Monday, 21 February 2011

A London Bus Driver Merely Scratches The Surface Of Life In Manila

The Philippines - one of the greatest places on earth. I have a passion for it and have been lucky enough to have been there several times.

Oh no no - it's not what you think. None of that nudge, nudge - wink, wink stuff. Before you start, I go to stay with a woman in her eighties who has a house in a village in the provinces and in Manila. I live their life, eat what I am given and do whatever they do. They look after me and act as minders, telling me when there is a dangerous situation, which there can be.

Manila, for me is a special city. Noisy, steaming hot, prone to monsoons and flooding, smelly, polluted, bustling and at times shocking. That's the part I prefer, the old part of the city. Then there's the new pristine part of the city. Makati - the banking district, with its steel and glass skyscrapers glistening in the sun and air conditioned offices. It could be anywhere in the world - New York, Canary Wharf, Tokyo - they all look the same.

Makati doesn't bustle. Life there is all very ordered. It is where all the ex-pats gather and, to me, though it is essential to the economy, it is not the true Philippines so hence, I don't go there very often.

So imagine my excitement, when looking at the TV schedules, there was to be a programme (Toughest Place To Be A Bus Driver - BBC2 -20 Feb) about a London double decker bus driver being dumped in the centre of Manila and told to drive a Jeepney, the ubiquitous Philippino mode of transport, modified from the World War II American Jeep. This should be a great programme and I sat halfway out of the armchair in anticipation.

It wasn't.

It was so so.

The longer it went on, annoyances crept in. Grumpy Bus Driver Syndrome came out in the violent form of me banging the arm of the chair and making various McEnroe, 'uou cannot be serious' accusations at the television screen.

The good parts were that it captured some of the colour and frenetic life of Manila. The people, the houses and the way they lived were true to life. Thereafter it descended into mediocrity.

Mediocre because it became a documentary more about the bus driver from London. He seemed a nice person and it would be interesting to see the outtakes of the film, which might show more of life in Manila. He started making pronouncements on life there. Then he started crying, no doubt genuinely, but it brought the documentary down to soap opera status. He cried in a house. He cried on the Philippino Jeepney driver's shoulder. They cried together. He cried at sunset on a beach looking out to sea.

Now, call me insensitive, but I felt it devalued the show when there were so many other things which could have been filmed and let the audience decide for themselves. Manila is a tough place. It is hard to find a solution to the 15th largest city in the world. A city with over 11.5 million people and 15,500 people per square kilometre. The World Health Organisation are seriously concerned about the population explosion. What can anyone do? It is a massive problem. People have tried and failed. People are still trying. One thing, for sure you cannot do is apply British principles to it, as some of the programme did.

On the plus side, driving a Jeepney was a brave thing for a London bus driver to attempt. Manila traffic is awful. I know. I have tried to drive one. I couldn't fit in the seat and I kept scraping my knees on the sharp edges of the doors as I tried to get in and out. The only way, in the end was to manoeuvre myself through the window with the door shut. this London bus driver was nearly as tall as me, but with a more robust frame. he managed it. Either it was a specially converted vehicle or he must have broken the seat.

He did well and maintained a sense of humour throughout Good for him. The documentary makers, however only scratched the surface. Where were the children selling cigarettes or newspapers for the odd peso? Where was the traffic jams where everything comes to a grinding halt for hours? Where was the Philippino point of view? Philippinos talking about Philippinos?

A Philippina once crossly told me: "I'm fed up with watching English films about the Philippines. All they focus on is the slums - Smokey Mountain (the rubbish dump in Manila), Tondo and others. But I tell you something - at least the Philippino homeless have roofs over there heads - unlike those in London."

The interesting thing would be if there was a Part 2 of the documentary and the Jeepney driver is flown to London and told to drive a double decker bus. But as life stands in Britain, I suspect, it would be too expensive, not offering enough 'best value' for the viewer and because of the amount of the filming which would be spent on Health and Safety issues and driving licences, CPC's etc, it would be so boring that no one would watch it.

I wonder if the Jeepney driver would enjoy it?

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