The Hours

And so, after much chivvying by all and sundry (all and sundry being my mother and brother), I finally moseyed on over to the offices of Pag-Ibig to resuscitate my long dormant membership because “you’ll need it if you ever want a house someday” and “you need to take advantage of your benefits!” ad nauseam, world without end. Each time I’m home, the inevitable well-meant refrain. A girl can only take so much.

I have a weird aversion to Philippine government offices. This dates back to a particularly unpleasant run-in I had with the Land Transportation Office, which to be fair, was completely avoidable and all my fault. I had the gross misfortune of getting busted driving without a driver’s permit. (Oplan Kilom Kilom, targeting the dissolute youth of tomorrow!) I ended up spending all the money I earned from working at the university yearbook to retrieve my impounded scooter. It wasnt just the weeks of limited mobility or the loss of revenue that stung. What really emblazoned itself in my memory were the hours spent waiting in a hot, grimy, poorly-lit office with stacks of paper piled every which way, watching disillusioned paper pushers half-heartedly going through the motions. It was uncomfortable and it took forever. Getting my scooter back took the better part of a burningly hot afternoon and was a punishment in itself. Was it effective? Suffice it to say I am now ready and willing to do anything to avoid getting the life sucked out of me by the LTO ever again.

It’s always the waiting that kills you. Just getting a passport was a Herculean endeavour that involved lining up outside the DFA at the crack of dawn just to get a priority number. Note that in those days, Dumaguete didn’t have a local branch for the Department of Foreign Affairs; the closest office was in Cebu. So queuing up, travel sick and sleep deprived, at five a.m. just to get a priority number from the security guard when the actual office opened at eight was not the best way to start the day. There were no seats. The really exhausted ones just plopped themselves on the side of the road. The more determined ones stayed on their feet, checking, double-checking and triple-checking their documents, eyes blank and glassy. It was only bearable because the sun hadn’t yet risen. When the office opened,  it was like staring at a mirror image of the LTO – hot, grimy, poorly lit, slow. It always took most of the morning and a waiting period of a month to get my passport renewed.

I finally figured out that the best time of the day to visit is about an hour before the office closes. It’s that magical hour when everyone is raring to go home so they just zip through the line-up of people, wanting to get everything done before closing time. The last time I had to get an NBI clearance was a dream – no line-ups, no waiting. Fifteen minutes and a few inky fingers later, I was free and clear.

They say a third of your life is spent asleep. If you happen to be Filipino, another tenth of it has probably been spent waiting in government offices. As I approached the Pag-Ibig offices, I was filled with a mingled sense of hope and foreboding; would this be another afternoon sacrificed on the altar of waiting? Would I be stuck in one of Dante’s circles of hell, navigating a grim wasteland filled with weary, unhappy people toiling away at a job they dislike,  tolerating the tedium and day to day indignities all because everyone knows that in the end, working for the government has mondo perks?

The red tape is still nuts. There are counters for everything because no one ever deals with anything and everything at the same time, and each counter requires a priority number. One for a general inquiry, another for online registration (seriously, can’t we do this ourselves online or on our phones?) and another for making payments. It was disappointing to learn that at the moment there isn’t any way to access our own accounts online to make a payment or see our own account details and make updates if needed but to their credit the process was speedy, painless and not as time-consuming as I had come to expect. The security guard was kept busy churning out priority numbers for everyone and everything and they had a giant screen that showed the priority numbers and the counters they were assigned to – none of that unnecessary cacophony that accompanies numbers being shouted out.

The office was well-lit, the a/c game was strong and people actually seemed to like what they do for the most part. I was in and out under an hour, a rare achievement when it comes to bureaucratic processing. It was a pleasant surprise. I’d call that progress.

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