King of the Road…

Jeepneys are the most popular means of public transportation in the Philippines. They were originally made from US military jeeps left over from World II and are known for their flamboyant decoration and crowded seating. They have become a ubiquitous symbol of Philippine culture.

When American troops began to leave the Philippines at the end of WWII, hundreds of surplus jeeps were sold or given to the Filipinos; they stripped them down and altered or customized the jeeps to accommodate more passengers, added metal roofs for shade, and decorated the vehicles with vibrant colors and bright chrome hood ornaments. As a result, the jeepney rapidly emerged as a popular and creative way to re-establish inexpensive public transportation, which had been virtually destroyed during the war. Recognizing the widespread use of these vehicles, the Philippine government began to regulate their use. Drivers now must have specialized licenses, regular routes, and reasonably fixed fares.

Although the original jeepneys were simply refurbished military jeeps (Willys & Ford), modern jeepneys are now produced by independently owned workshops and factories in the Philippines. In the central Philippine island of Cebu, the bulk of jeepneys are built from second-hand Japanese trucks, originally intended for cargo.

Jeepneys are sometimes manned by two people, the driver and the conductor.  If there is a conductor present, his job is to manage the passengers and take care of fare collection. At designated stops, a dispatcher will usually also be present, calling out route and destination and ushering in passengers. In the majority of these vehicles, however, only a driver is present, and passengers have to ask the adjacent passengers to pass on the fare to the driver. The driver in this case, relies on the honesty of the passengers to pay the proper amount of fare.

In the Philippines, jeeps compete with each along the same route. Competition for customers is intense, and thousands of jeeps eke out a living gathering as many customers as possible by running as often as possible. Jeepneys can be flagged down much like taxis by holding out or waving an arm at the approaching vehicle, and they will stop anywhere for you as long as you are within sight. This is to the detriment of people in private cars, but to the benefit of the jeepney-riding public.

Because of the proximity of the passengers in jeepneys, a certain etiquette is followed. Jostling and shoving passengers is considered rude, the elderly and women are always seated, talking loudly and boisterous behavior is discouraged. Children are sometimes allowed to ride for free if they agree to sit on the lap of the accompanying adult and not take up seating space. If the jeepney is full, passengers will also sometimes cling outside or sit on the roof instead (referred to colloquially as sabit in Tagalog and kabit or kapyot in Cebuano; both meaning ‘to hang on with your fingertips’); it is a dangerous practice but a common sight. Isa Pa! – there is (always) room for one more!

To ask the driver to stop the vehicle, passengers can rap their knuckles on the roof the jeepney, rap a coin on a metal handrail, or simply tell the driver to stop by saying “para”, from Spanish ‘stop’.  It is also preferred that the passengers call out the words rather than knock, as evidenced in the common admonition from drivers: Ang katok, sa pinto; ang sutsot, sa aso; ang `para’, sa tao (Knocking is for doors; whistling is for dogs; para for humans)

Jeepneys can be seen everywhere in the Philippines – from city streets to mountain roads and even on the beach.

The image here of a group of happy-go lucky Filipinos atop a jeepney racing along the water’s edge on the public beach in Pangasinan with a guitar in their hands and the sun going down may not be a typical site for the city dwellers, but in the rural countryside and outer provinces this is more likely than not a common sight, especially in the areas where the roads are not as good as in the heavier populated urban areas.

By the way, this image can now be found displayed in the U.S. Embassy in Manila.

Here I am receiving an award from the Deputy Chief of Mission Leslie Bassett for capturing this somewhat unique scene, and posing in front of this colorful image along with a few others from the small selection of winning photographs picked by the embassy staff, on March 9, 2011.

If you’re ever in Manila and have occasion to visit the embassy, stop in for a visit to see their collection of images of the undisputed King of the Road – the jeepney – from various photographers captured from around the country.