planes, planes & automobiles – finally home…

Malpensa, la mattina presto e nevica / Malpens...

Image by Luigi Rosa via Flickr

CHINO HILLS – Today started at 3 am (Milan time). My flight to LA from Milan through Amsterdam was leaving at 6:45 am. It’s 4:45 am and no car pick-up yet. This starts a flurry of phone calls from us to our travel agent in Manila to the car hire service in Rome before we are finally assured that the car would be at our hotel in 5 to 6 minutes. The driver finally shows up at 5:05. Apparently he had been at our hotel at 4:30 am only to be told by the +\>~^*€& front desk person that we had checked out and took the hotel bus.

Anyway, things are compounded on the way to the airport by an accident which shuts down the two-lane road that’s the fastest way to the airport. The driver turns around and guns his Mercedez Benz through narrow Italian towns that I’m sure would have passed for the scenic route had not it been pitch dark. As we wind through narrow snow-covered lanes, I kept on hoping that no one would come at us from the opposite direction at the same crazy speed. We finally hit the highway and our driver speeds up even more to 120-125 km/h (yes, I was watching). Oh brother.

We get to the airport at 5:35 am, rush to the wrong check-in counter and go back where we came from. Okay, so everybody here speaks Italian, I finally get to the front, put my bags on the weighing scale. The agent takes my passport, looks up my itinerary and goes – “I’m sorry sir but we can’t send you through Amsterdam. Schiphol is not taking in incoming flights after it was shut down yesterday due to heavy snow.” Oh brother (2x).

I am now resigned to staying in Milan another day, maybe another week – who knows how long these things sort themselves out.

The agent goes – “I will have to book you on Delta leaving Milano Malpensa at 15 past 11.”

Ok.

“My apologies sir but you will have a 5-hour lay-over before your connecting flight to LAX.”

Ok.

“However there is only one seat left on this flight to JFK.”

Ok, how much do I have to pay? Is there going to be an auction?

“But I will give it to you. It’s in business class. I’m upgrading you.”

Whoa! Can you say that again?

“You know what? I’ll just put you in business class all the way to LAX.”

Woohoo!!!

So after all that –

Fresh snow in Milano, €0.
Breakfast at McDonalds at Malpensa, €7.10.
FC Barcelona shirt at duty-free shop, €75.
2 I Love Milano! shirts, €9.70.
The book, Naked Economics, $25.
Unplanned meet-up with Tita Pinky and Tita Bambi at JFK, priceless!

Milano Malpensa Hilton to Home in Chino Hills, 28 hours and 15 minutes.

What a day!

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kuwentong kalye: trapik na naman! (Part 1 of 2)

Victory Liner Nissan Diesel UA CVD-872 (fleet ...

Image by express000 via Flickr

SOMMA LOMBARDO VARESE, LOMBARDIA, Italy – The past week has been a whirlwind of travel that has had me in three continents with vastly different time zones. This has resulted in very little sleep and a zombie-like demeanor. Nevertheless, I have been conscious enough to observe one thing in the three places I have been – traffic and the way people drive.

About a month or so ago, I rode in a taxicab in Manila that was driven by Mang Bert. Mang Bert used to be a bus driver before switching to taxis. As we were driving along Tramo in Pasay City, I couldn’t quite help myself and made a quip about how bus drivers seem to think that all traffic rules are not really rules but mere suggestions (as many people jestingly or more likely, frustratingly put it).

This quip got Mang Bert started.

Actually Sir, tama ka diyan. Nung driver ho ako ng bus, wala akong magagawa kundi makisama sa gulo. Kailangan kasi. Kung sa-Santo Santo ka ho sa daan lalo na pag driver ng bus, lugi ka. Hindi kasi patas yung laban. Susunod naman ho yung mga driver sa mga patakaran kung lahat sumusunod pero kung yung kalaban mo bara-bara, mamumulubi ka lang kung hindi ka makikipagsapalaran. Eh, wala naman ho nanghuhuli o kung nanghuli man lagay ka lang ok na. Pero tingin ko kung patas yung laban at talagang pinapatupad yung traffic rules sa tamang paraan siguro naman ho susunod naman lahat.”

He does have a point. The way the bus transport system works, it’s all about passenger volume. Since drivers and conductors are paid on commission – the more passengers they have, the more money they make. That is a recipe for traffic chaos as bus drivers pick up passengers in all the wrong places, use any street corner as terminals and do their respective “the Fast and the Furious” imitations in the rush to get the next passenger before other buses do.

Hay trapik…

In the mid to late 90s, my former boss (now a valued friend and mentor, Matthew Sutherland), wrote a series of pieces in the Sunday Inquirer magazine. These articles were a glimpse into life in the Philippines from an expatriate point of view. Many of these pieces were hilarious, eye-opening but generally harmless. One of these articles, however, while written in his typical witty way convey a sense of incredulity and dismay at how things were just utterly senseless. This article was about driving in Manila traffic.

I reproduce this article here to end Part 1 of this missive.

(Note: The previous version of this post concluded with an article that was erroneously attributed. Apparently that was not Matthew’s article. Matthew was kind enough to point that out to me and send me the correct article as reproduced below. My apologies to the author of the other article.)

Manila Traffic – The View Through An Ex-Pat’s Windscreen
by Matthew Sutherland

Jingle bag, Jingle bag, Jingle all the way
Oh what fun it is to sit on EDSA for a day

I got back from a two week vacation in France last weekend. On my first day back in the office I called a friend. His opening words were: “Welcome back to the nightmare on EDSA!”. I said “Don’t tell me it got worse in the last two weeks?!” He said, “You remember that last tiny remaining piece of tarmac you could use to cross EDSA from Ayala to McKinley? Well, they just closed it up!” Such is the state of traffic in Manila today. It has become not just the ultimate conversational fallback so much as the guaranteed opening gambit. In this respect it has even exceeded the exalted conversational status of the weather in London, where I come from.

Exactly how bad is Manila traffic? Clue number one: its exalted conversational status, as already discussed. Clue number two : you are reading an entire supplement dedicated to the topic. Clue number three: you are probably reading about it while sitting in it! Clue number four: as my Christmas carol at the top indicates, you live in a country where you can buy a product called a “Jingle Bag”. Clue number five: in Tagalog, traffic is not just a mere noun, but also a widely-used adjective (matrapic) and the most widely-used excuse for just about anything (matrapic, eh).

Worse than this, traffic has now become the most commonly-cited fact about the Philippines among people I meet overseas. It has finally overtaken Smokey Mountain, sex tourism and Imelda’s shoes. Nowadays, when I tell people that I live in Manila, they no longer go “Hey, are Imelda’s shoes still there?” but “Oh, you poor thing – I hear the traffic’s really bad. Is it really worse than Bangkok?”

This shows how out of touch they are. Compared to Manila, Bangkok is a drivers’ dream. This is because it doubled its road surface (thanks to full participation in the Asian boom) and halved its number of cars (thanks to full participation in the subsequent Asian bust). Manila’s recession wasn’t nearly as bad, so it still has lots of cars. And it started late on the building boom, so LRTs, skyways and flyovers are still under construction everywhere you want to go. And I have bad news for my friend: EDSA is going to get worse still, with the imminent closure of the entire northbound carriageway between the South Expressway and Ayala Avenue, with northbound traffic confined to a new tunnel beneath the southbound carriageway. Fun fun fun. Enjoy.

So why is the traffic so bad? Granted, it’s partly construction activity that should ultimately help the traffic. But other things also seem surprising to me which might seem normal to those who have lived here all their lives. Chief among these is the fact that huge tracts of downtown Manila are off limits to normal traffic because of the large number of gated residential villages. This forces traffic to bunch onto publicly available roads. I can think of no other major city in the world where this is the case. Gated villages exist in other countries, but in the suburbs, not the center of the city. But for as long as the people who make the rules are the same people who live in the gated villages – it isn’t going to change.

Many other factors are at work. I reckon that everyone I know could write down just three simple things that would utterly revolutionize Manila traffic flow. Everyone would have a different set of three things, but each would be such a huge leap forward that one is forced to wonder how successive administrations have failed to stumble upon any of them, even by accident. Instead, they have stumbled on some all-time great losers – chief of these being the odd/even and color coding schemes, including all their bizarre and almost impossible to remember variations and combinations.

The three things I would do are as follows. One: don’t switch off the traffic lights. When the lights are working by themselves, the traffic at least flows reasonably well. But when the traffic is tailed back twice as far as usual from some junction, and I’ve been sitting stationary for fifteen minutes, I just know that when I finally reach the junction the lights will be out, and there’ll be some guy there with his hand in a giant yellow glove looking like Mickey Mouse auditioning for The Village People.

Two: change the lights more often. In cities where the traffic flows properly, the lights change every 30 to 60 seconds. Traffic moves better in bite-sized chunks. Every city apart from Manila and Bangkok seems to have worked this out. Junctions don’t get blocked; drivers don’t get frustrated. Here, you can sit at a red light staring at buses crawling past your face for three to four minutes. By the time it’s your turn, what’s happened? Either the last ten buses are jammed across the junction because there was no room for them on the other side, or you have been hypnotized into a state of catatonia, thereby causing your own traffic block as the ambulance arrives to take you away.

Thirdly, deal firmly with the buses. If you look down on any main thoroughfare from the vantage point of a tall building or a helicopter, you can clearly see that all the traffic is caused by the fact that at some point, usually right on a major junction, there are buses literally parked in three out of four lanes, picking up passengers. Beyond the bus stop, there is frequently a mile of clear highway. Turning right from Buendia into Makati Avenue, which I do daily, buses stop right on the corner, in the filter lane, and wait for passengers. I have seen them wait for literally two minutes. While they do this, no-one else can turn right. Ay, kapal. Until someone is prepared to enforce and prosecute, this will never improve.

I am normally a mild guy who never gets angry. But I absolutely detest going from A to B. I would rather be either back at A, or there at B, but in between is time wasted. I am also cursed with a punctuality gene and a general travel-stress gene. This makes me almost uniquely unfit for life in Manila. When I drive, I fume, curse and scream at the idiots surrounding me. I semi-rhetorically demand why it should have to be this way. Kitty, my girlfriend, on the other hand, has none of the aforementioned genetic failings, and is firmly in the “bahala na” camp in traffic. She has the ability to accept that it is this way, and probably always will be this way, simply because it’s Manila. Realist or defeatist, at least she’s relaxed.

I get so stressed in traffic I get palpitations. If we go to Tagaytay for the weekend, I am so tense by the time I get back to Makati that I might as well never have gone away. One of my Filipino colleagues in the office is the same. He gets so stressed and claustrophobic in traffic (even when he’s not driving) that he has panic attacks, and has had to check himself into Makati Med at least three times in the last year. It’s true. That’s why Makati Med is always full. Matrapic, eh.

So, what’s my strategy? First, if you don’t like traffic, stay out of it. I am lucky enough to live five minutes walk (twenty minutes drive) from my office. Secondly, get a mobile phone with hands-free. Then at least you have something to do in the car and have no excuse for not having called your mother. Thirdly, get someone else to drive. In the six years I have lived in the Philippines, I have progressively increased the amount I use a driver – from almost never, to almost all the time. Again, I am lucky enough to be able to do this. If you are not, it’s time to look up now – you never know, that bus in front of you might have moved on.

(To be continued)