Thursday, 31 March 2011 1436

My recent trip to the Philippines was an eye-opener in all sorts of ways – the warmth and hospitality of the people (we were travelling and staying with Filippinos), the amazing fruits, the addiction to 'snacks' at all times of the day and the fact that so many people seem to make a living out of so little. The place is incredibly vibrant; everything bombards your senses – the crazy driving, the myriad of tiny roadside shops selling everything in any quantity, the fish markets with crabs bigger than dinner plates, tilapia still flipping on the slab, and everywhere beautiful, smiling, dark-haired children. You come across some of them in the middle of the road trying to sell you something as your driver swerves and dodges through the lunatic traffic. Everywhere the driving is crazy and ironically everyone wants the answer to the same question – 'how's my driving?'

Tagalog is the primary local language in the Philippines but English is also used everywhere.
TV advertising (and conversations between Filippinos) seems to be a curious blend of both languages.

Everyone is trying to catch your attention. As we circled Manila in the dark we could see huge luminous structures below us. They turned out to be massive billboards. At the opposite end of the scale, as you hurtle along the country roads your eye is caught by people flicking handkerchiefs at you. They are selling goods at the roadside – everything from the juiciest pineapples in the world to religious statues.

They have all sorts of methods for distracting you. The bell is very popular. You get out of your vehicle at a tourist destination and immediately you are surrounded by people with their goods, ringing bells. We even encountered an intrepid ice-cream salesman with his bell on top of what we thought was a remote island. And in a busy market I heard what I thought was the clicking of horses hooves. It turned out to be a cigarette salesman clicking a wooden board.

But the road is where it's all happening. There are two unique types of vehicle – the jeepney and the tricycle.

The jeepney originated with the World War 11 American jeep, stretched into a form of public bus – usually open at the back with bench seating (plus room on the roof for extra passengers!) But it's the decoration on the outside that's so amazing.

Many are polished chrome all over and they are painted with enough creative designs to grace a special exhibition at Tate Modern with quotations from the Bible or references to popular films and funny comments (one stated boldly 'Caution – Toy for Big Boys!') Filippino transport seems to pride itself on its creativity. Of course, all of this has one aim – to get you to use their jeepney.

The other amazing machine is the tricycle – a motorbike and sidecar with canopies over driver and passenger. I say 'driver and passenger' but you rarely see so few people on a tricycle. Whole families and their belongings travel on them. Our top score was awarded to what appeared to be an entire furniture shop carried on the canopy of a tricycle! And in the country you also occasionally see a pig or two travelling in the sidecar. Again, the decoration is creative and often carries special comments like 'God bless our travel.'

Some messages are deliberately humorous, others are quite serious although amusing to westerners. Without a hint of irony a plumber's shop called itself 'Till Death Do Us Part' – a Biblical rather than TV comedy reference!

Other claims are just outrageous – witness the petrol station with the sign 'open 25 hours'!

I'd recommend the Philippines for anyone who likes to travel 'off the beaten track' but it's particularly interesting if you are interested in how people communicate and try to stand out from the crowd.