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The International Writers Magazine:Philippines

Stutter, Shudder and Jeepneys –
A Brief Trip to Manila
Dr Steven Collins

Like most Europeans, we knew little of the Philippines when asked to go to Manila to run a two-day workshop. We did have a vision of sandy beaches and wavy palms but more a recall of its poor reputation of child brides, prostitution and the corruption of the previous Marcos regime epitomised by Imelda Marcos’ legendary thousands of shoes. The request was fairly urgent and packing appropriate papers and clothing, a camera, notebook and grabbing a Lonely Planets guide, we were en route toKLIA, Kuala Lumpur, ready to judge for ourselves.

Manila’s NAIN airport is, compared with KLIA, far smaller, untidier and disturbingly overcrowded. Some partially uniformed official indicated us to join one of the forty or fifty person long queues shuffling very slowly towards some of the passport control booths visible in the distance. Suddenly two extra booths opened and as we moved towards them a fully uniformed official prevented us repeating ‘Hawaii only’ and encouraging a stream of colourful shirted, flower bedecked tourists to press on past us.

Finally through this first obstacle, we were pushed towards the next, the luggage conveyors. Here we saw the last of the same ‘Hawaiians’ moving beyond with loaded trolleys. My wife and I looked at each other trying not to think of petty corruption but as we then waited twenty minutes more, this proved too difficult. Finally, our baggage arrived and then we were on to the third obstacle, customs. We achieved this barrier with a little more ease by a great deal more pushing and we looked to finding our hotel transport, hopefully the last obstacle.

When we began to tackle the even denser crowds jamming the arrivals lobby, we had become old hands at the game of push and shove. We found the sign for taxis fairly quickly and a guy bearing our name and were next outside chasing our luggage trolley along a service road to a plain doorway. Inside were various similar decamped travellers clearly also unsure of their immediate fate before the words "Oxford Soots’’ accompanied by a smile made us venture out another door into a transit van.

We were off but soon not very far. NAIN airport, unlike KLIA, was in the middle of Manila and proved a notorious slow moving city
‘We halve jams’, our driver advised smiling again explaining the clearly evident. ‘I will take long route as it is quicker than the short cut". This sounded sort of logical in this context yet we still thanked him more for talking to us than his information. He smiled again - ‘It will take forty minutes rather than twenty.’
And it did – and more. The roads were filled with vehicles of all ages, sizes, colours and manufacture spread regardless across the three lanes or rather two as we noticed strange vehicles were parked mostly in the inner lane disgorging their contents and collect more from their rears.
'Jeepneys’, our driver confirmed when we pointed to them.
‘Cheap transport’, he added again smiling to us.

I did notice that these jeepneys, as well as the many standard white taxis that also throttled the roads, boldly bore the name of the ‘Operator’, their licence number to the rear somewhere and down the side with phone and fax numbers for reporting, a notice that read ‘How do you like my driving?’ I remembering thinking cynically that this needed relaying with ‘How’s my ability to get anywhere?’

Great advertising hoarding everywhere all along our route, larger and more than we would see in the West, seemed designed to feed the urge to escape to a better life, into another more opulent world. Clothes, cosmetics, appliances all offered this clear route to success. Even headache pills, we noticed on a series of posters on pillars that supported an equally jammed up flyover a level above would give you the confidence needed to become successful in business, politics or sport, as you chose.
We stuttered forward passed the nearby domestic airport and after twenty-five minutes a sign ‘To International Airport’ pointing our way. ‘Go with the flow’, I advised myself’ – ‘grin and bear’. Finally, we turned, through a side road, into Ayala Avenue and we finally moved into higher gears as we moved into the more mutli-storey global from single-storey light industrial. Another right in Mekati Avenue and our expectations of arriving rose as we crept then into S. Bourgos Street and the rather plain Oxford Suites, our hotel, could be seen amid the bars that seemed to throng the area.

An hour to recover and we ventured out to try one of those bars as evening now approached. We were confronted immediately by a large flashing signs for ‘Tickles Bar’ and to our left ‘Bottoms Bar’ and as we progressed just a few steps ‘The Shampoo Bar’, ‘Rogues’, ‘The Enchanted Room’, the ‘Wave Below’ and ’Giggles Bar’. Even the more subtle ‘Flamingo Bar’, a little further on, had a large neon heart hanging from the first floor out into the street to ensure its potential to clientele was clear.

Many attractive girls were passing along S. Bourgas Street, some attached to much larger and much older western males. Others wandered along slowly, mostly in pairs. We reached the bar at the Bellagio Hotel, some thirty yards along and avoiding the pavement level seats, climbed the few steps to the terrace section above and ordered local beer.

We watched intrigued as scenes unfolded before us as in any TV soap – entertainment and shock at the same time. Unattached Western men in singles or twos would sit at the street tables before us and reviewing the parade of female beauty, clearly available to them, passing by often looking to the men to check interest. To say we were amazed would be understating our reaction and rather shocked overstating it but closer.

After our two rather quick beers, the bar was filling up and we, a little embarrassed if anything, left quickly to eat finding a few yards further on down a side lane the Ziggurat Restaurant. We found it comfortable with an extensive menu promoting its good range of dishes from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Mediterranean. The fact that many of these proved unavailable when we tried to order them seemed somehow in keeping with the rest of S. Burgos Street.

Our initial impressions were thus not good. Manila seemed like a great gluepot jammed up by too many vehicles and too many people looking a quick fix of any kind to their otherwise unpromising lives. Presumably all visitors flying into NAIA Manila must undergo at least the first– the stuttering, frenzied journeys through the airport and then airport to hotel accompanied by its pollution and the blatant exploitation that abounds in every hoarding. Others, deliberately or not, may also experience the inequality and open immorality we saw in S. Bourgos Street. However, we decided to be more positive. We felt there must be more to Manila than we had experienced and we had time for a quick tour before we started our workshop.

We hired a hotel taxi to take us to Intromaduros the remains of the old Spanish fortifications and then, if there was time, onto what is now termed the Coconut Palace. The last, another of Imelda’s costly fantasies was, the story goes, to accommodate Pope John Paul II on his visit the islands but he refused to enter it saying that the money could have been better spent on social priorities. Yet in actuality, the local guide books stress, it is not quite true as the dates did not coincide. But it extends the myth of the Marcos extravagance!

Travelling through the omnipresent jams we reached the Roxas Boulevard that runs alongside the Bay of Manila.. We passed the impressive Manilla Yacht Club and the beautiful Rizal Park that did show a more attractive aspect of Manila. There were locals rambling its esplanade under the palms trees, several others fishing. The Intromadurus, at its far end, originally a fortified town, had suffered through time and wars but a short trip around the reconstructed Fort Santiago, proved invaluable.

Within its grounds, there was a peace, almost a reverence. Here was the main shrine to Dr Jose Rizal, the intellectual force and national hero of the Philippine nation. His memory is cherished by pictures and memorabilia and his writing immortalised on long metal beams impressively displayed from floor to ceiling, Here also his cell and, traced out in brass, his last steps as he was led to be shot by the colonial Spanish in 1896.

We did not have time for the Coconut Palace sadly but on our return journey did start to take more notice of the Jeepneys, developed, our driver informed us politely slowing down to let me photograph them, from the US ‘Jeep’. They are single storey long-based with a large bonnet, often decorated with large horns and, apart from those that retained the bright original metal colour, were all decorated in combinations of bright colours.

Included in their display were hand-painted indications of their routes and graffiti type insignia - suggesting it seems their owner’s view where his paradise would lay – ‘California’. ‘Bronx’, ‘Vaudeville’, ‘Valhalla’ were some I jotted down. Each jeepney carried some dozen or more who entered through a rear opening to crowd on side-seating inside. The jeepneys would have also have slogans such as ’Jesus Protect Our Journey’ or more simply ‘God Deliver Us’ reflecting both the Catholic heritage of the once Spanish colony and more directly, the chaos of local driving conditions.

We then really began to realize that our initial impressions had blocked our appreciation that the Philippines is not an American colony but a truly Asian state, As the Lonely Planets guide book did suggest, the Philippinos have an innate calmness together with boundless humour. We could see this in the travellers as they entered and left the jeepneys. There was no pushing or shoving to venture through the narrow passageway. They smiled, were polite and courteous to each other despite the crowding. We had seen this with our taxi drivers, with everyone we had met in shops, cafes and even with the street sellers in S. Bourgos Street who were offering watches, cosmetics, wallets, and even viagra. All were a polite with refusals received with smiles.

The bar waiters were quite happy to explain details of the dishes and the brands of beer that could be offered, even the glass it required. In one bar I had asked for a taller glass than the one brought. The waiter replaced it politely. On his return my wife then asked for replacement glass without ice for her coke. This second journey back to the serving area did not create the groan expected to his colleague but some laughter between them. They saw this as funny and in fact on catching their eyes, so did I. I am not sure why.

Another instance of spontaneous humour we saw at the Oxford Suites was when two young American males had arrived - all tee-shirts, long baggy shorts, reversed baseball caps and large amounts of baggage. One counted the bags and found one to be missing. Both fled out of the hotel down the street waving and shouting to their departing taxi. Meanwhile a side door opened with one of the young hotel porters in a mass of laughter wheeling the missing case having brought it in via the ramp at the side. The rest of the lobby staff also laughed and so eventually did the two Americans when they returned.

Our workshop too went well in a large part due to this calmness and humour displayed locally. We even found the University President to be of this same ilk. It was he who suggested that there is something in the Philippino culture that means they will never be great true businessmen in the Western sense. In most, more democratic countries, he suggested, deals are made across the table; in others less democratic, deals take place under the table; whereas here in the Philippines all deals take place including the table!

As the story suggests, everything and anything is up for sale in Manila. Clearly, once it came into contact with Western commercialism, the corruption and immorality that now exist was accepted too easily because of this calm. We should try to think of the Philippines as one Asian response to western commercialism where the local culture was able to come to terms with and not reject capitalist infiltration. Hopefully, they will not lose their calmness and humour and the jeepneys will remain.

© Steve Collins June 2008
sbc7away at
Kuala Lumpur

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