Whoever walks the streets of Manila for the first time finds it difficult to believe that Japanese auto shows, with their ecological innovations, their Toyotas Prius and Hondas Eco, are right above the map.
The traffic light on Pedro Gil St. opens and a menacing fleet of colored tin starts noisily across the width of the asphalt. Behind them is a cloud of black smoke that envelops five or six unlucky scooter drivers, already careful with handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths.
More and more jeepneys follow, decorated and artillery like the owners' desire.
“Now it's nothing” the passenger next door tells us. "They had to see it before the government started to fine them." “In some jeepneys, the driver could hardly see the road, because of so much junk they put on the windshields, on the dashboards and even, outside, on the hood.”
The dialogue is interrupted by a "Stop!" shrill shouted several times, one of the terms that the Tagalog dialect incorporated from the Spanish colonists.
The Ritual and Conditional Reflection of Payment to the Driver
Once again, on the way between Makati and Malate, busy chatting with two friends who keep him company, the driver doesn't hear the passengers tapping their coins on the roof (the sound that calls for a stop).
Despite talking at 200 an hour, the reflection of the huge rearview mirror makes it clear that the subject is hot. That alone explains the proud smiles, the uncontrolled laughter, the slapping on the windows, and a certain air of acquaintance every time they have to turn around to collect payments.
When the cabin is full, from those who follow the entrance to the driver, the coins or notes go through dozens of hands. Receiving them, making them move forward is already a kind of conditioned reflex of the pinoys.
When an occasional business colleague is missing, payments run on mere trust. It is difficult for the driver to control whether he receives money from everyone behind him.
Some resort to religious morality to affect the Christian consciences of clients: “God knows Judas will not pay” prophesies a sticker that has become commonplace.
The Best Transport System in the World (from certain perspectives)
There are those who argue that, leaving aside comfort, safety and ecological performance, jeepneys are the best transport system in the world.
It's okay that in more developed countries buses are punctual to the second. And that the stops are equipped with electronic panels that tell you where the approaching vehicle is and when it's due to arrive. Also impressive are its almost zero pollutant emissions, ambient music and ergonomic chairs.
In the Philippines, however, people don't have to wait. You don't even have to go to a stop.
The national jeepney squad is so huge that there are dozens, sometimes hundreds, who fight the same routes.
As if that wasn't enough, even against the law, many of its drivers (sometimes also owners) choose to drive without a defined route. Whatever the method, there is always a jeepney a few meters away. They are the ones who approach and even annoy pedestrians to convince them to travel.
As for the stops, the customer is always right. Drivers often make slight detours to drop you off at the door of property or the boy at school.
In practice, all passengers know that sooner or later they will ask for the same. If someone isn't about to waste time, just go out and pick up what's coming behind, glued to the back of the one you're following.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Jeepney Museum Mechanics
It's also important not to forget the mechanical advantages of jeepneys.
In Manila, where the streets and avenues are almost all paved and flat, this factor is less decisive. In the rest of the country, what is not lacking are dirt roads that turn into mudflats in the rainy season.
With their optimized traction, unlike buses and mini-vans, jeepneys not only overcome the most serious problems, they do so with the cab and roof overflowing with people and cargo.
What's more, they are versatile. An owner can use it as a bus on weekdays.
And, at the weekend, ensure delivery of a shipment of pineapples or bricks. They are also used in special passenger freight, such as school transport.
Or, as we witnessed at the airport of El Nido, where, in order to avoid swells on rough seas, El Nido Resorts uses them to ensure the transfer of its wealthy customers to the bay of the homonymous city.
From American Willys to the National Transportation System
Jeepneys appeared in the Philippines a few years after the end of WWII. When US troops left the country, left behind their country music and countless jeeps, mainly from the M, MB and CJ-3B series (also called MacArthur, Eisenhower and Kennedy).
In other cases, they have been offered or sold hastily to the Filipinos.
In a country devastated by Japanese occupation and American bombing – the destruction of post-war Manila is comparable to cities most devastated by conflict, such as Berlin and Dresden – by the end of the 40s and during the 50s, poverty reached unimaginable levels.
Jeeps thus entered people's lives as divine blessings.
Making use of their recognized adaptability, the Filipinos took the quintessence of American war jeeps, added cab extensions that allowed for increased carrying capacity, and metal roofs that protected from the tropical sun and rain.
In this way, each new owner created a private business. Thanks to their entrepreneurial spirit, the newly created jeepneys, in addition to personal and family transport, took on the role of the country's buses and taxis.
At first, they were just stretched out jeeps. Once owners started to cash in and competition increased, the need to be seen by passersby and the pride of owning an impressive jeepney made them start gunning.
The owners painted them in their personal style.
They combined bright colors and all sorts of motifs with decorative and environmental equipment that included hypnotic lights, bells with creative effects and powerful sound systems that tested passengers and passersby.
The Debatable Genesis of the Jeepney Name
As for the name jeepney, its true origin has dispersed in time and there are, today, two parallel theories that explain it.
One says that the term arose from the junction of jeep com knee, by passengers sitting in the cabins knee to knee. Another argues that it comes from the fusion of jeep com jitney, a kind of shared taxi common in the USA and in Canada.
From the late 60s onwards, the Philippines achieved economic growth that was second in Asia, just after Japan.
This calm proved to be ephemeral. Determined to divert millions of dollars to their accounts and to collect shoes, Ferdinand Marcos – in power from 1966 to 1986 – and his wife Imelda quickly perpetuated themselves at the head of the country. And they ended up ruining the Philippines.
An indirect and lesser consequence of this long Marcos misrule is that, until recently, the chaotic evolution of the jeepney phenomenon was ignored. The result sparkles, snores and smokes, today, on the roads of more than 7000 islands in the country.
from Luzon Palawan's last Filipino border.
The Jeepney Sanctuary of Manila de Baclaran
We left in Malate. We immediately pick up another stunning plate prototype, which is heading towards the Baclaran market and terminal, on the outskirts of Manila.
It goes full and remains even hotter and more humid than before. The entry of two foreigners causes a chain reaction of compassion. There is a collective squeeze that, out of nowhere, creates space for us to sit down.
If we were Filipinos, the concern wouldn't have been so much. We would most likely make the trip standing up, hanging, half inside, half outside the cabin. Common places aside, from the experience we have in traveling through the Philippines, as a rule, the pinoys are kind and interested – not self-interested – towards visitors.
educated in latin fashion, share an amazing command of English that comes from 50 years of colonization in the United States and have learned it as a second language since entering school. In addition to being open and outgoing.
It didn't take long until we were chatting with half the passengers, too curious about why so many pictures and about our lives.
Almost at the Baclaran terminal, the jeepney enters through the local market.
It advances, decimeter by decimeter, as the carefree crowd moves away. At a certain point along the route, the streets delimited by the stalls tighten in such a way that pajamas, tracksuits and counterfeit backpacks enter through the windows.
In the semi-darkness provided by the upper coverage of the local MRT station (Mass Rapid Transit, the local surface metro), it strikes our minds how many products there would be “diverted” per month.
Baclaran is little or nothing you would expect from a terminal.
More than Mechanics. The Importance of Jeepney Equipment and Decor
We came face to face with a gray and dirty street, filled with a double, almost circular row of jeepneys surrounded by more shops and stalls. We follow the queue.
We admire the decorations on each of them: we find Bugs-Bunnies and Walt Disney characters, Garfields, Spider-Men and their fellow superheroes, Christs and Pokemones, Power-Rangers and Pica-Chus. A few more orientals that we don't know about.
Other reasons are idyllic or futuristic landscapes, famous monuments and wonders of automobile mechanics, Ferraris and similar cars.
We find even less obvious paintings: abstract, poetic, indecipherable. The spectrum of jeepney decor is endless.
Some drivers slumber waiting for their turn to take off. Others deal with the cleaning of vehicles and mechanics, especially oil changes, as frequent as one might expect from reconditioned engines, several originating from the first half of the XNUMXth century.
At the same time, assistants roam the terminal and the adjacent market. They attract customers for the bosses, many, owners of authentic fleets. Such is the case with Mario Delcon, the President of the 10th Avenue Jeepney Association, himself a former driver.
The strategy of client recruiters is anticipation. To do this, distances that seem to make little sense are moved away. They are placed at the exit of the MRT and the streets that give access to Baclaran. They proclaim destinies out loud: Quiapo, Ermita; Makati; Holy Cross; Binondo; Mabini; Parañaque or Rizal.
And some further away, from the surroundings, like Quezon City and Cubao.
Once detected, the customer is taken to the jeepney. Because this is a terminal, you have to wait for the capacity to be as complete as possible. Passenger by passenger, weight by weight, the owner's profit is made up. And you earn your employees' livelihood.
After the Age of the Willys of World War II, the Filipino Base Manufacturing
When the American jeeps ran out, the Filipinos started securing jeepneys with bigger chassis, extra passenger capacity. They made it from used diesel engines. In the long run, this solution represented increased profits for its owners.
In its Willy phase, most vehicles were assembled in the Filipinos' own backyards, by heads of families with vague notions of mechanics inherited from the GI's. Over time, demand increased exponentially.
Some new entrepreneurs have created veritable factories: Sarao, Francisco Motor Corporation, Hayag Motorworks, David Motors Inc. of Quezon City, and MD Juan, the latter dedicated only to vintage, military-style models.
Installed on the outskirts of Manila and Cebu City, such brands were and are miles away from the technology employed by the world's leading motor vehicle manufacturers.
Instead of robotic assembly lines, there, all the workers, more than human, are Filipino, with everything Latin-Asian, good and bad that the epithet carries.
They are skilled workers in attaching a reconditioned Isuzu transmission to a worn-out Toyota engine, adding suspensions from who knows what manufacturer, molding countless sheets of metal, welding and fitting, piece by piece.
Until the final painting and the placement of the plaque with the name assigned by the owner, the final proof of the personalization of the Filipino jeepney: “Erika” in honor of his wife or any other passion. “The Perfect Choice” so that there is no doubt about the quality of the model. "Damn you". Who knows why.
Unsurprisingly, each jeepney takes forever (about two months) to complete. In its glory years, Hayag delivered fifty custom copies a month.
Some, a few, were luxury models, equipped with color TVs, air conditioning, power steering and four-wheel drive.
From time to time, the latter appear on Philippine roads. They stand out from the rest as if they were sumptuous Ferraris or Lamborghinis.
Despite rudimentary manufacturing techniques, the selling prices of jeepneys are frightening for Filipino living standards: 250.000 pesos (+ or – 4000 euros) the most basic models, where the plate is not even completely painted; 400.000 pesos (+ or – 6300 euros) the deluxe.
The Downward Curve of Old Jeepneys
For some time now, the production and circulation of jeepneys has faced long-awaited obstacles that only the Philippines' relative underdevelopment and successive governments' concern about its (and that of jeepneys) popularity has slowed down.
The routes are now concessioned to drivers who pay a monthly fee to explore them. Tariffs were also regulated. But the main threat to the future of jeepneys is their intolerable environmental performance.
This was a problem we detected on our first day in the Philippines.
One of the Leading Pollution Generators in the Philippines
As we made our way from the airport to downtown Manila, in the distance, the city was shrouded in a haze so dark that we refused to accept that it might be pollution, more inclined to believe they were storm clouds. It had to be the taxi driver to swallow hard and confirm the harsh reality: "Believe it, it's CO2!"
A study published in a newspaper in the capital concluded that a jeepney with a cabin for 16 passengers consumes as much fuel as a 56-seater coach with air conditioning.
If this comparison is worrying, what about the composition of the gases expelled by jeepneys, invariably equipped with used engines that, in addition to processing the fuel poorly, also burn several cans of oil per year.
As soon as we needed to cross Manila at rush hour, we realized that a substantial part of the blame for the massive traffic jams is the excess of jeepneys, many of which roam empty around the city looking for customers.
Outside the capital, Cebu City and other major cities in the Philippines, the panorama is not out of place. When we travel by bus from Manila to Vigan in northern Luzon, we feel the delay in life caused by the hundreds of jeepneys that clog the roads.
The Slow and Capricious Philippine Production
Factories that survive the new rules are still struggling with a recent influx of used vehicles from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Call. They have already started exporting to the Middle East and Australia.
They now manufacture examples similar to GM's robust American Hummers – these based on military Hummvees. For legal reasons, they are called Hammers.
Jappy Alana, the responsible builder whose family has been making jeepneys since shortly after the Americans pulled out, proudly says: “We may not have the same technology that GM uses to make Hummers but ours cost a fifth of the originals…” “…and despite this, we have been delivering several bulletproof copies, to Mindanao and beyond…”.
Mindanao is the southernmost large island in the Philippines. It is in its jungles that Muslim guerrillas resist Abu Sayyaf and MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Force) which frequently attack Philippine government forces.
Apart from the Hammers, new eco-friendly Philippine factories have launched experimental technological models that depart irreversibly from the original concept. The most publicized was the E-jeepney, an electrical prototype developed by a joint venture formed by GRIPP (Green Renewable Independent Power Producer), Greenpeace and the Makati government.
The process of extinction of traditional jeepneys seems to have already started to work. Everything indicates that it will take an eternity to reach the real consequences.
In El Nido, in northern Palawan, we found a magnificent specimen in the backyard of a house on the edge of the bay. We decided to investigate. We found it was the postponed dream of Jolly Rivera, a retired fisherman with below-average income. “… It's there waiting for the day when I have the money to fix it and start my business…”
While in Manila, the first electric models are being tested, in the rest of the country, despite all the restrictions, many jeepneys are still what they were after the withdrawal of the Americans.
Only time will tell whether or not they drive on a dead end road.