Sunday, March 18, 2012

I Get Around

Spending a lot of time getting from place to place is a natural byproduct of travelling the way I do. Not only actually sitting (or standing) in some sort of vehicle, but also researching about how best to get around, where the bus leaves from, what time, whether I need to buy a ticket in advance, and so on. I have therefore become something of an expert on public transportation around the world. Although it isn't something that we often consider when thinking about a country's culture or traditions, mobility is an important aspect of our lives and impacts it more than we might think. Especially in poorer countries where people can't afford their owns means of transportation then it is their lifeline to employment, getting their goods to market, accessing basic public services or shopping for life's necessities. Sitting on a bus can therefore end up being a small study in anthropology rather than a dull commute between point A and point B.

An old-school, overloaded jeepney plying the mountain roads of northern Luzon.

In developing countries people are, by needs, far more resourceful and manage to do far more with the little they have. It's not just the inside of buses that can be used to seat people, but the roof as well; motorbikes and scooters are used to transport entire families; and the luggage racks of Indian trains are often used as impromptu benches. I remember being impressed in Mali by the taxis brousses (bush taxis), which are usually beat-up, rusting Peugeot family cars, most older than I am, that ply the potholed roads between small towns. Often they managed to squeeze 11 passengers into a single car (although into is perhaps not the right word, as some passengers had to sit on the roof). That feat of efficiency was blown out of the water here in the Philippines when I took a trike on the island of Panay. Trikes are basically small-engined motorbikes (not more than 150cc) with sidecars welded on. The sidecar designs vary from region to region, from small dinky affairs, to wide chassis with rigid roofs. The ones in Panay didn't look that imposing, with a double-sided seat under a rigid canopy. Any Westerner looking at it might think that it would be for two passengers: one facing forward and one backwards. I was standing, waiting for a ride to the next town with a couple of other passengers, when a trike pulled up already carrying seven passengers: two sharing the bike with the driver, four sitting in the seats, and one standing on a sort of running-board on the far side of the cab. It looked pretty full already. I was expecting some of the passengers to get off, but instead the driver motioned for us to get on, and despite my initial disbelief, we managed, squeezing a further person into each of the seats and getting someone to clamber on top of the roof. It's during such moments that I'm grateful that I am relatively small (at least for European standards - here in the Philippines I'm about average) and am not overly discomforted on public transport. It must be hell travelling around here if you're a big, bulky Scandinavian.

There's plenty more room on that trike!

The most common form of intra-urban transport here in the Philippines is the jeepney. They are converted jeeps or vans with an extended, covered rear with a row of benches on either side. They're loud and belch clouds of thick diesel smoke but I've grown to like them. Sometimes they sport paintings on the sides, anything from animals to abstract designs and religious motifs, but they are always brightly painted. The route is vaguely described on the side and on little cards on the windshield, and  all you need is to vaguely motion to the driver who will stop and let you board at the rear. If one is full then it's not a problem as you rarely have to wait more than a minute or two for the next one to pass. To pay the fare you hand your money to your neighbour who passes it along until it reaches the driver and then the change is passed back to you. I love the honesty of the system. It's the same in the Ukraine where, on crowded buses, money is passed forwards and back from passenger to driver with everyone helping out and no-one shirking their fare. Usually there is a space beside the driver to drop your money and he rarely checks to make sure that the correct amount has been paid.

A jeepney window in Manila with its smorgasbord of signs and decorations leaving barely enough room for the driver to see. But jeepney drivers are a talented lot: notice how he's holding notes in his hand as he accepts fares and returns change without looking.

Getting around in the Philippines takes time, whether it's by boat, jeepney or bus. Recently the boats have been leaving on time, which is some consolation I suppose, although they have also started to play prayers on the TV before setting sail. One of the lines from my last sailing was "Protect us Lord for only you know the Way, And bring us to port safely." It's somewhat disconcerting when they have to resort to divine intervention to ensure that the boat arrives intact. Jeepneys and buses are slow as they are always stopping to pick up and drop off passengers. The potholed, single-lane roads don't help as tricycles, vans, pedestrians, jeepneys and buses all jostle for position. When going from one town to another you're lucky to average 40km/h. But at least it gives you plenty of time to watch the world go by (although reading is generally not an option due to the bumpy ride). The island of Negros is dominated by sugar cane plantations, whilst on Guimaras orchards of mangoes dominate; and everywhere there are banana trees, coconut palms and paddy fields. Rural houses are often simple structures, raised on stilts to protect against damp, made of bamboo, wood and palm thatching. Small sari-sari convenience stores line the road, sachets of coffee, shampoo and detergent dangling from beams. People in the countryside are often too poor to buy a whole bottle or jar of something and so buy single servings as and when they have money. (Perversely, in the long-run this is more expensive than buying larger containers and also creates more rubbish.)

Sachets hanging in a village sari-sari store.

In the cities there are various shops that I particularly like frequenting. Top of the list are bookshops. Among the book-reading Filipino public English is the language of choice, and so finding English-language novels is very easy. Furthermore they are usually second-hand donations from North America and so are cheap too. The only problem is that the lion's share of these are either romance or crime novels (a la Maeve Binchy and Patricia Cornwell), or dieting manuals, none of which really tickle my literary taste buds. Instead you have to rummage around to find something decent. Other second hand bargains to be found are in clothes stores where I have stocked up on socks and underwear which I seem to mislay with metronomic regularity. And then for those Filipinos who aren't into reading there are stands selling pirated DVDs. Pinoy tastes in films range from crass action shoot 'em ups to low-budget horror slashers and slapstick farce with very little in between. My favourite title so far is 2-Headed Shark Attack, which looks like it's particularly popular.

You find some real gems in second-hand clothes stores. This one in Palawan had a pair of ice-skates, despite the fact that there is no ice rink on the island and that the vast majority of Filipinos have never even seen snow.

Even when there is "nothing to see" it turns out that there is, in fact, still much to see.

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