Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Pasig River Ferry Trip

Previously: Day Off (Last Part)

It was the construction of the Skyway Extension from Buendia to Balintawak that forced the government to take action. Expecting the mayhem the project will create, they came up with the idea to move people across cities without devising schemes that would worsen the rush-hour traffic problem. With spare resources, they re-opened the Pasig River Ferry service. It aims to move commuters from Escolta to Guadalupe by coursing them through the serpentine waterway of the metropolis. 

The last time I rode the ferry was in 2007. Back then, the service was run like a private company. They had air-conditioned speedboats that carried more than 50 passengers at a time. It was not as efficient and timely as the MRT, but it transported people nonetheless. Unceremoniously, the ferry service ceased operations, and for seven years, tugboats and barges reign over Manila's main watercourse once again.

A barely thought-out plan, such as the resurrection of the ferry service accomplishes little, when one keeps in mind that it was supposed to serve the masa passengers. The motor boats are very much smaller now, and the tickets a lot pricier. A trip from Escolta to Guadalupe cost around 50 pesos.

Jeepney drivers charge half the price. 

The idea for this trip was to get off at Pinagbuhatan in Pasig, where the last station perched along the riverbanks. But boat captains, eager to get their pay, refused to sail further upstream. Also, the 3:30 pm arrival of the ferry was moved by an hour. Such delays, turn off commuters. No wonder, people who buy tickets do it for fancy. I was told tourists from Intramuros go round-trips as part of their travel activity.

The captain wasted no time at the jetty as our ferry had now become the last trip of the day. The co-pilot, meanwhile said little about what not to do inside the moving boat, except not to take photos as we pass in front of the Malacanan. He said, it was to protect the occupant from possible incursions. A soldier had even boarded the craft near the Ayala Bridge and accompanied us until we docked at the PUP Station - the next stop after the palace. The relaxed atmosphere inside the open cabin allowed me to stand up, and even transfer seats to take pictures without calling the captain's attention. However, since only steel barriers separated us from the currents below, jet sprays of foul-smelling liquid hit my arms and even my face. Such was the trade-off of sitting in front of the boat to get an unobstructed view of the city.

The other passengers, mostly well-off curiousers from their stroll in Binondo and Escolta made the late afternoon trip a little less like a rush-hour commute and more of a sightseeing tour for the moneyed. There was the quiet Caucasian who stayed at the back of the boat. He spoke often to the co-pilot who swapped stories about the river. There was also this middle-aged woman with her pre-school daughter. Together with a nanny, they occupied the middle seats and covered their garments with small, silken blankets. Another passenger, an old lady, sat next to me. She was the reason I refused to leave the front seat. Without my blocking, she would get sprayed by the river water as well. Finally, there was the Korean I met at the Intramuros ferry station. He was a professor in Incheon, and would leave Manila the following day. While we talked little as we waited for the boat's arrival, I later pointed at him the disused passenger boats that once plied the same water route. At the mercy of the elements, these abandoned vessels are a sad reminder of how some great ideas get wasted because governments refuse to lend support.

Before disembarking, the Korean asked our picture to be taken. When he gets home, I wonder what stories he would tell about his trip.

The Pasig River, whose ever-flowing currents, hides nothing from eyes that see within. The most glaring are the glitzy apartments rising near the waters' edges. Gone are the postwar metalworks and factories that used to dominate the riverine skyline. The windfall trade they spurred, and the people who suckled on the boundless providence, now displaced from their old homesteads. Those who stayed behind squeeze what little sustenance remains. You will catch them standing along the riverbanks, searching for Tilapia and some other edible fishes.

Except for the near confiscation of my camera phone - after I mindlessly aimed it towards the direction of the Palace - the rest of the trip was replete with moments of contemplation. And while brushes of despair remain the undercurrent of the entire journey, a silver lining appears, when you disprove the common belief that you are traversing a body of water that is biologically dead. Accounts of local dwellers claiming fishing grounds downstream, as well as flocks of egrets soaring overhead are the most telling signs that life flourishes beneath the tidal estuary. My hope is that with the surge of high end homes along the river's edges, the less sewage gets into the water. Someday, I wish children who would take this cruise would find a much more verdant waterway.

Like what the Weatherman said, after I sent him a photo of me and the old lady who gamely joined my selfie, the river has stories to tell: There was the foul-smelling sludge flowing from the confluence of the San Juan tributary; the condemned tenement housing, that stubborn dwellers refuse to leave; the dramatic sunset at Punta, where custom-built pump boats ferry passengers from the peninsula, to the public market of Santa Ana on the opposite side of the river. Also telling are the new towers being constructed at the Rockwell Center. The stark difference between the surrounding neighborhoods and the high-end conclave makes you wonder if the residents of the luxury lofts ever thought of the lives of hovel-dwelling people below, and finally, just when you wish the trip would go beyond the Edsa Bridge, you return to rush-hour scenes at Guadalupe: the people shoving, the bus chasing, the long queues at the MRT station nearby, and the stream of red lights that stretches on forever, the same everyday hell commuters in this corner of the city have to endure every passing day.

There and then you realize what real purpose the ferry serves.

But first, the enclosed boats need to sail once more.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting journey! I want to take the ferry out of curiosity too but I have yet to do so. I do wish they improve the service. In Bangkok, the Chao Praya Express is an important mode of transport. The boats aren't really modern but they get the job done. The boats used before was much better according to a good friend of mine.