Manila is huge.
Apart from Manila itself, the conurbation of Metro Manila includes other cities that would themselves be enormous by any other measure: Makati, Pasig, Quezon, Cavite, and others. So transport is a major part of Manila life. But this is Asia, and unlike Europe, there is no organised public transport. There are no service buses, no trams or metro systems oganised by local government. Everything is run privately, and the sheer amount of private transport provision is staggering.
Given that I have not yet see anyone carrying a passenger on his shoulders, and horse-and-cart solutions are reserved for the tourist area of Intramuros, the old part of Manila, the most basic, though not always the cheapest, means of transport is the gloriously named ‘pedicab’. This is a bicycle with a side-car.
The main problem with this solution, leaving aside the thorny moral issue of whether it can be right for a 14-stone Scotsman and an admittedly much lighter Filipina to be push-biked around by a sweating 9-stone Pinoy, is the complete lack of suspension on these contraptions. Since the roads in Manila resemble the Somme after a barrage, this means a bone-jarring ride that risks lumbar impaction.
Still on three wheels, the next step up in luxury is the tricycle. This is a motorcycle and side-car, which at least does have springs and shock absorbers. However, the presence of the engine, usually no larger than 125cc, spurs the intrepid pilots to extreme feats of passenger carrying. In Manila, where the tricycle side-cars do not have rigid roofs, I have still seen six people aboard one, and in the provinces, where they do have roofs, ten. (How do you get ten people in a tricycle? Easy. Four in the side-car, two behind the driver and four on the roof.)
I imagine that clutch replacement is a routine maintenance task on these machines. However, the basic nature of the transport does not necessarily mean that it is cheaper. Tricycles do not have meters and it is wise to negotiate a price for the trip in advance, and to know what a taxi would charge, or you may find yourself paying twice as much for a cramped bone-shaker on a wooden seat as for a pleasant air-conditioned cab ride.
Moving from three to four wheels, the next transport of delight is the world-famous jeepney. These very distinctive vehicles look like overgrown jeeps with passenger cabs. It’s difficult to estimate how many they can carry, but certainly twenty. Fares are cheap but since each jeepney travels a particular route that is marked on a board (which may or may not be legible) using the service is fraught unless you have a really good knowledge of the geography.
Jeepneys come in a rainbow array of colours, liveries and decorations. The all seem to have names and are a genuine example of folk art, rich and diverse. The one thing that every jeepney I have seen has in common with its kin is that the tires are as bald as William Hague, as smooth as racing slicks, even down to the spares. The saving grace, if there is one, is that traffic in Manila moves so slowly there is little risk of aquaplaning even in a downpour.
Related to the jeepney are vans, usually Toyota minibuses with air-conditioning and actual glass in the windows, and the fabulous FX, which is a large SUV with, usually, 8 seats. These are also pretty well priced.
However the most convenient, comfortable and consistently reliable ride is the taxi, and fares are very reasonable. A 45 minute journey from Ermita in Manila to Pasig City costs 450 pesos, or about £7.50, and most in-town rides are around 100php or £1.50.
By the way, if you are flying in for the fist time to Ninoy Aquino, Manila’s airport, make sure you get a taxi chit from the security guards at the exit. This will give you a taxi ride into town for 500 pesos; without one, it will be 850.
Once arrived in Manila, other things will slowly become clear. Everyone speaks at least basic English; but often it is more basic than you might think, due to the Filipino’s natural enthusiasm and eagerness to help. It is easy to become mired in a hopelessly lost conversation where your interlocutor is talking about something completely different from you, and there is no way to get things back on track, at least without being rude. This is Asia, and loss of face is not something people enjoy.
There is a distinctly, and somewhat unnervingly, European flavour to everything, though this is very much Asia, baby. This is due to the long Spanish colonisation. Filipinos even sound Spanish when they are speaking in English, and Tagalog, the main native tongue, has borrowed heavily from it. But don’t be fooled: this European veneer is on a powerful and vibrant Asian culture, and you don’t have to scratch deep to find the truth.
In India, it’s rats, here it’s cats. And the cats are incredibly skinny. They’re everywhere, and every bin and refuse dump is crawling with them. I guess it keeps the rats down anyway….these cats look like they’ve been starving for months. They behave like the well-fed cats Europeans are used to, but beware: rabies is endemic in the Philippines and cats are a vector. Do not be tempted to pet them. In any case, the locals won’t like it; they view them as pests. Filipinos love their dogs, especially those absurd toy varieties, but there is clearly little charity for felines.
And then there’s the women. Whatever mixture of genes caused it, for the Philippines has known several eras of colonisation, the girls here are frankly drop-dead gorgeous. Not tall, but very beautiful. And they can be forward too. On my last visit I was waiting for a plane at Puerto Princesa with my companion and went to buy drinks. The girl, who was about 21, serving at the counter came out and began flirting very insistently, even though she must have seen that I was with someone. Her older colleague just shook her head at the younger woman’s brazen behaviour and said, “She wants a friend,” to which I replied, “Sorry, taken,” and hurried back to the relative safety of my seat before temptation, for the girl was, of course, stunning, led me to places I should not.
This is certainly not an isolated occurrence. Young Filipinas like older Western guys, and routinely flirt. The fact that they are in themselves a standard of beauty, with their mixture of Hispanic and Asian blood, just makes this all the more thrilling..Filipinos of both genders are genuinely charming, open, nice people and they have remarkably few sexual inhibitions, especially given the power of the Catholic Church here. I am not suggesting that Filipinas are loose—they are not—but they are not shy either, and will happily smile and chat with a stranger. It does make for a pleasant stay.