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
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