A friend, Estan Cabigas recently shared an interesting story about the PNR (Philippine National Railways) Bicol Express that reminded me of a trip I have yet to make. I’ve been planning to do that some time next year. I’m still hoping there’s a cargo hold somewhere that would allow me to bring my Vespa with me so I can better explore the local towns. The other way to go is go Vespa all the way but the experience would, of course, be different (though equally fun, I’m sure!). That deserves a plan of its own.
More importantly, however, what Estan’s story did was to bring back memories of the 80s and 90s. Back in the day, when I was still in high school, I’d take the MetroTren both in the morning and in the afternoon. The fare back then was only 1 peso between the Bicutan and Pasay Road Stations. That was between 1988-92. The great thing about doing that was as soon as I boarded, the traffic factors usually affecting buses and jeeps, were practically non-existent. If it and I arrive on time on the boarding station, it’s almost as sure we would arrive on time as well, as long as there were no mechanical problems nor accidents which were really seldom.
When I went to college, it still was a staple for me and it saved me a few more bucks as the fare headed for the Paco station from Bicutan was only 1.50. By then, my preferred seat was on the roof (less crowded and quite windy) and for me was one of the things I dearly miss now. It was never safe, I know, but it all started one day when I was running late for my mid-term exams and the train was already full. I had to come up with a solution. The alternative was waiting for the next train to arrive in one hour. I couldn’t afford to miss that chance. And I knew it was time to make a risk.
The conversations I had with all sorts of people (strangers) on the roof became experiences I looked forward to each day. We would duck power cables together. We would pick mangoes together. We would all help each other go up and come down. We would say hello and take care to each other day after day. That’s in contrast to the cans of sardines down below in coach where you’d normally hold your breath for as long as you could so you wouldn’t be able to smell the soul of the guy next to you.
I would then write stories about those conversations in our school paper, The Bosconian Journal. Those conversations, of course, revolved mainly around middle- to low-class concerns, concerns some readers really wouldn’t have an idea about, but should have. A lot of these were gripes about how fluctuating costs (mainly headed for kingdom come) affect pretty stagnant incomes (sub-humane at that). If the middle class felt these effects, these same effects were felt with much greater magnitude by those less-privileged. And as with stories like this, the government, corporations and how they operated were a natural target for blame. Those days, the rich got richer, and the poor went even poorer. Add to that the perfect background of shanties along the tracks which served as the cozy homes of hundreds (maybe thousands) of families.
Fast-forward decades later, the train system has improved, with new engines deployed and tracks & stations renovated. At first, the roofs were made safer by putting a slope onto them that would make sitting on them impossible. Now, they’re even air-conditioned and security is surprisingly present. Things have definitely changed a lot but I’m sure the topics in those conversations we had are still as fresh as they are old. That part of the story really hasn’t changed.