Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Gravol Road to Quezon

Never underestimate the importance of good roads.

In developed countries, it's easy to take for granted our (relatively) direct and well-maintained roads and transportation infrastructure. We fume about seemingly endless road maintenance projects, complain when the car in front of us is driving the speed limit (or slower) and groan about the circuitous routes we take to get from point A to point B.

In developing countries, roads are a whole other story. The major roads are often financed and designed by a colonizing country, whose main interests are to ship primary resources out of the country, and to acquire new markets for its finished products. Such interests don't lend themselves to transportation infrastructure that connects communities or routes critical to the local inhabitants. Even after the former colonies gained independence, road construction favouring the flow of internationally marketable goods has continued to be a popular "development project" (or as one Filipina called it in her activist days "development aggression").

So it was not unexpected that a 140km journey from Manila to Quezon province Monday afternoon took over six hours.

This week, my quest to visit many communities impacted by environmental crises took me to Infanta, Quezon. At the invitation of a geography professor, I was to observe a technical meeting on forest land use planning and visit some resettlement communities in the area. Quezon province is located on the eastern coast of Luzon, and home to many farmers and fishers. The climate is rainier and slightly cooler than Metro Manila. Quezon's coastal areas are hit by about about half the typhoons that reach land in the Philippines. On 29 November 2004, three municipalities - Infanta, General Nakar and Real - were devastated by flash flooding and landslides brought about by a super typhoon. (More about the people and the disaster in a later post).

Sitting next to a geographer is an excellent way to learn about the landscape and the history of an area. After emerging from stop-and-go Manila traffic, the bus travels though Marikini, a part of Metro Manila hit hard by Typhoon Ondoy. At this time last year, one-story homes and businesses were completely submerged. Now, the area is completely rebuilt with attractive multi-story buildings advertising "flood-free apartments".

Antipolo City is the next major site. It's a city of rolling hills and religious retreats (much of the land was once owned by the Jesuits). It's a popular destination for Manila-based cycling enthusiasts. The view from the city overlooks Laguna Lake. It's beautiful. The sun is setting as we make our way around the lake. Lights dotting the mountains at the far shore look oddly like lights on a ski hill. The background makes me think I'm driving back from the Laurentians; the bamboo and palm trees in the foreground seem out-of-place.

Over the next few hours, our route snakes up, down and around mountains. We stop at many of the small villages lining the road. Passengers dismount. Many of them have brought large packages of goods purchased in Manila to sell at their Sari-Sari shops. Bus tickets are much cheaper than renting a car, and much more reliable than sending things by mail. Short concrete barriers hug the road, protecting vehicles from falling down into steep ravines. Every tenth barrier is inscribed with the initials of the former governor, a not-so-subtle reminder that regional development is linked with election results.

While my eyes drink up the view, my stomach is barely hanging on. The winding road, the constant up and down, the sporadic weaving to avoid police checkpoints and chickens, and the lurching and sudden breaking for speed bumps and random patches of gravel are not particularly friendly to one prone to motion sickness. It's eerily reminiscent of my vain attempts to gain sea legs aboard the Concordia. I can taste ginger candies, 7-Up and soda crackers. Even with a Gravol, the remaining hours pass slowly and painfully.

* * *

In anticipation of a rough return trip back to Manila Wednesday night, I start the trip with a Gravol. The smaller vehicle (a van), however, is not kind and I join the leagues of travelers who swear off long-distance travel in public vehicles. I know already that this is one promise I won't keep.

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