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

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Metro Manila's Worst Mass Transit Station

I'm a little too proud of how much I commute. I was raised in a New York State of Mind, except unlike Nas, mine didn't really include "gimme a nine and I'll defeat foes." For me, it was more like, "don't waste what precious little money you have on cabs." And that's where it started. Anyone taking a taxi was an affront to the Protestant Ethic: skip the quick fix, put off instant gratification for greater rewards down the road.

My crew can't go for that. No can do.


So I walked and rode trains and buses everywhere. I had an hour-long commute each way to school, starting when I was 12 years old until I graduated high school. In New York, that's pretty standard behavior, and it falls well within the bounds of reason. The Subway covers most of the city and they're often faster than rip-off taxis. My choice to commute in Manila, however, would be harder to peg using an economist's rational actor measurement stick. Commuting is still cheaper, but both forms of transportation are inexpensive enough to fall below my threshold of even noticing how much I'm coming out of pocket for. A long trip from my Katipunan stomping grounds to the Adidas gym in Fort Bonifacio, for example, would cost about 150 pesos in a taxi. The four-leg commute would cost 12 pesos for a tricycle to the Katipunan train station, 12 for the train ride to Cubao, 12 for the second train ride to Ayala station and 10 or 20 pesos from there to get to Adidas, depending on if I wanted to wait for the cheaper Fort Bus or speed things up by riding on the back of a motorcycle. All in all, that's 46 or 56 pesos. In dollars, that's almost $4 for a taxi versus about $1.25 to commute. Unless it's rush hour, the cab will take 30 minutes and the longer route 75-90 minutes. If you were to ask me in a survey, is an hour of my life worth $2.25, I would say yes. But if the cost of saving that hour means breaking a lifelong vow to avoid cabs unless it's past 2 a.m. and I'm somewhere between half-drunk and off my rocker, then it's out of the question. Creating arbitrary rules to live by seems like a prerequisite for manhood, and the no-cab code is one of mine.

The silver lining in my irrational cirrus is that I know my way around. I can recite the stops on Metro Manila's three train lines from memory, and I've "gone down" -- the Engalog diction for getting off the train, which comes from the direct translation of the Tagalog verb bumaba, which is used for getting off vehicles -- at most of the stations in the system. I'm familiar with a lot of jeepney lines, but knowing the entire network comprehensively would require a lifetime. And I know the ins and outs of the EDSA bus racket -- the trick here is memorizing the over- and underpasses at main junctions so you don't go sailing above or below your stop.

But, coming from the Subway-dominated world of New York, I'm a train man at heart, which brings me to the focus of this entry: which train stop on any of the three lines has the most disturbing beggars chilling in the stairwells. You can't bear living in the Philippines -- or several other developing nations, I'd imagine -- without developing a hardness to scenes of gut-wrenching poverty. That doesn't mean you stop caring, but if you cried over every barefoot kid with scabs all over his arms and legs, every wrinkled blind guy knocking on car windows for change and every family living in a shack of corrugated metal, your tear ducts would dry up in a week. Almost every train station has a handful of kids working the stairs or the overpass, all adorable, friendly and showing varying signs of undernourishment and worm-infection, and all trying to get some change from the passersby. In Chicago, these kids would be a humanitarian crisis. Here, they're an everyday thang.

This guy's pretty bad, but nothing compared to big head boy.


It takes something truly gruesome to break the seasoned commuter's forcefield of indifference. You won't find that on the newest LRT line, which runs along Aurora Boulevard between Marikina City and Manila proper. It's based on a Japanese model, which means a lot of cleanliness, a lot of guards and no scruffy homeless people in the stations. So, even though the line passes by the sleaziest corners of Cubao and its terminal station in Manila is situated between a shantytown the size of three football fields, the Manila City Jail and a street, Recto, which is known for bargain basement tattoo parlors with dirty needles, economy-class cathouses with dirty prostitutes and streetside document forgers who can cook up any diploma under the sun, the train stations are oases from whatever madness lurks outside. A betting man would look for the rough stuff along the original LRT, which cuts a North-South path through the heart of Manila. It's the oldest of the three train lines, as well as the dirtiest (although there are a few new trains running these days), the least reliable and the only line (I'm pretty sure) to have been successfully bombed, in 2000. While choosing the poorest major city in Metro Manila is sort of like picking the worst athlete at the Special Olympics, Manila proper takes the cake for the density of its squalor. Up here in Quezon City, the really brutal slums are on the outskirts -- Near the Payatas dump site, sprinkled around Commonwealth and in the QC/Caloocan wastelands of Bagong Silang and Tala -- so the lower poor live farther from the train lines.

But in my experience, distance and population density don't have anything to do with it. Some of the saddest sights I've come across anywhere in the country are at the Ortigas MRT stop, set in a relatively sanitized area along EDSA, with the malls, office parks, hotels and condominiums of Ortigas Center on the West and an empty no-man's land between San Juan and Mandaluyong City on the right. Ortigas is probably the second-most expensive place in the country after Makati City. Yet their train station has three regulars who are so hard to look that instead of attracting alms-givers, they make people speed up and look away. The first two are disabled children. There's a boy who sits on his mother's lap in the stairwell whose head is about four times bigger than a normal human head. He's quiet and well-behaved to the point that you wonder if he's even conscious, and his body just flops around in him mother's lap while she struggles to support his head, which looks like it will snap off if she doesn't hold it in place. Often occupying the same stairwell is another eerily quiet child, this one a girl who has a deformed eye. She doesn't open the eye, but there's a tennis ball-sized protuberance bulging under her eyelid and she wears a grim, Frankenstein-like expression at all times. I dread disembarking at Ortigas because I know I'm going to see these kids. When you look at them, a lump forms immediately in your throat and you have to look away -- their desperation is so bare and their situation so hopeless that you just want to get away from it as fast as possible.

Adam Sandler might say: "I'm crazy dead man! Give me pesos!"


And, around the corner from their stairwell, splayed out in the middle of the overpass, is dead guy. By the time you've passed through the gallery of pediatric horrors, the sight of dead guy is almost a welcome change. He is a relatively healthy adult male (he could probably use a shower, but he's doing all right) who lays face down in the middle of the pedestrian overpass with a cup in one hand. He doesn't move. He doesn't speak. He plays dead. You might even believe he was dead if he didn't hold the cup so perfectly upright. Honestly, by the time I make it to dead guy, I'm in desperate need of a laugh, and thinking of dead guy's gambit usually supplies it. Why would passersby choose to give change to a rotting corpse in the train station? What's the logic of pretending to be dead so people will give you money? Well, it might be this: After I rush through the children of Chernobyl stairwell and dead guy makes me chuckle, I'm grateful enough for his diversion that I end up giving him the change that I didn't give to big head boy or big eye girl. In essence, dead guy steals from the kids. Ugh. No more change for him.

Readers, those of you who know Metro Manila, what do you think? Which station has the most depressing pulubi?

4 Comments:

Anonymous Ray from the Bronx said...

Your subway afflicted are top-shelf nonpareil quality. As you must know, the closest we come here in NYC are the legless-atop-dolly guys, though I once saw a homely Rumpelstiltskian nun displaying a sign that read:
"Excommunicated for Normal Sex Drive." And you could see people pausing and wondering what the possibilities were. Here in the Bronx we pride ourselves as the most recalcitrant of the five boroughs. Even below ground.
Thanks for the taste of real life in Manila and the Third World.

6:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you think LRT is bad. Try going to India and you will be riding in motorized trash bins.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

try taking a bus route in dubai during rush hours..there you'd see guys in in ties,in suits w/ all their laptops and their gizmos....but what the fuck....!!!!!! even early in the morning theyre all stinking...and stinking not because they don't have the moolah to buy their tolietries for they're earning pretty well.. but they're just fucking lazy to take their baths and brush their teeths...
i just cant imagine how is it in their rain stations...

8:53 AM  
Blogger PAK MUS said...

saya mengucapkan banyak terimakasih kepada KI HADAK yang telah menolong saya dalam kesulitan,ini tidak pernah terfikirkan dari benak saya kalau nomor yang saya pasang bisa tembus dan ALHAMDULILLAH kini saya sekeluarga sudah bisa melunasi semua hutang2 kami,sebenarnya saya bukan penggemar togel tapi apa boleh buat kondisi yang tidak memunkinkan dan akhirnya saya minta tolong sama KI HADAK dan dengan senang hati beliau mau membantu saya..,ALHAMDULIL LAH nomor yang dikasi KI semuanya bener2 terbukti tembus dan baru kali ini saya menemukan dukun yang jujur,jangan anda takut untuk menhubungiya jika anda ingin mendapatkan nomor yang betul2 tembus seperti saya,silahkan hubungi KI HADAK DI 085=259=457=111 ingat kesempat tidak akan datang untuk yang kedua kalinya dan perlu anda ketahui kalau banyak dukun yang tercantum dalam internet,itu jangan dipercaya kalau bukan nama KI HADAK
BUKA INI DANA GHAIB TOGEL










saya mengucapkan banyak terimakasih kepada KI HADAK yang telah menolong saya dalam kesulitan,ini tidak pernah terfikirkan dari benak saya kalau nomor yang saya pasang bisa tembus dan ALHAMDULILLAH kini saya sekeluarga sudah bisa melunasi semua hutang2 kami,sebenarnya saya bukan penggemar togel tapi apa boleh buat kondisi yang tidak memunkinkan dan akhirnya saya minta tolong sama KI HADAK dan dengan senang hati beliau mau membantu saya..,ALHAMDULIL LAH nomor yang dikasi KI semuanya bener2 terbukti tembus dan baru kali ini saya menemukan dukun yang jujur,jangan anda takut untuk menhubungiya jika anda ingin mendapatkan nomor yang betul2 tembus seperti saya,silahkan hubungi KI HADAK DI 085=259=457=111 ingat kesempat tidak akan datang untuk yang kedua kalinya dan perlu anda ketahui kalau banyak dukun yang tercantum dalam internet,itu jangan dipercaya kalau bukan nama KI HADAK
BUKA INI DANA GHAIB TOGEL

11:05 PM  

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