Getting Around: The Philippines

The final month of any year ushers in a reflection of the past 52 weeks: how I’ve progressed, failed, changed, and learned. Recently I’ve been pouring over photos and writings from my first solo international adventure last fall (ok, so a little over a year ago) and I’m finally energized to share my thoughts on the island nation of the Philippines.

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A view of Manila from the MRT Yellow Line Guadalupe light rail station.

Writing is a strange experience sometimes. For no identifiable reason, I haven’t been inspired to connect my ideas during my trip–until now. Thankfully I took many good notes throughout the adventure, reflecting my thoughts at the time of recording.

As I’ve discovered, words and photos transport me back to a time and place in which I would otherwise forget. In a new series called Getting Around, I discuss my interaction with regional transit networks, local mobility, and the people that use it.

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An Inter-Island Journey

I broadly categorized my sentiments into two fields: Time & Space, and Infrastructure. Both of these conceptual framings helped me make sense of my observations in the Philippines, especially while asking locals questions to investigate their thoughts on the world around them.

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A common scene in small cities around the Philippines. Coron is located on Basuanga Island, a small city in northern Palawan.

For a little more context, I spent nearly a month traversing a dozen (of the 7,000+) islands via foot, tricycle, moped, moped + local, moped + foreigner, taxi, Grab (Asian Uber), car, passenger van, double-outrigger boat, commuter river boat, pump boat, ferry, container ship (nearly vomited), bus, jeepney (explained below), metro rail line, regional prop plane, and commercial jet. I spend dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars experiencing more transit than I ever imagined.

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I began and ended my trip in Manila, the extremely congested capital city. The remaining three weeks was spread between the major islands of Palawan, Cebu, Bohol, and Negros. Trips between major islands almost always required a flight or ferry ride, all depending on whether you value money or safety more. There were multiple times I had to grin and bear questionable forms of transportation: are these ferries up to code? what code? what maintenance inspections are conducted on this aircraft? what inspections?

These are the choices I avoid telling my mother.

The ‘Pearl of the Orient’

I wish I could identify a compelling reason for choosing my trip to the Philippines, but once again I chalk this up to cheap airfare and a desire to identify the fringes of my comfort zone. Due to my lack of knowledge, I often delve beyond the realm of practical information before, such a trip. During the months leading up to my visit and the subsequent immersion, I synthesized some generalities to set the scene for this often unconventional destination.

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The Intramuros district in Manila was an old Spanish fortress during the occupation. Today it houses beautiful architecture, universities, and its fair share of horse-drawn carriages.

Although native Pacific Islanders called the Philippines home for thousands of years, the development of the archipelago occurred during the four-hundred plus year occupation by the Spanish, and subsequent military influence of the United States in the 20th century.

Residual Spanish and English language and culture is evident everywhere: architecture, words, attitude, religion, etc. English is extremely prevalent, especially in the young generation recognizing the economic mobility in which proficiency in the English language provides (hospitality, call centers, outsourcing, etc.).

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Whether driven by the “mañana” attitude or island life mentality, everything is laid back and extremely relational in the Filipino culture. To many westerners, lunch occurs at 12:00pm, whereas Filipinos would say it’s after breakfast and before dinner. Again, in western culture, directions typically require an address and turn by turn directions. Often times, locations in the Philippines are “just up the road”, on “Duterte Ave” or simply “located in neighborhood X”. Specifics are hardly important, you’ll get there eventually.

Perhaps some details are lost in translation, however it’s unlikely when many people speak such great English. I assume this to be fallout of the hyper local nature of people’s daily transactions. When so much of your life can be contained in narrow slices of the town, many places are a short walk, scoot, or trike away. Things are human-sized and rarely require the knowledge of far-away locations. Many people I met along my travels had yet to venture beyond their island–decades into life. Economics is certainly at play here as well.

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Rush hour traffic in Metropolitan Manila.

Of all the familiar travel challenges, my most glaring experience surrounding Manila was it’s abhorred, unrivaled, respiratory-compromising traffic congestion. I heard stories. I was warned. Turns out I really wasn’t prepared for the perpetual gridlock from “4am to 11pm everyday”, according to one taxi driver. Along with other factors, including the immense beauty of the surrounding islands, most travelers don’t leave Ninoy Aquino international Airport anyway. Of course, knowing me, I didn’t follow that advice. I ventured deep into the heart of random alleyways and Manila neighborhoods.

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Drinking northern Luzon coffee and walking the streets of Chinatown, Manila.

The Story Beyond Manila

Regional cities and small municipalities paint a wholly different picture of the Philippines. Sugarcane fields, countless barangays (neighborhoods), white sand beaches, thick vegetation, rice paddies, and tropical climate dominates the thousands of islands along the Philippine Mobile Belt between the Eurasian and Philippine Sea Plate. Livestock pours onto the streets. Children run around the street playing games and jumping into the local river. Tricycles and jeepneys provide on-demand and “relatively” fixed-transit solutions around all cities. Like many relatively poor countries, scooters dominate the landscape while cars remain a sign of high wealth.

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When plumes of expended diesel waft my way on an American street, I’m instantly transported back to Cebu, Tagbilaran City, and the small villages of El Nido and Santa Fe. Many women covered their nose and mouth with a scarf to dissipate the intoxicating smell. In this region of the world, it represents the cost of mobility. The price of getting to where you need to go, for relatively cheap fare. For those with more resources however, scooters compete with other on-demand transportation such as personal cars, taxis, and Grab.

(Somewhat) Fixed-Route Jeepneys

One of my favorite ways to traverse cities was on the local jeepney network, a regionally understood but hardly documented private bus system. As the story goes, US military buses leftover from the war were re-purposed into an affordable transit option for people in towns throughout the country. Bright and unique paint jobs (some might call it “flair”), containing route and destination information, grace the side of these diesel monsters. They’re hard to miss.

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Bus drivers rent the jeepneys for a given time period (a day, or perhaps more) and drive these routes until it’s profitable, then turn in for the night. After sliding onto the bus, a passing of change is completed up the row of riders to the bus driver. He tosses it in the till and provides change, returned to the rider in a similar manner: passed down the chain of fellow passengers. When you’re ready to depart, bang a coin on the over-head railing (one’s that American GI’s probably held onto for dear life) and be prepared to hop off.

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An example of typical Jeepneys that serve cities around the country. They hold 16-20 people on two long benches at the rear of the vehicle. Passengers can also sit up from when needed.

I loosely used the term “fixed-route” because while the path is defined, the boarding and egress of passengers can happen on-demand. Roll on, roll off. Some extremely busy centers of personal and economic interest have dedicated stop canopies, but it’s not unusual to flag a bus off an eight-land thoroughfare. Be aware of your surroundings, and try not to get run over by passing vehicles.

On-Demand Transit

For those looking for a slightly more spacious experience, and I use the word slightly with apprehension. Look no further than your on-demand tricycles. Like a Bangkok tuk tuk, this Uber-style method of mobility awaits with every other passing street vehicle. Not only will you experience additional shoulder room, but you’ll probably enjoy a healthy breeze to fend off the thick layer of brake dust and exhaust. Most trikes are basic motorcycles strapped and fastened to cabs. Looking at the shoddy construction, it’s any wonder they didn’t detach during operation.

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That’s a ratchet tie down strap keeping tension between the cab roof and bicycle mainframe.

As a white foreigner, most of my pre-entry discussion involved a fierce negotiation with the driver, so I could pay a semblance of market rate: USD $.50 – $1.00. As I discovered, some foreigners accept the requested price hike as the cost of traveling. Others however aren’t so kind. With such high demand for local transportation, the consumer can easily threaten to take the next one. And for every moment these vehicles are empty, they’re losing cash.

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Interestingly enough, further leverage comes from the simple fact that most of these trips were under a half mile. Locals heavily depend (expect?) to have point-to-point transit carry them these short distances–rarely walking at all. Either predisposed to walking or just a curious biped, I hardly took these trikes unless my destination exceeded a mile or more. At that point, the cost-benefit calculation was easy and I happily parted with my change. Regardless, I had many locals find it strange that I “enjoyed” the liberation of walking. (That said, it’s common to make assumptions about pedestrians on high-traffic American boulevards or highways, isn’t it?).

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Probably the two most critical transit vehicles in all of the Philippines.

Scooting Around Bantayan Island

On my way to Bacolod for the annual Masskara Festival, I made a three-day stopover to the remote island of Bantayan Island. This is where the sea-sickening ferry ride came in. I was certifiably the only foreigner crammed into the aft open-air passenger cabin of a massive container ship. The boat was running late, resulting in a nighttime voyage that felt endless. For nearly an hour, I identified the horizon by oscillating lights somewhere in the distance, praying for the rocking to stop. The smell of diesel enough to make me sick. I would categorize this as a low-point of the trip.

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A view of the Bantayan Public Plaza from the Saints Peter and Paul Parish bell tower.

Yet in that same three-day period, I enjoyed one of the most liberating travel experiences of my visit in the Philippines. I rented a small scooter from the hotel maintenance engineer for $10 a day, and proceeded to circumnavigate the entire island, a three-hour scoot past beaches, forests, and little villages.

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Looking at the infrastructure, this was one of the few places I saw someone actively pouring fresh concrete. At speeds nearing 40mph, I carved through two-lane countrysides in the afternoon sunshine for a couple days, accessing the Santo Niño Caves, old Spanish fortresses, and bustling city squares. Simply finding a functional ATM was an adventure in itself (I don’t recommend running out of cash on remote islands).

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Cruising the seas around Palawan during a five-day island hopping tour from Coron to El Nido.

As a quick aside, I stopped off at a nature preserve and hospitality center for an exploratory tour of the local caverns. I arrived for weekday lunch and was quickly greeted by the property owners and (believe it or not) former Boeing engineer. I discovered a Boeing 737 Aircraft Flight Manual laying around their library collection. One thing led to another and pretty soon I enjoyed a free lunch with the owners and their son–it’s a wonderful and wacky world.

Beyond The City

At this point in the country’s history, it has become more accepted for young people to relocate outside the “provinces” and into the city–places of higher education and job opportunities. Regarding the latter, those with the economic means to do so, study. But even a college degree doesn’t guarantee a career in your field.

I met engineers and public relations majors working as ATM technicians and Philippine Airline stewards. For those with excellent English skills, working in call centers (think Comcast, AT&T) is a high-paying and coveted job. It’s a 9-to-5’er with government holidays, benefits, and vacation. This will earn you roughly USD $15-20k as a starting salary.

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While many citizens constrains themselves to the cities and islands of their upbringing, there is one intriguing and unique reason they fly to far-flung countries: work. Some studies indicate that 20% of the Philippines–tens of millions of people!–live and work in China, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait among others. They are maids, drivers, and shop keepers in high-wealth areas. Each month, they remit millions of dollars to the island nation, directly to their families.

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I can’t comment on all the economic specifics, but let’s just say the demand is high enough to merit specific OFW (Overseas Foreign Worker) dedicated security checkpoints at the Manila airport. Even domestic Filipinos (such as the college-educated ATM technician I met) remit over 50% of his monthly earnings to his mother and four siblings, nearly a 5-hours bus ride from where he lives. “How else would they eat? How else would my brother afford school?” Can you imagine funding a siblings American college education? What about supporting a mother or father that no longer works? Here we find the East clashing with the West.

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A view of downtown Manila during my descent into the city. Remarkably simple and impoverished barangays make up the vast majority of the left-hand side of this image.

Completing the Circuit

Without long-distant, inter-island forms of transportation, such as Cebu Pacific Air or 2GO ferries, finding my way back to Manila would have been impossible. You can’t bus there from a far-flung island. They’re too far from one another for bridges, plus the money for highways and infrastructure simply isn’t there.

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While reaching the major hubs of Manila and Cebu, the Philippine’s second largest metropolis, are relatively easy, making the cross-country trek is far more difficult. It was a great challenge to access flights between islands that don’t route through the major hubs.

In addition to the fairly high cost of inter-island flights, it’s no wonder so many people remain fiscally unable to afford this style of transit. Framed another way, the large middle class which exists in America can afford air travel, but much of the Philippines lives far below the means of Manileño and Cebuano families. Economic distributions are extremely top-heavy.

By the time I returned to Manila for my flight home, I had journeyed to seemingly the ends of the Earth and back. It was a figurative and literal ride. I don’t think I’ve experienced such diverse capabilities and efficiencies of transportation in my short years. There were moments that questioned my western beliefs about comfort and safety. I was sometimes trapped in 6-hour bathroomless vans and empowered by go-anywhere, do-anything 150cc scooters. But what great fun!

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One of my favorite forms of transit was this 30-person outrigger boat guided by Tao Philippines, a travel excursion company connecting visitors to the local communities of Palawan.

The people of transit–those that move us–satisfy humanity’s most basic need: the need to get somewhere. To reach a destination for any number of reasons. After all, the vast, vast majority of our trips are a means to an end, in order to get things “done”. Yet I couldn’t help but realize that much of my time on this trip was spent enjoying the means, finding immense pleasure and interest in how I was getting there, regardless of where there exactly was. In the end, the means were in fact a destination in themselves.

Next time you’re in transit, gain awareness about the joy of mobility, about the magic of travel. For without that perspective, I think we lose a sense of awe about the ground passing beneath our feet. The sugarcane fields blurring past our windows. Or the faces of our fellow brothers and sisters watching us move across the Earth.

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