Which traveller dares to ride a bus in Manila?

OK, it may not be this insane, but buses still weave among vehicles like this in Metro Manila.
OK, it may not be this insane, but buses still weave among vehicles like this in Metro Manila.

WHEN YOU’RE TRAVELLING in a developing country, there are just some things, some places, some parts of society, that unspoken word, others’ previous experiences or historical facts advise you against. Even for Western-born Asians, we have to admit that socioeconomic and cultural differences mean that while we have the purchasing power to live like kings, it’s still an extremely cloistered lifestyle – while most locals still go to upscale malls and restaurants, it’s still a far cry away from the everyday.

And so this brings me to another “don’t tell my parents I did this” – but one which I had to do out of circumstance. Despite the traffic jams which constantly plague Metro Manila, the rapid transit lines have not integrated – and that means two things: (1) despite the metro being sardine-canned in peak hour, trains are still only three carriages despite the platforms having room for double the number; and (2) despite the late-night activity, it shuts down at 10.30 P.M. Such is life, and such are the anomalies of a developing nation. (And by the time one reaches my parents’ age, one avoids sardine-canned trains if they have the choice.)

Which meant that this time, there were only two choices: take the bus or cab it. When the options are the ‘comfortable’ and the ‘daring’ … the choice is easy. They run 24 hours up and down EDSA (Metro Manila’s busiest orbital) and beyond, but they’re packed even into the ungodly hours of the late night and early morning.

The bus is a far cry from even the metro: at least the stations have gates and ticket windows with information. The signs displaying destination information are all handwritten and attached to the windscreen with suction cups – or even just tacked. The conductor, in a balancing act with loose cash folded like a fan in one hand and raffle-like tickets in the other, asks you where you’re going and charges you accordingly – that is, after he shouts out the route to people on the street as the bus approaches each stop, and assumes his position again – in rush hours managing to weave around commuters who pack the aisles. Buses vary widely in quality, divided into ‘ordinary fare’ (no air-con) and air-con; the former often has windows fixed open and a noisy fan at the front; a TV (with constantly fuzzy reception) replaced the fan on air-con buses. Oh, and let’s not forget the mandatory artsy flourishes and ‘God Bless Our Trip’ signs.

And, despite the stop-start nature of EDSA traffic and the buses often being sardine-canned too in peak hours, few commuters remain in their seats for their whole trip, instead moving closer to the front of the bus in musical chairs-style fashion as they approach their stop.

Did any anomaly occur during the trip? No. Are the fears justified? Probably not. But bussing in Manila is an experience. It’s also one of those things which would baffle a First World traveller; it seems like complete chaos, and lacks any of the sophisticated logistics or management systems that similar infrastructure and mechanics in the First World has; but, with human skill making up for it, the system just “works”.  And it works effectively … if you dare to try it out and go for a ride.

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