Travelling in the Philippines

Travel has always been central to the Christian story. After all, it was the journey of Mary and Joseph to fulfil the census in Bethlehem that was the occasion of the birth of Jesus there. And there, the journeying three kings found the “king of the Jews” – an anticipation of the spread of the Christian message to include the gentile nations.

As an adult, Jesus was constantly on the move: whether in his native province of Galilee, or during his peregrinations in the province of Judea; and his final post-resurrection message to his followers was to “go out to the whole world and proclaim the good news” (Matt: 28:19).

This assignment was carried out chiefly through two people (and many assistants), Peter and Paul. Peter was the one who journeyed within Israel, and who made the epoch-changing move when, at divine instigation, he visited the house of the pagan centurion Cornelius, and then witnessed the conversion of Cornelius and his household (Acts: 10: 44, 45)

It was Paul, journeying around the Mediterranean, who brought the Christian message to many pagan places, enduring many hardships along the way. They travelled by horse or donkey or boat; now we travel by more modern means.

Now, not at all presuming to stand among such august predecessors, nevertheless I wish to record my own humble missionary travels – the focus however, not on myself, but on the great variety of ways of travelling in the Philippines.

For eight years (2011-2019) I was conducting missions on the island of Negros, in one of the four dioceses (Dumaguete) on that island. If you picture this in Irish terms, Dumaguete would be where Wexford is, and I’d spend a few months in a parish in Cork, then in Kerry, then Galway, then Dublin, and so on: so a lot of travelling. For every journey, I’d get the bus to the parish in question, and then proceed to the various villages in the hills or along the highway – but more of that anon.

Getting the bus in the Philippines is a very different experience from Ireland. In fact I would confidently say that the public transport in the Philippines is way ahead of Ireland. For example, as I wait for the bus, I know I’ll have a choice of two services: air-conditioned or ordinary (the difference in fare is actually negligible). The air-con is cooler and more comfortable, but you have to endure the infernal video show, the usual Filipino fare: Kung Fu, cops and robbers, slapstick comedy. The advantage of the ordinary bus is that the passengers chat away much more easily and you might have a few chickens, goats or sacks of fertiliser, tied up along the aisle, as part of the cargo; definitely different from the somewhat stuffy atmosphere of the air-con.

But the beauty of Philippine public transport is that whatever bus I take, it will literally stop anywhere. And furthermore, wherever the bus stops (crossroads, village or town) there will be further public transport to take me to my destination (it may be a tricycad or a tricycle: see below). Mind you, the next step of the journey is where the action really begins. I sit on the back of the motorbike, heading for a village 8 or 10 miles into the hills, the driver having securely tied my various bags & supplies onto the bike. The requirements for such a journey are pretty simple: make sure you are in a state of grace, however incomplete; ensure your last will and testament are safely with your solicitor; pray that any rivers you may need to cross will  not be flooded due to rain. And then you can relax, relatively speaking.

I really admire these motorbike drivers, it’s their livelihood, driving up and down these often boulder-strewn, muddy roads or just pathways. Because Filipinos are generally of small stature, they can take 5 or 6 passengers on the bike: they put an extension on the back of the motorbike, then one passenger sits in front of the driver (literally on the fuel tank). The transport is actually called “habal-habal”, “habal” being the verb for the mating of animals. The passengers on such motorbikes seem to simulate such a posture; actually, it’s a humorous phrase in the Philippines. In fact the habal-habal has changed rural travel, especially in remote areas. Oftentimes access to remote areas is by mountain trail only, so either the motorbike, horse or water-buffalo is used to bring the vegetables to sell in the town on market day, and then to transport back to the hills whatever necessities were bought (kerosene, salted fish, soap, and the like) – until the next journey down again. In olden times the bringing of the produce to the market in the town was done only by horse or water-buffalo. The journey might have taken a few hours, either way. Now with the motorbike the journey takes 30-40 minutes, and a longer time for more remote areas.

In the cities, things are different. There is a great variety of travel choices.

The most basic is the tricycad, basically a bicycle with a sidecar welded onto its side. It’s really only for flat terrain and even so, you’d see the perspiration rolling down the poor driver’s back! It’s very popular and so relaxed that, even with the sweat, the driver can have quite an animated conversation with his passengers. The tricycad is very popular for children going to school.


Next is the tricycle, this time a motorcycle with a sidecar attached. The sidecar can officially take 4 or 5 passengers and another 2 behind the driver on the motorbike. But by gymnastical feats, and because Filipinos are generally of a smaller stature, the tricycle can carry up to a dozen passengers or even 15 at a squeeze – especially in rural areas where the rules are more relaxed. Not to be excluded is the tartanilla: this is really a glorified horse-and-cart, a downmarket model of the Killarney jaunting car. They remain now only in a few cities, but are a lovely sight to see. The tartanilla is really a relic of a bygone era before the advent of mechanised transport. Still, it’s a delight, a reminder when there was less rushing and hustle and bustle about life. The horse and buggy trotting along the city streets, admittedly not along the main thoroughfares, eases and refreshes the onlooker – whatever about the poor nag!


For longer distances within a city the transport of choice is the jeepney, pretty much unique to the Philippines. Apart from the capital Manila, part of a vast conurbation of various cities, buses are used very little (buses are widely used for travel between cities and towns, but not within them). The original jeepneys were jeeps of the U.S. army no longer needed after WW 11. The Filipinos creatively adapted them into passenger vehicles, (often brightly coloured), but not a luxury means of transport, because at rush hour passengers are squeezed in like sardines in a tin. But they’re good value and go to many outlying parts of a city. The beauty of the jeepney, as with all public transport here, is that it will pick up and drop off passengers anywhere; all you have to do is to alert the driver by saying “here”. The sudden stop may be to the annoyance of the vehicle behind, but it definitely suits the passenger! Alighting from the jeepney, one then walks the rest of the way home or takes another form of transport – such is the amazing variety of Philippine travel. And I haven’t even mentioned travel between the islands.



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