I have never been the best driver in the world. I think I am a little too timid to carve my way out on the road. To be quite frank, I hate driving and avoid it as much as possible. But it is a handy skill and something that might come in useful if I decide to travel around France.
Only one little problem: my US driver’s license expired over 6 years ago. I wish I had a UK license as they are valid until you are about 99 years old. But I never bothered to try for one as I doubt the authorities would let me loose on the roads of England. And anyway, the mere mention of roundabouts gives me cold sweats.
So, I decided the time had come to attempt to wangle a Filipino license. I didn’t know if I could, but it was worth a try.
This probably holds true for every person in every country in the world, but without exception, I find visiting government offices excruciatingly painful. And as I have a very short temper and little patience with idiocy, I frequently lose both. Not good when you are trying to get them to do something for you.
In the Philippines, I have found the best way to manage these visits is to pay money to someone else to go in my place. But much as I tried, this time it would have to be me; there was no getting around that photo on the license.
Due to a typhoon, I had been stuck in Cebu City for 3 days longer than planned, and there was no longer any excuse to put it off. So with a huge sigh, imagining endless hours stuck in huge green painted waiting rooms, I slung my laptop bag over my shoulder so at least I could get some work done while I waited, and headed down to the LTO.
Like many government buildings, the LTO is located in a run-down industrial area at the end of some bumpy, mud road and there is a whole ecosystem living around it. Large numbers of people mill around outside, most of whom seem part of the furniture, and it can be hard to discern their exact function. There are the obvious ones like vendors selling BBQ and fried bananas, and at the LTO there was one enterprising crone with a pile of cheap plastic license holders. There are always many whose sole purpose is to hail taxis that would stop anyway (and then they expect a 5 peso tip), but aside from that, everyone else looks like a regular hanger-on.
I caused quite a stir as I got out my taxi and everyone rushed over to “help.” Already getting wound up and not even inside the first building, I was pushed over to the “Drugs Test” building. “I’m not on drugs!” I declared indignantly as I stomped in the opposite direction. Then as I entered the LTO gates, I was accosted by an excited old man with a huge toothless smile, waving his hands and rattling off twenty to the dozen, greeting me like an old friend. He was wearing the T-shirt of my main business competitor, which immediately got my hackles up, but when I realized that he actually did know me and just wanted to help, I chilled out. I still had no idea who he was, but I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth, so embraced his help and brought out the “Stupid Foreigner” card.
The Stupid Foreigner is a prime tactic and I often employ it in such situations. It lets you jump queues, it lets you talk to the head-honcho, it gets you special “Rich Person” treatment, normally reserved for rock stars and politicians. And it allows you to actually be a stupid foreigner, which is often required.
I had been advised to ask immediately for the attorney-in-charge. He was in fact already on his way out to meet me – he had seen me through the window and a sight like me is not usual in these parts. After much tut-tutting at my expired license, he asked if I had a husband and then proposed I get one (i.e. him). Much hilarity ensued, and I was advised to head to the other office (luckily the other LTO office, not the registry office).
At the second office, I picked up all my forms and headed off to the “Medical Center,” which was really just a shack with a desk and a tiny lab. The drug test was a trial: peeing into a cup with a 1-inch diameter in a foul toilet with no running water or toilet paper. But the medical test was easier – “What is your blood pressure?” “Umm, I don’t know, 120 over 80, does that sounds right?”
When all was complete and I was certified drug-free, I asked for the new attorney in charge. He was not quite so keen to arrange nuptials with me and it was immediately obvious that my charm was not going to work this time – ladies were clearly not his thing. Still, I tried my best-est beaming smile in combo with the aforementioned “Stupid Foreigner” card to get myself an automatic substitute license using my out of date U.S. version.
But my smile was not enough, and although I now did not have to go through the trial of being a student driver, he put into words what I feared most:
“You will need to come back tomorrow to take your written and practical test.”
Of course, practical. Driving practical.
I was hoping if I asked enough times it would turn out to be some other kind of practical. Like how to affix a baby-seat. Or change a tire. Or check the oil. Checking the oil would be a good one to have learned the first time around; one of my first solo driving outings was in California one Christmas day. After the glove box started smoking, I almost set my ex’s car on fire because I didn’t know I had to check the oil, or even of the existence of a dipstick…..
But of course, for this practical, they wanted me to drive for them.
This was the point I nearly turned and fled.
I have not driven in the 8 years since I left America: the land of the free, where roads are wide and clear and ordered. The Philippines LTO was located in downtown Cebu where the traffic is wild and sticks to no rules any traffic school can teach. Where actual human beings – usually small children – mingle on the street with the cars, selling anything from newspapers to bottled water to peeled pommels (a grapefruit equivalent – I know, go figure). See this article for a hilarious, but oh-so-true, take on driving in the Philippines.
I don’t think I can even remember how to drive. I certainly don’t remember which pedal is the brake. I was hoping my reintroduction to driving would be in an empty parking lot with a kindly parent to remind me what I need to do. Cebu would be trial by fire. Quite possibly literally.
Anyway, I resolved to come back the next day and see it through.
That night, in nervous anticipation, I drank a little too much wine. It was a not-so-subconscious attempt to get out of it. But the next day I figured I had already put a lot into this venture…. So I forced myself, and rocked up for the lecture that precedes the written test. As I walked into the room, 25 young Filipino men turned as one to stare. Not a single woman. Sliding down into the seat nearest to the door, I tried to blend in….
I quickly read through the sample questions. Seemed easy enough. Then the lecture started. This was all in Filipino which I don’t understand well. So I spent my time reading a news article on my phone about the new JK Rowling website, where readers get to write their own Harry Potter stories. Sounds like a recipe for some Hardcore Hogwarts Naughtiness if ever there was one.
The highlight of the lecture was when the teacher asked, “Which of the following drugs is NOT tested for in your drug test: Cocaine, Marijuana, Shaboo (the local version of meth)? Correct answer is Cocaine!!!”
“But that does not mean you are now allowed to use cocaine before driving!” she lectured very sternly and in all seriousness. I got a withering look for my giggle.
The exam had 40 questions. I whizzed thorough it and, ever the girly swot, was the first to finish. Considering I had never driven here, I got a remarkable 90%. Though perhaps that is not difficult to understand when most of the questions were along the lines of:
Q35. You are driving and you need to use your phone. Do you
- Dial the number?
- Answer your phone?
- Pull over, stop, and make your phone call?
The road sign questions would have been quite tricky, but they were all pictured on the whiteboard in front of me….
Actually, thinking about it, I don’t understand how I got 4 wrong! I demand a recount!
Next for the practical. I went back one last time to try and sweet-talk the gay attorney. He still insisted that I had to drive a car and that no additional “fee” would get me out of it. At this point, I had a 500 peso note in one pocket and a 1000 peso note in the other, in the hopes of slipping one or both to the driving instructor, but was dreading having to try.
But then I pulled out the unexpected trump card.
“So will I be driving an automatic? I can’t drive manual.”
“But we don’t have an automatic transmission test car.”
“Ahh. So what do I do?”
“Do you have one?”
“Do you have a friend who has one?”
There ensued some lively discussions amongst the office staff, and then, “Umm, sit over there.” I figured one of them was letting me use his car for the test.
I waited for 2 more hours, getting more and more anxious about my impending test, looking nervously at my watch, as rush hour loomed ever closer.
Then something finally started happening. After being shuffled along the numbered windows, I got to window 5 and paid my $10 fee.
“So what happens next?” I asked.
“Just take a seat and wait for your license.”
I was beaming from ear to ear as I exited the LTO, minutes later, Filipino driver’s license clutched in my sticky hands. No driving and no bribery required!
Amazingly, it ended up that of all my experiences in government offices during 8 years in the Philippines, this was easily my most enjoyable – and at times….. dare I say it….. even fun! A few giggles, a marriage proposal and such a huge feeling of relief at the finale that I wanted to hug everyone in view.
So European roads, here I come! However, from what I remember about Paris, the driving is equally as maniacal as Cebu, so perhaps I won’t be driving over there after all. But I will be happy to know at least that if I want to, I can….