Kings of the Road

This piece originally appeared in the Modern Manila Issue of OUT THERE Magazine, the world’s leading, award-winning, dedicated luxury and experiential travel journal for discerning, taste-making gay men and their friends.  For digital copies, click here.

In a sprawling metropolis like Manila where rapid modernization gives little precedence to heritage, a humble mode of transportation prevails as the city’s most vital cultural icon: the jeepney. Stand in any street corner for no more than 10 seconds and you will no doubt come across a mobile (and very colourful) reminder of the country’s vast cultural influences, and a testament to its people’s ingenuity and creativity.

The origins of the jeepney – as the name suggests – are from the iconic US military vehicle which flooded the country during the 50-year American occupation in the first half of the 20th century. Because of the Filipinos’ inherent inventiveness (or perhaps as a symbol of defiance), the front, chassis and wheels are pretty much all that remains of the original vehicle, the rest is a handmade custom ‘cut and shunt’ extension turning the stocky four wheel drive into a long minibus. A very eye-catching, vibrant, and kitschy minibus.

For the past seven decades, the utilitarian jeepney has served double duty as the proletariat’s chief mode of transportation and its primary canvass for artistic expression. One cannot help but comment on the jeepney’s visual flair which ranges from brightly hued vehicles to an exercise on excessive extravagance. I personally find the over the top ones fascinating. Upon seeing the Virgin Mary, a badly drawn picture of Michael Jackson, Garfield and a black stallion spray painted across a jeepney’s body, I cannot help but think, “What the hell was the owner thinking?” While these visual mashups of pop culture icons are not that commonplace just yet, there seems to be two standards that each jeepney owner has to meet: 1) the front-hood area should always be overcrowded with steel horses, horns, lights, antennas and mirrors that are more decorative than functional, and 2) your jeepney has to be an homage to family and religion.

 

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Emblazoned on a foot high sign above the windshield is a sign displaying the owner’s family name or statements like “God Bless Our Trip” or “Katas ng Saudi”, which loosely translates as “from my earnings as an overseas Filipino worker in Saudi Arabia”. Somewhere inside are written the names of the jeepney owner’s family. It could be graffiti on the ceiling or wooden carvings hanging behind the driver’s seat.

The dashboard, often as not, is decorated like mini shrines with religious iconographies like statues of the crucifixion, the Virgin Mary and the owner’s favorite saint, sharing the stage with a laughing Buddha and the Maneki-neko, that ever-present waving cat. (Jeepney owners always have their bases covered.) Hanging on the rearview mirror are more rosaries and amulets than Madonna has worn in the 80s.

Each jeepney is a unique reflection and expression of its owner’s socio-economic, political, religious and cultural influences thus no two jeepneys are actually alike. Notice how I kept on using jeepney owners and not drivers? That’s because the jeepney system is still colored by the feudal system of the Spanish colonial era. Jeepney owners usually “rent out” their vehicles to drivers for around 15 British pounds for a 12-hour shift, excluding gas.

Jeepneys provide both a visual and an aural assault to one’s senses. Climb inside the back and sit on either side of two padded benches that run lengthwise and you will no doubt be enveloped by a wall of music. Older drivers would listen to radio stations playing 80s hair metal, Air Supply or Michael Bolton while the younger ones would be blasting MP3s of Pinoy gangsta rap or three year-old American hip-hop from their bass heavy speakers. (Flo Rida’s Low remains a heavy favorite among the twentysomething drivers set.) All this music is competing with the chatter of other passengers, and the city’s ubiquitous white noise.

 

 

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It goes without saying that a jeepney ride is an adventure in itself. An average ride will cost 0.10 British pounds. Just make sure that one hops on the correct jeepney; each area has an average of three jeepney lines that bring passengers to various destinations. Since information on these lines are unavailable anywhere, it is best to ask people on the jeepney that will take you to your destinations. To ride a jeepney is to not merely experience a Third World kind of thrill ride. It is to immediately feel connected to the city in a way that can only be achieved by chugging through the congested streets with the hot air blowing in your face can.

The jeepney perfectly reflects the city of Manila. It captures the non-cohesive melange of Spanish, American and Asian influences from the city’s past, and as Manila evolves into a highly modernized city, so does the jeepney – in its own little way. (I have ridden jeepneys that have DVD players and karaoke machines that entertain its driver and passengers in Manila’s infamous traffic.) The Philippine jeepney has been the king of Manila’s road for close to eighty years. Long may he reign.

© 2017 Victor John Platon
All Rights Reserved.

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