Jeepney Ride

I begin my morning in Cebu City by clambering into the back of a jeepney, the Philippines’ ubiquitous vehicle for public transit. First, as ever, I smash my head on the low roof as I crouch-walk between the benches on either side of the bed. Then I take a seat, and hug my backpack to my chest. When the back of his truck is full to the driver’s satisfaction, he releases the parking break and accelerates into a high-speed slalom down the narrow road winding out of Peace Valley. Chickens, children and dogs dodge the jeepney, and the jeepney itself dodges potholes, low-slung branches and chickens. The passengers are like popcorn kernels.

The original jeepneys were built from the Jeeps left behind by the US military after World War II. The back of the Jeep was sliced off and replaced with an extended bed, and, voila, public transit. There are many jeepneys still on the road today in the same style and construction: they look like junkyard frankensteins, all bulging curves and polished chrome embellishments, soldered together out of obviously mismatched parts, and slathered in whatever colors of paint happened to be available at the time.

The newer jeeps have a boxier, more clean-cut look, but with equally outrageous paint jobs: I’ve seen firebreathing dragons, abstract cubism, and a life-sized Yoda wielding a light saber. Also painted on is the jeepney’s route (e.g. “APAS LAHUG CARBON JONES & vice versa”), and often the name of the driver, or perhaps his boss, or maybe his wife (e.g. “Jose Vincent” or “Ramos Brothers” or “Severina”), and occasionally a total non-sequitur (e.g. “Duran Duran” or “Stairway to Heaven” or “Powered by Linux 2.8!”).The roller coaster track down the valley spits us out into the ceaseless river of city traffic, where Jeepneys bump and squeeze through Cebu’s arteries like countless technicolor blood cells on infinite loops. Some trucks feature a teenager hanging off the back, clad in a tank top and mesh shorts, and sporting bootleg Ray-Bans, his feat sliding around in cheap flip flops. His job is to holler at people on the street and suggest that they might be interested in going where he’s going. He also takes the fares of the passengers, and whistles at the driver or bangs on the roof with a wrench when somebody wants to get off.

More often, the driver is himself at once conductor, chief marketing officer, financial manager and, oh yes, the driver of his truck. He guides his lumbering vehicle bumping and squeezing through the flow of traffic, slowing down to let passengers in and out the open door in the rear, speeding up to shoot the gap between two other jeeps, steering with his left hand, taking your fare in his right hand, stretched out behind his head. Give him a hundred pesos for your 7.5 peso fare, and he’ll make change out of the pile of money on his dashboard, never slowing, never letting a gap in traffic go uncaptured, and hand it back behind his head again, where it is passed passenger-to-passenger and into your waiting hands. Ninety-two pesos and fifty centavos.

As ever, the passenger load on this morning’s jeep was as varied as the population of the city itself. Nurses in their neat white uniforms, and school children in knee socks and clip-on ties. A woman with one hand swollen to twice the size of the other climbs gingerly aboard what will serve as her ambulance, her utterly unconcerned-looking husband follows. Cebu hipsters in graphic tees and glasses without lenses look bored. An old woman with conjunctivitis drooling from her eyes sits down practically on top of me. In front, sitting beside the driver, an infant on her mother’s lap flails madly with her legs, trying desperately to knock the gearshift into neutral.

And oh, this truck is full. That’s what you think, until the driver slows to let two construction workers climb aboard, and then two more women laden down with shopping bags. And then two more… Of course, at a certain point, it actually is full, once all the little people are on top of the big people, and all the bottoms have wiggled and squeezed in together, and three guys are dangling off the back of the truck. In general, about a third of the passengers could get off a full jeepney, and it would still seem “full” to a layman.

As my destination approaches, I take a coin and bang it on the handrails that run along the ceiling of the truck, and garble out a few syllables that sound kind of like what other people say when they want the truck to stop. The driver pulls over to the side of the road, or just slows down in the middle of traffic, and I get up, smash my head on something, step on a few toes, and hurl myself out the back door, almost always landing on my feet, shirt tucked in, shoes polished, ready for a day at the office.

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