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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Pag Gusto

april blog nuvali

Henry David Thoreau once cautioned: “if you’re still thinking the same thoughts that you thought a year ago, rigor mortis of the soul has set in.” Thoureau’s succinct warning reminds me of yet another compelling reason why I continue to be grateful for having discovered running as sport. For the longest time, I would look forward to our out-of-town family vacations as unparralleled opportunities for a well-deserved respite from the rigors of corporate life and a welcome retreat from the pressures of urban living. My wife being very passionate about traveling usually took charge of arranging these trips which has become a family tradition over the years. Although the places she would painstakingly research  continue to vary and therefore, engage us, we have settled for a tried and tested template of sorts. Stay in well-recommended hotel or resort rooms, swim to our hearts’ content either in a nearby shore or  pool, sample the various dishes the hotel or nearby recommended food establishments have to offer and go sight-seeing. When the running bug bit me, these family outings unraveled a layer I did not know existed: the thrill of discovering a new running trail and literally trying out one.

nuvali

The inspiration to mix travel with running first presented itself to me as a curious idea when we vacationed at Seda Nuvali. Our room offered a commanding view of the entrancing man-made lake at Nuvali. Around the lake was an over 1km-long walkway which also doubled as a bike lane and a running path. When I saw a number of runners doing several loops around the lagoon one afternoon, I knew I had to sample the running path around the lake that same day. What a joy my first Nuvali run turned out to be.  The weather was cool and windy for one, the air fresh and clean. No wonder there were other runners who were clearly enjoying themselves. Most importantly, I took in the beauty of the place: the well-manicured lawn, its landscaped surroundings, the hundreds of koi fish that reeled in mostly local tourists, lovers walking hand in hand, friends guffawing at a well-delivered punchline, families enjoying their early dinner on picnic mats peppered with home-cooked meals, the virtual shower of mist whenever I would pass by one of its gigantic spouting fountains. Enough reasons for me to complete two hour-long runs in the 2 days that my family and I stayed at Seda.

palm beach

I was hoping to repeat something similar to my Nuvali experience when I drove my family to Palm Beach in Laiya, Batangas. To my initial disappointment after scouting the area, the nearest running path consisted of a loop with  a steep uphill climb and an equally steep downhill trot. In between were two short trails that offered panoramic views of the Laiya shoreline – up above was paved in concrete, down below was not. Maybe enjoying the view would distract me from the punishing pressure that I would subject my knees and my feet to or so I thought to myself. Maybe not. In fact, at the outset, I figured maybe I’ll pass. But I guess this sport has really taken its hold on me because I eventually donned my running gear to sample a new albeit challenging running path. I told myself I’d go for a 5k run just to get this running itch out of the way. Before I knew it I was completing a 10km run on our first morning in Palm Beach. Thanks to the breathtaking view of the Laiya shoreline which never failed to reward me with enough drive and energy to complete one loop after another.

pagudpud satellite

Fairly recently, we traveled to Pagudpud which is also known as Northern Luzon’s answer to Boracay.  Its dirt roads reminded me of Boracay in the olden days before its main road was completely paved in concrete. The first time I saw the rolling surfers’ paradise waves of Pagudpud, I knew where I wanted to run – a stone’s throw away from its shoreline and its roaring waters. Alas, although some parts of its over 1  kilometer-long shoreline were clean and well-maintained, much of the beach front of most of its resorts was sadly strewn with empty beer bottles, used diapers, water bottles, left-over food and other disappointing testament of environmental irresponsibility. To think that this was one of the stops of the annual Ms Earth contest. I quickly dismissed the idea of running on its shoreline barefoot. Unfortunately, that was the only way to run next to the roaring waves of Pagudpud as wearing rubber shoes would just slow you down and get in the way of achieving any kind of momentum. In the end, I had to settle for its unpaved main road which took me from the mini-theme park of Hannah’s Beach Resort past Kapuluan, the very first Pagudpud resort which we made a mental note to check out next time, all the way to the very end of the road which could offer a panoramic view of the waves of Pagudpud.

pagudpud 1

The experience was unlike my Nuvali and Palm Beach runs. For one thing, coming from the northern end of the main road which ran parallel to the shoreline, I was initially  accompanied by the comforting noise of a peak season tourist destination 1/3 into the run. And then just like that it was just me and the cadence of my rubber shoes pounding on the dirt roads of Pagudpud as I enjoyed the  postcard-worthy views of its awesome waves and occasional coconut trees. Having seen too many episodes of Criminal Minds, my exhilarating running experience was inevitably diluted by a nagging fear for my safety as I realized that I was literally quite the only one on the road. All around me were trees and plants, the mountain range to my left and the shoreline to my right. Two things made me dispel my absurd fears throughout my two runs. First was the mouth-watering aroma of longganiza and adobo being cooked at two of the last resorts after Kapuluan each time I would pass by. Second and most important was the unexpected smiles and hellos of two small kids playing on the southern end of the road which afforded a vista-like view of Pagudpud’s amazing shoreline. In the two days I ran in solitude, these two innocent-looking kids whose names I never got dispelled whatever fears I experienced running by my lonesome. “Hello po!,” they would chorus whenever they would see me even as they blessed me with smiles that would melt away your worst fears and deepest worries. Looking back, maybe they were God’s way of telling me to have more faith in mankind. Despite the irresponsibility of some local tourists, Pagudpud is still a perfect sampling of the beauty of His creation. Maybe the more responsible ones still outnumber those who couldn’t care less if Pagudpud is eventually laid to waste.

pagudpud 2

There is an infectious Rico Blanco guitar riff I’m currently trying to master  in the light of my continuing partnership with my wife to marry travel and running. Its chorus captures exactly how I continue to feel about running every time I travel with my family. Notwithstanding its original context,  there is a sense in which it also lends itself as a clarion call for the need to imbibe  the hope and responsibility that would ensure we are able to continue running in places like Nuvali, Palm Beach and Pagudpud. “Pag gusto, may paraan. Pag ayaw maraming dahilan. Gumawa na lang tayo ng paraan.”

apr blog your universe