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Crash course in carpooling

/ 12:16 AM January 19, 2017

As I write, I am into my second week in a carpooling arrangement with a bunch of other hardworking people who, out of necessity, have become my daily companions. Sharing a seat when going to work during the rush hour is a lesson in tolerance, respect for personal privacy, and pretending to be deaf, dumb and blind. Believe it or not, the two people I am squeezed between during the early-morning trips have remained complete strangers to me. I don’t know their names, where they live, or where exactly they are going. And because I cannot even bring myself to glance sideways at them, I’m sure I won’t be able to pick them out in a police lineup.

Not that I am a snob or I have completely lost all taste for civilized interaction. In fact, I am quite anxious to break the ice and get into a conversation for whatever purpose, and I am sure they, or at least some of them, feel the same way, too. I simply have no idea how to do it. For some reason, it seems best to just shut up and pretend that the persons next to me do not exist.

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It amazes me how warm and friendly they were the first time I was spontaneously invited to join them in the daily commute. I passed the van that was parked under a tree, the driver stepped down to ask where I was going, and the window rolled down to reveal the smiling faces of the other passengers urging me to come aboard. I was delighted at the chance to ride in comfort instead of waiting for public transport to take me to work. But as soon as I stepped inside and closed the door behind me, to settle into that little cramped space where 10 people—11 including the driver—were enduring a discomforting closeness, I fell into a state of suspended animation.

There is some kind of unwritten rule that the passengers keep their distance, no matter how physically impossible. This is a situation where people take it to the extreme. We’ve become robotic in our subservience to the rules of courtesy. If you need to speak, you must do so in a whisper, and without looking in the eye the person you are talking to. Never, ever sneeze, but if you can’t help it, press the palm of your hand hard against your mouth, and let off as little air as possible. Stop breathing if you may, bite your lip, pinch your nose hard, or whatever else solution that you think will work, just so you can sneeze soundlessly. Now if your problem is flatulence, then you might as well wish you were dead.

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Paying the fare is another tricky part. There is a small plastic tray between the driver’s seat and the front passenger’s seat, just behind the stick shift. For some reason, the driver refuses to touch the money or acknowledge your offer to hand it over, perhaps so as not to break this sacred silence. So you prepare the exact fare and, at the right moment, you reach toward the tray to drop the money in, without saying a word or asking for help. And in the process, you make a deliberate effort to show everyone each bill and coin that you drop into the tray, lest you be suspected of cheating the driver if the day’s collection falls short.

Sometimes I wonder if this is worth the trouble, if carpooling comforts like having an air-conditioner to beat the heat and not having to transfer vehicles are worth the trouble of behaving in such a saintly manner. One of these days, I just might start chasing jeepneys again.

Adel Abillar is a private law practitioner with a small office in Quezon City where, he says, “I alternate between being boss and messenger.” He obtained his law and prelaw degrees from Manuel L. Quezon University and the University of Santo Tomas, respectively.

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TAGS: carpooling, Commentary, opinion, traffic, Transportation
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