45,000 seats. 64+ aircrafts. 365 days. These are the numbers that get most Filipinos from point A to point B. Here in the Philippines, long distance traveling doesn’t come with bullet trains, three-deckers buses, or anything of the like. There are about 7,101 islands in the archipelago and a number of people navigate these isles as jetsetters. Holidays like today, Labor Day, are the peak season for the travel junkies of the country. Most would opt to spend the long weekend in the Party Central Sands of Boracay island, choosing to relish in the summer heat the first of May brings. Rave parties, slick DJs, exhilarated teens, and foreigners often populate the beach, all with one goal in mind: to let loose.
But for others, “letting loose” doesn’t have the same connotation as these people. Letting loose is letting go of all your responsibilities and winding down for a while, usually with family. The concept of “bakasyon” to Filipinos is often more than not tied with family time and bonding. The main workforce in the Metro go to their respective provinces during this times, and most opt to take an alternative route of travel: the sea. There are two systems that facilitate this type of sea travel. First would be the 2GO vessel, a private system of ships that only recently came into the ship scene, and the RoRo or the Roll-on, Roll-off. The RoRo system is a network of private ships and buses that facilitate the travel of thousands of passengers via land and sea.
I am a person of travel, having been to a number of countries all over the world, as well as provinces in the Philippines; I had been used to the hassle of rush hours and flights, but still haven’t experienced the hassle of the RoRo. This ethnographic fieldwork was my opportunity to immerse myself in a different experience, and I had chosen to take this.
My journey begins with a small square piece of scratch paper with the numbers 04-28-17, #8, # 33-34 and 6 (pm) written on it. Last Wednesday I had traveled from Katipunan to the Cubao Ceres terminal to make a reservation for my mother and I, who was about to visit my three year old sister on vacation in our province, Aklan. Tickets skyrocketed as high as eight thousand due to the season, and my mother opted to accompany on my little adventure. Two days later, Friday, was our scheduled ride. The route was from Cubao all the way to Caticlan, Aklan.
They say patience is a virtue, but four hours in the searing heat of the parking garage of the Ceres terminal had turned me into a ticking time bomb of sorts. The Cubao Ceres station was a makeshift parking space turned into a bus terminal. A measly tarp that read: “Ceres terminal to Aklan, Capiz, Iloilo” hung on an old shack-like waiting area was the only indication of the function of the place. That, and of course the multiple conductors ushering passengers to and fro. In line, I made the most of my time by observing the passengers, and came to the conclusion that the only common ground these people have is the fact that they had a destination, and wanted to travel for a reasonable price. From big families to rowdy adults, the mix of passengers were so diverse that it was hard to tell who was the target market of the system. Because of this, I came to the conclusion that they indeed did not have a specific market, they pulled everyone and anyone.
A case of privilege
While waiting for boarding, a small commotion occurred in the terminal involving a big family from Sarah (Iloilo), and the rest of the passengers. The family, who were mere “chance” passengers, meaning they had no concrete reservation, had cut in line and insisted on being the first to board the bus. I was personally annoyed by this, and was appalled by the audacity this family displayed, especially considering that they took the seats of an impoverish family (of four) ahead of them.
The ticketing system was patterned in a manner that paved the way for inequality, leaving the concept of meritocracy to freely seep into the system. The process was simply to reserve a seat before your desired trip, and claim upon boarding. The complicated part plays in when potential passengers spontaneously pop up, hoping for a “chance” to get a seat. This is where “under-the-table” tips come in from the rich, compelling the conductors to cater to them. Privilege is the key to a seat in one of these bus seats, whether financial or any other form. The mere fact that some individuals are capable to reserve seats beforehand shows this privilege. The impoverish family mentioned earlier had unfortunately lacked this privilege, and so were the unlucky victims of ours.
The first leg of our journey had taken us from Cubao to the Batangas port via bus. Having left the terminal at seven pm, traffic stalled us for about three hours, setting our time of arrival at the port at ten in the evening. Being settled in the port, the conductor had given us time to munch on some dinner. A minute stopover cafeteria had our fellow passengers scrambling to get their fill of pancit and lugaw.
Consequences of poverty
While my mother and I took our fill of the meal, we had noticed the destitute family sitting outside with a measly cup of Nissin Bulalo cup noodles. This would have been normal in its’ own, but in their case, the father and four kids had been sharing the same cup, the mother opting to give her share. This was when I decided to buy the children a couple of snacks. Looking back, I saw that not only kids had eaten the crackers, but even their father.
Having told this to my mother (key informant), she then explained the likely situation of the family. Seeing as they had multiple baggages on their person, she deduced that they were relocating from Manila to somewhere in Panay, most probably in Iloilo. A couple would never go through the hassle they have if it was not to a better end. Additionally, we observed the unhealthy weight of the children and even parents. These people were skin and bone, almost nothing left of them but their desperation to reach a better place. Forced relocation is one consequence of poverty brought about by excessive centralization in the Metro. Due to the increased density of the population in Metro Manila, many of the work force are displaced and are left scavenging for decent work to help sustain their families. It can only be assumed that this family had been going through similar conditions. Poverty has lead these people to go on a permanent vacation, one none that of them desired.
Upon boarding the ship at around twelve a.m. the next day, we had left Batangas an hour later. Although our stay was largely uneventful, we had tried to resist as much convenience as we could. Surprisingly, there were no opportunities of advantage that were sent our way. Although we were both females, no on had offered up their seat for us, which I was not expecting in the first place. Although it was common courtesy to let another sit in your place, this kind of environment of stress and fatigue was no place for chivalries. In situations like this, one should have easily distinguished the rich from poor, but the fatigue has acted almost like a camouflage for everyone, and now we are all merely what we truly are: passengers, nothing more, nothing less.
It took the bus two hours to arrive at the tip of Mindoro, making our arrival time at around three a.m. in Calapan port. Going straight for it, our bus land travelled the length of Mindoro crossing Occidental to Oriental in the span of four hours. Only stopping as we reached Bulaclacan port, we had eaten breakfast to wake us up. We left the port for Caticlan at nine a.m., and finally reached the Jetty Port at around one p.m. During our boat ride to Caticlan, we stumbled upon a few personalities that were far from ordinary. While relaxing upon the fire exit south of the boat, we met four DJs who were on their way to Boracay island to celebrate LaBoracay and do some gigs. About three out of four hours of our trip was spent forcibly listening to their speakers which were blasting their latest mixes. The men even went as far as to invite us to join their parties, almost like a marketing tactic to lure teens like myself. It didn’t work, to say the least. I was too busy admiring the ocean scene to give a care about whatever bar they were advertising to us.
I spent a good hour just admiring the ocean view from the ship’s rooftop. About three hours into our trip, I was beginning to make out mountaintops, indicating we were nearing our destination. Thirty minutes later, we had finally docked in what they called, the Jetty Port in Caticlan. This port was a very prominent landmark in the municipality because for one, it was the entry point to the whole of Panay island, and it was the port to Boracay island. Waiting for our conductor to signal our disembarkation, I couldn’t help but notice the dozens of pump boats traveling to and fro from the port to Boracay. What struck me the most weren’t the shear number of them, nor the men balancing their way across the boats’ railings, but the glaring blue tarpaulins plastered on top of these boats that read, “Globe”. I learned that apparently, marketing is indeed everywhere, even at sea. Additionally, there was a big hot air balloon that was placed right beside the Jetty port, again advertising Globe Telecommunications. It was no surprise for me to find then, as I finally reached the port waiting area, that my smart SIM had only two bars left on it, while my mother’s globe SIM had a full four bar signal. Every day these companies are finding ways to slowly but surely find a place in every aspect of our lives, leaving us with no alternative but to conform to their brands.
I had started this project with the culture of “uwian” in mind, but realized that due to the sheer volume of the Filipino population, and the cheap prices offered by the RoRo system, this has not only catered to people “going home” but those really just visiting tourist spots. I will assume this conclusion because of the context of my observation, I had opted to take this trip on the Labor Day long weekend, which was basically a fishing net for LaBoracay tourists.
Taking a closer look at my fellow passengers, I observed that it was indeed a largely mixed crowd with different backgrounds. These stereotypes I am about to cite of these people are not merely observations, but legitimate facts taken from conversations I had with a number of them. First were Manileños who were taking the Roro to reach Boracay island to celebrate LaBoracay. These people had chosen to take the RoRo trip because of the overpriced air fare airlines were putting out. “A spontaneous” adventure, they had called it. These were people who had enough money to spend from their pockets, and were definitely not afraid to. Dressed in (obviously fake) designer shades, these people were loud and proud, but I found that the bigger downside of this, as I observed during my time with them, is their obvious privileged attitude. Constantly taking to the conductor about their conditions, and asking if they could buy extra seats to place their bags was a definite red flag for me. People were already sitting on the isle of the bus, and all they had given mind about were their bags. Adding to that, they didn’t have the courtesy to help fellow passengers with their obviously heavy baggage.
Second to them were the big families on vacation. These were families whose first generation were from the province, and relocated to Manila due to work then eventually built a life on this. These people opt to take the RoRo due the quantity of people they had. A family of fifteen would have definitely cost ten times more on airplane tickets than on the RoRo. These people were the deceptively good munch of the group. They would be genuinely nice to you and engage in a little small talk now and then, but what I found about the family I met, who were from Sarah, Iloilo, is that they’re first priority is their family, and would do anything to get their way, even cheating other people. They had basically cut the “chance” passenger line by paying the conductor under the table, which most of us saw. No shame indeed, for the welfare of your family.
Lastly, we met a family of four. Upon observation during the bus line, they seemed lacking a bit of money. Carrying about 2 balikbayan boxes, and one old backpack, it seemed as if they were relocating, especially given the fact that they had their infant child and three other toddlers with them. Additionally, they seemed really meek and clueless of the RoRo process, not having known that there was a reservation process. My mother and I sympathized with them, and especially got ticked when the family from Sarah had taken their seats. I had “baby sitted” one of their toddlers for a while, because she had no proper seat. The bus was already full, and the conductor only allowed them to ride out of pity and sympathy as well. I had to give up my seat for the mother to properly cater to her one child. Thankfully, later on, another passenger offered his seat for the mother as well. This reminded me once again that despite some distasteful personalities you meet, there will always be the better ones who will infinitely brighten your day.
These were merely the people that stood out to me the most, and I in no way am trying to generalize the whole passenger population of the RoRo. But mostly again, to my observation, these were the usual personalities that boarded the bus and ships.
I had learned many things about Filipino culture from this trip on mine. Firstly, the obvious centralization of Metro Manila. I believe this was the obvious reason why the RoRo is so popular. Many of the workforce of Metro Manila actually originated from the provinces in Visayas and Mindanao, and during holidays usually find themselves wanting to go home for the break. In order to save money, these people opt to take the cheaper travel method, the RoRo. I believe that these people are indeed the main market of the RoRo system, and explains why demand increases exponentially during the holidays. Second, the culture of pakikisama amongst Filipinos. Pakikisama is the act of helping your fellows and doing your best to get along with them, for the better meant of all. I saw this is the people who were helping each other during the bus trips, the people who assisted the children they never met, carried bags for the elderly, and even the saw this in the simple conversations exchanged amongst passengers. We are truly a culture of community.
Thirdly, with the point I made above about pakikisama , I believe that the Filipino truly treasures family above all else. I observed this in the actions of the family from Sarah, although disadvantageous for others, this was ultimately a display of family love. Family above all else, as they say. Also, the mere fact that Pinoys always have the tradition of going home, or at least, going on vacation with the family, also strengthens this point. Last but not the least, as I rode the RoRo, I realized how diverse our society indeed is. From the passengers I mentioned earlier, one could really see the difference of attitudes, social classes and such. Although the latter is quite upsetting, I believe that someday we can balance everything out, as long as we all work towards changing it.
1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing? I believe that actually participating had opened my eyes to the real stresses these people have to deal with when traveling like so. It really isn’t easy and now understand that some of us are indeed incredibly privileged just to be able to choose the easier way out.
2. What did having a key informant add to your understanding? I could barely understand nor distinguish where and what we were doing exactly, and my mother had run me through the whole process of traveling by sea and helped me talk to our fellow passengers.
3. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss? I would say generally the authenticity of emotions being played at during the experience. A questionnaire is all about objectivity, but being there to actually participate add the human aspect to the experience. You feel, and factor in these feelings into the overall evaluation of the experience.
4. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation? As I said earlier, it is meant for objectivity. I believe that maybe to properly criticize the traveling experience without the bias that individual experience or opinions bring will enable us to properly address the flaws of the system.
5. Using our cafeteria observation exercise as reference, what insights did you gain about Philippine society and culture from the event that you observed and participated in? As mentioned earlier in article; the centralization of Metro Manila, the culture of pakikisama amongst Filipinos, and the diversity of the Filipino society.