The Philippines

notes and coins

Mabuhay from Manila,

We humans are obviously herd animals; very gregarious and much more comfortable in the company of lots and lots of others from our own species. Crowded cities are testament to our desire to be with others. But there are some contradictory forces at play in our unconscious decision to live in urban places (which is most of us these days). The history of urbanisation has been the emergence of a new problem followed by a new solution which in turn begets another new problem. The streets of Metro Manila show this in continuous detail.

The Jeepney is a case in point. This is a unique Filipino mode of transport, which moves commuters to and from work every day.

With a strong American heritage in this country (The American empire bought the archipelago from the Spanish colonisers for $16 million USD.) and a pervasive American presence (American accents on the radio, massive embassy and impressive war memorial) and an unmistakable American influence (capitalism reaching its late stage here, too), it’s no surprise to find a vehicle possessing the American epithet. The Jeepney is a conversion of the war vehicle, modified for mass transportation of modern city passengers. Metro Manila is many cities forming a massive conurbation on the shores of Manila Bay. Millions need to get from one place to another and the Jeepneys serve the purpose.

commuter trips

 The Jeepneys are a bit loud and sometimes they spew out black smoke. The original vehicles have been lengthened to accommodate more customers. Perhaps the biggest will carry 15 or so. They seem to have no timetable and no network map. There are no designated stops; the driver stops anywhere a passenger wants to alight or board. The driver is undeniably one of the people: dressed casually and joining in the vernacular of the people. They collect the cash fare by cupping their right hand over their shoulder and accepting the notes and coins passed up the line from the back of the vehicle. The drivers behave like they own the road, and fair enough, too.

The Jeepney is a great influence for national character. They force everyone to rub shoulders – quite literally – with everyone else. They rejoice in an egalitarian ethos where no-one cares where the next person works, how much they earn or own and what their name is. There is no impersonal lever or chain pulled by a customer to alert the driver that a passenger wishes to alight. Instead, there is a conversation between said passenger and driver. There is a human connection.

Who owns them?

The terrible thing is this: the jeepneys are not owned by the drivers. Even though most drivers take some pride in their vehicles,  very few of them actually own them. In fact, they pay the owner a rental fee each day for the privilege of using the asset. The driver pays the rent and pockets the fares collected throughout the day. Like the CSG operators and rickshaw wallas in Dhaka, these guys are beholden to the owners for their means of income.

This is a system which aids the owners of property over the toil of the workers. Why do we accept such inequities in our cities? We make the commute more palatable with mass transport, roaming internet, bike lanes etc, all of which the residents of Manila are taking to with alacrity, but we allow the iniquitous systems to reward ownership over labour. Perhaps we should be insisting that the solutions to urban problems don’t create worse problems. It seems that the Jeepney example is another instance of us urban dwellers just accepting an unfair system.

Paalam from Manila

Brother Grek

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