How Slow Can You Go?: Just When You Thought Things Couldn’t Get Worse


Examples of Filipino inefficiency are endless. I almost just laugh out loud when I’m riding a jeepney and it stops four or five times in a stretch of 100 yards. Sometimes, we will literally have gone 20 feet, before another person who couldn’t be bothered to walk that far shouts “Para!” (Stop!).

 And here’s what it was like to buy headphones at a shopping mall:
A)  All the little stuff for sale was on racks behind the store’s wrap-around counter.
B)  Apparently only one specific (busy) staff person is allowed to show me the items I wish to inspect, albeit plenty of non-occupied staff standing around.
C)  Once I made my selection, they had open the package, plug the headphones into a computer, prove to me that they worked, and meticulously fold them back into their plastic molding.
D)  At the checkout, everything is painstakingly handwritten, including my seven day warranty.
E)  A different person has to serve as cashier. It took me 40 MINUTES to buy a pair of headphones!

laaaaaaaaid back...

“Why all this inefficiency?” I was thinking as Pat waited an hour to buy ferry tickets one morning. Part of it, I think, is how laid back people are here. They just can’t be bothered to demand more organization. (And it’s a cultural taboo – more on this in a second.) I think laid-back “she’ll be alright” attitude is also the same reason things in New Zealand are so expensive. I read a few Kiwi rants about the ridiculousness of products being marked up as soon as they touch NZ shores – markups that can’t be explained away by labor issues, shipping costs, or any of the other glaringly obvious pricing components. But bottom line is most Nzers just don’t get upset about it. Annoyed, yes. Angry, no. Americans get pissed off. Bad for the blood pressure, good for getting what you want, when you want it, and how you want it. In the Philippines, yelling at someone – especially publicly – for any perceived failure (like a painfully slow ticket selling process) is a huge no-no. In some places it can even get you killed. (See the second paragraph of this entry for more on this.)

Cram, bam, thank you, ma'am - typical MRT scene

The city train/subway/rail line is a another classic example of Filipino inefficiency. When the cars roll into the station, people crowd around the doors. People getting off have to wiggle and force their way out through the throngs who are trying to force their way on. It’s simple math people. All people OUT first, all people IN second = less time and more comfort. Argh!  And it doesn’t help that people standing in the car don’t move in.  People step on and stop.  They don’t want to get stuck in the middle of the car.  So often the door areas are packed and people miss the train when there is room for another ten people if y’all would just SCOOTCH!  In case you’re not familiar with subway/metro/train practices, in places of the world that value efficiency, waiting passengers line up on the out side edges of the car doors leaving an aisle clear for those disembarking. Sometimes there are even pictures on the platform reminding passengers to do this. And those already in the car MOVE OVER.  Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

A surprisingly tidy traffic jam. They're probably all waiting on a jeepney.

My friend, Adrian (Hi, A!) and I were discussing another inefficiency topic not unique to the Phlippines – traffic. Not being a lover of cities, I will hopefully never have the depth of experience necessary to adequately compare traffic in major cities around the globe. Suffice to say that in Manila, people just stop where ever they want. Jeepneys stop where ever. Drivers turn the lane closest to the sidewalk into a parking spot at their convenience. Vendors use the sidewalk in front of their store as more retail space. Cars often park in the middle of the sidewalk. Pedestrians are forced to step out into the street to continue in their desired direction. And cars in the curb-side lane are then forced to stop or cut off traffic to scoot over. The whole thing is a jumbled mess and frustrates progress (and millions of drivers and pedestrians). Part of that is city life. And part of it is not.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to persuade you that the Philippines is a maddeningly inefficient place. It’s just one of the things that will rub you the wrong way if you’re used to a different set of standards. I met a Frenchman who told me the standard of politely waiting your turn (close to non-existent in the Philippines) is also close to non-existent in France. And he says Italy, too. Which explains why Americans, the Brits, and other lovers of polite treatment of strangers supposedly hate the French. (For the record, I’ve never met a French person I didn’t like. Though I have recently been treated inconsiderately by a few…)

Anyway, I’ll end on a positive note. All this inefficiency is continuously strengthening a little muscle I like to call “patience.” I’ve heard this is ideal for raising children – an adventure I intend to embark upon sometime soon. So, you know, I’m getting lots of opportunities to train in patience. And that’s good. ♣



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