Bandits on the road
I LIKE driving. It is an activity that clears my mind and relaxes me. Unfortunately for people like me, driving around the streets of Metro Manila has ceased to offer these pleasures. This column narrates why.
Although it is wrong to embrace it as a given, I have come to accept that a little rain, some accident, and in most cases, simple carelessness and inconsiderateness on the part of one or two kababayans will create a monstrous traffic jam, which does not mean of course that I will stop ranting about it. But another day, perhaps.
Hulidap and kotong cops, I think, are a little more manageable although not necessarily any less annoying and exasperating. In my experience, the best way to deal with them is to flatly refuse to give in, get their names, and tell them that you will report them. I am told that speaking in English and being firm and assertive without directly challenging them do the trick. I have had about four encounters with scum like these, all of which ended up with me standing my ground and threatening to report them and them waving me off with a scolding. Most of my friends have learned to do the same. Truly, there are no tyrants where there are no slaves. It goes without saying of course that fighting for principle works only if one has not broken a traffic rule or committed a crime on the road (running down a corrupt cop may not qualify as a crime though, just kidding, just kidding!).
But it can be a really traumatic experience if it happens at night. Which leads me to my other aggravation: checkpoints.
I drive a car with medium tint and which, for some strange reason, seems to be a magnet for checkpoints. There are days when I do wonder if I am missing out on some research finding that says terrorists, carnappers and rapists use a particular brand of car of a particular make and color that happen to match those of my car because I always get flagged down at these checkpoints.
Ideally and elsewhere, a phalanx of policemen with enough guns and firepower to battle the Hezbollah should be a comforting sight. I mean, they are supposed to be there to provide safety and protection to ordinary citizens, right? Wrong! They sow terror and panic in the hearts of ordinary citizens. But then again, who knows, maybe that is exactly the point.
It is not just that they set up those checkpoints under the cover of darkness and at places where you least expect to find them (e.g. right at a blind curve). It is also the manner in which the policemen conduct themselves during these harrowing instances. I still have to encounter a courteous or articulate policeman; more often than not, they resemble the seven dwarves, without Happy and Bashful of course, but always with Grumpy, Sleepy, and Dopey in attendance.
Last Saturday evening, my friend Jojo and I were driving to Quezon City from Manila. We encountered a checkpoint along Quirino Avenue, right at the spot where the highway curves to the left going towards Nagtahan. I do not know what exactly they were doing and why, but they were aiming their heavy-duty flashlights directly into the faces of the drivers to either wave them on or signal them to the side.
First of all, I think it is not only rude but also stupid to aim flashlights directly on the faces of people who are driving. It is enough to cause momentary blind spots and accidents. But I guess courtesy towards citizens and concern for safety are the least of the concerns of these people.
A few hours later, I was driving back to Manila and had to drop off my friend at Zobel Roxas in Makati. Since I live in Malate, I had to pass through Vito Cruz and turned right towards Arellano leading to Estrada Street. I ran right smack into another checkpoint. As usual, I got stopped. They flashed those annoying flashlights on my face and ordered me to open my glove compartment. I sat there with a sungit expression on my face without saying anything. And then they offered a lame excuse, “kasi tinted ang sasakyan mo [Cause your car is tinted].”
I am always tempted to ask if they know what exactly they are looking for when they open glove compartments, or the trunk of the car, or when they conduct their searches. I have this nagging suspicion that, just like those guards at the malls, they do these things purely to comply with some routine procedure and not really to find contraband materials. If I were a terrorist, why would I conceal the bomb in the spots where they will most likely check?
But what do you do with bandits on the road who attack in broad daylight using all kinds of pretenses?
On a number of major roads where bottlenecks are common, you see them emerge seemingly from out of nowhere: Jack with the menacing expression on his face carrying a grimy pail swishing with murky water, a dirty rag or sponge in his hand. He attacks by scratching your windshield with his rag, or if you are luckier, simply smudging it up. This he does under the pretense of doing you the gigantic favor of having your windshield or your windows cleaned in exchange for a few bucks. You can try to wave them off, blow your horns, or simply pay off even before they go through the motions.
Someone I know made the huge mistake of opening her window to admonish the enterprising car wash guy. She ended up having to go home to take a bath and to change clothes. You can figure out what happened.
I am told that along Araneta Avenue, your car’s side view mirrors can disappear while waiting for traffic lights to turn green. At the Quirino Avenue and South Superhighway intersection, a number of people have lost cellphones and in at least one incident, someone lost his life (he was a student at the college where I teach) because he refused to surrender his phone to an evil person.
I actually intended to write about another thing aside from those darn billboards (I have already written about those in this column) that distracts attention from the roads and serves very little purpose aside from fake aesthetics. I am referring to those gaudy, synthetic-looking, often purposeless street lamps that have been sprouting all over the metropolis in the last few years. I have written about it in my blog in the past and a number of readers have offered more examples of just how ridiculous it has become.
It does seem that at a certain point in time, the mayors of Metro Manila came together to organize a contest as to who could come up with the gaudiest street lamps and who could produce the most number of these ugly things. And it seems the contest is not over yet. What is appalling is that the local governments do not even maintain these “stylish” street lamps. When they get busted, and they do so faster precisely because of the absence of maintenance efforts, another street light of yet another gaudy design is simply put up beside it.
Judging from the way these street lamps are sprouting everywhere, it looks like some people are benefiting from it. And I don’t necessarily refer to ordinary citizens who could benefit from better and more reliable services.