Manila Vanilla

What it's like to be a U.S. Fulbright scholar, basketball player, journalist, and the whitest man in Metro Manila.

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Location: Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

New Yorker by birth, shipped across the globe to the world of malls, shanty-towns, patronage, corruption, basketball and a curious burnt-toast smell that wafts around at dusk

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Taxicab Confessions

There are a lot of terrible jobs in Manila. Traffic officers stand in the sweltering heat all day long, sucking in diesel fumes and vainly trying to direct the swarming, weaving mass of trucks, jeepneys, cars, motorbikes, pedicabs and pedestrians -- all of them determined to ignore the officer. Some guys make a living by walking through the rush-hour gridlock on massive thoroughfares like EDSA, tapping on windows and hawking individual cigarettes, single pieces of candy and the occasional bizarre, found item like a plumber's metal snake for unclogging toilets and drains. Even people with normal jobs by American standards, like convenience store cashiers, are so poorly paid you wonder if it's worth the effort. From the privileged perch of an American point-of-view, it's hard to think of many jobs here that aren't awful.

The neighborhood street hawker. You want plumbing snake?

It's always somewhat shocking, then, to see how cheerful people are while slogging through the daily grind. Manila taxi drivers, for example, have every reason to be hateful misanthropes, but are almost inexplicably friendly. And while it's not entirely unexpected, given the legacy of American colonialism and high rates of English literacy in the Philippines, it never fails to amuse me that the average Manila cabbie's English is about five grade levels higher than his New York counterpart.

The obvious annoyances and dangers that cab drivers face on the streets of Manila are traffic, frequent hold-ups, the city's enormous square-mileage, unmarked streets, and guarded subdivisions that are off-limits to the public.

Light traffic in Manila.

Manila traffic deserves its own word. "Traffic" alone is not enough to describe it. The creative, albeit insane drivers of the city routinely make three-lane streets into six-lane morasses. Between 4 and 8 p.m. (make it 2 a.m. on Fridays), it could easily take an hour and a half to drive somewhere you walk in 20 minutes. The American notions of signalling, waving and allowing drivers to get over are useless here; they would make driving even slower. Depending on the size of the vehicle, the lane-changing schools of thought are "survival of the fittest" and "get in where you fit in." Massive buses and the long, colorfully-painted and lightly-armored Jeepneys -- one-time U.S. army transport vehicles that have been refinished for public transportation -- butt in and out of lanes whenever their drivers want, and operators of smaller cars make room or get run off the road. Smaller, more maneuverable rides, however, have the advantage of being able to speed ahead on the elbow or, occasionally, the sidewalk, and then sneak back into traffic.

The Jeepney. Pimp my decades-old army transport vehicle!

Cab drivers spend half their waking hours dealing with this. What's worse -- for them, at least -- is that their meters start at 30 Philippine pesos, roughly 60 cents. About every eighth of a mile, the fare rises 2.50 pesos -- a nickel. And there is no time element to the meter. Only distance. So drivers make nothing for all the time they spend sitting in traffic, burning up gas they paid for.

Yet despite all this, many of my most memorable conversations in Manila have been with cab drivers. One guy named Bernard, who keeps a lineup of five stuffed, Beethoven dogs on his dashboard, kept promising me that I wouldn't leave the country without a Filipina wife, because they have "too much sexy body." Every time he said it he let out this giddy, sinister laugh that could earn him a nickname like "Chuckles" in a mafia film.

Bernard, like many of the cabbies I've met, is a sports enthusiast. Being Filipino, they have no choice but to like basketball and boxing, but they also love pro wrestling. Bernard had to pause and gather himself when talking about the recent death of Eddie "Latino Heat" Guerrero, and I could only cheer him up with stories from the WWF glory days of the '80s and early '90s, with the Ultimate Warrior and The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase.

Another driver, Marvin Salem, invited me to watch next month's Manny Pacquiao/Erik Morales boxing match with him and his son, Kobe Bryant Salem. Marvin said he saw Kobe Bryant play on a goodwill tour to the Philippines just before young K.B. Salem was born, and he was so moved by Bryant's grace and skill he decided to name his son after him. Let's hope the boy inherits his namesake's athletic prowess and not his Machiavellian thirst for power.

My BFF and fellow New Yorker, Eddie Murphy.

Another charming cabbie quirk is that they seem to be vastly overestimating the close-knit nature of American society. Or underestimating the size of the United States.

Bernard asked me if I ever ate at Michael Jordan's steakhouse. I had. He then asked if M.J. was a nice guy, as if his Airness greets everyone on the way in. When I told another driver I was from New York, he just said, "EDDIE MURPHY!" and also wanted to know if me and Eddie were good friends. When I told him Eddie moved to California to make children's movies and pick up male, cross-dressing prostitute hitchhikers, the subject changed to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Did I know him?

I felt like a disappointing American, since my only celebrity claims to fame are having played basketball with a couple Beastie Boys and playing on a youth basketball team -- I like to think of it as a downtown Manhattan dynasty -- with NBA up-and-comer Smush Parker of the L.A. Lakers.

Maybe the greatest testament to the resilient character of Manila cab drivers is the way they deal with adversity. One driver picked me up, drove for about 4 minutes, then started laughing and pulled over. When he noticed my bewildered look, he pointed to the dashboard and said, "No fuel!" and launched into even heavier hysterics.

Michael Douglas wouldn't have been around to save me from the crotch-rocket goons.

Another driver I was with cut off a suped-up Honda Civic with a three-foot spoiler on the back -- the classic Asian Rice Rocket -- and wound up in a slow-speed car chase with the obviously drunk and/or high madmen inside the Honda. They pulled in front of the cab, then slowed down to a crawl and kept sticking their heads out the window and cursing in Tagalog. I was sure a swarm of uzi-toting Pinoy thugs on Kawasaki Ninja motorcycles would appear momentarily to take us out like the Yakuza hitmen who killed Michael Douglas partner in Black Rain. Whenever the cab driver tried to make a move around the Civic, the Honda would lurch and swerve in front of us. When my driver finally escaped by taking an unexpected detour down a narrow alley and doubling back to our previous location, I expected him to be frazzled, frustrated or pissed-off. Instead, he turned to me, raised his palm and said, "Hi-Five!"

Moral of the story: hours of sitting in traffic and inhaling diesel fumes have made Manila's cab drivers completely insane. That's not much of a moral. We need something more maudlin. How's this -- another example of the indistinguishable human spirit at work.


Anonymous Ray from the Bronx said...

Filippinos seem to have discovered the secret of life: nobody's getting anywhere very fast, and the talk on the trip is likely to be more significant than the destination. They seem like a gregarious people, a "don't worry, be happy" type who might do well in the Caribbean, too. Maybe it's the sun, the ultraviolet rays, the weed. But the Filippinos aren't known as a druggy people, are they?
What about the nightlife? Is there a cable HBO knockoff channel? Will we ever see HBO Taxicab Confessions from Filippinos? One more question: Are the taxi drivers as chatty w/ Filippino fares as they are with Americans?

1:16 AM  
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