Philippines Diary: Jeepneys

Jeepneys at Waterfun, Taguig. Pic Rod Fleming
Jeepneys at Waterfun, Taguig. Pic Rod Fleming

Most people have at least heard about jeepneys, the ubiquitous, colourful and incredibly noisy backbone of the Philippines public transport system. For those who have not, you’ll catch up.

The first jeepneys were in fact modified Willys Jeeps that the Americans left behind. The enterprising pinoys lengthened the chassis and fitted seats. Now they are custom built with stainless steel, all-enclosed bodywork and diesel engines.

Most jeepneys are 20-seaters; 18 in the back and 2 in the front, guv. This makes them unquestionably the friendliest form on transport on the planet, because actually there’s only enough room for 16 in the back and we are talking kitten-hipped pinoys here.

jeepney 2
pic: Rod Fleming

This ensures fairly intimate physical contact as you are wedged in between people on either side. The conductors will make sure you’re wedged in too, banging on the outside and telling the passengers to squeeze up.

(I have only once had a conductor look me in the eye and say ‘You’re too big.’ I laughed it off as a matter of principle. If you’re one of those colossal American things, best get a cab.)

The next thing to be aware of is that there is only about 1.5 metres of headroom, so if you’re much over six feet, you will bang your head off the roof even when seated. For everyone, the low height means entering and leaving the jeep in a crouched position, of which more later.

Once wedged in between your new friends-for-life…well, at least for the next few minutes of it anyway… comes the small matter of fares. If you board at a terminus, a conductor will either take the fare as you enter or he’ll come on board to collect it. (I have never seen a woman doing this job. Jeepneys do appear to be strictly male that way.)

If you board en route, however, things are slightly different, and the etiquette demands that you call out ‘Bayat po,’ to the driver before handing him the fare. This he will take while driving and sort out your change and return it, also while driving. It’s quite a feat. Unless you tell him otherwise he will assume you want to go to the terminus, so if you don’t tell him. This also means he’ll stop to let you off at the right place. Since otherwise you won’t have a clue when to get off, this amounts to Good Thinking.

Pic: Rod Fleming

Jeep fares range from a low of four pesos to a maximum of sixteen, at least on the routes I have travelled.

Now the observant among you will probably already have picked up on a problem: what happens if you are not sitting right behind the driver? You’re wedged in, right, and negotiating a forest of knees crouched into a hunch while rattling along in this, let’s be honest, fairly basic machine would be impractical anyway. (At least if you lose balance you won’t fall far.) Well, there is a system. You call out ‘Bayat po’ just as if you were sitting behind the driver and wave the fare in his direction. One of the other passengers will take it and pass it forward till it reaches the driver.

In exactly like manner, your change, if there is any, will be returned to you.

Naturally etiquette demands that you participate, so when someone thrusts money at you, pass it in the appropriate direction. It should be obvious enough.

Now all this is very well, but how do you decide which jeepney to get in the first place? Well, they all ply defined routes for which they are licensed by the relevant city authority. The route will be painted on the side of the jeep itself…so, not obvious at night or when one is coming towards you. However in the windscreen there will be a small destination board with the terminus the jeep is heading for on it. These are only about 20cm x 8cm, so you’ll need sharp eyes and at night, a sixth sense. Best to ask if unsure.

Hailing jeepneys is easy, just wave your arm at an approaching one. If it has vacant seats, the driver will stop, if it doesn’t, tough. There will be another along soon.

To get the driver to stop and let you off, the standard method is to tap one of the stainless steel overhead rails with a coin. There are no real jeepney stops, the driver will just pull up as quickly as he can.

Getting off a jeepney is almost as entertaining as getting squeezed into the seat, especially at a terminus where everyone gets off. Here, you will leave in crouched stance, following the crowd in single file. This means that your face will be around a foot away from the person in front’s bottom. Depending on your preference, choose to enter the line after a boy or a girl…

I told you it was a friendly form of transport.


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