letter from the colonies vol 14 - THe Growler
The following is a motoring tale about the bureaucracy, stupidity and corruption which characterises government in the Philippines. If you keep in mind that the function of government departments here is to find every possible way of not giving you what you want (after all this is the engine which fuels corruption from the traffic cop right up to the President's office) you'll get the idea. If you feel that all this is too remote from your daily motoring life just ignore us (we'll never know anyway!)

My godson is 16 and has graduated high school. When he did so I promised to help him get a driver's licence, a promise too soon forgotten by me but not by William. "But tiyo (uncle) "he whines,"why do I have to take the test? Why can't your police friend sell us my licence, like he did yours?"

Because, dear boy, Major ********* is now a big cheese in the Presidential security organisation and if he was found out, his ass would surely be grass just as surely as Mt Mayon will erupt this week. No, we shall do this the proper way".

So here we are at the Land Transportation Office LTO at 0700 on a rainy season morning. Already about 100 people are there clutching the obligatory brown envelope stuffed with papers by all who visit government, and which is guaranteed to get thicker as the day goes on. Inside are William's application form for a student permit, a letter from his headmaster, his birth certificate, a letter from the local barangay captain, a letter from Fr Kowalski our local Polish priests (why are Poles all named Kowalski?), a clearance from the National Bureau of Investigation and a letter from me. Reason being, take eveything you can think of on a government visit: they will be sure to want the one thing you don't have. As a foreigner I have to submit notarised copies of my residence visa, details of my education level and a police clearance. Oh and my mother's maiden name (huh?) Plus 8 (photos: 2in X 2in, polo shirt, no neck jewellery, eyes front, short haircut, no smiling, grinning or frowning. William I mean, not me.

All this since William is not yet 17. Now, each LTO consists of a series of cabins round three sides of a square often on an earth floor. Each cabin has a heavily barred window and outside is a number of plastic chairs to accommodate the inevitable waiting which is so much part of life here. Fixers pass up and down the crowds promising shortcuts for money and there are chaps who will stand in line for you if you don't want to do it yourself. Beware however since you may not see your money or papers again. The latter will be doctored and sold to any buyer unable to get a licence by any other means.

In the gloom behind the window sits what appears to be an embalmed corpse, a spavined figure with more wrinkles than a bucket of prunes. However, it shambles forward, and a gnarled hand reaches through the grill and snatches our papers. A good 5 minutes is spent perusing these. When I am asked with disgust am I the foreigner in the letter I confess I am. Where was I born? How long have I been in the Philippines? The Embalmee pauses to wipe a droplet from its nose before shoving the papers back.

"Wrong form," it announces with obvious satisfaction. "What do mean wrong form, I got it from the LTO website". "What is a website? I don't know what is website. Go to Window 11, get right form. Blue print, not black".

Crestfallen to be stalled so early in the process we line up behind some 30 hopefuls at Window 11. Finally we are given the form, exactly the same as ours except it's printed in blue. We are about to find out why. Another corpse-like hand appears through the bars. "10 Pesos". "But it says here "This Form is Not for Sale". "10 Pesos" "But........." "Do you want the form or not? Next please..." I hand over the 10 Pesos.

We retire to the fly-blown canteen to fill out the new form. This place is a haven for fixers who swarm around like vultures. Determined to resist their blandishments I stand guard over William, while tongue between teeth he laboriously accomplishes the new form. Note in the Philippines you do not fill out anything, you "accomplish" it. The verb is not used idly, believe me it is indeed some accomplishment to manage this to the satisfaction of the examiner.

Mercifully the New Applications window has no one there. We march confidently up to the grill, where a dessicated harpie shrilly announces "merienda!" Now merienda is one the many breaks all Filipinos take during the work day for a snack and annoyingly interferes with everything. We decide to wait rather than lose our place, and eventually the old crone gives a belch and spits a few stray rice grains before turning to our wad of papers. This time we are pronounced grudgingly OK, the application form is stamped viciously and we are told to proceed to window 23. There we will be given the clearance slip to visit the Clinic for medical testing after paying 300 Pesos. There is a large number of would-be examinees seated. Now and then vendors pass up and down the lines selling mineral water to those who may have difficulty in producing the needful for the pee test. More surreptitious characters offer to buy your pee sample. These are mostly truck and bus drivers who rely on shabu (crystal meth) to stay awake during the often 18 hours of driving their employer demands and who would otherwise fail the drugs test.

Every time an examinee emerges the whole mob rises and surges forward, each member hoping to get in next. We watch this for a while then I suggest William, who is a hefty young brute with his European bloodline, all of 5 eleven and 200lb vs the average Filipino's 5 six and 130lbs, and a useful prop-forward in the Manila 10's, might care to forego his manners and beat a path for us both so to speak to the door of the "CLNIC" (sic).

In an instant we are through the door followed by heaped insults and are greeted by a vicious looking person in a white starched uniform she appears to have been sewn into, who would make a perfect double for Nurse Ratched. "Pee!" she commands Willliam, handing him his plastic container while watching his every move. The poor lad is puce with embarrassment and almost in tears while he struggles to produce under the glare of the nurse. Eventually Percy cooperates, Elsa Klensch sticks the test strip in the result and his medical card is stamped.

Next comes the BP test. Easy -- 160/70, administered by a person of uncertain gender who is clearly enamored with Willliam's youthful masculinity and takes rather longer then he need have to wrap the gubbins round our lad's arm. I can almost see the hackles of affronted masculinity rising on the back of Wiliam's neck. Another stamp and it's the eye test. On the outside are enterprising gents selling copies of the eye chart which the less well-sighted can buy and memorise. However this is a con, since the LTO is well aware of this and changes the charts every few days. Apart from getting his "O''s" and his "D's" muddled, William sails through that one.

We are directed to the photo booth. This one has glass in front of it with an oval hole. A disembodied voice booms from the Stygian gloom of the booth: "Head in the hole, face front, no smiling, blinking etc etc." William does as directed and a tremendous flash occurs. "Again!" commands The Voice, so again it is. Then Will has to write his signature on a sort of electronic tablet which will be transferred to his licence and we are done. All we now have to do is collect his learner's permit.

First the written test. Actually it's a forced choice test, with questions in Tagalog and English. My Tagalog isn't up to a translation here but I am told it asks gems like: "when driving at night should you (a) use main headlight only, (b) use all lights, or (c) use no lights wherever possible to save the vehicle battery?" William completes his test in about 5 minutes and hands it in.

We have now been at the LTO 5 hours and if nothing else is ever on time in this country, you can set your watch by lunchtime, 12 noon. Not even the clock at the Greenwich Observatory is more accurate. So Will and I select a couple of plastic chairs to wait for the next 75 minutes (the completion of lunch break is seldom quite as prompt as its beginning). In the front of each grill, the Undead place signs reading "LUNCH BRAKE ".

William scores 100 Pesos off me and disappears. Meanwhile I open the small cool-bag Growlette prepared for me. Strips of exquisitely thinly cut pastrami with lots of peppercorns and rye bread buttered with Dijon mustard from from Mrs Gliksten's deli, some rocket with marble tomatoes and what seems to be a yogurt dressing some sort, a crunchy Fuji apple from Japan for dessert, and -- bless her -- a still cold can of Rolling Rock. (This a motoring board, not an Anthony Bourdain re-run on the Travel and Living Channel --- Ed.)

Meanwhile my godson returns with what looks like roadkill smothered in blood but is in fact a Jollibee Super Spaghetti Meatball Sensation with Extra Tomato Sauce, I am informed.

(OK, OK, back to the tale...)

Now we munch on our lunches companionably. wait, and wait........and wait. William's test has to be marked, his papers stamped and his learner's permit issued. At last his name is called and the treasured piece of plastic is in his hand.

Time to go home. At the gate a vendor sells little plastic wallets for your licence. A red one for truck, bus and taxi drivers marked "Professional Driver" and a green one for the hoi-polloi marked "Unprofessional Driver". I buy William a green one; he is not amused.

The next stage of all this is the practical test. This is administered only when a licensed instructor says the pupil is ready and has had sufficient lessons to reach the necessary level of skill. Unsurprisingly driving instructors frequently own property in California. We have chosen the Loyola Academy of Driver Education, and booked 6 lessons for starters.

Actually you don't need much to be a driver in the Philippines. Most important skills are turning left at high speed across 5 lanes of traffic to make a left turn, reversing down the motorway when you miss the exit, learning how to turn 6 lanes of traffic into 8 by leaning out and retracting the door mirror of the car next to you, never EVER letting another driver get in front and should one do so, to exert every possible effort to shove your way back in. Similarly signals must never ever be used since they give the game away as to your intentions, thus allowing other drivers to gain the psychological upper hand. Brand new cars are always more carefully driven than older ones, so you can take liberties in dicing with them.You get the idea. You are also taught that in hot weather you should always remove the radiator filler cap to stop the engine boiling over and that inflating the tyres as hard as possible improves safety.

Actual driving lessons, we learn, are (a) spent driving aimlessly around town while the instructor makes nice-nice to his girlfriend on his cellphone, and (b) hours spent reversing between cardboard boxes, rocks, anything else to hand while the instructor yes, yes, makes nice-nice to his girlfriend on his cellphone.

After stern intervention by me, Alberto of the Academy is persuading to give the necessary approval and William and I go back to the LTO for his practical test. Yet again his papers are scrutinised with an intense scrute (with apologies to Spike Milligan), and finally William is rostered for testing on a blackboard.

Filipinos adopt the weirdest names, often making them up. Thus we see Ding-Dong, Tony Boy, Reagan Castro, Hermogenes, Cherry Pie and, bizarrely, Hitler, are in front of us.

Eventually Will's name is called. The "test" consists of maneouvring an ancient jeep with no lights beween a series of orange cones, followed by an emergency stop and takes about 5 minutes.

The lad cannot resist a whoop of joy as he waves his pass certficate in the air. In a couple of days he will return and get his full licence. He has saved for months from his pocket money and his weekend burger flipping job at The Home Of The Whopper to buy a mid 1990's Civic Hatchback, redone in a sort of metallic white, with green headlights, purple tail-lights, pretty chrome wheels, snazzy interior and of course a sound system capable of belting out knuckle dragger tribal noise at a great many decibels. Lots of cred there. Now he can't wait to drive it.

And drive it he does. That night I am waiting to dice with death and cross the busy boulevard to my local when there is a screech of rubber, and a "Yo, tiyo!" There sits William in his tricked-out Honda, engine rumbling, while beside him and behind him recline two utterly beautiful young Filipinas, 15 or maybe 16. "This is Cherry and this is Jessica". "Hi Lolo (Grandpa, kumusta ka na?)" Hmph.

"You drive carefully young feller" I admonish William, and remember you have to be 21 to drink alcohol. "Where you off to anyway? Clubbing?"

This is a senile faux pas indeed. "Come on Uncle, clubbing is for low lifes who live in Starbucks. We're off to Tony Romas for some Surf 'n Turf, then to catch some cool jazz at Cafe Havana". Well at least that part of my efforts at education wasn't lost on William. How to treat a lady (ies).

"OK, drive carefull and ingat ka. Nice meeing you lovely ladies". (simpering and giggles follow).

At which William lets in the clutch, floors it and careers without signal straight into the oncoming traffic. No one even bothers to hoot, this is the Philippines after all.

They say Filipino drivers are born, not made, and I'm inclined to agree.


letter from the colonies vol 14 - mss1tw
:^D Great read
letter from the colonies vol 14 - harry m
great read growler good to have you back.
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Nsar
The Norman Lewis of the Back Room.

letter from the colonies vol 14 - No FM2R
rather that Norman Lewis is THe Growler of Travel Writing.
letter from the colonies vol 14 - DP
A brilliant read.
letter from the colonies vol 14 - commerdriver
Nice one Growler, welcome back
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Altea Ego
This Hitler Bloke? I think he passed his test, I met him on the road the other day.
TourVanMan TM < Ex RF >
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Nsar
Let's hope not - Norman is pushing up daisies.
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Altea Ego
I think he drives a Landcruiser slowly up the middle lane of the M40 late at night?

TourVanMan TM < Ex RF >
letter from the colonies vol 14 - No FM2R
>>I think he drives a Landcruiser slowly up the middle lane of the M40 late at night?

Down, dear heart, down. As the end of a hard day captaining industry draws to a close, I leave the industrial and frozen north to return to the glorious english garden that is Oxfordshire.
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Lud
But what is 'surf'n'turf', Growler? Not beer and grass I hope with a brand new licence...
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Stuartli
Just to digress a little. My other half has to have dialysis three times a week and one of the nurses is an absolutely delightful young Phillipines lady, who has since brought her children to the UK (last January).

Apparently their English is already excellent - certainly she has mastered the language very quickly (and it's not easy).

How much she knew before she came I'm not sure.

But I can understand why The Griowler lives in the Phillipines...:-)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
What\'s for you won\'t pass you by
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Martin Devon
Mr. G. You are a star. Long may you continue to shine. Love your posts.

V V B Regards.................Martin D.
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Peter D
That's more like it. Regards Peter
letter from the colonies vol 14 - wemyss
Eat your heart out Michael Palin.........Our Growlers got you beat.
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Pezzer
"Meanwhile my godson returns with what looks like roadkill smothered in blood but is in fact a Jollibee Super Spaghetti Meatball Sensation with Extra Tomato Sauce."

Pure Class thanks Growler (I'm not sure I'll ever eat another kebab with chilli sauce again)
letter from the colonies vol 14 - malteser
Priceless, Growler - ROTFLMDO!

Roger. (Costa del Sol, España)
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Altea Ego
roll on the floor laughing my ? off ????
TourVanMan TM < Ex RF >
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Nsar

Metaphorically, I imagine.
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Chips with everything
Very, very funny.

I've read it 3 times now and am eagerly awaiting the next installment!

letter from the colonies vol 14 - El Hacko
bang on form, Growler - terrific read, many thanks
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Honestjohn
Very pleased to see three references to Norman Lewis in The Backroom. Nice surprise.

Every time Growler or Growlette does a 'letter' I try to get The Telegraph to buy it. But it's like a LandCruiser uphill.

letter from the colonies vol 14 - hillman
In Zambia, Mufulira in particular, the police carried out the driving tests. The expat men usually had licences when they arrived, but their wives didn't. The tests were a farce. The reversing test was between bamboo rods wedged into weighted cans. and nobody seems to be able to pass; knocked them down every time. Eventually one of the husbands went along and measured the width. Of course it was less than the width of the car. I think it was expected to slip a couple of notes to get the set-up done properly.

I was told that Zambia had the highest rate of motoring accidents in the world per head of population.

Anyway, have I missed something. Who is Norman Lewis ?
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Dynamic Dave
Anyway, have I missed something. Who is Norman Lewis ?

Well I don't think HJ is refering to office furniture & office supplier, so it must be this guy -

letter from the colonies vol 14 - hillman
Sorry, sorry ! I apologise both to Norman Lewis and DD. I do wonder,though, how the chickens got rickets.
letter from the colonies vol 14 - spikeyhead {p}
festeringass.com is probably the best way of publishing this sort of thing
I read often, only post occasionally
letter from the colonies vol 14 - Soupytwist
Brilliant as ever. I want one of those licence holders with 'Unprofessional driver' on it!
Soupytwist !
letter from the colonies vol 14 - barchettaman
Cracking read, much appreciated!

Ask Honest John

Value my car