The Odd, The Good, and The Scary: Getting Around Metro Manila

When it comes to commuting, I confess, I am kind of a Nervous Nelly. Sadly, I do not possess the natural confidence of others to just hop on a bus or a train, then casually step off of the vehicle upon arrival at their destination. I have this irrational fear of getting off at the wrong stop, getting trampled by commuters during the rush hour, and truthfully, I just want to avoid the hassle of it all.

manila commuters
Manila commuters during rush hour

I think it has something to do with a childhood ordeal wherein I fell asleep on a bus, and upon waking up, I didn’t find any sign of my dad. I screamed bloody murder for about a minute. Turns out he just walked to the back part of the bus to make a sales pitch to an acquaintance of his (note that during this time, my father was working as an encyclopedia salesman). And that’s why I have issues with public transport of any kind. And encyclopedias, for that matter. Thanks a lot, dad.

I’ve pretty much survived staying off public transportation by finagling rides from family and friends until I was old enough to drive. Funny how I had no qualms then about riding at the back of my cousin’s dilapidated motorcycle while roaring along the South Superhighway, and choosing to ride in that rattling death trap than plop myself in the confines of a jeepney.

Anyway, well-meaning friends and family members have been urging me to try commuting. It’s fun, they said. It’s cheaper, they urged. Well, I gotta hand it to them, the cheap part could be true. As of this writing, unleaded gasoline costs P54.00 per liter, and the rising price of gas these days is doing a number on my poor wallet. Plus, I wanted to take a break from driving and looking for a parking slot. So I gave in and decided to give public transportation another shot. Hey, I’m all grown-up now. I bet I could do this.

I set out to do some serious research so I wouldn’t wind up in the hinterlands, way, way beyond Metro Manila. I also managed to get some little nuggets of wisdom from die-hard commuters before boarding any mode of public transportation, such as:

  • While commuting, resist stuffing your ears with your earphones so you can listen to your MP3. It’s easy to get distracted and miss your stop, especially if it’s your first time. Also, if you have a habit of singing along to whatever tune is blasting away at your ear canal, you might want to skip the earphones, unless of course you enjoy the weird looks thrown your way.
  • Wear comfortable shoes so you won’t have any difficulty getting off. Some drivers would rather slow down the vehicle to about 10 kph to give you a chance to hop out, instead of pulling over at the appropriate stop. Expect that sometimes, you will have to make like an action star in a movie and jump out of a slowly moving vehicle. Sometimes, it helps to pretend that you’re Daniel Craig or Angelina Jolie while doing this.

    keep your bag safety
    Keep your bag

  • If you have to bring a bag, make sure that it zips shut to keep your belongings safe. Never put your bag on the floor or on the seat beside you. If you’re sitting, your bag should be placed on your lap. And if you’re standing, your bag should be right in front of you, so if you’re carrying a backpack, make sure that you’re wearing it in front. This is to deter would-be thieves.
  • If anybody drops anything, such as a handful of coins or such, don’t pick them up. It’s usually a signature move of thieves looking to pick your pocket.
  • Whatever you do, never sleep when commuting, for safety reasons and to make sure that you get off at the right stop.
  • Have enough change or small bills for paying the fare, as drivers of jeepneys or tricycles will give you the stink eye if you hand them a one hundred peso bill, or anything larger than that. They usually don’t carry enough change, so make sure you have a lot of twenties and some five and 10 peso coins in a coin purse separate from your actual wallet.
  • Never whip out your iPhone or Android tablet from your bag inside a public vehicle, lest it capture the unwanted attention of unsavory characters sharing the ride with you. You might as well just hand it over to them.

So, after memorizing all this information, I sought out the most common ways to travel around Metro Manila. A few of them didn’t make the cut, such as the ferry (limited to certain places where the Pasig river runs through), the kalesa or the horse-drawn calash (which is only limited to certain parts of Manila), and the trolley. And when I say trolley, we’re not talking about the charming vehicle wherein Judy Garland sings the trolley song in the movie Meet Me in Saint Louis. Oh no. The trolley I am referring to is nothing more than benches made of scrap wood on metal-wheeled carts that traverse the railways when no train is chugging in plain sight. If there is (heaven forbid) an oncoming train, the trolley “conductor” yells for everyone to get off, and the trolley is lifted off the tracks. It’s dangerous and highly illegal. I had to draw the line somewhere.

All right. Here we go:

1. The Jeepney

Getting around Manila by jeepney

Fare: PHP 8.00. If you’re a student, you get a one peso discount off your fare.

The jeepney is a remnant from World War II. Enterprising Filipinos saw that it was possible to turn it into a mode of transportation, thus the original design was turned into something longer and bigger, able to accommodate 10 or 14 passengers, depending on the design. This vehicle has become a Philippine icon due to its cheerful designs. Popular motifs are the driver’s family members rendered in gaudy colors on one side of the jeep, and religious images on the other side.

The jeep I was on was modernized—so modern that it had airconditioning. And, free Wifi! Wow! I was almost tempted to check my email on my iPad until I remembered the no-flashing-your-gadgets rule. To get off, people would call out “Para!” and the jeep would stop, and they have a couple of seconds to move to the end of the jeep and get off the vehicle quickly.

Paying is also interesting, especially if you happen to be seated near the driver. Change is passed from hand to hand until it reaches the driver’s palm. So if you’re seated near the driver, expect to be handling lots of change.

When it was time to get off, I let out a loud “Para!” Afraid to miss my stop, I might have been a tad too loud. I sheepishly slunk off to the end of the jeep and got off quickly and without any mishap. All in all, not bad for my first jeepney ride.

2. The Tricycle

Experience tricycle ride in Manila

Fare: PHP 9.00 if you’re on the vehicle with other people sharing the ride with you. PHP 35 to 40 if you choose to not share the ride with anyone else

The tricycle somewhat resembles the tuk-tuks of Thailand and the rickshaws of India, except that the cab is attached to the right side of the motorcycle instead of at the front or back. Normally seen on side streets and big subdivisions, you won’t normally see tricycles in major highways.

The tricycle is outfitted in such a way that passengers can sit back to back, and it can accommodate a maximum of 7 passengers. There’s an option to hire the tricycle for you alone or share it with others, and because I didn’t want to be alone (coward much?) I chose to go with the latter option. I paid my fare and braced myself. Man, tricycles are loud! But it’s certainly a great way to see the sights, even if it’s just a short ride.

3. The MRT

MRT – Metro Rail Transit in Manila

Fare: Ranges from PHP 10.00 to PHP 14.00, depending on your destination.

The Metro Rail Transit started operations in 1999 and has a total of 13 stations that passe through the cities of Makati, Mandaluyong, Pasay and Quezon City. My friends have been raving non-stop about how easy it is to travel by MRT, and how fast it is to get from one point to another when you don’t have to sit through the infamous Manila traffic. Hmm… knowing how to ride this thing could save me lots of time, which is important to me because I am not a morning person and am almost always late, especially on Mondays, which I hate. Really, if Garfield was a person, he would be me.

Anyway, I was advised to line up and buy a Single Journey ticket, which is valued depending on the distance between the originating station and the point of destination. I was coming from Makati and going to Ortigas, so I got the ticket worth PHP 12.00. Then, I fed the ticket to the ticket swipe machine. I went to the platform to wait for the train. At this point I was still pretty calm. However, when the train arrived, there was a shift in the energy as alighting and boarding passengers bumped into each other in a mad dash to get off and get on the train.

There’s a separate coach for women, so that was a huge relief, but even the women were tenacious, jostling you with bags and umbrellas. You literally have to work your way in to find available space in there. Once inside, you can relax until you arrive at your destination. I was surprised to be in Ortigas in just 15 minutes, whereas driving would take me about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on how bad the traffic is. Apart from the passive-aggressive shoving, I think I’m starting to like the MRT.

Yes, Garfield likes the MRT.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of my commuting adventures, so stay tuned for part two of The Odd, The Good, and the Scary: Getting Around Metro Manila.

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