Transport: More Fun in the Philippines?

manila-pal planes-2013 manila-trycicle-2013 manila-jeepney-2013 manila-lrt train-2013 manila-pack em in tight-2013 manila-mrt station-2013

The Philippines are in the midst of a tourist drive. With their colourful and quirky ‘more fun in the Philippines’ campaign and slogan attracting a lot of media attention. However, while the people are incredibly friendly considering some of what they have had to endure in the past (WW2) and continue to courtesy of nature throwing its own horrendous forces against it (as we have seen in the recent typhoon). Sadly, they are not natural planners.

This begins at the airport, a hotchpotch of terminals scattered over a patch of land between the central business district Makati and the cities southern reaches. I’ve travelled with the flag carrier, a full service airline and although we pass empty air bridges at their Terminal 2 base, we are parked at an isolated stand with steps up to the plane. They do not open the rear door so everyone is standing waiting to alight from the front. Adding to this is the lack of any airport bus to take us the terminal and immigration; only a series of airline vans much like the hotel shuttle variety. Nice but hardly practical. At immigration the first noticeable thing is all the signage is in plain English, no Tagalog. The next is that they have few windows operational and the man that stands between me and Manila is lethargic to say the least. Then there is customs, behind them is the glass frontage to the terminal itself, not the familiar walk through to information and shops. I know from my research that there is no metro train – but also know it isn’t far away.

My plan is to get a bus then metro from Baclaran. Sadly, it isn’t just airline buses the airport is lax about and this is easier said then done. The taxis – all the airport will accommodate – attempt to gain my interest but my distrust of them means I insist on doing things my way. Although it is not far (on the map at least) it will take 5 hours to get to Makati. Quite why the Filipinos can’t supply an airport coach from their capital cities airport to the main business district is truly staggering! I find one quite easily outside the terminal area, however it is far from being an air conditioned luxury as is common in Taipei and other Asian cities. It is more how I imagine a bus in Tonga, or a remote Pacific isle to be, a rustic affair with no baggage compartment beneath. Though it does feature a flat screen attached above the windscreen and a Jesus figurine in the window. There is some sort of game show on – which is in the local language; Tagalog, some find it amusing while some ignore it.

Part way through the journey the bus conductor who must be about 17 takes my bag off and tells me to get on another bus. This is perplexing to say the least as the bus is already taking me where I want yet despite my puzzled protest, the rainy street welcomes me with my now former mode of transport taking off before my eyes! I spin round to see other buses and another local favourite, Jeepney’s (converted low lying army vehicles) careening toward me! I attempt to get another bus but they stop for a matter of seconds before speeding away in a similar fashion with laughing jack asses as conductors. I end up in a Jeepney with my bags which is far from ideal. Finally, we alight at what I think is Baclaran station; it turns out to be Taft Avenue. It might be lunch time but it’s no less chaotic. If Beijing and Bangkok metro systems had been testing this was something else again. There are steps up to the station but nothing else. A kind soul helps with my luggage.

The open air bridges interlinking the two different lines are a seething mass of people and like the roads are wet from recent rain. While being searched is not new, this is again much more rustic with planks of thin wood on spindly legs that can barely stand and wobble with each bag placed on them. They are like old school desks and these are being used as search tables with little room for manoeuvre between them. My next mistake was to buy a 100peso ticket for the network to find it is only good for one of the three lines instead of the whole network. And the stations are so inadequate it will be of little use anyway. On top of that it’s the wrong line.

I have to go back the way I came through an unending asteroid chain of people probably all wondering who this white fool was. The wheels of my bag are caught on feet, shins, poles and a lot of stairs. There are two hugely accommodating ladies who not only guide me but wait for me to go through security to which I can only haphazardly thank them. I am searched twice; fumbling around with padlock keys with a mass of waiting yet remarkably patient locals behind me which is both uncomfortable and inconvenient. Then it’s a march to the platform. The first carriage is for women only. All others are bedlam. Again the locals are friendly and try and help. They send me to a station which is closer to my intended hostel but the station staff send me back to Ayala as there is no bus from my initial hop off point at Buendia. Another bedlam train arrives.

The stations themselves are horrible barren concrete affairs much like the Barbican centre in London. A series of huge faceless concrete bunkers painted vanilla with narrow stairwells and sometimes an escalator (which if you’re lucky is operational). No wonder women get their own carriage. The stations are terrifying even in daylight. I alight and am again sent completely the wrong way by station staff. This is draining in the overcast heat and takes another half hour walking to the end of the wrong side of the street and then back to the station to find there was an overpass already there; if only the instructions had not been lost in translation or they had taken the time to show me what it was they were trying to convey.

Having found the Shell petrol garage they mentioned, which is further than expected, I now have to figure out which bus which leaves from the ramshackle station behind it. Another eight pesos paid and I’m listening to a few officials trying to decipher the information I’ve presented them with and in addition how they can get me to my destination. Eventually it falls to a passenger who tells me there is no bus stop on the road I’ve requested and it will stop only as a drop off point; right by the hostel which is on the top floor of a six storey building. Mercifully there is at least a lift. Like my abode in Taipei the hostel has a further floor which the lift does not reach, only in this case, that is where reception lies. To my utter astonishment, the place is fully booked on a Tuesday. The sun has begun its descent for the day and I have to find something else fast in a city where transport is flawed to put it mildly. For a moment I consider going back to the airport but this would have made the last few hours pointless. The nearest option on my list is MNL – a much fancied boutique hostel. Fortunately they have a room available, even if it is more than I planned on paying. There is the addition of a ‘free’ breakfast but it still works out more expensive than Taipei. To get to it however, I cave in and get a cab, the hostel assures me it’ll be safe, but I am none the less apprehensive. There is no way out of a cab, until it stops!

Walking around – which for me is the best measure of sizing up a place – tells me two things. Even in the local vicinity of Makati, part of the greater Manila, the city is a work in progress with many roads without pavement and much construction going on. And second, it is dirty with the Jeepney’s the biggest culprits. All it would take is some compulsory maintenance, and they would be far nicer for those of us that like to walk and quite possibly halve the pollution levels. I kind of felt sorry for Manila. On the one hand, if it was half as pretty as is so often scribed then its mauling by the American and Japanese forces in WW2 seem even more pointless as the Philippines were of no concern to either party. On the other, I admired the Filipino spirit; once again most I came across were very warm and the men like the Maori in NZ politely raise an eyebrow and nod with a semi smile which is somewhat surreal in that a lot of these guys are security personnel who are cradling any variety of firearm! Some wear it behind them like it’s a new breed of Fender Stratocaster.

For now and for a considerable time into the future Manila has a lot of work to do, who knows if it will ever recover. There are some signs of hope in small pockets of greenery, modern malls and serviced apartments but most remains a dilapidated mess of corrugated steel, shanty town shacks, refuge, debris and seventies style box like architecture. In other words a colossal industrial zone. In Manila you see the importance of transport infrastructure and how vital architecture is to its environment. Another ride on the LRT confirms that not only was it similar to Bangkok but also to the recently ravaged Tacloban city. Lots of corrugated tin sheets and ravaged windowless buildings that by now should have been long demolished. Had the typhoon struck here it would have been a similar picture.

But the view is only half the problem. The network itself is disjointed and nowhere near user friendly. The track between two of the lines at the northern end of the network is there but not in commercial use (as the two lines are managed by two different companies). This can mean lengthy walks in 30+ temperatures. Further still, the stations are some of the worst designed I’ve ever come across. To get to the opposite platform you must exit the station and quite often cross the road to re-enter the other side. This is discovered by trial and error – there is little in the way of signage. Trains that are half the length of the platform arrive and full to the rims which in a city with such a chronic shortage of network and rolling stock is akin to lifeboats leaving the Titanic half empty!

At Abad Santos (the stop for the Chinese Cemetery) a notice informs that by 2017, they hope to be running a network up to global standards. Sorry Manila, but I don’t like your chances. There is simply too much to do with a system that wasn’t sufficiently thought out and ‘planned’ in the first place. The buses are not much better, there is no Manila Transport. There are a hundred’s of stations with as many operators and all are subject to the legendary road traffic gridlock. There is only one saving grace about Manila’s metro stations; they are at least wide, but not enough to sate the bodies using them.

Things go from bad to worse. I decide on a 4.30pm taxi to the airport – this time T3 – but my aforementioned distrust is with good reason as my oil slick driver attempts to grab an additional 50pesos for traffic before I even get in. He keeps uttering that we take the skyway but I’m paying and I know we are close to the airport. On delivery he tries to take off by short changing me and sulkily hands over a 10peso piece – still a deviation from the meter reading. What the taxi driver fails in the terminal gains by charging passengers 550pesos just to ‘use’ the terminal! A Filipino friend says that no-one knows what the so called ‘Terminal Tax’ is for so one can assume the type of corruption seen in the days of the Marcos regime is alive and thriving here. And another thing, don’t think you’ll miss the throng of people by avoiding peak times. It’s rush hour all day in Manila.

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