I renewed my driver’s license yesterday here in Puerto Princesa. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal to you. Perhaps you think there is no adventure involved in such a mundane, routine activity. Allow me to fill you in.
First of all, there is only one LTO (Land Transportation Office) on the entire island of Palawan. This verdant isle upon which we live is 450 km (270 miles long) and has close to a million inhabitants.
Rising early, we got there before the LTO opened, knowing the lines would be long. We ambitiously wanted to renew our truck’s registration and renew my driver’s license as a single errand. So “divide and conquer” was the strategy. My wife would work on registration.
We had to park down the street, since the LTO has no parking lot or parking spaces on the street. Yes, a motor vehicle registration office with no parking. Um…. never mind. We’ll just keep the story flowing here.
To get into the fenced-in, outdoor LTO waiting area, we wove our way between the dozens of fixers (freelance opportunists who will do your renewal for you, for a fee), careful not to walk into the “Do Not Use Fixers” signs. The seating was already full. Most of the crowd of fifty or so applicants sat in the section for first-time license applications. They were waiting to take a seminar and a test. We got in the line at the Customer Service desk. The patient man there functions something like the triage nurse at a hospital, the maître d’ of a fine restaurant or the concierge of a hotel.
My wife was sent across town to get smog certification. I was given an application form and directed to cross the street to an LTO-approved doctor for my “medical exam” and drug test. Passing the drug test was easy, since I don’t do drugs. But I did notice that they let me take my thermos into the rest room with me. It was only ice water, of course, but how did they know that? They also took my picture and did a scan of all ten fingers. All the more reason not to show up positive for drugs, I was thinking.
Back to the doctor, who had already filled out my medical exam. To save time, I suppose. I appreciated his concern for my tight schedule. I was weighed, and my height measured. That was done in metric, so being an American, I have no idea what it meant. What the heck is “189 centimeters,” anyway?
As for the rest of my medical report, the doctor had generously written: right and left limbs, normal. “Fit to drive.” (i.e. he looked up and noticed that I have two arms, one on each side.) Eyesight in both left and right eye, 20/20. (I’m guessing he was highly trained to ascertain this, simply by watching me fill out my LTO renewal application on the corner of his desk.) Hearing, normal. (Well, I did answer his questions, and I never once said, “Huh?”)
Back to the LTO, where my wife was in line again, smog check done and stencils of the engine and chassis numbers stapled to her paperwork, which included proof of current insurance, last year’s registration receipt (O.R. for Official Receipt), her application form and the C.R. (Certificate of Registration.) We always laugh at “CR,” since in everyday Filipino contexts that means “comfort room” (i.e. restroom). It was also interesting to note how many of the details on the CR used different terminology than what was used on the application form. Nothing like blending government documents with creative writing, I always say.
The concierge guy looked at my application, my drug test certification and my proof of health and two-armedness and gave me a number. When my number came up, I gave the papers to the woman at window 3 and sat back down to wait for my name to be called.
Meanwhile, my wife was called up to pay our truck registration fees. All the fees at the LTO come out to odd amounts like P372.84, but they don’t have coins to give you change. A perversely logical part of me deep inside asks, “Why not round off the charges to the nearest 5 pesos?” I’m sure there is a reason for not doing this.
This year, when she paid, they even had the stickers for our license plates and windshield. Cool! Last year, we never did get the 2011 stickers. We kept checking back at the LTO, but they were always “out of stock.”
Eventually, my name was called, my photo taken, and my digital signature recorded. Then I sat down until the cashier called me. Then, after paying the cashier, I was supposed to wait for my license from window 4 (“Releasing”), but there was a brown-out (that means the electric power went dead).
This was a good time to go across the street and have an iced latte and onion rings at Divine Sweets. They have back-up power, so their aircon was running. We ran into a Peace Corps friend, noted some other locals we often see around town, and enjoyed our little snack break.
When I returned to the LTO, the power was on and I was able to finish my renewal. So the system does work. See? They were able to give me my license.
Wait… you’re not acting suitably shocked. I said they gave me my license. This has only happened twice in 31 years. Usually they have to send the papers to the central office in Manila (well, Quezon City, actually). You are supposed to come back in six weeks for your actual license card and in the meantime, you carry the receipt in case you get pulled over. And the “six weeks” takes more like six months. Sometimes, your license has expired before you actually get the card. But twice the provincial LTO has been set up to produce the card right on site and so I could walk away, proudly holding my new license…
189 centimers. It says so right on the card.
And weight… ha. I’m not telling. Not after those yummy onion rings.