Road trip: How I deal with SLEx on a bus

After moving back to Metro Manila, and to shield myself from the stress-inducing snarling traffic, I’ve pretty much given up on mass transit. I’ve setup a routine, and by way of extension, a life, where I try to avoid all modes of wheeled transportation- even a car- if I can help it.

My daily commute is a seven-minute walk, door-to-desk. For those times I have to go somewhere farther- home in Las Piñas or an aunt’s house in Manila (the city) on weekends- I rely on Uber. Without a driver’s license, a car, and the skills to drive one, it’s the only way to get around in the metro. Taxis, with all the haggling, crime, and grime involved, are now a far, second option. This of course limits my mobility. Save for a jaunt to Singapore in January and to my mother’s hometown in Sorsogon over Christmas, the farthest trip I managed last year was to Los Baños in Laguna, just 68 kilometers south of Manila.

Just recently, I renewed extra-curricular ties to my university, which means making more frequent visits to Los Baños this year. I’m exploring to volunteer in an elderly care program, and have been recently elected as an officer for the college-affiliated professional organization that I helped establish.

More than a decade after graduating from university, I still make that trip south every now and then, just to take a breather from the city. I arrange ‘official’ excuses to go back. I attend alumni meetings in my college, a fiesta farther south in San Pablo City, or do a day trip to Nagcarlan and Pandin. Facebook check-ins garner likes from university friends and other fellow alumni. For sure they would click the ‘envious’ emoji if there was one.

It’s easy to travel to Los Baños. Hop on a bus going to Sta. Cruz, Laguna along EDSA, Buendia, or Alabang and about two hours or so later, voila, you’re in Los Baños. If I’m lucky, I’m able to hitch a ride with a friend who would go home on weekends. Going back from a meeting, for sure a fellow alumnus is driving somewhere to Manila. Otherwise, I don’t have any qualms (and choice) taking the bus.

As a university student, I would travel home on Saturday afternoons after our military training, and be back on Sunday evening or early Monday morning in time for my first class. It was a weekly ritual, a route I know all too well, now hardwired in my body’s internal GPS.

The bus provides few forms of entertainment enough to kill the half-hour stretch of the South Luzon Expressway (SLEx). Most air-conditioned buses have a TV (and recently WiFi), which is good and bad. Good because there’s something to alleviate the humdrum of the trip. Bad, because I never got to start or finish whatever is playing. Most of the time, a movie is already playing when one gets on the bus. Sometimes I partly get lucky when the bus conductor starts playing the movie as soon as the bus hits the expressway, only for me to get off an hour later as the movie is about to reach climax. This was right before the time of the iPods and Spotify, when on-demand music meant burning your favorite playlist on a CD.

I recently visited a college friend in San Pablo, further south of Los Baños, who has turned into a regular weekend bus commuter when he started working in Manila full-time. He said you meet all sorts of people on a bus. I encountered one of them that morning.

A time-tested way to while away the time is to sleep, if you have the tenacity to do so. I had planned on sleeping on the bus after a rough night. I could get at least a good hour of shuteye from the two-hour bus ride once I have paid my fare, or so I thought. The lady seating on the opposite side was holding a talkfest. She was already deep into her conversation with her companion as I got on the bus along EDSA in Ortigas. She talked non-stop all the way to Calamba, where she and her companion finally got off. She talked so much that I barely remember hearing the voice of the guy she was with. When they got off the bus, a guy moved to their vacated seats. This time, he was singing along in a deep monotone to Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love All’ as he looked out the window. Sleeping on a bus is not easy to achieve, and that morning it wasn’t happening to me. I started singing along.

Upon leaving Metro Manila, Calamba is the first city that greets motorists at the southern tip of the expressway. It’s the last exit of the SLEx, the gateway to Laguna’s more rustic parts and all things calm and green, past the urban sprawl that has engulfed parts of the province closer to Manila. It signals ‘one more hour before arrival’ to my ultimate destination. The Calamba-Los Baños stretch used to be shorter. The volume of vehicles has unfortunately given way to predictable choke points in Calamba Crossing and the junction going into the UP Los Baños campus. A third one exists in summer, in Pansol, where Manileños troop to swimming pool resorts to cool down.

For someone who has visited six out of the seven continents, I can’t say I’ve always been, or already am, a good traveler. I feel anxious at the thought of air travel. As a child, I would feel nauseous after seating for a while in a moving vehicle. My mother made sure she had a barf bag with her in the unfortunate event that I needed one, which was quite frequent. At times, even up till now, a whiff of a musty taxi or pine-scented air-conditioned bus still triggers childhood memories of motion-sickness, projectiles, and plastic bags.

Memories of traversing the SLEx are nothing but a blur, like a necessary purgatory one has to go through to escape Manila and reach the gates of provincial Laguna. Most times I simply tune out and get lost in the time-space abyss. It’s transit in a trance.

I still squirm at the thought of long land travel, just sitting there in limbo, neither comfortable nor productive, neither here nor there. But for a couple of hours away to escape Manila en route to my happy place, I deal with it.

If you’ve taken a specific route countless times, you more or less can estimate where are you are depending on the time and speed of the vehicle, even with your eyes closed. Approaching Calamba exit, the driver releases the gas pedal and slightly applies the break. The bus slows down as it rounds the exit ramp, the centrifugal force pushing me lightly to the left. I then feel a rush, as if I’m on a plane preparing for landing, banking, gradually descending and raising its flaps to aid its deceleration and finish off with a smooth soft landing. It’s a gentle wake up call to tell me I’m approaching a familiar destination, now one that is part-holiday, part-business, but always like home. It’s a nudge I recognize, a unique one just for this particular bend in the road.

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