I will be reading this piece for the Women on Writers appearance on the Literary Stage at the San Mateo County Fair on Sunday, June 16, 2012. It is the fifth sketch in my new work-in-progress, Four Flip Flops and the House that Fried Chicken Built.
Four Flip-Flops and the House that Fried Chicken Built
Story #5: Beep-beep Bahala na (what will be will be)
© Lisa Suguitan Melnick
Our first orientation to Philippine traffic happens on Araneta Street in the old town center of Bacolod, a lovely provincial metropolis also known as “The City of Smiles.” Brown-eyed, dark-haired, smooth-skinned, we four American-born Filipinos – known as Fil-Ams-- blend in and feel so comfortable because we are surrounded by others who look just like us. Or, should I say, we look very much like them? The mundane task of crossing a street is bringing out the clumsy foreigner in me here in my ancestral homeland. I try my best to appear familiar, at least imitating the ease with which people weave in and out between so many honking cars, jeepneys, pedi- cabs, taxis and vans whose drivers randomly “beep-beep” their horns for no apparent reason.
It is Day 3 of our first time arrival in the Philippines and the Question of the Day is: What is the meaning of the beep?
I force my feet forward, command my body to refrain from rearing back and halting like a Frankenstein doll when a car comes within half a meter of my face. The driver’s window is so close that I could actually whisper in his ear! But instead he speaks. “Ah, you are not from around here.” He smiles. Eye-to-eye, here in the middle of the road, we look at each other and laugh.
Many novel kinds of vehicles approach: jeepneys dressed up with Mercedes Benz insignias or adorned with full-length portraits of Mother Mary on one side of the door and Jesus on the other; or a loved one’s name- Marie or Meynard- shimmers on chrome in the sunlight; pedi-cabs, three- deep and swerving about like swarming mosquitoes; delivery trucks spewing black exhaust in answer to grinding gears. All of them beep continuously in staggered staccato patterns whether in intersections or not. Drivers beep while turning left into a two- lane street that morphs into a three-lane, and then bottlenecks into one-lane. Then, “beep-beep” again when they’ve finished turning.
Within three days of my arrival I already discover that the Philippine Islands are a bright, vibrant place. In an e-mail from California, a cousin of mine who was born in the Philippines but has lived in the U.S. for over twenty years writes, “The Philippines is a feast for the senses, isn’t it?”
“Yes, indeed,” I answer out loud as I read at her message in Bacolod’s internet café, joyful that her e-mail echoes what I have just freshly discovered. The Philippines offers a banquet of bright tastes, lush green surroundings, exploding aromas and gentle fragrances. I am aware that there is still so much more to experience.
But for today, I just wanna know: what is the meaning of the beep?
Well I can tell you what it is Not. It is not a warning that the driver of the vehicle has any intention whatsoever of hitting you. In the Philippines, vehicles and people move along, well, not relaxed but more in cooperation with each other. Still I was surprised that I never witnessed anyone getting hit but maybe it’s good that I didn’t watch the news.
Crossing the street is like a dance. Our guide, Oscar, says that the pedestrians and vehicles move in harmony. If there is a space, one of them moves to fill that space. If there’s no space, they wait. Yes, the cars, like the people, are stereotypically equipped with rhythm and good timing.
Thus, at this point, my take on the meaning of the beep? “I’m not beeping at you. I’m beeping just because …I’m alive.”
One month later, now in Metro Manila, I feel ten times more closed in by the crazy cacophony of horns and farting exhaust from the jeepneys and cars and scooters and pedi-cabs. A feast for the senses? Yes, but I’m beyond being able to digest any more noise. If I had known the incredible level of intensity of the Manila streets, I might not have attempted this adventure alone, from Makati to Cubao one day. If I knew what I was doing, the 7.3 kilometer trip might take about an hour, but I’ve already been gone for three hours! Sweating and facing nightfall, I decide I’d better text my companions to tell them I’m running a little late. Alas, my cell phone reads, “Low-batt.”
While I stand on the corner thinking about what to do next, the noise envelops me. The thoroughfare is four-lanes wide moving in three different directions with no painted lines, with signaled intersections but no crosswalk. I step out into the street and pull back. I do this a few times. Oh my God I’m roadkill. I must calm myself, get my rhythm. First, I have to filter out the noise! Sigh. What/ is the meaning of the beep? I breathe. Whatis /the meaning of the beep? Breathe. What/ Is/The meaning/ Of the beep/? One foot. In front of. The other. One foot. In front of. The other. After six false starts, I still can’t see a way to get all the way across to the MRT station without getting sandwiched in by metal.
I decide to walk back half a block to ask the armed guard in front of a Mini-Stop market, “Guard, where can I cross?”
“Ah, you are not from around here,” he yells above the traffic.
“You can cross over there.” He motions me back toward the stop light where I’d already been standing for ten minutes, gripped by the incessant flow of heat, exhaust, vehicles, and shouting jeepney drivers.
I am so close to asking him to use the rifle that’s slung around his shoulder to stop traffic for me just for a minute so that I can cross the street! If he walks in front of the cars and waves his rifle around, you know, as if he’s just lightly directing them, like with a smile and a shrug, will the drivers at least pause and not overreact to the weapon? Hmmm.
Instead, I say, “Okay, Salamat po (thank you),” and I walk away, using the rhythm of the words to keep me visibly NOT like someone who “is NOT from around here.” Ay nako. What/ is the meaning of the beep?
I can’t help but look back at the guard, hoping he’ll confirm that I will get across this time. He is looking. And he smiles. He motions again, coaxing me toward the crosswalk, as if to say, “Go ahead. You can cross there. You are not going to die today.”