David Haldane .
HIS name was Jerome. For about three months, he was our driver. Now he’s not and I am once again reduced to risking my life daily on the streets of Surigao City.
Let me make one thing clear straightaway; I’m not the kind of person normally accustomed to having his own personal driver. At least, I wasn’t back in the USA where only the very rich can afford such a luxury. But then I moved to the Philippines and the social landscape changed. For a while I resisted the idea. Until the day our car landed in a roadside ditch from which it escaped only by the good grace of strangers.
Jerome seemed to come out of nowhere; one day he was driving a truck for the construction crew across the street, and the next he was working for us. For 6,000 pesos a month plus room and board, he promised, not only would he be available for me and my wife but would arise every morning at 6:30 a.m. to drive our son to school. Then he sweetened the deal even further; for another 4,000 pesos, his wife would cook our meals and clean our house. And, oh yes, wash our clothes as well.
Suddenly life was sweet; no more stumbling groggily out of bed to dodge motorcycles along the city’s streets. No more fender benders with errant-yet-fist-shaking tricycle drivers cursing in an unfamiliar tongue. And no more quick trips to the local body shop to cover up mysteriously-inflicted scratches and scars.
To fully appreciate the gravity of all this, you need to know something about Surigao streets. They are deadly. Though I am quite certain that there are laws designed to maintain some semblance of order on them, I have never seen a hint of enforcement. What I have seen – usually from way too close – includes motorcycle drivers without helmets or lights transporting seven passengers in the middle of the night, tricycles and pedestrians that jump out at you from unmarked side streets and children playing in the middle of narrow curvy roads. In a word, it’s chaos; a game of chicken that the most daring driver wins. Or loses big time, if some other driver happens to have bigger cajones that day than his. So, you can imagine my relief at finally having someone other than yours truly available to take all that heat.
For a time, all went well; in fact, it went swimmingly. Life, as one famous old nursery rhyme puts it, was nothing but a dream. And then we started hearing things. Jerome needed an advanced to pay his bills. His wife, Justine, was under fire from barangay neighbors for working full time while leaving two young children at home with mom and dad. In the end, that’s what did us in; wilting under the weight of social pressure, Justine quit. And about a week later, Jerome simply stopped coming to work without ever explaining just why.
It’s not all bad, of course. I no longer have to suffer the daily awkwardness of being chauffeured by a man who calls me sir. And the basement space once occupied by our resident helpers – dubbed, appropriately enough, the “driver’s room” by the apparently-prescient architect who drew up our plans – has been conveniently refurbished.
On the other hand, there are those streets; that infernal network of tangled highways and snarling roads patiently awaiting their chance to snare me in their nightmarish web-like folds. Frankly, I never want to see them again from behind a steering wheel. And, indeed, just when I thought that I might have to do just that, help arrived on a shining white horse in the guise of – my wife?
Yes, it’s true, friends, she is now the family driver. But before offering any wisecracks regarding the sorry state of my manhood, listen up; many things are different here in my new country of residence, including relationships between the sexes. Grist, I suspect, for a future column.
(David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure.)