Pology Magazine  -  Adventures in Travel and World Culture.
Travel and World Culture   
 Image: The Philippines
 Image: The Philippines
 Photo: Andrew Caballero

The Philippines: On the Jeepney
By Vince Donovan

I am going to do this. Grey Manila surrounds me: stained concrete office buildings, broken sidewalks, littered streets. Huge concrete struts in the middle of the road lead upward to a massive elevated freeway under construction, another mass of stained grey against the damp sky.

I am going to do this. I step tentatively into the street, joining the dozen or so Filipinos gathered there, a few feet into the roaring, beeping, chaotic afternoon traffic. Everyone looks tired but resigned to waiting. Most are holding a handkerchief or a scarf over their mouth to filter out dirt and ash. We are waiting, in the damp heat and dirty greyness of rush hour Manila. We are waiting to catch a jeepney.

Jeepneys are the true people's transportation of the Philippines. Funky, homemade trucks with long seats in the back, they make up fully three quarters of the vehicles on the road. They are mostly freelance, driven by fiercely independent owner-operators, who collect two pesos (about ten cents) from every rider. Now, at rush hour, the streets are jammed with jeepneys, and each jeepney is jammed with people, with at least four more standing on the rear bumper. Hundreds of them roar by, already stuffed beyond capacity.

I could much more easily catch a taxi back to my hotel. In fact every taxi that passes stops right in front of me and beeps insistently. They can't believe I'm sweating in the jeepney queue when for about three dollars I could have an air-conditioned taxi to myself.

I'm starting not to believe it either. For one, I'm not sure that I'll even fit in a jeepney. They are all about the size of a small pickup truck, with the back covered by a stainless steel canopy. Even the locals have to duck down when boarding (one enters from the back), and being almost twice as tall and more than twice as wide as a typical Filipino, I might find it a tight squeeze.

Secondly, I'm not sure I'll get on the right one: the jeepneys are supposed to have their route painted on the side but it's hard to read as they go roaring by and they have so much other stuff painted on them that it's impossible to figure anything out. A densely-packed jeepney slows just behind me but I can't see anything useful painted on the side. Four people squeeze out and four more people squeeze in and it blatts away without coming to a complete stop. Everyone else stands around waiting, breathing in the smog.

“That’s a good way to get tuberculosis,” one of the hotel doormen told me when I asked him where I might be able to catch one. On the other hand, there’s the advice I got from an English couple who’ve been living in Manila for two years. They warned me about taxis. "Especially around Christmas time," they said. "There are always a lot of kidnappings around Christmas time because people need money, and sometimes the taxi drivers are the worst. They all have guns. Just assume that every taxi has gun." Another taxi beeps at me but I wave him on.

Fear of kidnapping is not really what's motivating me to try to get on a jeepney, anyway. I see it as more of a cultural debt. Jeepneys are one of the few things in Manila with any real character, with any pizzazz. Bombing around the dirty streets, under the dead cement towers, they spread some true Filipino color and energy. When a jeepney rounds the corner and careens wildly through the crosswalk, scattering pedestrians, you still have to smile while it almost runs you over.

Your average jeepney is dressed up like a transvestite peacock on steroids. The body is stainless steel, usually brightly polished and boldly painted with fluorescent designs and slogans. The hood and bumpers gleam with chrome trim, right down to scalloped chrome skirts that dust the roadway. A rainbow of colored lamps array the front and run down the sides. No two are even remotely alike, though pretty much every jeepney has its name proudly painted on a chrome plate over the cab, and usually the astrological sign of the driver painted somewhere on the windshield. Here comes GIFT OF GOD, which God has further blessed with about twenty passengers. It goes blatting by. There is A STAR IS BORN (whose owner is a Pisces) making an illegal U-turn.

And here is ROAD RUNNER, which has stopped practically on my foot. It is miraculously empty, and I let the crowd carry me in. The inside is as expressive as the outside: the long seats are red vinyl and there is red vinyl overhead too, elaborately quilted with shiny chrome studs. One of the first ones in, I slide up near the driver. Everyone starts handing money toward the front which I pass through a little window to a woman whom I think might be the driver's wife since there are three little kids up in the cab too. Clearly this is a family business. As the jeepney grinds into gear, the wife does a double take at me.

"Where are you going?" she says in totally unaccented English.

"Makati?" I reply hopefully.

"You'll have to walk a little bit," she says, "I'll tell you when to get off."


Page 1 of 2   Next Page


All contents copyright ©2005 Pology Magazine. Unauthorized use of any content is strictly prohibited.