a market, 4 trains, a trolley and a ferry: seeing manila differently

i began my saturday at 11am. after my morning rituals, i put on a pair of shorts, wore a shirt, slung my lowepro camera bag on my shoulder and stepped out of the house shod in slippers. i was determined to walk for the better part of the afternoon and explore spheres in my own city that are outside the realms of my experiences. i briefly consulted a city map before i stepped out but didn't bother to take down any notes. i wanted to be lured to indecision by the sheer urgency of my urban adventure.

my first stop was the salcedo market. i have been there many times before, but not recently. the market cackled with activity: there were the usual organic produce and exotic cuisine alongside your regular pork barbecues and cotton candy and decadently rich matrons with their coiffed hair drying under the sun inquiring about home-made healthy options to the usual things with store owners who speak in an english that hints either of a high degree of education, breeding, or both. i skipped the stuffed frogs and the fried pigeon for fresh vietnamese spring rolls and shark's fin dumplings (only after i confirmed that it was not real shark's fin). i finished my lunch in the park and proceeded to the philippine national railway's buendia station.

the PNR acquired new trains from hyundai rotem last year, and i have been meaning to try them myself, but never got the chance until today. at first i was confused by the direction of the trains: i intended to go north, towards tutuban, but was waiting at the wrong side of the station. i'm not sure whether that particular trip was reversed, or the trains really do have a different orientation. i didn't wait long for the train -- affectionately called white sharks by train afficionados to distinguish it from the old diesel-powered blue whales -- to arrive. once inside, i immediately noticed its similarity to the LRT-2: it was spacious, cool, and felt utterly modern. the windows are screened so it is difficult to get a view of the banks along the tracks. they are screened because bored informal settlers have a nasty habit of throwing things at passing carriages. the glass on one of the doors has been replaced by cardboard and packing tape.

the trip was steady and smooth in parts. the train obviously cannot go too fast as it dissects many intersections. it is a commuter train primarily, ferrying passengers from tutuban until alabang, and vice versa. there are 16 stations in between. the blue whales go as far as calamba. and once track rehabilitation is completed, trips to bicol would resume. the fare, regardless of your destination, is only P10. i don't know if it is any different at either end of the station. i was taking photos liberally while i was inside the train, but the guard on duty didn't bother me. nevertheless, i was eyed with much curiosity by most passengers.

i got off at the station in blumentritt. stations of the PNR may either be covered, such as the one in buendia, or a bare platform, like what they have in many other places. i immediately noticed that the tracks in blumentritt were noticeably cleaner compared to buendia, and the train hadn't completely left the station when i found that there were workers picking up trash along the tracks. not too far away from them, two men sat on the tracks in the shade of the LRT-1's blumentritt station playing cards.

walking to my next agenda, i couldn't help but notice the filth and squalor of manila: the muck of neglect and poverty clings to you very quickly, and taking it off isn't easy. and yet i find the city charming, in many ways. life may be hard in these parts, but people deal with the hardships with reckless abandon.

inside LRT-1's 2G train, i contemplated my next destination. i wasn't sure where i was supposed to get off in order to complete my loop of manila's mass transport systems, but decided on carriedo so that i could get some supplies from hidalgo. all this time i had my camera exposed, hanging from one shoulder, maybe a little too precariously. i know of people who are intimidated by the idea of quiapo, but i have been here many times and i have had worse experiences in comparatively upscale places.

from quiapo, i proceeded to recto in order to take the LRT-2. for me to say that this train system is impressive is to be too unforgivably obvious, in much the same way that saying the MRT-3's design and capacity are lost opportunities is redundant. but the MRT-3 cannot be undone, although i can only hope that future rail systems follow in the footsteps of the LRT-2 (a new line along commonwealth is slated to begin construction soon). i was unsure about whether i would manage to complete my loop, and wondered about where i would get off in order to find either the pasig river ferry or MRT-3. and then i remembered that while on the PNR, there was a stop near the polytechnic university of the philippines. i didn't know that PUP had a campus much bigger than what appears outside. i also observed that PUP students and faculty are fortunate to be served by the PNR, the LRT-2, and the pasig river ferry.

from the pureza station, i took a pedicab to the pasig river ferry station behind the PUP campus, but narrowly missed the 4:20 trip. the last ferry upstream isn't due until 5:54pm. with more than an hour to wait, i wondered whether i should just skip the ferry and continue with my train exploration. when i returned to the tracks, i was amused to discover that rail skates -- which they call trolleys -- are still in business in manila. the route taken by the trolleys is short: from the stations in santa mesa and pandacan, but they cross a bridge where you could easily fall into the pasig. i hadn't planned on riding a trolley in my itinerary, but i seized the opportunity, and only once on the trolley did i bother asking about an oncoming train. according to the trolley pusher, they used to have a longer route, but it was disallowed because the sharp curves at some points didn't allow them to see if a train was arriving.

the trolleys are makeshift carts with ball bearings underneath that fit nicely into the PNR's narrow-gauged tracks. they are pushed by their operators in the same direction as the train. when the train arrives, the passengers alight, and the "pusher" just lifts his trolley off the tracks. when the sun is up, the pusher opens an umbrella. an average trolley can accommodate 8 passengers. more than that and the pusher would have to exert a lot more effort. i took the trolley to pandacan and back again to santa mesa, and after grabbing a quick snack, i was back at the air-conditioned PUP pasig river ferry station, eager to take a smooth ride to guadalupe.

it was already dusk once i got inside the ferry. the sun sank behind me, and there was not enough light to capture good images of the busy river. the banks of the pasig have been blighted by industry. people might say that in other parts of the world, the banks of a major river would be prime real estate. but the pasig river is not the thames. it is not the seine. it isn't even the chao phraya. it is the pasig. while we regret the decisions and the lack of foresight of our forefathers, we look to the future with optimism. it will take two more generations before rehabilitation efforts result to radical change. but there are efforts.

by the time i arrived at the pasig river ferry's guadalupe station, night had fallen, and the ghastly billboards across the river lit up the sky. i walked to the MRT-3 station where photography is normally frowned down upon, as though everyone with a DSLR is a potential terrorist. it is a strange, maybe even stupid, policy, really, considering that terrorism could take place even without the help of high-resolution photos. nevertheless, i was slightly pleased to find out that there is at least one ticket vending machine that works. dispensing tickets is a boring, dead-end job, right up there with toll booth operators and night-shift security guards.

with this last trip, i completed my small tour of manila through 5 of its mass transport systems: the PNR, the LRT-1, the LRT-2, the MRT-3, and the pasig river ferry. i'd like to do it again soon, but maybe with a little more planning. if everyone looked at manila differently, and appreciated it for its unique qualities, it wouldn't be the the blighted, squalid, badly-tattooed thug a lot of ignorant filipinos portray it to be. there's something to see here. you just have to look creatively in the right places. and the "right places" aren't always obvious.