i’ve run through the gates of hell: dan brown vs. francis tolentino

“Sienna imagined they were going to feed poor fishermen or farmers in the countryside, which she had read was a wonderland of geological beauty, with vibrant seabeds and dazzling plains. And so when the group settled in among the throngs in the city of Manila – the most densely populated city on earth – Sienna could only gape in horror. She had never seen poverty on this scale.

How can one person possibly make a difference?

For every one person Sienna fed, there were hundreds more who gazed at her with desolate eyes. Manila had six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, and a horrifying sex trade, whose workers consisted primarily of young children, many of whom had been sold to pimps by parents who took solace in knowing that at least their children would be fed.

Amid this chaos of child prostitution, panhandlers, pickpockets, and worse, Sienna found herself suddenly paralyzed. All around her she could see humanity overrun by its primal instinct for survival. When they face desperation…human beings become animals.

…She cleared the tears and grime from her eyes and saw that she was standing in a kind of shantytown – a city made of pieces of corrugated metal and cardboard propped up and held together. All around her the wails of crying babies and the stench of human excrement hung in the air.

I’ve run through the gates of hell.”

These passages are from the new novel, Inferno, by Dan Brown – he of The Da Vinci Code fame (or infamy, depending on who’s judging). These are drawn from 3 pages of the 462 pages (including the Epilogue) of the novel. The contents of these three pages drew a 5-paragraph rejoinder from MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino.

Photo courtesy of gmanews.tv

Photo courtesy of gmanews.tv

Sienna is Sienna Brooks, the other main character in the book. The main character is Prof. Robert Langdon, a Harvard-based symbologist whose character was portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movie adaptation of The Da Vinci Code.

Sienna Brooks is a doctor who grew up as a child prodigy with a genius-level IQ. Growing up, she struggled to fit in – as is apparently the case with many child prodigies. As she tries to find meaning for her life, a psychiatrist recommends that she stop focusing on herself and instead devote her energies to helping other people. She comes in contact with a humanitarian group which is how she finds herself in the Philippines.

She obviously did not have a memorable time in Manila. Sienna leaves Manila in a huff after an attempted gang-rape by three men in an informal settlement (i.e. squatter) area. The rape is averted when an old, deaf woman stabs one of the men in the back scaring the two other men away.

Atty. Tolentino, in his letter to Mr. Brown, expresses his disappointment at the “inaccurate portrayal of our beloved metropolis”. He goes on to state his displeasure at how Manila was used “as a venue for a character’s…disillusionment in humanity”.  He goes on to defend Metro Manila in this manner:

 “More than your portrayal of it, Metro Manila is the center of the Filipino spirit, faith and hope. Our faith in God binds us as a nation and we believe that Manila citizens are more than capable of exemplifying good character and compassion towards each other, something that your novel has failed to acknowledge. Truly, our place is an entry to heaven.”

Nice. Duh…An entry to heaven? What has he been inhaling? Oh wait – yup, that pristine Metro Manila air.

Yes, yes – it’s a novel but let’s try some fact checking.

Manila – the most densely populated city on earth: check (see this: https://criticaleye2.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/evacuate-metro-manila/)2012.08.10 Pop Density

Poverty on this scale: maybe, maybe not (we certainly have mass poverty but i’m sure there are other places in the world (e.g. somalia, sudan, etc.) where things could be worse, on the other hand, we don’t know where else Sienna Brooks has been to)

Six-hour traffic jamscheck

Suffocating pollutioncheck (we’ve probably just been acclimated to it)

Horrifying (child) sex trademaybe (i just don’t know)

Panhandlers, pickpocketscheck, check (A police officer was interviewed on TV yesterday in a report on crime in Divisoria with the back to school sales going on. He advised women to put money inside their bras to avoid being victimized by pickpockets. He went on further to say that you should divide your money between your two pockets “para kung madukot yung sa kabila, meron ka pang natitira”. With cops like these – &%^$#@)&^).

Atty. Tolentino cites his disappointment and displeasure but his letter doesn’t really contradict any of the specific depictions which he describes as inaccurate. Instead he wails about the fact that the niceties about the metropolis that he mentions are not mentioned in the novel.

Chairman Tolentino is borderline being intellectually dishonest with this letter. It was he, after all, in his book – “A New City – A New Metro Manila, A New Future”  who alludes to all these symptomatic problems of Manila as a basis for building a new national capital (see this: https://criticaleye2.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/when-p352-billion-does-not-even-come-close-to-cutting-it/).

Akala niya siguro makalusot dahil walang nagbasa ng libro niya. I actually admired him for the courage that it took to write that book. Imagine the grief he must have gotten from Metro Manila mayors for daring to propose something as audacious as building a new capital and taking away their bread and butter. Pero ngayon, was that all just lip-service?

When I saw the news about Chairman Tolentino’s letter, I was actually more amused than anything. I was not, however, really thinking about writing about it. But, I witnessed something yesterday afternoon that changed my mind.

I was stopped at a traffic light along Taft Avenue when I saw what must have been part of some sort of gang war. What was disturbing was seeing the combatants who looked to be barely in their teens brandishing sticks, stones and box-cutters while sniffing plastic bags most likely containing rugby. These combatants appeared to have taken over the stretch of Taft from Pedro Gil to Quirino as their battleground with nary a policeman in sight. When I wrote about the loss of civility and our descent into chaos (https://criticaleye2.wordpress.com/2011/09/03/the-loss-of-civility-and-our-descent-into-chaos/), I wasn’t really thinking about this but this is just terrible.

This post is not about defending Dan Brown. I’m sure he can take care of himself (i.e. ignore Atty. Tolentino). Rather it is about acknowledging our dire problems and seriously and systematically work to fight them. Atty. Tolentino’s attempt to portray some sort of utopia is sadly way off base and is not reflective of the true state of Metro Manila. When we choose to ignore criticism of real problems, be it in fiction or in fact, we delude ourselves into thinking that things will take care of themselves. They won’t go away just because you paint an alternative reality for the sake of pakitang tao.

Sana naman we grow up naNiloloko lang natin sarili natin.

We may not have the worst poverty problem in the entire world like what Sienna Brooks perceives. But we have it and we have it really, really bad. No amount of (macro)economic growth can hide the fact that the majority of the Filipino people continue to wallow in a pitiful existence that we should all be ashamed of. Huwag na natin takpan. Atty. Tolentino’s assertion of Manila’s citizens being more than capable of showing compassion to each other will only acquire real meaning pag nagkaroon ng makatotohanang lunas ang mga kapwa nating mga Pilipino sa BASECO, Payatas, Bagong Silang, Lanao del Sur, Eastern Samar at sa marami pang lugar sa Pilipinas.

I already know that poverty in the Philippines will not be meaningfully resolved within my lifetime. But – that shouldn’t stop us from trying so that hopefully, we see meaningful progress in our children’s lifetimes. To do so, however, requires that we stop being onion-skinned with criticism or dire depictions of our problems alam naman natin na nandiyan ‘yan. If we continue to ignore this fact because naka-angat na tayo sa iba, bubulagain ka na lang isang araw to see poverty and its problems that you can no longer ignore because it is right outside your front door.




puwede ba? huwag kumaliwa sa tuwid na daan!





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

ON BOARD PR 103, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean – As I face another 15 or so hours of travel on this long journey home to Manila from Los Angeles, I find myself having bucket loads of time to finally write the second part of my blog post on Manila traffic.  I wrote the first one back in December of last year and just never found the time to focus on what I think will be a much longer and (hopefully) more incisive piece on a subject that bedevils Metro Manilans day in and day out.

There is not one reason that one could point at to explain the mess that is Manila traffic. It is a multi-dimensional problem whose prospective solution lies in a host of infrastructural, social, behavioral, regulatory and educational changes that need to be patched together to resolve the monster that has been created over time.  It goes without saying that it will also take some steely political will to see all of these changes through.

About a month or two ago, I read about the trip that Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Chairman Francis Tolentino took to Seoul where he and his group reportedly studied the traffic management system and infrastructure of that city. Even while there, Mr. Tolentino was quoted as having marvelled at the seamless manner by which the various modes of public and private transport where made to work together.  In recent pronouncements, Mr. Tolentino announced plans of locating bus terminals outside Metro Manila.  I presume that this initiative also has come as a result of that study trip to Seoul.

I do subscribe to the idea that for us to get a better idea of how we can resolve the problems that face us, we may need to look outside the country for possible solutions.  For it is by seeing how things could work where we may actually be able to visualize a potential answer to our own issues.

I am, however, disappointed at this proposed “bus terminals outside Metro Manila” plan of the MMDA.  It will likely end up being another idea where instead of attacking the root causes of a problem, we end up just moving pieces around hoping things will get better.  Rather than being quick to publicize an idea for publicity’s sake (para may maipakita na may ginagawa kunyari), I would rather see Mr. Tolentino and his staff take time to come up with a more radical plan to alleviate traffic conditions in the metropolis.  It will take nothing less than that to make a dent into this monster that has been created.

Some of what I say here will not be new.  Somebody once told me na pag-magbasa ka ng mga plano galing sa iba’t ibang sector sa Pilipinas, mukhang walang problem na hindi natin malulutas.  The problem has always been in the execution part of the plan. At the first sight of trouble, we tend to compromise, cut corners and at the end, diminish the impact of any solution that we work on for a problem.  Then we end up with a situation that is actually worse than what we started with.

Our traffic problems can only be resolved with an integrated plan that includes addressing the infrastructural, regulatory and behavioural aspects of this problem.  There is no solution that will work without addressing all three.

Let me start with the behavioral aspect.

Ang pangkaraniwang Pilipino ay hindi marunong magmaneho.

Yes – you read that right.  The typical Filipino driver does not know how to drive.  Driving, you see, is more than starting a vehicle, putting your foot on the gas pedal and manipulating the steering wheel.  It involves knowing and following rules, knowing what road courtesy is and practicing defensive driving.

Knowing how to drive should be intuitive.  Yet – we succumb to the selfishness of being “King of the Road”.

For example,

when turning right onto a street where a pedestrian crossing is immediately in the path of your vehicle and you see a person crossing from the opposite end, what do you do?

a. Continue to turn right as the person crossing has not yet come directly into the path you are turning in;

b. Sound your horn to make sure the person crossing the street sees your vehicle and stops before he/she crosses your vehicle’s path;

c, Stop and let the pedestrian finish crossing the street; or,

d. It doesn’t matter as your vehicle has right of way.

This shouldn’t be a tough one for a person grounded in proper driving etiquette.  The problem is that the typical Filipino driver is not.

Or how about this one –

when driving on a four lane road (two lanes each way), a vehicle driving faster than other traffic should ALWAYS:

a. stay on the inner lane;

b. stay on the outer lane;

c. stay in the center straddling the inner and outer lanes; or,

d. none of the above.

This question may appear to have a simpler answer than it actually does to the typical Filipino driver.

The point here is that a lot of why we have the problems that we have with traffic is the fact that the typical Filipino driver may not necessarily know what the rules are.  Instead of being marunong, he ends up na nagmamarunong.  This brings me to the next aspect of this problem – the aspect which is regulatory in nature.

Getting a driver’s license is not a right, it is a privilege granted by the state to its citizens which comes with certain responsibilities.  These responsibilities include following the rules.

The way driver’s licenses are handed out by the Land Transportation Office (LTO), however, leaves a lot to be desired.  Do we really have an honest to goodness driver qualification system which weeds out those who should not be allowed on the road, in the first place?

This is one government office that we could do without, at least in its present form.  Even its touted automation projects allowing easier and faster car registration and driver’s license renewals are good intentioned but simply steps in the wrong direction. Given  our problems with carnapping, should the LTO really be making car registration faster and easier?  Given our problems with bad drivers, should we really be making it easier for these bad drivers to renew their licenses?

The LTO will probably be serving its mandate better if it were to focus on the drivers’ licensing process, particularly for new drivers.  Examinations should be automated and a practical driving examination should be conducted.  This way, we at least try to make sure that only those who are really fit to drive are allowed to drive.  This will take a generation to have an impact on our streets but we have to start somewhere.

It would also be a great boon to all of us if our traffic enforcers actually know the traffic rules that they are supposed to be enforcing.  Yes, they may know some but they probably don’t know everything or even most of it, leading to selective enforcement.  Meron na namang sasabi “eh wala tayong magagawa, mababa kasi sahod diyan kaya wala kang makuhang matino na traffic enforcer”.  First, have we tried? Have we tried really teaching these traffic enforcers how to do their jobs?  If we at least tried, I’m sure marami pa rin diyan ang matututo.  Second, so wala na naman tayong gagawin dahil mahirap?  Eh, kung ganun din naman di huwag na tayong magsayang ng pera sa pagkaramiraming traffic enforcer na wala naman palang silbi.  We just have to stop covering up for this lazy attitude by always using as an excuse na mahirap o hindi puwede ngayong hindi pa naman natin nasubukan.

I am sure there are a lot of people who if given the chance, would like to be good drivers.  Good drivers who would follow the rules of the road, exhibit the utmost courtesy to others when driving and who would practice defensive driving the way it was meant to be.  The problem is that our driving culture makes it difficult to do all these things to become a good driver.  Kung baga – if you can’t beat them, join them na lang ang nangyayari.  To make matters worse, the third aspect of this problem – poor infrastructure – sometimes makes it impossible to obey traffic rules.

How can one for example – stay in their lanes – when there are no lanes to speak of?  Even worse, some roads have multiple lines making up multiple lanes with no guidance as to which to follow (e.g. SLEX).  This is surely a source of accidents that can and have happened.

As for traffic lights, I still can’t figure out why we keep on buying them when those human traffic directors think they are better than these lights.  Maybe they are just trying to help but I’m sure many would agree that they only tend to make things worse (unless you’re on a lane that they’re currently favouring).

We also need to do more work on customizing road infrastructure standards.  A 10-lane highway suddenly becoming a 6-lane one spells bottleneck in any language.  Kinulang ba nang pera?  Hindi ba nakuha ang tamang right of way?  Huwag na tayo magsimula ng pinapangarap na solusyon kung yung pag-gawa nito ay makikita namang mas makakasama kaysa makatulong.  Nagsayang lang tayo ng pera.

A multi-disciplinary approach to resolve our traffic problems will take some time before we can actually see it bear fruit but as I always say – we have to start somewhere and what better time than now.  Despite this there are some quick fixes which could be bear immediate impact particularly on the symbol of all that is wrong with Philippine traffic – EDSA.

Some things to consider.

  1. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are more buses on EDSA than is required by the commuting public.  Witness those half-empty ones during rush hours.  Stop issuing those bus franchises.
  2. We know where the bottlenecks are along EDSA – those areas where buses wait for passengers while taking up to 3 or 4 lanes of the thoroughfare.  Have them line up single file on those passenger loading areas.  Enforce this rule strictly.
  3. These bus drivers supposedly have professional licenses.  Do they?  If so, when were they last tested for their driving proficiency?
  4. Get rid of the UVVRP.  The rich people only buy more cars to get around this rule. It has worsened traffic on secondary streets.  The bottom line is that it has not noticeably improved traffic, it has only added more cars to our streets and it gives corrupt enforcers another avenue for plying their trade.
  5. Increase number of cars on MRT/LRT lines and also increase frequencies.

Longer-term, we need to:

  1. Focus on an integrated mass transit system as the solution to our traffic woes;
  2. Overhaul regulatory institutions (stricter driver licensing, strengthen knowledge of enforcers); and,
  3. Re-think how we put our transportation infrastructure together.

There will be no quick and easy fix to this problem

Pero kung hindi natin aaminin na mas malalim ang ugat ng problem na ito, hindi rin tayo makakasimula ng tuluyang lunas sa suliranin na ito.

Ay trapik…


(c) Stop and let the pedestrian finish crossing the street.

(d) None of the above. In general, vehicles should stay on the outer lane unless overtaking which can only be done via the inner lane.  Vehicles should then return to the outer lane when it is safe to do so.