by Alan Robles
(originally published in SCMP, 2006)
It has happened at least several times in the past year: somebody takes a taxi ride and leaves their valuables behind. The driver discovers the item and promptly goes out of his way to return it to the owner, refusing any payment.
Could this truly be happening in Manila? In the city whose cabbies are famous for playing loud music, driving hell-for-leather, choosing which passengers to pick up and trying to overcharge those they condescend to accept? Apparently it is. In March, a Romanian tourist forgot her shoulder bag and the driver brought it back to her. "I offered him a reward for his honesty, but he politely declined," she marvelled.
Before that, there was the American embassy official who left behind a briefcase and had it returned to him untouched. Then there's the overseas worker, rushing to catch a flight to the provinces, who forgot a bag containing US dollars and hundreds of thousands of pesos in cash. The cabbie turned it over to a radio station, which contacted the grateful owner.
Last year, a taxi driver returned a bag containing 150,000 pesos ($22,620), which the passenger was going to use to pay for his daughter's brain-tumour operation.
Now, this kind of behaviour would probably be taken for granted in Tokyo or Singapore, but things are different in Manila. I've been held up inside a cab, and have dealt with obnoxious drivers who refuse to be flagged down or, if they stop, ask me where I'm going and drive away if they don't like the answer.
But then, I've also met many hard-working cabbies who are polite, observe traffic rules and work grinding hours to exceed their "boundary" - the fixed cut that the taxi company takes from their earnings. Many are political junkies, something you'll discover if you take a cab in the morning: the chances are that the radio will be tuned to a news and commentary programme.
Savvy, hard-working and straight-talking, some taxi drivers would make good political leaders. But I wouldn't trust a politician as a cab driver. I would have serious doubts about riding in a taxi if I found out it was being driven by, say, the speaker of the house. At the very least I'd check the meter.
As for all the stories about cabbies returning valuables, it's probably not surprising. It was, after all, a Filipino taxi driver in New York who set what seems to be the record for honesty: he returned pearls worth more than US$70,000 to their owner.
There's one other possible explanation for all these tales of good-heartedness: it's an outbreak of honesty threatening to engulf the country. I expect the government will act speedily to contain this epidemic before it spreads to a vital institution, like Congress.