The Malls of Iloilo

Iloilo is the provincial capital of the province of that name, and the main city on the island of Panay, which is around the middle of the Philippine chain. It is a tired gritty city, with low buildings that become a blur behind the dark web of utility wires, and the grime. There are distant echos of Spanish colonial architecture, a few parks in traffic circles, a bevy of universities that have a bit of grassy charm. But overall, as in much of this country, there is a sense of maintenance deferred to the point of exhaustion, and of a battle against entropy that is not going well.

Partly for this reason, I suspect, Iloilo has become a city of malls. I have not made an exact count, but there must be three or four major ones in the immediate downtown area, plus a number of smaller ones, and a new bohemoth that has arisen somewhat omenously on the outskirts. The appeal of the malls is not hard to figure out. They are clean, bright, and blessedly cool, in a place in which those qualities are not in abundance. People in Washington, DC, often take refuge in movie theaters in the worst of the summer heat. Here it’s like that for much of the year; in the mall you can get cool for free.

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Dispatch from IloIlo: Maniacs

On the basis of evidence that is entirely circumstantial, I believe that the motor vehicle licensing exam for the Philippines contains a question that goes pretty much as follows. “True or False? A driver ahead of you on the road poses a fundamental challenge to your manhood and your national pride, and is to be passed immediately, regardless of circumstances and the risks involved.” The correct answer, of course, is “True.” Drivers in many places have reputations for frisky behavior. In the Philippines they are off the charts.

You are on a two lane road, the kind that typically goes out from cities to the farming areas. The shoulders are teeming: kids play, mutts dart and yap, farmers spread rice out on bamboo matts to dry for husking, all within feet of passing traffic. The driver of your jeepney, or cab, is barrelling along at a speed that would give you pause even if the road ahead were clear. But it’s not. Another jeepney is just ahead. Coming in the opposite direction is a motorbike with a sidecar (called a “tricycle” out here) or maybe a dump truck. You think, “No, he’s not going to try to pass. He couldn’t…”

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Dispatch from Manila 2: Jeepneys

One thing I agree with Cato-style libertarians on — up to a point — is jitneys. Public transit that uses small vans, individually owned, really can be flexible and do things centralized urban systems can’t. A case in point is the Philippines, where a jitney offshoot called the jeepney (I’ll explain in a minute) is the main means of transportation. The things go everywhere, from downtown Manila to remote farm areas. And at all hours. This morning at 3:00 AM, my wife, son and I, temporally disoriented and tossing in the heat, took a walk out to the road. Jeepneys were going by, along with big trucks, the drivers of which apparently have the sense not to try to make it into the city during the day.

Where jeepneys don’t go, a mosquito fleet of motorbikes with sidecars — called “tricycles” here — does. Tricycles literally swarm at food markets and just about anywhere people might need a ride. They solve two problems that bedevil mass transit in the U.S. One, they are an answer for people who need to stop for groceries etc. on the way home. Two, they can carry people who live too far from the jeepney routes to walk, or else just don’t want to walk in the heat. (Did I mention that it is hot here?)

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Dispatch from Manila

We landed in Manila a few hours ago, and now we are out in Cavite, which is a kind of a Third World slurb on the outskirts.  The road to here is a welter of cinderblock and corrugated metal, heat and rust.  Medical and dental offices sit unpromisingly next to welding shops and piles of trash.  The dumps are full again.  It’s a chronic problem.  It’s a country of chronic problems.  The people are resourceful and resilient, but somehow the  whole does not congeal.

My in-laws live in a small subdivision off the main road.  At first, to an American, it might seem a borderline slum.  The houses are close together, with gates or walls around them.  They are small, and there is the omnipresent decay and rust.  But in fact the place is middle class, and on the rise.  There is lots of rebuilding going on.  But the main thing is this: by some miracle, the place was designed, or at least laid out, on a traditional village model.  The streets are narrow, like alleys, and winding.  There are little parks tucked here and there, one of which has been taken over by a man who raises fighting cocks.  The main park has a basketball court (basketball is a national passion) and a large gazebo for meetings and the like.

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Jeepneys are a Commuter’s Dream

Freedom can mean different and even opposite things. It can mean the freedom to emit muck into the air, for example, or the freedom to breathe clean air. In regard to transportation, it can mean the freedom to drive a car or the freedom that comes from not needing a car.

A beacon of that latter freedom is an unlikely place – the Philippines, a nation known mainly in the US these days for political melodrama and Muslim rebels. In the Philippines you can get virtually any place you need to go – from downtown Manila to the most remote rural barangay (village) – with little waiting and for very little money, without a car.

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