When the Americans left the Philippines after World War II, they left behind hundreds of their Willys jeeps that Filipinos reinvented to become the passenger-type jeepneys. From then on, the jeepney has evolved and served as the most popular form of public transportation.
Like the other common Filipinos, I take the jeepney everyday. Its omnipresence has made it a part of our daily lives, commuter or not.
It’s cheap, open and usually fully-loaded with some passengers — with some even hanging off the back or top-loading, especially in towns where this is still allowed. Jeepneys are normally cramped with 14 – 20 people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder depending on the length of the vehicle. Although devoid of comfort and hazardous to the health because of the fumes that passengers inhale while riding, it is still very widely used by Filipinos.
As a passenger with my own interests in mind, I had always taken the point of view of someone riding the jeepney everyday. Being used to riding jeepneys, I don’t complain about it being cramped or smelly anymore. But sometimes a passenger can’t help but complain when jeepneys wait too long for other passengers especially when they are in a hurry and running late.
I understand that like any other job, being a jeepney driver is tough too. So I hopped on a jeepney without a destination in mind but with a purpose to take the view of one of those people who bring us safely to where we need to go everyday yet remains nameless to us.
I entered the open parking area of a mall worrying about how to approach my next interviewee. I had been playing scenes in my mind but the uncertainty of what could happen stopped me from strategizing. My mind was telling me to just go with the flow and be spontaneous.
As I walked towards the parked jeepneys, I saw uniformed drivers gathered in a spot, chatting and laughing. I continued walking to the other direction to take photos of the jeepneys and to prolong gathering the courage that I needed at that moment. Not a lot of jeepneys were parked there though. I couldn’t find the ones that are crammed with lights, horns, mirrors and antennas on the front hood and an exterior which is completely covered with different kinds of artwork. I was looking for a rather elaborately designed and heavily accessorized jeepney, a traditional one, but there were none.
I decided I could take better pictures later and walked to the direction of the drivers. One of them eyed me as I neared them; the camera hanging on my neck could be one of the reasons that he knew I was going to approach — but I don’t know what my facial expression was giving away.
“Kuya, where are these jeepneys heading to? What’s the route?” I finally asked.
One of them spoke and asked me, “Why madam, where are you going?”
It was a hard question. I wasn’t going anywhere in particular.
With hesitation I replied, “Nowhere, kuya. I just want to ride going somewhere.”
I felt stupid. I wanted to ride a jeepney without a destination in mind.
Then another kuya, who appeared to be an officer of their association politely asked again,
“Where are you really heading madam?”
I needed to answer them honestly.
“Kuya, I want to interview a jeepney driver.”
This time I had all their attention. Then their officer stood up and offered me his chair; then another stood up too and offered his. They were thrilled about getting interviewed and asked me what the interview was for. I told them I do little chats with people and write about them to show the world bits of Filipino culture and the life of people in the Philippines. They nodded in understanding.
There were seven drivers in front of me. It was an advantage that there were a few of them who could answer my questions at that moment, so I posed the first one so I could gather their views.
“What are the difficulties of being a jeepney driver?” I asked.
There was a burst of laughter as they joked around then one of them said in a serious tone, “Oil price hike and traffic.”
Then a pause while they were trying to think of more answers.
One driver said something that made them suddenly stand up. He needed them to help push another driver’s jeepney to start the engine.
Their officer jokingly said, “Another difficulty of being a jeepney driver is we all have to push jeepneys if they won’t start.”
We laughed. They went to the jeepney and started pushing until the engine revved. The jeepney was already leaving to load passengers at the back of the mall. They explained that the area where we were, was their parking, unloading, and queuing area. When their turn comes to load passengers, they have to drive to the back of the mall, load passengers and ply their route.
It was late afternoon so there were already a lot of passengers heading home from a day at the mall. Most of the jeepneys had to be at the loading area so some of the drivers dispersed and headed to their own jeepneys. One jeepney stopped in front of us. The driver invited me to ride so I hopped on and plopped myself on the front seat. The signboard said “FTI Tenement,” wherever that was. I was off for a joyride.
The driver was very accommodating. As we exited the parking area, he was already giving me bits of information. While waiting for their turn to load passengers, the drivers need to park beside the mall and pay for it every time they exit the parking area.
His name is Rodrigo “Nognog” Villanueva, 43 years old with 3 kids; the youngest being 12 years old. He rents the jeepney for ₱900 a day on weekdays and ₱800 on weekends. In his 7am-10pm job, he earns around ₱500 a day.
As we slowed down to the loading area, he asked me if it was okay to wait a bit because there were jeepneys loading passengers ahead of him. Of course it was okay, I was the one asking a favor here!
While waiting for passengers I asked, “How long does the round-trip usually take?”
“About an hour depending on the traffic situation.” He replied.
“How long have you been driving a jeepney?” I asked further.
“20 years and yet there is no progress.” He replied chuckling.
One passenger headed to the front to sit on the vacant seat beside me but kuya told him to sit at the back instead. The wait didn’t take long and we left. We had to pass along a one-lane congested road that opens to a wider highway. While we were waiting for the vehicles in front of us to move, kuya went back to the first question that I asked them.
“Traffic is one of our hardships. If the congestion is terrible I could only do 4 trips a day instead of the usual 5. Another is the heat that we need to endure during the day.”
Although these jeepney drivers are notorious at causing traffic jams on the road, they themselves hate being stuck in traffic jams too. In Metro Manila where road congestion is horrible and no longer abnormal, these jeepneys cause the roads to become more crowded when they wait too long for passengers, load and drop them off anywhere — even in the middle of the road. After all, they’re just trying to beef up their daily earnings too.
“How do you make sure each passenger pays?” I asked.
“We just depend on their honesty. Sometimes there are passengers who do not pay at all but they still even ask for their change,” he replied.
Seeing a man hanging off the back of another jeepney in front of us, I asked, “Is that still allowed here?”
Kuya Nognog said it’s no longer allowed. Only the jeepney conductor does it. The conductor is the one making sure that all passengers pay. But a conductor has to be paid ₱300 a day plus food. He explained that getting a conductor is more costly than risking 2 to 3 passengers not paying their fare.
“Do you know the faces of snatchers and pickpockets? What do you do when they ride the jeepney?” I asked further.
“There are some that I already know. Before they ride, I warn the passengers to be careful of their belongings.”
“What do you do when your passengers get held-up? Have you experienced that?” I followed up.
“Twice. I don’t intervene because I’ll be the one that these people will be getting back at. But they don’t hold the drivers up, only the passengers. Even the police know that,” he explained.
The road widened and we escaped the traffic jam. I let him drive as I enjoyed the ride. That route was new to me so I was busy taking in what I was seeing on the road.
Finally, we reached FTI (Food Terminal Inc.) and he paid the ₱7 fee as we entered the compound. This time most of the passengers had gotten off the jeepney and new ones were getting on.
Kuya Nognog pointed to a No Loading & Unloading sign and stressed something that is so telling about Filipino discipline.
“Look at that sign, it says no loading and unloading yet it’s where the jeepneys stop to load passengers. The traffic enforcers issue tickets when they catch these jeepneys but they don’t drive away and educate passengers to go to the jeepney terminal. If there are no passengers there, jeepneys will not stop and load there.”
More passengers started to fill the jeepney and kuya got busy collecting fare and giving loose change so I went back to just observing. It was almost dark when we got back to the mall. I gave him a hundred for my joyride and he was thankful.
“How much did you get from that trip?” I asked.
“I had ₱250 earlier, then ₱180 from that trip plus the hundred you gave me,” he replied.
Before I finished off the interview, I asked him 4 more questions.
“As a jeepney driver, what do you want to tell passengers?”
“Just be honest and pay the fare. If they really do not have money, they can tell the driver and that’s okay, at least they are honest.”
“What do you want to tell the government?”
“Stop increasing oil prices. We are not happy increasing the fares but if we don’t while the oil price hikes up, we lose.”
‘What do you want to tell your fellow jeepney drivers?”
“Be giving to each other and stop the buwaya (crocodile) attitude.”
“What do you want to tell the traffic enforcers?”
“Sometimes extend their patience especially when old people want to ride the jeepney. They walk slowly so we have to wait even if the traffic enforcers have already given the signal to go.”
I thanked him and we went to the spot where the other drivers were gathered. They asked me to write the website where they can read this post. I did and thanked them and promised to return the next day to take more photos.
I went back to the area at around 1:30pm the next day when most of the jeepneys are parked. The most decorated jeepney I was able to chance upon was this:
Most jeepneys now are no longer as accessorized and colorful as the traditional ones.
A jeepney with minimal design
Some are even just plain-colored, although there are still jeepneys that retain the old art styles like the lettering on the front of the owner’s children’s names; religious images of Sto. Nino, Jesus Christ or Mama Mary; chrome horses and horns on the front hood; religious sayings and song titles; colorful stickers and reflectors and even big brand names and logos.
The decline of jeepney art is apparent. What used to be a symbol of Filipino creativity is slowly becoming a mere mode of transportation.
I went home with this sad realization. On the brighter side though, I was reminded to appreciate what I see daily and look deeper into the mundane. I see jeepneys everyday; I ride them everyday but I used to be blind to their art and symbolism.