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Trauma on Wheels

Trauma on Wheels is the final piece I submitted for my Creative Non-fiction class under Butch Guerrero. I generally chose the most memorable experiences I had while commuting. Interestingly, my classmates were more disturbed with the “molestation” scene which I merely glazed over in my first draft. I added more details in this version.

Trauma on Wheels
I remember the first time I did it alone. I was ten years old and my best friend from school invited me to watch a movie with her at SM North.  Back then, I used to live in Caloocan, and the mall was just a 30-minute bus ride away.  I didn’t want my parents to take me; I wanted to take the bus alone and I was prepared to argue. After much prodding and begging, I was finally allowed to ride the bus on two conditions: that my dad will bring me to the bus stop and that I should be home by 5pm.  That was fine by me.  My heart thumped so hard the entire ride. I was so excited that I didn’t mind the diesel fumes and the gritty leather seats. It was one of the proudest achievements I had as a kid—to ride a bus on my own at ten years old.

I got home that day in one piece and now, almost two decades later, I still commute.  Traveling alone doesn’t seem like the adventure it used to be as a kid but it’s definitely not boring. I’ve ridden busses, trains, tricycles, pedicabs, fx taxis, cabs, boats, ferries, planes, scooters and motorcycles.  I’ve been stepped on, squeezed in, shouted at, sneezed on, and even slept on by strangers.

My friends think I exaggerate whenever I share my “commuting” stories. If only I got them on videotape.  Some stories are too freaky to believe or too sordid to be true but they’re real; they happened. And worst of all, they happened to me.

Jeepneys were my primary mode of transportation back in college.  My parents were trying to teach me to be more independent, so after being taken to and from school by an L300 service for the majority of my academic life, I suddenly found myself relying solely on public transportation.  It was the first time my hair got styled by the acrid smoke of Quezon City—my long locks, which were usually wet from the shower, got all dry and frizzy by the time I arrived in school.

My distrust in other human beings began when I was molested in a Katipunan jeep as a teenager.

It was drizzling. I was riding the Katipunan jeep from school on my way home.  My head was nodding off a bit because of fatigue and I was trying hard to keep awake. I just spent an entire afternoon in the library, and my lap was full of heavy books that I could barely move from the weight. At first, I thought the pinching sensation I felt on my thighs were from the books. I moved one of my legs to ease the strain and to my surprise, the pressure stopped. I looked at the man beside me and realized that the books didn’t cause the “pinching” I felt. It was his hand on my crotch that was doing it.

The man was about forty years old. He was dark skinned and smelled like cigarette smoke and dried sweat.

He had this odd expression on his face as our eyes met—as if he was warning me not to say a word.
I remember going down from the jeep in a rush to escape; I remember feeling dirty and violated.  I used to snort at how rape victims were portrayed in TV until I felt the same degradation.  I felt that what happened was my fault.

Looking back, I wished I slapped the pervert’s face and screamed at him. Now that I’m a lot wiser, I am left with a feeling of frustration for not doing anything. There were a lot of things I should have done, and running away feeling ashamed was not one of them.  That dirty old man deserved a hard kick on the nuts at the very least.  [On another note, I wonder why there are no cute perverts. If I was actually molested by someone who looked that good I would be writing this on an entirely different tone.]

Since sex maniacs don’t usually come in handsome packages, I made precautions. I became more wary of who I was sitting beside in a jeepney (or anywhere else for that matter) after that. I avoid eye contact, thinking that meeting someone else’s eyes might come off as an invitation for something more. I perfected my “stern” face—the haughty, “sige, subukan mo lang” look that usually work for would-be perverts. I’m also armed with a can of mace, prepared to spray any stranger whose hands would stray anywhere near my crotch.

If getting molested in college made me buy a can of mace, getting robbed in an FX taxi taught me to keep my money in several different places whenever I commute.

I was on my way to the first real job I had after graduation.  I was a lowly production assistant back then, working for this small production house owned by a big shot media mogul known for his philanthropy.  My red Jansport backpack contained the countless receipts waiting for liquidation and the remaining petty cash from work that amounted to around thirty thousand pesos. I was sitting in front beside this guy who was wearing a blue polo barong.  He was carrying this small black clutch bag and was constantly texting someone on his mobile phone. He looked like someone who worked in a bank or a government office.

It was about nine in the morning and we were in one of those side streets in Cubao, when the guy beside me took out this sharp, shiny ice pick and pointed it at me.

There were three of them—the guy beside me, one sitting in the middle and another one in the back—all armed with ice picks.  The man in the polo-barong grabbed my backpack but I held on tight.  All I was thinking about was he can’t take the receipts! I’d lose my job! He was shouting at me, waving his ice pick in front of my face while still trying to grab my backpack.

The FX driver told me to just give the robbers what they wanted. I refused and told the man in the polo-barong to take everything but leave my bag. I don’t know if it was pity or desperation to flee but the man opened my bag and quickly rifled through it while keeping his ice pick pointed at me. He took my mobile phone and my wallet, which had the thirty thousand pesos.

It was over in minutes.  The men jumped off the FX and warned us not to follow them. Then they ran. It was only then that the seriousness of my situation struck me. Did I just risk my life over a bunch of receipts? I started shaking; bewildered at my own lack of gumption. My fellow passengers went to the police station to file a report while I stayed in Cubao and found a sari-sari storeowner sympathetic to my plight. I called my dad, literally shaking and crying my eyes out.

I couldn’t have asked for a better boss.  Instead of making me pay the money that got stolen, he just asked me to make a report about the money lost.  “It’s just money,” I remembered him saying, “It could have been worse.”

It could have been worse. It became my motto.  I was robbed but I could have been stabbed. It could have been worse. I got molested but I could have been raped. It could have been worse.  My boyfriend was almost kidnapped by a cab driver but he could have been killed.  It could have been a lot worse.

The “almost-kidnapping” happened only a couple of weeks ago when my boyfriend and I encountered this particularly obnoxious cab driver on our way home to Antipolo from Quezon City. When we told the driver our destination, he just nodded so we assumed that everything was ok. In the middle of the trip, he suddenly asked us to give him an additional thirty pesos to the metered fare since Antipolo was “probinsya na”. I took offense at this since first of all, Antipolo is a city and secondly, it was a mere 30-minute ride from Quezon City. To make the long story short, we said we wouldn’t pay him the extra money. Call us cheap but we were willing to fight over thirty pesos on the grounds of principle.

The situation turned for the worse when the driver started shouting and cursing at us.  We told him to let us down but he wouldn’t stop the car.  When we finally reached the gates of our subdivision, I stepped down to talk to the guard and then, to my shock, the cab suddenly sped away WITH MY BOYFRIEND STILL IN IT!  At this point, let me just point that my boyfriend is quite thin (think Vic Sotto in the 80’s) and the cab driver was this huge, bald guy who looked like one of the kontrabidas in local action flicks.

I panicked. For a moment I thought of running after the cab but that would have been stupid. So I ran to the guardhouse and told them to call the police because “I think my boyfriend was just kidnapped.”  A few moments later, I see my boyfriend walking almost nonchalantly towards our subdivision, unscathed.

Apparently, the cab driver realized what he was doing when my boyfriend casually remarked, “Alam nyo bang kidnapping ‘tong ginagawa nyo?” The cab suddenly stopped and with a curse, the driver told him to get out.  He could have been beaten to a pulp or dropped off in a godforsaken place but he wasn’t.  His good sense saved him—which was more than I could say for my panicked, hyperventilating state.

Stories such as these should have discouraged me from commuting.  God knows I can afford to buy my own car.  Problem is, I have a lot of reasons NOT to buy a car: I’m too stingy (maintenance is pricey and gasoline prices are sky-high) and I’m too lazy (I hate parking).

Instead of discouraging me, my experiences made me realize how unprepared I was for the “real” world. I got by more out of sheer luck rather than common sense.  Because of what happened to me, I am now braver and smarter; I have re-organized my priorities and learned to value the things (and the persons) that are important to me.

I guess I still have that sense of adventure.  Sudden, unexpected events such as these jolt me out of my comfort zone.  In an ironic sense, those semi-traumatic experiences made me feel more alive—it made me more aware of my surroundings and of how lucky I am.  Yes, it did bring out my distrust of other people but it also made me treasure the normalcy of my life.  I am blessed to be walking on two feet, hailing a cab with a complete set of fingers and cursing at drivers with my lips.  My boss was right; things could have been a lot worse.

Buying a car might make a routine out of my life and I don’t think I want that.  I still have a lot of lessons to learn and I think I can learn them on the road. Besides, nothing beats getting to work loaded with fresh “commute” anecdotes—Guess what happened to me on my way here…

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  1. clare
    July 4, 2008 at 7:36 am

    wow! and i thought my traumatic experiences were bad…

    having your own car doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re safe din, i’ve heard a lot of traumatic experiences from other people din on the road while driving their cars…

    hay! what has the world become these days ano?

  1. July 4, 2008 at 10:40 am

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