When I was a child, I was often reprimanded for being afraid of what I couldn’t see. According to every grown-up around me, I should be more fearful of the living than the dead. Still, that didn’t stop me from feeling a little on edge every time our car had to pass through Balete Drive, whose streets are still infamous for sightings of the so-called White Lady, or averting my eyes every time we passed through a funeral procession, which could supposedly bring bad luck. That was just the way life was.
A few years ago, however, I had an experience that left me a little traumatized of the living and a little bit more grateful for the dead.
It was 2013, Christmas season, and while there was a festive spirit in the air, it was also quite late in the evening. I was really tired from work, and like everyone else on the street, all I wanted was to go home. In a snap decision, I walked away from my usual bus stop near North Avenue MRT Station to hail a cab a few meters away. At that time, I was still living in Malabon, not the Malabon that was submerged underwater every high tide, but the Malabon that was just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Caloocan—not that it mattered. By taxi driver standards, it was still no man’s land. But I tried my luck anyway.
After several tries, a cab finally agreed to take me to Malabon. It was in pretty shabby shape, a little smelly even, but I was in no position to complain. I sat in the backseat, right behind the passenger seat, and texted the plate number of the cab to my then boyfriend. Normal.
Nothing about the cab seemed suspicious at first. The passenger seat might have been pushed almost all the way forward, but that could just mean that the last passenger wanted more legroom. And, well, maybe the details of the cab’s plate number weren’t very clear, but it was an old cab. Yes, nothing suspicious, indeed. In hindsight, I wonder why I didn’t see those red flags for what they were, but I guess when you never think it would happen to you, you tend to see the world in a different way.
The first few minutes in the cab were uneventful until a full-sized cockroach crawled out from beneath the driver’s seat. I must have made a sound because the driver looked at me from the rearview mirror. “May ipis po kayo,” I told him in distress. He said nothing, which made me even more anxious.
Should I ask to be dropped off at SM North Edsa? Should I go down now?
Usually, I would, but I also asked myself if I could find a cab that would agree to take me all the way to Malabon. Knowing the answer, I stayed put.
Looking back now, it seems almost anti-climactic when a minute later, a man jumped out of the passenger seat to sit next to me. I gave out a scream that died as quickly as it emerged. Cooperate and you won’t get hurt, the driver’s accomplice told me. I cooperated. They had a gun, he said. I took his word for it and handed him my bag and even my lunch box.
He then told me to close my eyes. I brought my hands up to cover my face. If they didn’t want me remember what they looked like, I certainly didn’t want them to remember what I did either.
As the man next to me rifled through my things, he started asking me questions.
Where did I live?
Where in Valenzuela? I couldn’t come up with an answer.
He asked me where I lived again.
Where in Caloocan?
I don’t remember what I said. All I could think of was not Malabon. Not Malabon.
His line of questioning became a bit more terrifying after. He asked me if I was married. Was I married? If I told him I was married, would they be more likely to leave me alone? If I told them I was single, would I just put myself in more danger?
Then came the explanations. They weren’t bad men, he said. They just needed money to pay for hospital bills. The driver’s daughter was sick. With my hands still covering my face, I tried my best to act like I sympathized. I told them that I understood what they were going through, that I believed in them, even though the driver looked like he would probably rob his own daughter.
I told them that my father was also in the hospital, that I knew just how expensive the bills could be, thinking that if I sounded sad enough they just might let me go. In truth, my father had already died of cancer years before, and it was to that father whom I prayed hard to that night. It was going to be my birthday in a few days, I said to my dad. As a birthday present, I would really, really like to survive this unscathed please.
We must have spent around 30 to 45 minutes driving around. I couldn’t tell where I was even though I snuck a peek out the window a few times. At some point, however, we must have driven by a crowded area because the man told me that there was a policeman nearby. Don’t try anything, he warned, while he had one arm around me.
I had thought about it. Earlier, while he was asking questions, I had wondered if I should try to open the door and jump out of the cab. But I also knew that if I failed to go through with it, then I’d really end up dead. Or worse.
Eventually, we stopped at a bank in Fairview where the man, now sporting a cap, escorted me to the ATM machine. This bank didn’t have a security guard, and it was pretty deserted. They had it all planned out.
The man asked me to withdraw.
Now, I had heard of this rumor that if you ever get held up at an ATM machine, you should type your PIN backwards to alert the authorities, but I had never heard of anyone successfully doing that either, so I did as I was asked and withdrew a few thousand pesos.
The man hurriedly took the money and told me to keep facing the ATM or else they’d shoot me. I maintained my position, but as soon as the man scampered away, I hid behind one of the pillars. If they did have a gun, I’d rather not get shot.
When I was sure that my assailants were long gone, I started making my way to the nearest establishment. There was a small restaurant up ahead where I was able to borrow a phone to call my mom and make arrangements to go home. I spent half an hour talking to the staff who were all very nice even though their security guard thought I was there to rob them—a story for another time.
While the experience certainly had a lasting effect on me, I also knew that the situation could have been way worse. Many people have since told me how lucky I was, and while I do agree, a part of me believes that perhaps, it wasn’t just luck. It seemed like my dad had, indeed, been watching over me.
When I got home from reporting the incident to the police station, I learned that around the same time I was being held up in the cab, the lights in my brothers’ room, a series of light bulbs my dad installed himself, had flickered unexpectedly. It could have been faulty wiring, but I’d rather believe that he had tried, in his own way, to intervene. The cockroach, which normally would have sent me flying out of any cab, could have been a first warning. Or the cab could have just been really unsanitary.
Either way, I’m lucky to be alive—a blessing I thank the dead for every day.