Canned Heat

The driver’s gender wasn’t readily discernible to me for the first few kilometers. Let’s call this person Jan–the one who drove the van for the three of us strangers headed to the airport in Salt Lake City.

By this time tomorrow, I’d be on a plane to Manila–my first trip to Asia. I learned his hair was a wig and he was a he. The red fluff lay like a sunbathing muskrat on a bare boulder. A bright, blue dot earring the size of a Canadian dime studded each of his pink lobes. He hoisted a plastic bottle labeled something blueberry to his ruddy lips yet it wasn’t getting emptier, but rather slowly filling with spent tobacco-tainted spittle. Dark streaks of brown, permeated the creases on either side of  his mouth. In each meaty hand he held a stick of red licorice. He claimed it gave him better grip on the wheel. Navigating through the dark mountain pass as we pulled further away from Jackson Hole, I realized my adventure starts here. Not necessarily when I get off the plane in Manila in a couple of days, but now, as this colorful driver and my hangover, try to get along with each other.

Dan and I had just tied one on the night before. My send-off to the Philippines began with a belly full of sushi and ended with us two-stepping at the Silver Dollar with some amusing tourists looking for locals who could show them how it’s done. After a few double whiskies anyone can dance, I confessed.

Now, I was trying to keep IT all in, as Jan hit the brakes, skidding us to within a few meters of a wide-eyed deer which appeared to have no idea how dead it almost was. I think we all felt that way. Liz, the woman in the seat ahead of me, began gathering her spilled belongings from under Jean’s seat, the woman in front of her.

Had I been driving during that close call, my hands would never again leave the 2 and 10 position on the steering wheel, save to make sure all the mirrors where just so while breathing a bit of a thank you prayer to the heavens–but not Jan. He simply flipped his wig around so the pigtail was again in back, and began searching through his iPhone playlist, navigating now with just his knees.

He continued to chew gobs of red, rubbery candy while talking simultaneously, exposing the mash-up of goo in his jowls. After the licorice he’d go for a Sweet Tart, or a Goober-something.  Then, from somewhere deep in the back of his head, he’d snort a great glob of flaming red mucus and add it to the mix in his (thank God) opaque smoothie bottle.

“Okay Jean, this one’s for you,” he said, offering trivia related to each song he selected for us to hear (at full volume). Jean–an older woman with a saint’s tolerance for nonsense–gave her best guess as to Jan’s query, only to appear scolded for it.

“No, NOT The Doors … It’s Canned Heat! Come on Jean, what year were you born?

This dude is sprawling all over the map of social dysfunction. His music so loud we all just look at each other as hostages might, speaking only with our eyes till we get our chance to attempt a takeover …

If it comes down to it,  I’ll grab the wheel; Jean, you can pull the plug on his iPod; and Liz, maybe you can secure his hands with what’s left of his licorice twists … 

After more than two-days of travel and nearly 10,000 km from that crazy shuttle drive, I make it to the land of the motorized tricycle, the Jeepney and the malaise of foot-traffic in Manila …

… where traffic lanes mean nothing; where speed has no limits. I know now that chickens cross the road and keep on running and everyone knows why–because if anything stops, it dies. Traffic shall have its way before pedestrians. I’ve witnessed as many as nine Philippine passengers aboard a motor-trike; clinging to its sides; filling the side-car like Freshman during Rush Week. It’s an endless stream of transport here. A kaleidoscope of fallen leaves whisked away down a flooded gutter.

Somehow, my Filipino driver avoids disaster at every turn. The dog dodges our wheels. The man with the ladder makes it to the curb just in time. The bus coming at us is in our lane now, but we have a sidewalk to go to and like symbiotic kelp in a tossed sea, we all sway together and miraculously keep our elbows intact. I’ve now been in every mode of transport the Philippines has to offer. I’ve clung to the outside of the tricycles and folded myself in-half to fit in their side cars; I’ve bumped my head on every interior roof in each Jeepney I’ve been in; and finally I’ve discovered the air-conditioned vans which cost a bit more (pennies compared to what I had to pay Jan) and I’m at peace with it all finally.

I’m alive still. My new driver is taking a dozen of us back from Boracay, the most beautiful island I’ve ever experienced, and it’s another 4-hour drive, much like the one I first took to Salt Lake City. I’m headed to the little village of Sigma where there are no street lights, no road reflectors and only the setting sun to navigate by, and as I think this, the driver pops in a cassette tape of the Bee Gee’s greatest hits … Nobody get’s too much heaven no more … and I smile, thinking the same thing.

The driver maintains between 100 and 120 kilometers an hour and passes every dog, chicken and motor coach we come across. Many stretches of the highway are single lane; as road workers toil on the molten pavement without any flaggers to direct or caution oncoming traffic. The cassette clicks to the next song and I smile thinking I have my own personal soundtrack to this crazy adventure I’m on … Whether you’re a mother or whether you’re a brother we’re staying alive, staying alive … 

Another blind curve ahead. I see in the rear-view the driver’s mind tick. He thinks he can make it. He does; passing the family of three stacked on the tiny motorcycle. I should have shat myself a dozen times. I don’t know how it is that I’m alive today. Why a single dog with more than 3-legs exists anywhere in the Philippines makes me marvel. How can life go on another day with this madness all around?

But I feel okay. I’m in a crazy, beautiful country being driven by what are surely the best drivers in the world, taking me everywhere I need to be, without incident.   And I pray and thank God for the first time in years and know that I’ll be just fine. Jan is an ocean away, life is good, and so I start to sing along with the tape … Feel the city breaking and everybody shaking and we’re staying alive, staying alive … ah, ah, ah, ah, staying alive, staying alive …