Friday, December 10, 2004

A sense of life in the past

A sense of life in the past

Updated 10:42pm (Mla time) Dec 09, 2004
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the December 10, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

WHEN tourists (both foreign and Filipino) walk near San Agustin Church and the Casa Manila complex, they will notice that this is one small spot of Intramuros that has cobblestone streets. The sound of “calesa” bells or the wooden wheels on the stone conjure many romantic notions about life in the Walled City. Often I hear people exclaim that it would have been wonderful to live in Spanish Manila, and I often feel like bursting the bubble and saying that then, as now, if one was not wealthy, life could be uncomfortable.

Travel accounts of the islands give us a real sense of life in the past. If you take one of those exorbitantly priced calesa rides around Intramuros today, you get a quaint ride because most streets are paved and the wooden wheels are lined with rubber creating less noise and a smooth ride. When Ethel Colquhoun and her husband Andrew arrived in Manila at the turn of the last century, they did not have confirmed hotel bookings. They must have presumed that nobody would bother to visit Manila and so they could find a decent room in the best place in town, Hotel de Oriente, outside Intramuros whose imposing facade is often the subject of old photographs.

The hotel was full but for one room, and so the opportunistic clerk charged them $7 per person for this small single room with a single bed. There were four people in the party who looked and "felt dusty, hot and badly dressed." They were told to take the room at that price or leave it.

Of course they left, with Ethel saying she would rather sleep in the street than be had. Now they had to find another hotel and couldn't do that on foot. Since they didn't know anyone of consequence in Manila, they had no ride and had to get the ancestor of today's FX taxi:

"After some delay we got a little box on wheels and rattled away in search of other quarters. Carriages, be it here noted, are hard to hire in Manila, most people keeping their own. Everyone drives, so the demand is frequently larger than the supply." (It must have been a good day because there is no mention of traffic that then, as now, plagued Manila. Haven't you noticed the irony of the word "rush hour"? One cannot rush at this time because of traffic. Another example would be "salvage," which the dictionary defines as saving something but in the Philippines means disposing of someone bodily. That's material for another column, so to get back to Colquhoun's taxi ride:)

"The carromatta is a two-wheeled cart, with a cover; there is room for two Filipinos inside, or for one European and a half. The driver sits on a little perch just in front, and the only way in is to climb over the wheel. The carromatta we hired on this occasion was not very sure of its wheels, and as we joggled and jolted along over the bad roads and cobblestone-paved streets, the driver eyed them nervously. Every now and then came a sickening heave and wrench as we bumped into a hole, and our heads were banged first against the sides of the cover and then against each other. Luckily the wheels held until we had passed along some Spanish-looking streets -- white and grey houses with the inevitable rajas -- through a low arched opening in the thick wall, which looks much older than it is, and into the walled city. I was too much engaged with holding my head on and watching the wheels to notice much of the city..."

Climbing into this vehicle one had to grasp on the wheels for support, and knowing how dirty the streets were at the time, this could be quite disagreeable. We have air pollution today, but in those days when the term "horsepower" was taken literally, you can imagine that there was a bit more than air pollution in Manila. One had to mind where one was walking not only because of potholes but horse droppings. Seating capacity as mentioned above was for two Filipinos, the equivalent of one and a half European passenger. One wonders if an oversized lone Westerner was charged twice, because even on a jeepney today the driver always tries to pack the seats. He looks back through his mirror and barks "animan 'yan," meaning six people per row. Often this is a signal for everyone to compress, or for mothers to put a child (who rides free) on her lap and accommodate the sixth passenger. However, I was once seated with a fat lady the size of two passengers and the driver kept telling us to squeeze together because "animan 'yan" instead of shaming the obese and charging her double.

All postwar travel accounts of the Philippines marvel about the jeepney -- its wild colors and the number of mirrors and horses on the hood -- but do not pick up what to us is ordinary: passing your fare up front. Witty signs like "God knows Hudas not pay." Or even the various ways to stop the jeep if it is not fitted with a wire or button that rings a bell or flashes a red light by the driver. Normally, the Pinoy often refrains from ordering the driver "Para" so the more polite "Sa tabi lang, po" is used. Non-verbal signals often differ according to sex: Men will knock on the ceiling, while women will demurely hiss "Pssst!"

We see this but rarely notice the everyday details.

Friends say I should have been an anthropologist rather than a historian because I mine travel accounts for everyday detail, providing more body to a history that will otherwise be dull and dry.


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