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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Tale of Two Drivers

Josh West is a 39-year-old bus driver from London. He drives a shiny double decker bus. Rogelio Castro, 49, is a Filipino jeepney driver in Manila. Rogelio and his family (wife, three children and their families—eight in all) live in a cramped two-storey home in San Andres Bukid, Manila.

We meet them in Toughest Place to be a Bus Driver, a BBC television series that puts professionals from the United Kingdom in a Third World setting. (There is another episode, “Toughest Place to be a Midwife” that places a British you-know-what in Liberia).
I must admit, the episode’s premise is fascinating—a London bus driver driving in Manila? I simply had to watch it.
Mr. West however did not really drive a bus in the Philippines—he gets to drive a jeepney.
“Madness,” observes Mr. West, referring to Manila’s traffic, the first time he experiences it. He is also fascinated by the fact that there seems to be no “bus stops"—people just “wave” at the jeepney to get on. And as to collecting passenger’s fares, well, it perplexes and confounds him. How the driver steers the vehicle while collecting and figuring out change for the fares of different passengers is a trick he finds almost impossible to learn.
The show’s commentator informs viewers that Metropolitan Manila “…is simply running out of space.” With twenty million souls packed into 638.55 square kilometers, the metropolis is one of the densest areas in the world. And it will only get worse: it is estimated that in 30 years, the population will increase by 50 percent.
That anybody could think that the metropolis is not overpopulated is ridiculous, yet the country’s Catholic Church opposes any government measures that would promote family planning. It boggles the (sane) mind, but many Filipinos believe that the Church is right, and that controlling the number of children that one can have is a sin against God. The priests constantly remind them that this is so; and to not worry about the little children that they can’t feed. They may go hungry; they may roam the streets dirty and naked, but no matter. They will surely have a better life. Only not in this life; when you die, you will have a better life, oh yes, baby. Some parents however find it difficult to explain all this to a hungry, crying infant; or to the toddler who looks at them with puzzled and hurt eyes, asking why there aren’t anything to eat, or why they have to go hungry at all.
This show provides compelling argument for the Reproductive Health bill.
Consider Elsie, Rogelio’s neighbor. Elsie has 13 children, and had been giving birth yearly since she was 14 years old. What often happens is while a child is celebrating a birthday, she is giving birth to the next one. She doesn’t know anything about family planning, she informs Josh. Presumably, she and her husband just procreated and procreated, until finally she decided to have a go at this family planning thingy. Elsie’s whole family (her husband and thirteen children) lives in a six-meter-wide— well, house, if one could call it that. The house is too small even for Rogelio—who is considerably shorter than Josh’s six-foot-four frame—to stand in; while inside, people have to duck. There is simply no room to stand straight. Priests and bishops should try living at Elsie’s house.

“In the Philippines,” the commentator intones, “contraception is not free, and few women in Elsie’s situation could afford it.”

Edith, Rogelio’s wife, is asked if she used contraception. After three children, she admits that she did. “I know it’s a sin,” she says, “but I decided to do it and just ask for forgiveness.” A point to ponder, that.
The Briton learns about Filipinos through Rogelio (“If they don’t work, they don’t eat,” says Josh), and after a side trip to Tondo, he learns about pag-pag, a unique dish with an interesting history. Cheap but delicious, according to the patrons of the “restaurant” whose specialty is the aforementioned dish.
The show has many gut-wrenching moments, but it has some comic moments too, like the time when Josh, who is six feet four, tries to hunch in front of the jeepney’s steering wheel while looking out of the windshield. “It’s like looking out of a letterbox,” he observes.
Josh struggles to learn how to navigate the city's chaotic streets, learning the route, and getting tips from Rogelio on steering while calculating change (and the very useful trick of folding bills on one’s knuckles). He does it finally, though; he gets to drive in a place where it is indeed tough to be a bus driver.
Or anything else, for that matter.
Josh’s jeepney trip is nerve-wracking, and not only for him. He gets lost, and his passengers have to help him get back to the correct route. Rogelio, waiting at the end of the route, is visibly relieved when Josh finally shows up. The two men whoop it up; Rogelio lavishly congratulates Josh for safely completing the route. Josh looks happy and proud of himself, as if he just completed Mass Effect 2 on Insanity Mode.
The last part of the episode shows Josh back in London behind the wheel of Bus 148, his hi-tech, air-conditioned double-decker bus, which he finds ridiculously easy to drive. He feels he could drive it blind-folded. Well, if he could drive a passenger jeepney in the streets of Manila…
Josh West, at the beginning of the show, confesses that all he knew about the Philippines was that Imelda Marcos had once been its president, and that she had two hundred shoes (it was her husband who was president, and she had three thousand pairs of shoes). After the show, I'm sure he learned much more than that.
And I'm also sure that one of the lessons he learned is that Filipinos manage to survive despite the grinding poverty. Despite everything, they still manage to cope.
It is a useful trick, surviving.
Here's the show:

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