Meditation on expressways

If you ride motorcycles, as I do, you might be forgiven if you have been seeing the world as a universe of crisscrossing highways.  For a biker, nothing quite compares with the ecstasy of exploring a newlyopened expressway.

The experience is akin to following a tiny trail in a lush forest.  You are not sure where and how far the track will take you, but you really don’t care.  You are in the grip of a magical sensation of fleeting moments.  New vistas open before you at every turn, and you are tempted to slow down and linger.  Yet the promise of further surprises ahead compels you to move on.

I have gone on the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEx) four times — three on a motorcycle, and one in a small car.  Each time I have done so, I have emerged from the ride in complete awe of the beautiful country that we have.  I have only seen the part of the highway leading to Bataan and Subic, but I imagine that the Tarlac side is just as stunning.

The highway slices through low-lying hills, forming undulating canyons that lead to vast expanses of open fields and orchards.  You begin to wonder how in a country as blessed as this the people could be so poor.  There’s so much land around, though you notice it is mostly dry.  You cross a few rivers, their arid banks bearing traces of the powerful waters that must have surged through them in their prime.  In the horizon, the denuded Zambales mountains stand as mute witnesses to a history of environmental plunder.

You try to shake off these depressing thoughts so you can relish the experience.  You become conscious of the sensation of sudden release from the stifling hold of the city.  Your breathing is effortless, and your eyes survey the uncluttered landscape with unusual ease.

For the first time, you become aware: there are no billboards here!

No screaming advertisements telling you what you lack, what you crave, and what you should buy to complete your life.  No seductive faces or suggestive poses to lure you into taking a quick glance while you negotiate a dangerous bend.  No mindless in-your-face product messages blocking your view of those majestic mountains.  It is partly to free yourself from this sustained assault on the senses that you’ve taken a drive to the countryside.  And you wonder how long that untouched horizon will remain free of billboards.

I am told that negotiations with outdoor advertisers are already afoot. I hope this is not true.  To allow billboards to block one’s view of such refreshing scenery is to impose an additional toll on top of the fees collected by the expressway operator.  It is terrible enough that we are charged for the use of these roads that were built with loans that we must repay from our taxes.  It is unconscionable that, in addition, we must be bombarded by commercials that pose a real danger to us as motorists, and interfere with our enjoyment of a public facility that we pay extra money to use.  One might understand this form of commercial poaching if the facility were totally built with private funds, and no government guarantees or resources were used.  But, as Ms Arroyo’s own ubiquitous billboards declare, the SCTEx is supposed to be an achievement of government.

I have long raised this issue with respect to the existing North Luzon Expressway (NLEx).  From the perspective of a rider, the NLEx is a better constructed highway, compared to even the new SCTEx.  It is a joy to use it, notwithstanding how much toll is still collected from motorists after more than 30 years.  The maintenance is superb, and assistance to travelers in trouble is immediate.  But everything that is good about it is nullified by the billboards that litter its margins.  The best part of the highway for me is the Candaba viaduct, and the reason is simple – the billboards that used to spoil one’s view of the graceful Mt. Arayat have been removed.

I am not against advertisements, provided they stay within limits. Those limits are defined not only by law but by the basic norms of courtesy that exist in our culture.  Though our private spaces are not as strictly delineated as those in the West, we take care not to block each other’s access to, or view of, shared space, unless it is unavoidable.  Our culture admonishes not to abuse the graciousness and tolerance of our neighbors.

This brings me to the final point of this meditation on expressways: the rights of farmers to free access to their farms.  The people of the town of Concepcion in Tarlac, through their municipal mayor, have appealed to the government to suspend the opening of the Tarlac portion of the expressway until the overpasses that were promised them are fully completed.  In the view of the affected barangays, the SCTEx stands like an arrogant Berlin Wall bisecting their communities. They now have to climb across the highway to reach their farms. They feel that their hospitality has been abused, and they are up in arms.  If animals could protest, they would likely do the same thing.  The last time I rode my motorbike on the SCTEx, a whole herd of goats materialized before me from the embankment and made a defiant dash to the other side.  I could only smile.  I am the interloper here, not they.

The Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana once wrote:  “A universe comes into being when a space is severed into two.  A unity is defined.” In the sense that expressways are self-enclosed systems carved out of open space, they are living unities.  It is in their nature to assert their identity and autonomy.  But if they are to survive, they have no choice but to bend to the realities of their environment.


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