Manila is a lovely old city, but it has notoriously ghastly traffic. If you’ve ever driven in Rome or India, it won’t scare you much. But, car rental companies, even big ones like Avis, all offer “chauffeured” rentals (which aren’t much more expensive than self-drive rentals), to keep tourists from mucking things up even worse with their panic and confusion. Insurance is much cheaper if you go that route. If you don’t want to hassle with your own car or driver, thank goodness, what the public transit options lack in number and clarity, they make up for in color, literally and figuratively.
The most common, and the one with which Manila’s identity is inextricably interwoven, is the jeepney. Jeepneys are jitneys—little buses that run along a regular route—fashioned out of converted jeeps. Hence, “jeepneys.” They came to be after World War II, when the Americans left a bunch of army jeeps behind in the Philippines, and the ever-resourceful Pinoy folk put them to use for much needed public transport.
A typical jeepney has a standard jeep nose, and a paddywagon-type caboose, with two bench seats set in the back, lengthwise along the sides. The routes are established, but there are no set stops, except the start and end points on the route. So, you can stand anywhere along the route and hail them like a taxi. Passengers hop in and out the open back, cramming themselves in like sardines, passing their 8 peso (about 18 cents, US) fare to the driver, and hollering or banging on the roof to signal when they want to get off.
The routes and fares are all regulated, but the jeepneys are privately owned, so the owners/operators are free to let their creative juices flow, and emblazon or festoon them in any way that tickles their fancy. It is here that Manila lets its personality show.
Some are semi-tasteful, two-toned jobs, whereas others are the canvas on which to flamboyantly express style or devotion, to God, or the wife, or maybe Superman. Many have bright tiaras of letters spelling out the vessel’s name above the windshield, almost always female, like a ship. The siding artwork is often evocative of those awesome black velvet paintings they sell in Tijuana, that glow in the dark. These festive arks zip, careen and shove through the clogged arteries of Manila, giving it a comic, carnivalesque sparkle. You almost expect plumes of glitter to emit from the exhaust pipes.
Manila is so proud of its jeepneys, that it even has a professional football team called “Manila Jeepney.”
There are jeepneys outside of Manila, too, of course, but they tend to be a bit less flashy. No less crowded, however. In the countryside, if the jeepney is packed, folks just take their goats and climb up on top. No ladders or steps, no boarding platform. I don’t know how they do it. Maybe those goats are not cargo, but there to teach people how to jump on top of the bus. You know…because goats are always getting up on top of things. See here. And here. And here. But I digress.
Alas, jeepneys, beloved as they are, have their downside. They tend to be a haven for pickpockets, purse-snatchers and thieves. I was told that armed robbers sometimes jump in the back while they are still moving, rob the trapped passengers, and jump out before the driver even admits to knowing what is happening. Muggings at the congregation spots along the popular routes are also common.
Not to fear, though, if you don’t want to rub elbows and everything else with the hoi polloi in the back of a jeepney. There are other options. “Tricycles” are motorbikes or bicycles with covered or enclosed sidecars, and are sixteen kinds of fun to travel in. Not the most comfortable, but quick and cheap, and also resplendent with style.
Taxis are also plentiful, and relatively cheap, but you have to be careful. Some are nice, late model sedans, and others are heaps, just barely holding it together with rubber bands and chicken wire. If you get in a taxi at a hotel, the bellman will hail a good one, and likely ask the driver for his taxi license and write down his name and license number, as well as the license plate number on the car…just in case you go missing or something. He’ll also tell the driver where you want to go, which is important, because communicating with the cabbies isn’t always easy.
For example, one morning, I was in a hurry to meet some friends across town, so instead of waiting for the bellman to hail me a proper taxi, I just hopped into one that I saw pull up to let someone out. It was kind of busted, but I’m not fussy. I told the driver that I needed to go to Makati, and I handed him a business card for the building to which I was headed, so he could see the exact address. He looked at it, put it in his shirt pocket, and off we went.
Well…the car started to stall every time we came to a halt, in traffic or at a light. He’d get out, pop the hood, fiddle with something, and get back in and start the car up, and on we’d go a few hundred meters until it happened again. Then, after a while, the guy was so visibly distraught, soaked with sweat, he turned and asked if we could please pull over to a service station so he could use the “comfort room,” as the restroom is called in the Philippines. “Of course,” I said. So we stopped, and he disappeared for about fifteen minutes. I figured he must have been sick.
On we went, stalling every time we stopped, until we got to Makati, whereupon he began to drive in circles, clearly lost. We stopped three different times to ask directions of a traffic cop, to whom he would show the business card and ask, in Tagalog, where to find the listed address. After much pointing and gesticulating, we’d drive on, until it became plain we were lost again, and have to stop and ask someone where we were. Finally, after an hour and a half, we turned down a street that I recognized, and I was able to guide him home. When we finally got there, the poor man looked so miserable and distressed, I really felt badly for him, so I tipped him extra well.
Then, I went inside and told my friends what happened, and they laughed at me. Apparently, everyone but me knows that many of the cabbies in the Philippines are illiterate. “Quin, he was probably too embarrassed to tell you he couldn’t read the card, so he did all those things to frustrate you and make you get out and take another taxi.” Hence the showing of the card to everyone we stopped to ask directions from. I was stunned. The idea that the man would drive off with me, without the remotest clue where we were headed, and then try to irritate me into abandoning ship, never occurred to me. Well, the laugh’s on him, because I just sat there, a model of patience and understanding, and then I gave him a big, fat tip. That’ll learn him.
No one likes to get stuck in one of Manila’s famous traffic jams, but at least one hack is doing his part to make the ride more entertaining. For a few pesos, you can have your own private, inflight concert of the musical stylings of the Karaoke Cabbie.
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For a few pesos more, you can do the singing, if you want. There’s even a screen with the lyrics, just like at a karaoke bar. But, this guy’s got a pretty nice voice for a serenade, actually.
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He’s going to have to get a Bluetooth microphone, though, as soon as legislation catches up and bans karaoke while driving.
(Thanks to my friends Ariel and Ghie Gubatina for the karaoke taxi videos!)