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It was the kind of thud that breaks your heart. The kind that gives you a sinking feeling, both literally and figuratively. The kind that says, in menacing terms; ok, bud, you’re stuck! Now let’s see if you can get yourself free…
My gut told me loudly that we couldn’t.
We had set out earlier that day in our 2011 Toyota Fortuner to see a surveyor in a distant barangay that we hardly knew. To get there we had taken a circuitous route along highways fronting the ocean and busy passages through a cluttered downtown. Now we had turned onto a very narrow street with huge clumps of its pavement missing on one side. To avoid the resulting potholes, you had to navigate to the left between them while the oncoming traffic –quite considerable given the road’s condition – waited for you to pass. Then quickly return to your rightful lane so that the flow of traffic could continue.
“Wow, this is insane,” I remarked to my wife’s young nephew who, thankfully, had offered to drive.
It was then that we heard the thud. Not a loud one, mind you, but soft, almost gentle, as if not wishing to offend. Followed by a sickening jerk as the car suddenly halted, careening wildly to one side. It wasn’t difficult to glean what had happened; in avoiding the huge potholes, we had eased too far to the left forcing our front tire into the unmarked gully traversing that side of the road. Now it was stuck there, buried up to the middle of its hubcap in mud and debris.
Hoping against all hope, I commandeered the driver’s seat, threw the gearshift into reverse and stepped hard on the gas. Only to hear, just as I had feared, the back tire spinning fruitlessly against the pavement as the smell of burning rubber permeated the air. Yup, I uttered to myself in disgust, there’s no other way to put it; we are definitely stuck. “Damn!” It seemed as if there was no way out.
Anyone who’s seen a Fortuner knows that it’s no small car. Back in the USA, of course, my next move would have been to call the auto club. Or, for sure, someone would by now have already summoned the California Highway Patrol as we were blocking traffic. But this was the provincial Philippines, about as far from California – both geographically and culturally – as you can get. And so a young Filipino man, perhaps the driver of a vehicle inconvenienced by our dilemma, stepped up to help.
He was but the first. Over the next several minutes they kept coming, seemingly out of nowhere, materializing as if saintly spirits charged with our protection until there were no fewer than, I swear, fifteen men. Without a word they organized themselves into a team; one man at the wheel, another jacking up the disobedient tire with a stick and stones gathered from the roadside, the rest forming a muscled squad of pushers to force the car from its trap. One heave-ho and the deed was done. Then, just as quickly as they had appeared, our army of saviors dissipated into the undulating afternoon without a trace, leaving before we could say either thank you or goodbye.
So what have I learned from this experience?
First, that there are roads in the Philippines in worse condition – and far more dangerous – than most Western countries would allow. More importantly, though, I have witnessed firsthand a perfect example of Filipino self-reliance. It is necessary. It is pervasive. And, perhaps more than certain other things in this country which I’m sure we all could name, it is utterly decisive.
Bottom line: there are far worse things you could do in life than getting stuck in the Philippines.