That describes my first encounter with a jeepney. It happened 20 years ago during an early visit to Manila. I don’t remember where I was headed or why, but my travel companion suggested we grab a jeepney.
And that’s when it attacked me as I climbed aboard. “Ouch!” I howled, rubbing the bump on my forehead where the low-hanging ceiling had proffered a punch. “I don’t think this vehicle likes Americans.”
It was true; the jalopy-of-a-bus was clearly built for people half my size. Which was odd, because this ubiquitous Philippine mode of transportation has roots in its homeland’s long and complicated relationship with, you guessed it, the United States of America.
It all started after World War II when the departing US military gifted a man named Lamberto Tabing with an old Willys jeep in gratitude for his services as a mechanic. Displaying traditional Filipino ingenuity, Lamberto added a roof and extended the vehicle’s chassis, creating more seats to accommodate passengers. And, voila!, say hello to what’s been—along with tricycles—the Philippines’ most visible and iconic mode of public transportation ever since.
Ah, but now its days may be numbered.
In Manila again last week for the release of my new book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, I noticed an angry-looking mob waving signs and hurling chants on a busy street. “It’s the jeepney drivers,” my non-jeepney Grab driver cheerfully explained. “They’re on strike because the government is trying to force them out of business.”
In fact, Malacañang’s proposal—originally put forward by former President Rodrigo Duterte and embraced by current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.—would phase out jeepneys as we know them by the end of this year. Instead, drivers would be required to purchase more expensive modern minibuses with funds borrowed from government banks. The desired outcome: less congestion and pollution with more safety and comfort.
But drivers are less than enthusiastic regarding the plan. “To own a jeep is like owning a carabao,” Vince Tabing, the original inventor’s grandson, told the New York Times. “A driver depends on it for a livelihood, much like a farmer depends on the beast.”
To register their opposition, the jeepney driver/owners mounted a strike that was to have lasted all week. On the third day, however, they voluntarily suspended it after Marcos promised to review the government’s plans. The drivers “have made their point very clearly,” the President told reporters in Quezon City.
As for me, well, I’ve strenuously avoided jeepneys ever since that first one smacked me on the noggin. And yet, the sight of these strange vehicles crowding the streets of Philippine cities has become synonymous with the country’s culture.
The jeep-like bus “is now considered a cultural icon,” Tabing told the newspaper. “It’s a testament to [Filipino] ingenuity and innovation, making something beautiful out of an old engine and scrap metal.”
I can’t help but agree. Despite their general crankiness and hostility towards oversized foreigners, I would doubtless miss seeing those weird crawlers slowing traffic and blocking my way.
Let’s just call it one of life’s ironies in this country of confounding contrasts.
David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle,” is available on Lazada and Amazon. A former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where he contributed to two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author, and radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. This column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.