory speak”

The battlefield of memory is where Filipinos are challenged to take stock of the 5 competing versions of EDSA and call on their conscience to come to grips with what really happened at the intersection of Ortigas Avenue and EDSA. It is by no means an easy task. David has written separately on this in his past columns over the years. Unlike the Germans  who have gone to great lengths to right the wrongs of the past by prosecuting and punishing those responsible for the genocide that was Auschwitz, we, as a people, have failed to send the Marcoses along with their cronies to jail. Not only have we allowed them to return home, we have allowed them to return to power and reclaim their space in high society pages. Worse, quite a number of the leaders who came after Cory led political lives that seem to suggest that what Marcos and his cronies did could not be helped once you assume power. Consider both the Erap presidency and the Arroyo presidency. For that matter, consider how Binay evolved from a human rights lawyer to a contemporary personification of the very evil he helped overthrow. The prosecution and punishment of the Marcoses and their cronies should have happened right after EDSA. Sadly, as David pointed out to this blogger, “the series of coups that unfolded soon after (Cory) took power made it difficult to pursue such a policy. Political consolidation became Cory’s first priority. Then Ramos and Erap became president and that’s when the Marcoses and their cronies decided it was safe to come home.”

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 In the song “History Will Teach Us Nothing” Sting eloquently sings about the failure of history to teach humanity anything. He writes: “I once asked my history teacher how we were expected to learn anything from his subject when it seemed to be nothing but the monotonous exploits and sordid succession of robber barons devoid of any admirable human qualities. I failed history.” (Lyrics by Sting, p. 124) After reading Randy David’s “Battlefield of Memory” I think I would have to disagree with Sting. History does teach us something. It teaches us that there is such a thing as an obligation and a duty to remember and to never forget. Because George Santayana is correct. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I hope and pray that my fellow Filipinos  remember EDSA when they head for the voting precints this May.