Tuesday, May 29, 2007

32. HAVE GARETA, WILL TRAVEL

OX CARTS , PAMPANGA. Postcard caption at the back reads: “These carts are built on springless body and roofed over, some with shingles and others with straw and drawn by oxen, not yoked together, but harnessed like horses. They can travel a great distance.” C. 1905-1910.

Like all sleepy little barrios in Pampanga back in the early ‘60s, Sta. Ines in Mabalacat had only unpaved dirt roads connecting to the main highway. As a school kid, I used to walk this short stretch, dusty in summer and mud-caked during the rainy season, with just my trusty pair of Beachwalk rubber sandals to protect my feet from the gravelly, rutted road. To make things worse, we were neighbors to a farming family, and they too used the road, often riding to and from the Bundagul fields on bamboo garetas pulled by lumbering damulags (carabaos).Naturally, the narrow road was regularly “paved” with carabao poop, and if you were not careful, you would sometimes find your feet and sandals embedded in this messy, stinking trap!

Other than foot power, carabao-drawn garetas were a major mode of travel and transport for most Kapampangans early in the century. The carabao was the king of country roads, an all-purpose beast of burden capable of hauling heavy loads like lumber and agricultural produce and working long hours. Once on the main road however, the faster kalesa (horse rig) was favored, with lean horses quicker on their feet and a brightly-painted carriage more appealing to the eye. I remember catching a kalesa ride home on several instances, a butt-breaking but exhilarating experience nevertheless, marked with the occasional ringing of the kalesa bell and the crack of the kutsero’s (rig driver) whip in the air.

In the early 1900s, the calle reales (main streets) of the Philippines may have looked bewildering to foreigners with their assortments of caruajes (carriages) and animal-powered vehicles. As one chronicler, Rafael Diaz Arenas observed, Manila was “flooded with a multitude of carretelas and baroches rushing like a torrent everywhere and crowding off the streets the antique carriages that once lorded it over them”.

When the Philippine Commission passed Act. No. 1 appropriating $1 Million for the public works, the country went on a road-and-bridge building spree. In just over 2 decades, contractors led by Americans repaired damages wrought by the Philippine-American War, extended highways and created new routes. From less than 500 kms, in 1907, the Philippines had 20,300 km. of roads in 1934, so much so that Gov. Gen. Cameron Forbes crowned himself as “The Road Builder”.

Filipinos took to the new roads with more efficient ways of transportation. The motorcar first appeared in 1903. By 1912, 947 cars were registered in the Philippines. Cars—even 2nd hand ones—were rather pricey back then. A 22 Nov. 1931 issue of La Opinion boasts of “the best bargains in used cars”, advertising a Buick 4-Door Sedan Model 1927 for P1,000, and a “rakish-looking Chrysler sports roadster” for P2,700. If those did not fit your budget, you could settle for a used Essex Sedan for P400. On record, an unnamed Angeles resident drove home the first car in Kuliat on 10 February 1910, a hand-cranked Hupmobile motorcar, superloaded with acetylene lamps and rubber bulb horn!

Early mass transit like the tranvias (established by Jacobo Zobel in 1903) were available only in Manila. Originally horse-drawn, they were powered by electricity in 1905, with a top speed of 25 kph. Also an option to the more expensive taxi cabs were the 4 to 6 seater autocalesa, the ancestor of our modern day jeepneys, in operation from mid to late 1930s.

Family trips out of Pampanga were always exciting occasions for me as a child. Packed in our roomy 1950s Oldsmobile with real leather seats, we would go to Manila via the old highway, a trip that would start at the break of dawn. I would already be crying for a pee break at San Fernando but then Mother always came prepared with a tabo orinola (tin urinal) cum puke can. At Malolos, we would stop over to buy otap or ensaymada (local pastries). At Guiguinto, I would wonder if indeed the streets were paved with gold while at Meycauayan, I would strain my eyes looking for kwayan (bamboo). Then there would be those endless lines of wooden electric posts in Valenzuela topped with green-glass insulators that glistened in the sun, a source of constant fascination for me. The looming sight of the Bonifacio Monument in Caloocan signalled the arrival of our promdi (provincial) family to the city of Manila.

In the 70s, the rise of the North Expressway linking Pampanga to Manila irrevocably altered our travel experience, making trips faster, more comfortable and efficient. Now, instead of the roadside carinderia, there are convenient full-service gas stations and fastfoods lining the super highways, complete with restrooms, souvenir and pasalubong (take-home goodies) shops. But these have also obliterated from our scenic landscape the pitter-patter of colorful kalesas and the sight of itinerant peddlers in ox-drawn garetas, rendering extinct our quaint, old ways of the road.
(25 January 2003)

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