Manila Stories: Farewell to the smelly jeepney

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The Independent Online

Amid the traffic crawling bumper to bumper along the congested highways, one idiosyncratic vehicle stands out: the jeepney. This unique contraption is a legacy of the Second World War, when departing US troops left behind their army Jeeps. Stripped, repainted in garish colours and adorned with chrome, they became the workhorses of the public transport system. Their successors ply the main routes in Manila, many of them inscribed with slogans such as "Bring Me an Angel".

Amid the traffic crawling bumper to bumper along the congested highways, one idiosyncratic vehicle stands out: the jeepney. This unique contraption is a legacy of the Second World War, when departing US troops left behind their army Jeeps. Stripped, repainted in garish colours and adorned with chrome, they became the workhorses of the public transport system. Their successors ply the main routes in Manila, many of them inscribed with slogans such as "Bring Me an Angel".

With their flashing lights, blaring music and lavish decorations, jeepneys brighten up the traffic-choked streets. But for their occupants, they are not so romantic. Squeezed together on wooden benches, travellers bake in the stifling heat, exposed to diesel fumes and the din of traffic.

The jeepney's future is now threatened by air-conditioned minivans knowns as "FXs", short for the Toyota Tamaraw FX. The FXs are more expensive - 10 pesos (10p) for a short ride, compared with five pesos in a jeepney - but they are cooler, more comfortable and run more frequently.

The competition from the FX is serious enough, but jeepney operators fear plans are afoot to drive them out of business. In recent years, the number of jeepney licences has been capped. Philippine authorities have declared war on ageing jeepneys, with their second-hand, polluting engines.

Ed Sarao, director of Sarao Motors, the largest manufacturer of jeepneys, said that installing new engines would be too costly. As for air-con, that is a pipe dream. "If the standard of living in the Philippines improves, maybe one day we can make an air-conditioned jeepney," he said.

Large advertisements exhort residents to "pasa load". They refer to a scheme dreamt up by mobile telephone companies to allow consumers to transfer tiny amounts of airtime - worth as little as 10 pesos - to a friend. Why bother? Filipinos are the world's most voracious texters, but not everyone can afford the pre-paid cards (minimum 300 pesos) used to "top up" mobile phones. The "pasa load" system is popular with teenagers, who use it to swap airtime in the same way that they "bum" cigarettes off each other. Each message costs just one peso to send.

The Philippines famously dumped a president (Joseph Estrada) after organising mass street rallies via SMS. After the presidential election last May, some commentators attributed the defeat of the opposition frontrunner, Fernando Poe, to his slowness in the text message department.

If Mr Poe had joined forces with another candidate, Panfilo Lacson, the pair would probably have defeated the incumbent, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. But Mr Poe did not reply to Mr Lacson's text messages at a crucial time, and Mrs Arroyo was duly re-elected.

In the Philippines, it is said, everything is for hire. You can hire "prayer ladies" to intercede with God on your behalf. You can hire a hitman to kill your philandering husband. And when they are dead, you can hire a "crying lady" to shed tears - for a fee. This last practice inspired a film called Crying Ladies, which played to packed houses. It had good reviews in the US, too. In real life, though, the custom is dying out. The crying ladies will have to find another outlet for their tears.

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