Driving in Davao City

This past Sunday as we left church, our friend Pastor Vic came out of the building to see us off.

“Matthew! Are you driving?”

I did not deny, but confessed, “Yes, I am.”

With a wide and mischievous smile, he replied, “I will pray for you!”

“Thank you,” I answered, “I will need it.”

The drive to church was the first trip we had made in the car we had taken possession of the previous afternoon. That same Sunday in the evening, I parked the car to play tennis with some friends, and got back in to find it would not start. I had left the headlights on and played a few too many sets (OK, it was 7 sets). I needed a jump start, and another one the next day. I joked that God had answered Pastor Vic’s prayers on our behalf, since doubtless if I had been able to drive home when I wanted to, I would have ended up in an accident. (Since then, all has been smooth sailing. Please pray along with Pastor Vic that it would continue to be so.)

My first two trips in the car, I did not use the horn. I remarked to Sora that this was proof that I did not yet know how to drive properly in the Philippines. Since then, I have begun to tootle regularly whenever I want to let someone know that I am coming along into a space that they appear to be thinking about occupying. In the USA, one uses a horn to indicate outrage or to warn of an impending crash. Fits of road rage and offended looks follow. In Davao, it is simply a polite way to say, “Here I am, and I want to make sure you’ve noticed me, so we can both be safe,” and no one thinks anything of it.

Despite all this trepidation about driving, Sora turned to me yesterday while we were in the car together and remarked, “Driving here is actually not bad at all, because everything is moving slowly. You never go faster than 20 or 30 mph.” That is indeed the thing that keeps us safe: there is time to anticipate and react; time to judge the approach and intention of other vehicles.

I am mostly commuting back and forth to Faith Academy Mindanao, which involves two fairly busy intersections without stoplights. As one of our fellow missionaries explained it, “Traffic that is already going through the intersection has a virtual “green light”: the light remains green for them as long as their train of cars is going through; but when their cars stop, the light turns green for someone else.” In other words, “It just flows.”


The car is driving quite sweetly. It’s a 2001 Toyota Revo, rear wheel drive. It has a good suspension and plenty of ground clearance, which is important for handling potholes, rocks, and “sleeping policemen.” Our carport has a very steep entrance, and requires a very sharp left turn at the end of the drive. In order to make egress easier, we have taken to turning right into the opposite carport, then backing into our own driveway. We’re getting better at it, but a couple of times, we have had to start over a take a running start to overcome the steep grade and resulting wheelspin.

Traffic Davao

Once on the streets, our Revo becomes part of the flow of Davao traffic. It is a very colorful and diverse vehicle population. I have read complaints about Jeepneys, which are antiquated, slow, and emit untold pollution. Yet they are certainly picturesque and humorous. One particularly well-decorated one had the biggest Mercedes emblem its owner could find mounted on its front grille; Scuderia Ferrari shields on the flanks behind the front fenders; and a Porsche badge on the back. (I’m pretty sure that if I gave the operator a Lamborghini badge, he would find a place for it as well.) Here are some others. Not my photos, but they give a pretty good idea of Jeepney style. As you can see, “subdued” and “reserved” are not really in it:



Some are painted deep purple like the Knight Bus from Harry Potter. Others are pepto-bismol pink (a frequent color for buildings here also).


Alongside the Jeepneys are even slower vehicles: tricycabs. These are motorcycles with large frames and sidecars welded on to transport passengers — sometimes 6 or more! With so much weight taxing a little two-stroke bike engine, these vehicles crawl, and they are accordingly near the bottom of the totem pole on the road, staying to the side and getting out of the way when larger vehicles “tootle them with vigor.” At P7-15 per trip, depending on how far you’re going, tricycabs are much cheaper than taxis (P40 just to sit down in one, plus P3.5 per 500 meters of distance traveled) –but usually more expensive than Jeepneys (a few P per ride). Meanwhile, real motorcycles (without extra frames or sidecars) zip around and through traffic faster than anything else.

All this is just part of the culture. It’s not better than American traffic, nor worse. Just different. We’ve been told that after about 6 months, the differences will start to tell on us, and we will go into culture fatigue and be catatonic for a few days. I’m hoping it won’t be that bad. Nothing else has been so far!


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