Five More Things I Love about the Philippines…

Jeepneys

The jeepney is a cheap and popular form of transport in the Philippines. Originally adapted from US military jeeps left behind in the Philippines after World War II, today they are made in the Philippines, mostly from second hand Japanese cargo trucks.

Wrapped in chrome plating, the jeepney is endemic to the streets of Manila, a familiar and endearing sight, individualized with flamboyant paintings along the sides and across the bonnet, often bearing poetic names and Christian messages.

The name comes from a combination of jeep and jitney, an American term for a vehicle somewhere between a taxi and a bus. If there’s only a driver, passengers pass the fare forward to the driver, but quite often jeepneys are manned by a driver and his mate, who rides shotgun to collect the fares. . There is very little head room or knee room for tall passengers, but it is always surprising to see how many Filipinos can squeeze onto the narrow bench seats inside.

Jeepneys have a designated route, but while there are designated stops, if the driver can, he will. Fares are generally fixed, although the constantly rising price of petrol is making this increasingly tough on the owner/drivers. Old and smoky and hungry for fuel, there is also growing concern about pollution control.  There have been attempts to modify and modernize this unique form of transport, and apparently there are a few electric jeepneys (e-jeepneys) buzzing about in Makati now, butmany claim larger buses are more cost effective and want the Jeepneys off the roads. Yet it would be sad to see them disappear from the scene: they are a unique and much loved feature of life in the Philippines.

The Filipino Smile

That sweet, ever-present, world famous Filipino smile goes hand in hand with a genuinely friendly welcome from almost everyone: the security guards and receptionists; the waiters and barristas; the people you pass in the street. It’s always a great start to my day, and so often a smile begets a smile, and I find myself wandering gormlessly along the street, beaming at nothing in particular.

Emergency nurses at St. Luke’s Hospital wave us in again with cheery smiles as we trip over a six inch file of information about our rugby-playing accident-prone teenagers. I am now so familiar at the in-house Starbucks that they happily tell me what I will order as I walk in – although they will insist – with a smile – that my name is ‘Miss Alice.’ (I am thinking of changing to low-fat- iced-white-chocolate-mocha just to add a little frisson of excitement to the experience. I don’t expect they’d mind.)

The Markets

As you may have gathered, I love markets, and in the Philippines they are particularly good fun. Salcedo, Quezon, Legazpi, Dangwa: even the names sound magical. Vibrant and kinetic, surprisingly clean and pest-free, they provide ample opportunity for adventure and excitement. I love wandering back and forth, enjoying the individual ambience of every marketplace, exploring unfamiliar sights and sounds, flavours and aromas, and filling my bags to overflowing with new things to nibble on or experiment with in the kitchen.

Unique use of the English Language

I grew up with a journalist father whose one piece of advice, when my essays got too flowery and high falutin’, was to remind me that “less is more “. Why use a polysyllabic word of dubious origin when a simple, one-syllable alternative will often do perfectly well? It is an adage I have no hope of maintaining in the Philippines, the land of the polysyllable and the turn of phrase that fills an entire paragraph. It is very endearing, if a little confusing when you are not fluent in verbosity.

And I love the quirky phrases like: ‘would you like to avail yourself of the comfort room ma’am?’  which means, in English/Aussie parlance, ‘do you need the loo?’ Or “for a while ma’am” meaning “just a minute” – or two or three or half an hour, as the shop assistant goes  in search of something they may or may not stock. Last week I spent half an hour watching a shop assistant  polish up a bathroom mirror before he decided it was not in perfect condition, went rummaging for another one and came back for more polishing, until distracted by a phone call. I left him with the mirror in the end. Well, I might still be waiting…

 The Flag and the National Anthem

I really love the national flag of the Philippines. It is both eye-catching and full of meaningful symbolism, and its claim of self-determination has been hard-won. The first Filipino flag was displayed on May 28, 1898, after the Americans won the Spanish American war and claimed the Philippines as its prize, promising an independence that was not realized until 1946. Over the years of waiting it has evolved from the original design and is now a bold symbol of a proudly independent nation.

It consists of two horizontal stripes of blue (for peace, truth and justice) and red (for patriotism and valour), and a white equilateral triangle symbolizing equality and fraternity. In the centre of the triangle is a yellow sun with eight rays, representing the rise of an independent  nation and the eight Philippine provinces of 1896: Manila, Cavite, Bulacan, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, Tarlac, Laguna and Batangas. Three surrounding stars represent the country’s three main islands, Luzon, the Viayas and Mindanao.

I also love the Filipino national anthem. Like the flag, it has a chequered history. The music was composed in 1898 by Julian Felipe, the Spanish lyrics adapted from a poem by José Palma called Filipinas. It was subsequently Anglicized and finally translated into Tagalog in the 1940s.

I first heard it on Carlos Celdran’s tour of Intramuros, when he encouraged all the Filipinos on the tour to stand and sing before we began. I had already discovered that the Filipinos are naturally spontaneous singers, but to hear them burst into song, hand on heart, was positively spine tingling. It gave even this newcomer and foreigner a sense of real warmth and belonging. Now familiar with the music, I can never resist tapping my foot and humming along whenever this rousing tune is played, and often find my hand fixed firmly to my heart by the end. Heaven help them when I learn the words, I’ll be belting it out with the best of them.

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