Among the many things that blow me away about myself is how well I’ve taken to Filipino transportation, when – and this is the honest-to-goodness truth – I found London transportation emotionally debilitating. Not exaggerating. At all.
How does this make any sense? In London, one can catch the tube, a train, or a bus. There are pretty clear and well-defined routes, although…sometimes there’s a strike. Sometimes a tube line breaks down, or has to stop because someone on another train got sick. Sometimes the trains can’t run because there are leaves on the tracks. That is no joke. Happens quite often, in fact. Sometimes your bus gets re-routed and you can miss your stop by several miles and have to find another route. Here’s how I see it: you’ve got this incredible infrastructure, with all your basic needs met, all the information provided, etc. But in a city where more or less every house is Victorian, weather is moody and there’s a 50-50 split between private and public ownership on the transportation system (or has that now changed?), there is a prime set-up for a very confused immigrant who is late for her new job and now just needs a good cry and a pint.
But here…there’s no system to speak of! I mean – OK – that’s not fair exactly…but the way it works is just incredible to me. There are a number of modes of transport available in Cagayan de Oro…these are the same throughout Northern Mindanao, with a couple of mild variations on availability.
There are two companies running buses from Cagayan de Oro…they run south, toward Davao, Mindanao’s biggest city; east, toward Surigao, the surf capital of the Philippines, and west, toward Zamboanga. I take this last route two-three times per month to go to Iligan for Organization B. Rural Transit is by far the more powerful of the two, although Super 5 has significantly superior buses in my opinion. There are two kinds of bus – one is massive and air conditioned and tends to have a television at the front so you can watch movies rather than scenery on your trip. The other is slightly smaller, no air con, no telly…so you are forced to enjoy nature. I prefer to travel on the latter, but they stop – on the national highway – to pick up and drop off passengers along the way. This means it takes ages to get where you’re going, so I inevitably opt for the air con. And while the non-air con is supposed to be so much cheaper, it rarely is…the prices are never set with the buses. These buses drive fast down the highway – they pass every other kind of auto – and it is a very windy road, running through about 25 villages between CdO and Iligan alone (80 km stretch), with next-to-no lights at night…and…here’s the best part: there’s only two lanes. Scary? I just sit toward the back of the bus so I can’t see what the driver’s up to.
By far my most common mode of transport, the beloved jeepney is more dependable than just about anything else I’ve ever known. These can fit up to 27 people inside, and another 30 or so up top. Throw 4 or 5 young men on the back, and you’re carrying near enough 60 people on a single automobile. In all fairness, they don’t run that full in the city center – usually somewhere between 15 and 30 – but they are still incredible to behold. They are bright, colorful, shiny…and the driver is right there, out in the open. So if you’re not sure which one to take, you just shout where you’re going, and if he’s going that way, he’ll nod and pull over; if not, he’ll drive on. Often they have conductors, who ride on the back, collecting money and attracting passengers by shouting the various destinations. When they’re full, they can be a real cash cow, but if they aren’t, it takes an awful lot of gas to power those huge hunks of steel. So many of them run only a las pono, or when they’re full. This means you spend a great deal of time in the sweltering heat waiting for the damn things to fill up, willing passers-by to need to go where you’re going. There are no designated stops for jeepneys – one just raises a hand to stop them, or shouts “Lugar lang!” to alight.
Sometimes called just “relas,” the motorela is my second-most common mode of transport. This is essentially a small motorcycle fitted with a number of vulcanized sheets of metal such that it is surrounded by a box from front to back, and then some. This enables the driver to have a passenger on either side of him (never her), as well as up to six behind. There are plastic roll-up windows (also found on jeeps) in case it rains, and one enters from a tiny little entry at the back. The routes they’ll take are significantly shorter than those of the jeep (some jeepneys run from Cagayan de Oro to Iligan), but they function in more or less the same way. The Manila equivalent to the motorela is the tricycle, whereby up to 3 passengers ride alongside the driver rather than behind. When we first arrived, we met with a woman from Xavier University for Chris’ placement who said, “The Japanese are very upset with us for what we’ve done to their motorcycles.” I found this hilarious.
Habal-habal…hmmm…I wanted to tell you what this mean exactly, so I looked it up. Apparently it means “copulate-copulate”…hehe…hehe…ahem. Or “conjoin-conjoin.” Anyway, it’s just a motorcycle with a driver who can take up to 4 people on the back of his bike (depending on how fat they are). Seeing this in practice lends a bit of light to the nomenclature. Not my preferred mode of transport. But sometimes a necessity.
A motorela made from a bicycle. Driving these is considered one of the worst forms of child labor. (Gross generalization warning) City Pinoys do not like to walk.
The roads of Cagayan de Oro were not made for the number of people who now need to travel on them every day. And the madness that comes out of no designated stops is a force to be reckoned with. But I am endlessly overwhelmed by the Zen-like patience of the drivers. They never shout. They do not make obscene gestures, even when cut off for the 16th time in a row. A motorela driver ever-so-calmly directs his automobile into oncoming traffic that may – or may not – stop to let him pass. And today I witnessed something exceptional.
From our place we have yet another form of transport: the shuttle. They’re quite few and far between besides here – they just run to our place, really, stopping along the way at several places difficult to access by jeep from some parts of the city center. Shuttles are smaller than jeeps, and they are enclosed with air conditioning. The cab at the front sits the driver and up to three passengers, and the back up to 16 adults plus kids (who can stand in the middle or sit on their parents’ laps) squeeze in. The driver is a bit more cut off from the passengers, and today our driver was a bit older. A woman called out, “Lugar lang,” but he didn’t hear her. Suddenly – and this doesn’t happen often – like 3 people consecutively shouted “Lugar lang!” trying to help, none of them knowing the others would do so at the same time. The effect was that it understandably startled our driver, who proceeded to sort of slam on his brakes. That probably wouldn’t have been a problem as Filipinos are very attentive drivers (they have to be), but there were three motorcycles behind him, who ended up bumping into each other, one of them falling off his bike. No one was hurt, and the bikes were fine, but the incredible thing was this: within mere seconds they were laughing about it and driving off. They could have all just been killed. No biggie. I quickly turned to tell the driver, whose face was frozen in panic lest he’d been the cause of an accident. Seeing that drain from his face as he, too, laughed off the near-miss was wonderful.
I’ve heard that in India, causing or even nearly-causing an accident can get a driver dragged from his car and beaten in the street. I have seen (and expressed) road rage in Los Angeles that puts everyone on the road in grave danger to accommodate one driver’s moment of anger. The things I don’t understand here aren’t only sources of frustration. Sometimes they’re also the source of pure, unadulterated admiration.