I haven’t had plenty of opportunity to take foreign friends around Manila. In fact, besides friends born to Filipino parents abroad who have ancestral homes here for summer retreats, I have no experience taking friends around my own country at all. It’s not that we’re at the bottom rung of BudgetTravel’s Top Countries to Visit When Depressed—I mean, come on, those beaches that stretch out into the ocean (or at least some part of China’s disputed baselines) has got to make it to some list, right? And, it’s the Philippines! How much more “budget” could you get?
Or are we, indeed, at the bottom of that list?
Wednesday, November 30. 2011
I have come to think so, after much consideration. The authorities, too, recently and finally recognized the need for serious structural and administrative renovations, after the historic Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s consistent topnotching of SleepingInAirports.Com’s Worst Airports List, and the recent escape to a non-extraditing country of a suspect in a celebrity parricide case.
But the awful airport is just one facet of the whole Manila experience. It is just a bite of the whole pie of public transportation, which has been and will always be problematic, until the government decides that when properly attended to, it can spawn a number of improvements in all areas of Philippine living. Personally, I put the blame on the privatization of the whole public transportation system. Today, buses of all shapes, makes, sizes and speeds traverse EDSA (the historic Epifanio De los Santos Avenue, the major artery of Philippine public works and highways), without heed of a schedule, or rules on proper carriage. A commuter must await a bus’ most convenient swerve to pick her off from anywhere on the street, and meet it with a graceful and timely hop. Or hop-skip. Once onboard the competition continues; one should call it a lucky day if she gets seated or is offered one. Getting off is just as challenging: if a bus stops somewhere in the middle of the highway, it is only for the convenience of the passenger—after all, in this heat, we do not like to walk much, and therefore hate the strictness of bus stops.
For the more law-abiding citizens on the other hand, it is good news that efforts to curtail buses’ arbitrary loading of commuters now entail the installation of grills to make sure that the buses stay in their lanes. It is, however, a testament to the government’s disposition that we need an iron implementing hand to follow rules; when in fact, a less corrupt and more stringent penalty system would suffice. We also have yet to test the new and award-winning Filipino-invented iBus system, which is a more network- and RFID-driven technology that bus operators are sure to shake their heads on.
This November I almost got to take around Manila one of those Filipino expat-born friends whom I met in the US. It’s such a shame though that after much ado (on her part) about the MRT or anywhere outside Makati not being safe, we cancelled our short trip. Here then, is my only note to travelers to the Philippines: if you cannot stomach riding our train system, don’t come here at all.
Past invectives said aside, the MRT (the Metro Rail Transit, which also traverses the entirety of EDSA) is actually a wondrous and curious creature—despite the unruly boarding system, the screwed-up clocks, the inefficient ticketing system—heck, I even wrote my undergraduate thesis on it. It is more than just a moving vessel where all walks of Filipino life congregate, and immerse themselves into a phantasmagoria of Philippine reality. There could be no better juxtaposition of the business districts’ high rise financial enclaves and the corrugated tin roofs that crop up in the most unpredictable spots, held in place by discarded tires. With so much going on outside, and so little empty space to set one’s eyes on inside, it is an awkward place. A wonderfully awkward place where one is forced into solitude amid the crowdedness, a place that I hope gives everyone the similar sentiment of dreaming better things for the city, the country.
After the trains and buses, getting around the rest of Metro Manila is relatively easy—with a heavy emphasis on “relatively”. Stations of the three light rail systems almost always lead to mall entrances—a treat for the heat-drenched commuter, while the old Philippine National Railways, though under revival, literally treads paths outside Metro Manila that do not look promising, with squatters taking camp on the edges. The ingeniously converted war era-US Army jeeps (now jeepneys), privately run commuter vans, tricycles and manually operated pedicabs, can also take a person anywhere—except in exclusive subdivisions where residents are always hauled in and out by their private cars or by cabs. It’s easy to drive, too, as long as one does not rely on a GPS navigator or road signs, and is not too proud to not roll the windows down often to ask a kind pedestrian for directions.
A recent torrent of Supreme Court cases on tram accidents that had been dumped on me for academic reading has made me nostalgic for a time I did not live in. I’ve only seen pictures that attest the existence of a clean, less crowded Manila, as well as the trams that even in their supposed slowness had managed to trample on the fragile bodies of two year olds, and eject passengers to unbelievable distances. I am awed by the stories of my mother about them, she who hails from a distant province, and in her youth, could only dream of seeing and experiencing Manila. I too wonder about a future where the jeepneys, tricycles, and the trains do not exist, where more efficient locomotives have taken their place. I wonder if by that time, I (or my progeny) will have reason to be nostalgic too for awful airport anecdotes, the reckless movement of mass in a city that did not quite know its history then, nor where it was supposed to go.
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