When we arrived in the Philippines, one of the first things we were told was “never judge a missionary by the things they say while driving in Manila,” and while it didn’t make any sense at the time, it didn’t take long at all to understand what they meant. There were no familiar fast flowing freeways in Manila, so going from any one place to another involved taking miles of clogged city roads.  Major roads were often two lanes in each direction, but where space allowed, the road widened to three lanes.  Traffic would quickly expand into the third lane in an effort to get ahead in the painfully slow congestion, but a few hundred feet ahead, a neighborhood or bridge would collapse the road down to two lanes again, forcing the traffic to merge, and creating even more congestion in the process.  With an “every-man-for-themselves” attitude, most cars would slowly move down the road keeping an uncomfortably tight gap between their front bumper and the back bumper of the car in front of them.  The slightest gap in-between bumpers would be seen as an opportunity for cars in the other lanes to angle their bumpers into any tiny gap left so that you would be obligated to stop and let them in.  Even when there wasn’t a gap, cars would simply start merging into your lane—the drivers waiving their hands out of their windows and honking their horns.  Sometimes this would turn into a game of chicken, seeing which driver would give way first – periodically leading accidents and heated arguments.  Either way, it became a significant frustration for my Dad, a typically cautious and careful driver, when car after car would squeeze their front bumper ahead of our car due to the six-inch gap he had left for safety.  We also quickly figured out that one of the main rules for any driver was not to make eye contact with any other driver, because by doing so, you were making a non-verbal agreement that the other car could merge in front of you.  If by chance eye contact was made and the other driver raised their eyebrows, it was accepted that you were generously giving them the right of way.  Oddly, this rule did not apply to the passengers of the vehicle, who were free to make eye contact and hand gestures on behalf of the driver to let cars around them what the driver intended to do without the stone-faced driver stared blankly ahead.  When traffic started to get bad, so did the attitudes.  It was normal for one or two cars to pull into an intersection on a yellow light and sit blocking traffic after the light had turned red.  Cross traffic would honk their horns and pull within inches of the offending car’s sides trying to squeeze by.  If the traffic moved out of the way in under a minute, people would consider it normal, move on, and repay the favor by blocking the cross traffic at the next yellow light.  But if the offending cars blocked the intersection for longer than a minute, the blocked traffic would start to fill in any gaps in the intersection, plugging any space in the intersection as if a game of car Tetris.  This resulted in total gridlock, with cars facing every direction in the intersection at once.  When this happened, a team of volunteers would get out of their vehicles and become impromptu traffic cops.  Using their bodies to stop certain cars from moving, they would slowly unscramble the gridlocked intersection until there was just enough room to get traffic flowing again – then quickly jump back into their cars to get through the intersection themselves.

The net effect of all of this chaos was an average speed of 11 kilometers per hour (7 mph), and for a city of 11 million people, that meant a lot of people were going nowhere fast.  For my Dad, his 19 km (12 miles) commute to the seminary was a 60 to 90 minute trip each way.  Some missionary friends preferred to commute via motorbikes instead of cars because you could drive in-between the lanes or weave in and out of the traffic, the downside being a significantly higher risk of injury from running into unpredictable vehicles or people.  To a young westerner like myself, I couldn’t help but thinking that we would all get places much faster if we stayed in our own lane, kept things to two lanes, and followed the traffic lights.  But it was what it was, and we quickly learned that you either played the game or didn’t go anywhere.

One of the most difficult things about driving in Manila was the poverty that permeated the city.  Scenes of shanty towns, garbage piles, burning trash, oddly colored rivers of flowing trash, and people publicly relieving themselves were all normal sights.  But the hardest of all were the beggar boys and girls that would be attracted to our car like magnets.  These kids would sit in groups at an intersection and work as a team to visit as many cars as possible while the light was red.  They were often six to ten years old, wearing tattered clothing, and covered in dirt.   When the sight of our white skin was noticed, one of the kids would shout out to their friends “kano!” (meaning Americano) and the whole group of four or five kids would come to our car, rubbing their bodies and arms against the driver, passenger and front windows.  In a disjointed chorus reminiscent of some horror movie they would plead “please, sir, mam, change, pesos.”  If we had change in the car, we would crack the windows and give each kid a coin or two, trying to keep things fair.  If we only had a large bill, we would not give anything, as giving one of the children something and the others not could lead to them banging on the car windows or metal in disappointment.  It was heartbreaking to later learn that many of these groups were controlled by gangs that required them to bring back a certain amount of money in exchange for a food ration; and if their quota was unmet they could be beaten or go unfed.  From then on, we always carried a supply of individually packaged saltine crackers with us to give away instead of money.  In one particularly heart-breaking incident, we had run out of all but one bag of crackers and apologetically handed it out the window to one of the boys.  Instead of complaining, the leader of the group, a thin young boy in a tattered white shirt called all of the other kids to come with him in the median of the intersection.  They all sat down in a row and the leader broke apart the two small crackers into even portions while they all sat, ate, smiled, and talked.  Every day, sometimes several times on one trip, the beggar kids would come to our car.  Seeing their plight and hearing their pleas took its toll emotionally and even spiritually.  Several missionaries we knew wound up having mental breakdowns and returning to their home countries because of their desire to constantly help and their inability to make a significant difference in the lives of so many people.  One of the early lessons learned about ministry in the Philippines was knowing the difference between what you could do to help, and what you were called to help with.

Besides beggars, another concern was referred to as “the man with the cane.”  This would normally be a man standing off to the side of a road that walked with the aid of a cane.  When seeing a luxury car or foreigner driving by, the person would purposefully jump into the street, lay down, and pretend to be injured.  He would then accuse the driver of hitting him and threaten to call the cops if he was not paid off.  If the cops were called, there was a chance that the police would be in on the scheme as well, expecting a cut of the now larger demands.  When driving through certain parts of the city where the road was lined with bushes that obstructed the view of the sidewalks, Dad would slow down and semi-jokingly say “tell me if you see a man with a cane!”  The problem of police corruption was not limited to accidents, and they would sometimes pull over foreigners with a fabricated charge and offer to dismiss the offense for some “merienda money.”  “Merienda” was a term leftover from the days of Spanish colonization and referred to a light snack similar to brunch or afternoon tea.  For only 20 pesos, the officer would smile and walk away – expect for the fact that my father never paid bribes.  Instead, my Dad could inform the police that he was a missionary, and that he didn’t pay merienda money.  The discussion would then head one of two ways, with the officer dismissing the charges out of respect for “a man of God” (thus saving face), or by escalating the charges up to and including taking Dad to jail.  And while these events didn’t happen often, they were often a test of resolve to do what was right instead of what was easy.

Another concern with transportation in the Philippines was the vehicles themselves.  When we first arrived, we were loaned a small yellow four door sedan by our mission organization that we affectionately nicknamed “the yellow bomb,” and let’s just say that the car had a certain “personality.”  The floor of the car was rusted through in several spots, allowing Dad to look through and see the pavement below as he drove.  The car would periodically stall and not re-start, and for the first three months of our stay in the Philippines, my sister would cower in shame in the backseat while a team of strangers came to help my brother and I push the car while Dad tried to jump start it.  If traffic was especially bad or it was an exceptionally hot day, the car’s radiator would begin to overheat leaving no choice other than turning off the air conditioner, rolling down the windows, and sitting in the sweltering soup of diesel and cigarette smoke that perfused traffic. To help calm everyone’s frayed nerves from the traffic, heat, and general chaos of driving in Manila, Mom and Dad would play a continuous stream of relaxing music – Enya, Yanni, Narada, Windham Hill and Kenny G.  And when things got really bad, we would sit together reciting the mantra from the movie “What about Bob”: “Everything’s good, everything’s great, everything’s wonderful” as we each sought to mentally retreat to our happy place.  The “yellow bomb” seemed to break down constantly.  Dad would have preferred to simply order a new part from a parts store and fix the car himself, but the lack of new parts often meant that he had to take the car into the shop to have the broken part refurbished or replaced with a salvage part.  When he did finally find an auto shop that offered new parts, he quickly realized in frustration that the shop had stripped the more expensive working parts of the engine for refurbished parts that weren’t even included in the repair to resell them for a profit.  After this experience, every time the car broke down, Dad would personally supervise the repair at the shop, eating away at his already impossibly long list of things to get do, without the time to do them.

Three months into living in the Philippines, the annual typhoon season started and redefined what our understanding of “a heavy rain” was.  The rainfall would not just darken the skies, but obstruct your view of anything more than a few feet in front of you.  One particular afternoon, Dad had finished teaching his classes and had started his long drive home as strong tropical storm moved in.  Over the next hour, it dropped several inches of rain quickly flooding the entire city.  As Dad was in his final mile away from the house, the flood waters had reached the door frame of the car and was pouring in through the rusted car frame.  He pressed forward trying to reach home, but as the flood waters grew, the engine began to sputter and died.  Not wanting to flood the engine with any additional water, Dad collected his belongings and abandoned the car on the side of the road.  Carrying his briefcase at times over his head, he waded through floodwaters above his waist in his business clothes and dress shoes as he walked home.  Several hours later than normal, he arrived home in the dark, soaked to the bone and wanting nothing more than to take a vigorous shower and enjoy a hot meal.  The next morning, the storm clouds had abated and patches of blue sky could be seen through the now picturesque fluffy white clouds.  All night long Dad had been restless thinking about our abandoned car – worried that it might be stolen, stripped for parts, damaged in an accident, or be unable to start.  With floodwaters throughout all of Manila, traffic had come to a standstill and many businesses, including Alliance Biblical Seminary, were closed for the day.  After a filling breakfast with the family, Dad enlisted my brother to walk a mile through several flooded areas to check on the car and try to get it back to the safety of home.  I begged to come along, to which there was resistance.  It was far.  It was flooded.  It was gross.  I was reminded that the floodwaters would contain sewage, trash, chemicals and other unmentionables.  I persisted and eventually was admitted to come along, provided I kept my head above any and all floodwaters.  Heading north, we walked down the slope of our neighborhood until we met the space where a small creek would have normally flowed through.  Ahead, there were several blocks of flooded street covered in brown murky water.  As we started to wade through, the water got deeper and deeper until it reached just under my armpits.  With sure footing every step, we crossed the flooded area, dodging floating trash or debris, and continued our journey towards the car.  Half an hour after we left, Dad was relieved to see the “yellow bomb” parked on the side of the road with a series of others, unharmed.  We opened the doors and sat down on the water soaked seats as Dad tried to start the car.  The engine chugged several times without starting.  My brother and I got out and started to push the car forward, and as was customary, all of the nearby males stopped what they were doing and came to help.  After reaching speed, Dad tried popping the clutch to start the car.  Nothing.  The team of people followed behind and gave it a second go.  This time, the car sputtered to life and there was cheering, waving, and thank yous, as my brother and I jumped into the backseat as we started driving back to the house.  When we entered the flooded area of the main road, Dad moved slowly ahead trying not to make a wake that could raise the level of the water into the engine.  We held our breath and prayed as the car slowly moved forward, the muffler making bubbling noises and water again spilling into the car from underneath.  As we emerged from the deepest water and started to move to the safety of uphill, we all sighed in relief and praised God.  A short time later, we parked the car in our driveway, opened the doors and pointed a household fan at the seats to help them dry out.  While we would have not wished ownership of the “yellow bomb” on even our worst enemy, it was hard to deny that the car did serve God’s purpose.  Our experiences with the traffic, floods, repairs, and jump starts helped us to deeply understand the normal struggles of the Filipinos – leading to my parents being much more sympathetic to students and friends who were late or unable to attend due to “car troubles.”

As much as having a car was difficult, for most people, even our crappy car was a luxury item.  Most people would use trikes and jeepneys – the main form of public transportation – to get around.  Leaving your house, you would walk down to a major neighborhood road and wait for a “trike”.  Trikes took one of two forms: a bicycle with a two-seat sidecar welded onto the side mainly used for smaller flat neighborhoods, or a motorbike with a four-seat sidecar welded onto them mainly used for larger or hilly neighborhoods.  Periodically, trikes would be roaming up and down the major neighborhood roads and you would flag them down by raising your hand and whistling.  The driver would pull over, you would say where you were going and ask “magkano” (which means how much). The driver would tell you the price and with the nod of the head or raise of the eyebrows, a contract for a one-way trip to your destination would be signed.  Regular travelers would know a reasonable price for the trip and if the price was too high, you could barter for a lower price.  If the price was too high or if your sixth sense told you that something just didn’t feel right about the driver, you could waive the trike away and wait for the next one.  The bike trikes were normally simple single speed bikes driven by the unlikeliest of men – short, very thin, and dark tanned men.  Despite the fact that I was still a child, I was already larger and heavier than many of these drivers, so when two of us needed a ride somewhere, we felt sorry for the man having to pedal us around.  Standing up and pressing his full body weight down into the pedals, we would slowly begin to move forward as he strained to gain momentum.  Finally hitting a reasonable but leisurely pace, he would sit down and begin to relax.  Moving down the street, it was your job to let the driver know that a turn was coming up and lead him to your house.  When you finally arrived at your destination, you would pay the man the agreed fee (and often a tip for his Herculean effort), and he would pedal away.  The motorbike trikes were similar, but powered by noisy two stroke engines.  Because of their more advanced technology, they cost more to ride, but could get you where you wanted to go quicker.  Most of these sidecars were setup with two seats facing forward and two seats facing backwards allowing you to yell at your friends and hold a conversation while traveling.

After taking a trike to get to the entrance of your neighborhood, you would then step out onto a major city road and flag down a jeepney.  Jeepneys are so-named because of their appearance of taking a WWII jeep front and welding on a large seating area onto the back.  These were driver owned and elaborately decorated, painted, and accessorized as a symbol of the driver’s family or personality.  Hoping onto a jeepney, you would shout at the driver over the noise of people, city streets, and Diesel engines where you were going and the driver would shout back the cost.  You would then hand your money to the person sitting next to you, who would start the process of passing your money down the line to the driver.  If there was change owed, the change would be passed back in a similar manner.  Jeepnys had two padded bench seats facing each that could hold up to 16 people.  Most Westerners have a strong belief in a “personal bubble” – a zone of space around them that is their own private space, but in the Philippines it seemed the opposite was true.  If you were standing alone in a large space, others would walk right up next to you and wait beside you.  If you were using a distant urinal in a whole row of others, someone would pick the one right next to you.  And if you were sitting alone on a jeepney, the next person to board would sit down right next to you, an inch away.  It took some getting used to, and we kids would often joke with each other at home by closely standing uncomfortably close or sitting next to someone in an otherwise empty room.  If the jeepney got full, additional people could hang off the backs or sides of the jeepneys as well, using handholds on the roof and siderails welded to the frame.  Given that traffic rarely got above a few miles per hour, holding on while moving was not too difficult, but you had to be prepared for the initial lurch forward or sudden stop.  Most jeepneys had oval windows cutout of the sides allowing air to flow in the cabin.  It helped carry away the cigarette smoke from the passengers inside, but also allowed the smell of diesel exhaust in the cabin.  While jeepnies were the most common form of transportation, they were also the riskiest.  Pickpockets would often silently steal wallets, watches, or purses from travelers or more brazen criminals would stickup the whole jeepney with a knife or a gun, collecting all of the money, watches and jewelry from the passengers.  Fortunately, these were normally only petty criminals, so if you followed the rules of not carrying a lot of cash or valuables, you would escape unharmed.  As a general rule, missionaries were told to only wear and take items they didn’t mind getting stolen.  Expensive glasses, watches, purses and wedding bands would be replaced with cheaper local alternatives – decreasing the chance of you being viewed as a target for theft.  After anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more, you would get off the jeepney to transfer to a jeepney heading a different direction or if you had arrived at your desired stop.  Most stops would then have a line of trikes ready to take you on the next leg of your journey to your final destination.  For a novice, learning the process of taking public transportation would take a few weeks, but it take you anywhere in the city you wanted to go.

The net effect of chaos from factors outside of your control – earthquakes, floods, diseases, accidents, demonstrations, renegade police, thieves, brownouts, lack of phones, and jam-packed roadways all meant that getting somewhere “on-time” was a flexible idea.  Even without any of those factors, the needs of friends and families came first, so giving proper greetings to friends and neighbors, helping a friend in need or caring for the sick took priority over other commitments.  The consequence of never knowing what was going to happen and having few ways of communicating in a timely fashion led to something called “Filipino time.”  If you had a meeting or an appointment, it was generally assumed that you would arrive from slightly late to several hours late.  For my parents, the variable of unknown timing added a lot of stress.  With Mom’s experience of always needing to be prepared to host surprise visitors in South Korea, she would fret over having meals ready on time or knowing what the plan was.  Dad would stress over having his students arrive at school on-time for classes as to not miss out on the material covered in the lectures.  But those were Western concerns.  What mattered to the Filipino was not being on time, but eventually showing up -even very late- as a way of showing respect and group solidarity.  “Filipino time” took into account the reality of living in an uncontrolled environment whereas “Western time” was an unrealistic ideal that everyone gave no more than lip service to.  It was one of many parts of the Filipino culture that we were learning about and coming to terms with.  At face value, the Philippines appeared very American in nature – the language, signs, foods, and laws already seemed familiar.  But in each thing that seemed familiar, we found that the rules by which people operated were different than what we were used to.  The traffic laws were more accurately guidelines with many unwritten rules in play.  People would make appointments on their calendars, but with the assumption that being hours late was also part of the agreement.  Prices for goods and services were labeled, but could also be bartered for.   Dealings in business, government, and shopping were normally conducted in English, but almost everything else used an interchangeable mix of English and Tagalog.  In each new interaction we learned something different about the culture than we had expected, uncovering a much more complicated culture than we had first anticipated.

If you enjoyed our story and think your friends would like it, we would love for you to share it using one of the buttons below.  A full list of chapters from this series can be found at a child in a foreign land.  If you want to stay up to date with all of my writings, travels and personal stories, you can follow me on FacebookTwitter and Instagram at @divergentjoel.

© Divergent Life Media, LLC

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