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  • Jordan Winters

Manila Commute

Do you know what it’s like to be an ant underneath a kid’s magnifying glass, being burnt to a

crisp in the backyard? I do. It’s the only way I can describe the 20-minute walk to the train

station as I commute to the University of the Philippines, Diliman. That is before Google maps

leads me into an abandoned demolition site that could be the set of a public service

announcement promoting tetanus shots. I kick my Birkys into four-wheel-drive to long-jump

over sections of the sidewalk where gaping foot-shaped holes that smell suspiciously like a

sewer. Only an hour and a half to go.


Finally, the black cloud of diesel comes to the rescue (sometimes, on a good day). Jeepneys,

the iconic jeep minibuses left by the United States after World War II are still in operation today

and a major part of mass transportation. I saw someone on the internet describe them as “Mad

Max meets Mardi Gras.” The carousel of jeepneys circling the boulevard merge in a pastiche of

tart cherry, searing azure and sparkling turquoise cut into swirly fonts and pop art Madonnas. My

personal favorite is a transformer-themed jeepney, but most seem like a monster truck rally for

Jesus. They slow down just enough for me to grab a handle and swing in the back. I find a seat

for the short, swinging ride – a real-life Cinderella story of a pumpkin turned into a carriage.

I hop off at my stop and hike up a maze of stairs, escalators, mall entrances and hawkers into

the metro station. The minute my skin hits the sterile AC inside the train, I feel how the

Philippines has changed my very chemistry. A month ago, my little cousin said I had that “weird”

American smell. Now my sweat is vinegar with the tang of fish oil. I smell like lolas house with

the plastic on the sofa, where the smell of ginseng and chicken skin still lingers. On the train

people are not shy about jamming in, making sticky skin contact. The salary man next to me

reeks of those sweet-sour pheromones. The elevated train has the best view of the city I’ve seen

so far. At sunset, the smog turns the sky a sherbet pink and the sun into a red disk like a bindi

on the city’s forehead. The high-rises cluster like tufts of grass on a parched field. Canals

clogged with trash groan towards the ocean and I think about how the river spirits go to the

bathhouse in Spirited Away to get clean.


Thirty minutes later, the crowds part and I’m spat back into another trapeze of thin, criss-crossing

walkways. It’s now 97 degrees out. Time to find a bus. But a different bus, a big bus where

they’re playing telenovelas from the early 2000s. While they’re technically numbered each time I

board a 7 bus, it feels like the driver consulted a new deck of tarot cards, never taking the same

route and charging a different price. However, the bus always manages to barrel past the

wrought-iron gates into the sprawling campus of the University of the Philippines and I scream

at the driver (nicely of course) to stop. I throw myself out of the moving bus, usually landing on

some old lady’s turon stand. There are worse safety nets than the fried, brown sugar-coated

banana swaddled in a spring roll wrapper. On the days I stick the landing, I treat myself and tell

her to keep the change with a wink. She’s always unimpressed.


I join the throngs of high school students donning uniforms straight out of the 1940s. The girls

stroll past in pleated skirts that hit mid-calf, Mary Janes and ankle socks with a scalloped trim. I

traded my Miami micro-minis for a swooping-buttoned midi skirt that matches the conservative

zeal of this deeply Catholic country. The students giggle at my exasperating power walk. It isn’t

the heat that melts me, but the little mischief in their eyes. I smile back, as they squeal and run

away. I look up at the tangled barbed wires topping the walls and the sampaguita flowers

busting through the concrete to bloom. One hour and 17 minutes later, I have one final sprint to

the School of Archaeology building and I’ve made it. Three hours later, I do the whole trek

backwards, but this time with a little white flower tucked behind my ear and a smile on my face.


Jordan Winters is a Filipina American journalist. She is a Fulbright recipient where she studied

maritime archaeology at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. When not chasing stories,

she’s racing sailboats and plotting a circumnavigation of the globe.

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May 19
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Excellent share, Jordan!

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