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The Daily Batangas-Manila Commuters of Yore

A typical BLTBCo bus in the seventies to nineties.  Image source:  BLTBCo_1918 on Flickr.
A typical BLTBCo bus in the seventies to nineties.  Image source:  BLTBCo_1918 on Flickr.
Back when I first went away to college in mid-1975, the journey to Manila was a torturous 3-hour route from where I lived on the outer fringes of Lipa that wound through all the northern towns of Batangas; onto Cabuyao, Santa Rosa and Biñan in Laguna; and finally Muntinglupa in Rizal before finally hitting the then-fairly new Alabang-Manila expressway. Before long, the Calamba to Alabang leg of the expressway1 was opened, thankfully cutting travel time on the average to just two hours.

Even when the trip to Manila was a 3-hour commute, there were already those who apparently made the daily trip to and from the capital. In my freshman year, I myself would come home to Lipa sometimes as infrequently as once in three months. To maximize my stay home, I would not travel back to Manila until Monday morning, which meant getting up as early as 3 or 4 at dawn just to make it to my morning classes.

Thus, from the house I could see and hear as I got ready to leave the early morning buses that went from house-to-house to pick up passengers among our neighbors who made the daily commute to Manila. These neighbors were apparently suki (frequent riders) whom the drivers and conductors already knew. They were charged frequent rider discount rates.

A discreet single honking of the bus’ horn and the neighbors were out of their houses sprinting onto the bus. If the neighbors weren’t out after a few moments, the bus drove on. It was by no means a fixed arrangement. The driver and conductor knew the passengers probably overslept and would, instead, take the next bus, which would then do the exact same thing.

More or less, the buses that came from Batangas City passed by more frequently, roughly every 15 minutes. Those from Lemery came on 30-minute intervals. Only buses of RJM, JAM and other bus lines whose drivers and conductors were paid on a passenger percentage commission basis did the house-to-house routine. As much as I could, I took the BLTBCo buses whose conductors and drivers were paid fixed salaries and which, therefore, didn’t have to do the house-to-house routine.

These daily commuters all had one ability that I myself never learned to do: the ability to doze off while sitting up. After getting their tickets and paying the conductor, they would close their eyes and go straight back to sleep. It was amusing sometimes to observe them as their heads bobbed up and down this way and that as the buses ploughed along the roads.

Most of them had something like a built-in timer that woke them up as they neared their destinations – majority got off at “highway” where they took connecting metropolitan buses to Cubao or Baclaran or any point in between. Others got off at Buendia or Vito Cruz while still others rode on all the way to Taft and Lawton, where the bus route terminated.

If by chance one of the regular commuters was still fast asleep at his usual disembarkation point, the conductor, because he already knew his sukis, would trod over to the sleepyhead’s seat, gently nudge him and tell him he was already supposed to get off. If the conductor failed to do this, he could get an earful from the passenger who would then have to find a way back to his real drop-off point.

I would sometimes talk to these daily commuters if they sat next to me and ask them how they could do something that I myself could never really imagine doing. Their answers were all the same: sanayan lang. (Just a matter of getting used to it.)

How things have seriously changed more than four decades later! The Calamba to Villamor South Luzon express roads have been widened; while the opening of the ACTEX and the STAR means that a bus originating from the SM City-Lipa Grand Terminal can be in Manila in less than an hour in the wee hours of the morning when traffic is still light.

God willing, perhaps the revival of the Batangas City-Manila rail line will also soon not only reduce travel time even more but also make it predictable and hassle-free. If and when this happens, it will make the efforts of those who made the daily commute in days gone by seem almost superhuman.

Notes and references:
1 The Calamba to Alabang leg of the South Expressway was opened in 1976. “Wikipedia.”