I am second week into a carpooling arrangement with a bunch of hardworking people, who became out of necessity, my accidental companions. Sharing a seat when going to work during rush hour is a lesson in tolerance, respect for personal privacy, and a little bit of pretending to be deaf, dumb and blind. Believe it or not, the two people I am squeezed in between during the daily early morning trips have remained complete strangers to me. I don't know yet their names, where they live, where they come from and where exactly they were going to. And because I cannot even bring myself to glance sideways at their profiles, I'm not quite sure I can pick them out in a police lineup.
Not that I am an obnoxious snob or I have completely lost all faculties for civilized interaction. In fact, I am quite anxious to break the ice and get into a conversation for whatever reason or purpose or even just for the sake of having one and I am sure they or at least some of them feel the same way too. I simply have no idea how to do it. For some reason, it seems best to simply shut up and make-believe that the person next to me does not exist.
It amazes me how they have been warm and friendly the first time I was spontaneously invited to join them in the carpool. I just passed by the van, an Asian Utility Vehicle, if we should get technical about it, while it was parked under a tree and the driver stepped down to ask where I was going, and then, the car window rolled down to reveal the smiling faces of the other passengers urging me to come aboard. Personally, I was delighted at the chance to ride in comfort instead of waiting for public transport to take me to work. But as soon as I stepped inside and closed the door behind me, that little cramped space where ten people, eleven including the driver, were patiently enduring a discomforting closeness, suddenly fell into a deep suspended animation.
I am aware that there is some kind of an unwritten rule that people should always keep their distance, no matter if physically doing so is impossible, but this is a situation where people take it to the extreme. We have been very subservient to the rules of courtesy to a remarkable degree. I noticed that if you really needed to speak, then do so in whispers, and without looking in the eye the person you need to be talking too. Never ever sneeze but if you can't help it, press the palm of your hand hard against your mouth, and let off as little air as possible. Stop breathing if you may, bite your lips, pinch your nose hard, or whatever solution that you think will work, just so you can sneeze sound-proof. Now if your problem is flatulence, then, you might as well wish you were dead.
Paying the fare is another tricky part. There is a small plastic tray between the driver's and the front passenger's seats just behind the gear. For some reason, the driver refused to touch the money or acknowledge your offer to hand it over, perhaps avoiding to break this sacred silence. So everyone makes it a point to prepare the exact fare before hand and at the right moment, one reaches for the plastic container to drop the money in there, again, without saying a single word or asking for help. And whenever you place your money, try to make a deliberate effort to show everybody every coin and every bill that you drop into the plastic tray lest you might be suspected of short-changing the driver if the day's collection falls short.
Sometimes, I wonder if this is worth the trouble; if car-pooling comforts like having an airconditioner to bring relief from the heat and not having to transfer vehicles are really worth the sacrifice of trying to demonstrate saintly behavior. Or maybe not. One of these days, I just might skip the car pool, start chasing good old jeepneys again and find out.