Why Commuting In Manila Is Always A Bittersweet Experience
The first time I rode the MRT in Manila was in 2001. The railway system was brand-new, and riding in it made me feel cool, civilized, and grown-up.
I was twelve or thirteen then, in seventh grade, and down to the last days of my elementary life. My parents couldn't bring nor pick me up from school, so my cousin and ate taught me to commute. That was definitely a memorable first.
Growing up always driven around by my parents or taking the school bus, I always wondered why my siblings and I didn't commute. Especially when I’d look out the window and see the other kids doing it. "It looked fun," I thought to myself. And because I was always in a vehicle that's enclosed, tinted, and air-conditioned, taking me door-to-door, I soon found myself romanticizing the idea of commuting... until I finally experienced the worst of it.
Don’t blame me—I’ve only ever seen ‘commuting’ experiences on television. I also grew up listening to songs like Spongecola’s Jeepney.
I have always liked the idea of walking outside, feeling the breeze and the sun on my skin. At such a young age, I was clueless about Manila pollution and how it can severely damage my skin.
But thank you, Manila, Philippines, and whoever is to blame for the mess that is our public transportation system. Commuting here has really opened my eyes to reality and built my character. I also learned so much about life, the daily struggles of the average Filipino, how to diskarte, and a lot of commuting hacks.
In high school, when I missed the school bus, I rode the jeep with a classmate. There were construction workers on the same ride, and one of them pointed out that high schoolers like us shouldn't be taking up precious space in the jeep and take our cars instead. I chose to conserve my energy and didn’t react.
Commuting in college was manageable. I would see familiar faces each time, and I somehow found comfort in that. Seeing the same people on their way to school, too, was affirmation that I wouldn't be late for class. Or if I am, then they probably are running late, too.
One afternoon jeep ride to school, I sort of spaced out and my necklace was snatched in broad daylight. Two things I learned: one, I shouldn't wear my hair in a ponytail when I'm wearing a necklace; and two, I shouldn't space out in public, ever. The stolen necklace had that golden cross pendant that I wore everyday. That unfortunate incident also left a tiny scratch on my neck. God bless the robber.
When I started to commute to work, I learned to always wear sunglasses in order to sleep and roll my eyes at annoying people in secret. I also learned to listen to music to drown out complaining commuters and loud passengers who think we care about what they’re making chismis about.
In my daily commute that consisted of a trike ride, a jeepney ride, and a train ride, what I loved most was the twenty-minute walk from the train station to the office. It was relatively peaceful.
Years passed, and commuting in Manila only worsened. At one point, I waited three hours in line. I have also resorted to illegal means (ask me how). Instead of a daily commute, each trip seemed like an adventure—you’ll never know how it will end. Will we get to our destination on time? Alive and in one piece? Five years after working in Makati, I couldn't handle it anymore. I resigned, and now I work from home.
Fun fact: in that five years of commuting from Quezon City to Makati, there were always elevators and escalators that didn’t work—or deliberately turned off?—at the train stations. Even back then, I already knew it wasn’t going to get any better soon.
Fast forward to today, while I do miss the long walks, and the random funny things that happen when you're out there fighting for your life, I only need to read the news to convince myself that I'm in a better place now.
I still commute from time to time. I prefer it because it’s the only exercise I do aside from window shopping and yoga. And while I’m well aware that commuting in Manila brings out the worst in me—it brings out the goodness in people, too. Each time I do choose to commute, I remember why I like it.
Other than the high I get from brisk-walking and overtaking pedestrians, I like commuting because it keeps me in touch with real people. It reminds me that not everyone has the privilege of taking Grab rides or working remotely. And if you think that’s shallow, just look at how detached from reality our MMDA spokesperson is.
Recently, I took a jeep ride home one hot and humid afternoon, and I almost regretted it. A grandma and a little girl sat beside me. They seem to have gone from the hospital, because the grandma was carrying a large brown envelope that seems to be an x-ray film. My afternoon jeep ride was supposed to be short and sweet—until the little girl puked.
Not my proudest moment: but my immediate concern were my clothes (these were spared, thankfully), instead of checking if the little girl was okay. Fortunately for my soul, my guardian angels worked extra hard to bring me back to my senses. So I dug into my bag and pulled out a wad of tissues, and gave it to the grandma. The driver of the jeep handed over a couple of basahan. One of our co-passengers passed on a box of wet wipes.
Lo and behold, it seemed like it was the first time that the grandma and the little girl were seeing such a thing. They fumbled with the box of wet wipes, not knowing what to do with it. So I took it from them, opened the flap, pulled out the sticker seal—and voila, wet wipes!
After all the hullabaloo, all was well like nothing happened. I silently applauded the teamwork of all the passengers on the ride, and thanked our respective guardian angels. I glanced at the little girl who puked beside me and she looked fine, relieved even. I saw her pulling out more wet wipes from the box. She kept refreshing her face with it. I couldn’t help but smile.
It was a hot and humid day, after all.