Meditations in a traffic jam by Alex Almario

By Alex Almario (The Philippine Star) | Updated August 3, 2013 – 12:00am

Metro Manila traffic is a soul-deadening, time-devouring march that tests our patience and our threshold for discomfort. It brings out the worst in everyone — including this writer.  Photo by BOY SANTOS

MANILA, Philippines – Metro Manila traffic is a metaphor. At least I like to think it is. I like to think that the trudging mass of steel, sweat, and humanity offers a daily sensory dramatization of Philippine life — vehicles cutting each other off, perpetually trying to get ahead, oblivious to traffic laws, or general order. Sometimes I stare absently at the static image of EDSA at rush hour, rectangular spirits united in defeat, and think that we’re all in this rut together — the drivers, the yuppies, the minimum wage workers, the CEOs, the messengers, the celebrities, the contractual service crew members. Democracy at work.

But Metro Manila traffic isn’t really a metaphor for anything. It’s a long, soul-deadening, time-devouring march that tests our patience, our threshold for discomfort, and our bladders without the promise of reward outside of a return to normalcy. We want things to mean something else other than their prosaic, ugly selves so they could be more tolerable, only to find their ugliness resistant to euphemism. It’s so much better to look the meaninglessness in the eye and drink in all the nitty-gritty details until the void is filled by its very components. We can’t beat traffic. But we can engulf it with our consciousness.

* * *

Metro Manila traffic is worsening. That’s saying a lot, considering that it’s always been bad, but we may now be approaching apocalyptic levels. While we somehow continue to find space for further congestion in the spacelessness, the government is scrambling for ways to mitigate this lifelong disaster. So far, the only available solutions to make travel easier are also designed to make it more difficult: periodically banning buses and private vehicles. This is what happens when we grasp at straws trying to resist the gravity of poor urban planning and countryside development. We are reduced into a screaming, whining, finger-pointing mess with no idea what to do anymore.

Traffic always brings out the worst in everyone. It is as if the chaos finds its way into our souls and infects us with its anarchy. When I’m driving, I am in a constant vain quest to get past every car that prevents me from maintaining my desired speed, so that all I can see on my windshield is the vast nothingness of freedom: from stasis and from slower vehicles. Of course, I never do get to see this promised land of pure pavement, unless I’m at the SCTEX, where I often find myself alone in between empty horizons, and where the freedom is both exhilarating and daunting. In the city, there is no such thing, yet an invisible faith keeps pushing us to get ahead: on roads, on MRT trains and turnstiles, in jeepneys, and in buses, we all overtake each other only to find ourselves still behind, always behind.

There are those rare times, however, when being stuck in city traffic feels more comforting than speeding on an expressway. This happens a lot on EDSA, at rush hour, when you can’t get past second gear and you’re already running late. You reach a point, somewhere past Cubao and just before Ortigas, where the snail-like pace starts to gain a certain rhythm. Tap the gas pedal lightly, slide a few feet, tap the break lightly, repeat. It starts to feel therapeutic. Soon, you see all the vehicles stay in their lanes, not too tired to get ahead, but too mellowed by the resignation of agency, by the natural comfort of arrested movement, by the inevitability of it all. Maybe freedom isn’t the point. Or maybe I need to stop thinking about hidden meanings when I’m stuck in traffic.

* * *

In my over two decades of commuting, I have found myself in tricycles, pedicabs, buses, MRT trains, LRT trains, jeepneys, passenger vans, and even on boats crossing the Pasig River. Until now, it never fails to amaze me how much physical intimacy is accidentally forced upon us by public transportation. I’ve had a dozen crushes with whom I’ve never even so much as grazed arms, yet I’ve literally felt the limbs of thousands of anonymous women crammed into mine. I’ve breathed in the body odors of many men, collected sweat that wasn’t my own on my shirt, and felt bulges on my back that have long deadened whatever sensation they used to stir, if any. Our physical closeness to our fellow passengers is inversely proportional to our emotional distance from them. Every day in the cramped spaces of these public vessels we feel the meaninglessness of physical contact.

I used to ride buses on my way home from work. One night, the buses were so scarce that I stood at Muñoz for about an hour, waiting among a crowd of stranded commuters desperately attacking every public vehicle like a school of starving piranhas. Finally, I was able to get a bus — or rather, was able to attach myself to one, squeezing my way into a mass of people already smooshed together on the bus steps, with one foot on the platform and both hands gripping the outer railing with my dear life. All that separated me from the road was a tiny piece of metal that wasn’t even directly underneath my body. I was terrified for about a couple of minutes until I saw another bus, much like ours, bursting at the doorway with passengers. I looked at the face of my precarious counterpart and it was expressionless, almost bored, or perhaps weary from a day’s work. Hanging on to the platform of a bus suddenly seemed so ordinary. At that moment, I started to calm down. My circumstance no longer felt uncomfortable or dangerous in a world where discomfort and danger seem so pedestrian.

Finding meaning and purpose amid the suffering is a human instinct as old as theism. It is an instinct that I find handy on the road, in times when getting to where I want to be starts to feel impossible. I look at the big picture and think of bigger, more abstract thoughts, like how we’re all perpetual travelers, stuck on the road, stuck with each other; and that if the journey truly matters more than the destination, then we’re all already home.

But traffic is just one big pain in the butt. That’s really all it is.

* * *

Tweet the author @colonialmental.

Here’s the link.

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