The sun was already setting when Ronald and I got to 15th Avenue in Cubao. Instead of getting safely on the sidewalk, however, we had to inch our way in between cars inadequately parked in what used to be a sidewalk. As if the place was not cramped enough for a four-lane main road, the sounding horns of vehicles and mixture of dust and smoke only add to the exasperating frenzy. We crossed the street to the 20th Avenue, sometimes tilting sideways to let rushing people pass. Like us, each of them are headed somewhere.
Our agenda there was simple: we need to do a participant observation in our chosen unfamiliar activity. Ronald and I may know how to commute, but the place and nature of jeepney rides in Manila was not something we were accustomed to. So we kept on walking, following the path where most jeepneys are coming from. In particular, we were looking for a jeep bound to Ever Gotesco-Ortigas, with empty seats beside the driver. Basically, we chose to learn about how a jeepney driver does his job.
To be honest, we were both excited to do this activity. We planned our approach well: we will use the connection of Ronald’s tita to ensure a participative driver, we will buy Ateneo merchandise as token, and the driver will be kind and willing to answer our questions. To our surprise, however, none of those came into place, at least for our first try. Ronald’s tita was unable to keep her driver-friends to wait for us; we forgot to buy our token in such hurry, and the first driver we asked practically shooed us away. Struggling with our heavy school bags, we kept walking in the arduous heat.
The heavens seemed to have heard our plea and before long, we saw a silver jeep with only two passengers. We quickly went inside the empty seats beside the driver, Amado de Vera, or Kuya as he prefer to be called, and paid fare right away so that Kuya would have fewer reasons to shoo us away. After hinting that we wanted to have a casual conversation with him, his eyes widened and his body noticeably tensed for a while. As we will learn later on, this is probably a defense mechanism for most public utility drivers, who are prone to hold-up and theft incidents in their line of work.
Kuya has been driving for almost 18 years now. He first drove his own jeep back in 1995 but life constrains forced him to sell it after some time. Today, he drives a 22-seater Sarao jeep owned and operated by a Mr. Soriano. We noticed that the jeep was well-kept so we asked him if it was his job as well to maintain the jeep. From what we gathered, Kuya treats the jeep like his baby—he gases it up, cleans it and repairs it when necessary. While the owner provides the jeep, the driver simply has to return a certain amount to him called “boundary” every day. The gas expenses are the driver’s, but so is anything he earns beyond the boundary. Kuya works from 11AM up to 10PM. At 4:45 that day, a thick wad of bills is stuck from the top, inside corner of his windshield, his left hand has around fifteen 20-peso bills and the top of the dashboard is filled with coins. He told us that the boundary is reached after two/three roundtrips. It was probably his fifth round trip already.
For the early part of the trip, the jeep wasn’t even half-filled. It was hard to find a way to participate right away, so we chatted with Kuya for a more productive use of time. We asked him about his family and we found out that he’s been living alone here in Manila because his wife and five kids all live in Pangasinan. “Hindi ba malungkot yun, Kuya?” Ronald asks. Kuya couldn’t agree more. But in all the hardships a driver has to endure, providing for his family become his strongest driving force.
As we continued the conversation, I had to keep moving my bags interchangeably from the floor to my lap because the heat from the engine underneath was getting unbearable. “Hindi po ba kayo naiinitan sa makina?” asked Ronald, to which Kuya affirms. He even held a circular rag while moving the steering wheel, which also tends to heat up. At this point, we have discovered one of the, if not the, most tiring part of being a driver—the routine. From anyone’s experience, heat has a way to push a person to his limits. And yet here we have Kuya who has been driving for almost 18 years now, bearing with not just
the excruciating heat from the sun and engine (one can only imagine how summers are like for these people) but also the same old system, roads and signs every single day.How Kuya moves the wheel and shifts the gear with practiced precision, as if they were extensions of his arms, is not surprising anymore. Even the jeep seems to move in graceful choreography—the brakes could be felt but not as sharp and hard as one would expect.
At this point, Kuya eases up and becomes a bit more talkative. It took some nerve, but we pressed on and asked him “Kuya, naniniwala ba kayong kapag drayber, sweet lover?” Kuya smiles and instead of answering the question, he tells us about how a driver’s routine and consequently lonely life can be blamed for their tendency to become womanizers. In fact, as Kuya admitted, he once was one of them “chick-boys.” But after marrying, he tells us that he has learned to become faithful to his one true love.
Whenever the jeep passes by a part of the road where there is at least one plausible passenger, Kuya slows down the vehicle. In some cases where there are around ten people and more, there is usually a barker who shouts where the jeepney is bound. When Kuya starts to move, the barker’s hand will be extended from outside and toward the driver and Amado will take two-three pesos and put them in the open palm.
The attempt to draw as much passenger is a maximizing strategy, we have learned. Kuya tells us that not all passengers pay fare. “Minsan, yung iba nagtutulog-tulugan. Pag nalingat ka, nakababa na.” sometimes, the passengers paying fare all at the same time can be so overwhelming that it is hard to track who hasn’t paid yet. True enough, upon reaching Eastwood, the surge of passengers overpowered our gesture to help out; Ronald tried to bark around while I took fare and handed change. The different shirt styles and colors, uneven sitting positions that hide other passengers, continuous arithmetic of handing change, and many other confusing factors, not to mention the attention demanded of driving are all difficult to handle at the same time. These, as we found out, are the reasons why drivers nowadays prefer to have a “konduktor” who will manage all things passenger-related. Yet despite the convenience, Kuya prefers to just do it all alone. It’s a small sacrifice to maximize meager profits of a driver. “Syempre, kung kumita ka ng P1,500, P500 dun sa kanya [konduktor] na. Tapos kung minsan,hindi mo alam, kinukupitan ka pa o ano,” Kuya tells us.
The rest and latter part of the trip were spent with more casual talks. As we near Kuya’s end of route, which is also our dropping point, we asked him about his personal views regarding student discounts, beggars and “sabit” [those who cling to back of the jeep when there are no more seats]. It was quite amusing to hear his answers, all backed up by a rational belief for safety and compassion. He uses the word “depende” quite a lot, because to him, nothing is an absolute truth when it comes to working. He loves his family more than anyone in the world but he would rather give up his earnings than risk the lives of many other people at gun-point.
Before we got down to Ever Gotesco-Ortigas, Ronald and I had the same thoughts: it was a great but fleeting experience. We handed Kuya a small brown bag of meal we bought from Tropical Hut earlier and a liter of C2. Kuya did not want it but we insisted. It was the least we can do for this man who shared more than his job to us even for just an hour.
Abigail Jacosalem 111964 | Ronald Ivan Dela Cruz 111256