THE PHILIPPINES : Freewheeling 

Freewheeling in the Philippines

 

Text and photography by Eric Pasquier ​

 

On the Philippine islands of Mindanao and Luzon, some rather enterprising children have created their very own cottage industry: building and operating ramshackle go-carts for transporting goods and people – at a small price.

At breakneck speeds these kids freewheel down the winding roads, dodging cars and trucks and making a profit in the process – thanks to their ingenuity they avoid the poverty and despair facing their peers.

ERIC PASQUIER met these kamikaze go-carters in their own backyard to discover what drives them.​

No one in their right mind would want to be born in the Philippines today.


And yet, of all the countries in Southeast Asia, not long ago it looked like the archipelago had a fine economic future ahead of it.

Under the patronage of Japan, then the United States and many powerful investors, according to certain economic experts the country should have, after a few short decades, become one of the leading economic powers of the Southeast Asian subcontinent. Today the brutal reality of what the Philippines have really become is proof of the extreme inaccuracy of these early post-war forecasts. Bearing the weight of crushing, ever-mounting foreign debt and incapable of dealing with a runaway demographic situation, today the Philippines are a notorious socio-economic disaster.

 

As always, children are the first to suffer from the widespread poverty and unemployment that result from hopeless socio-economic situations. In the Philippines, the scenario is worse than anywhere else. Drug abuse, prostitution, crime and violence in all forms are the daily bread of the unlucky children who happen, by misfortune, to have been born here. In the streets of Manila, most Western tourists cannot help but notice the small children wandering through the streets of Manila, their little hands held out pitifully in the tired hope of a stranger’s kindness.  The daily hardships of these children are a world away from the picture-perfect images of the palm tree lined beaches of the capital’s waterfront.

 

But there are certain children here who, despite the many obstacles, have decided to use their ingenuity to escape from the misery of their situation. In most cases, they are orphans or the neglected children of parents who have long given up their parental role. Together, the children have joined forces to climb out of the black hole into which their peers have fallen. Pushed no doubt by the energy born of total despair, these children have created their own little cottage industries and found an economic niche for themselves. Their speciality is transportation and their means are homemade pushcarts or ‘trolleys,’ which they use to move cargo and people.

 

The village of ‘Bella Vista’ is the opposite of what the name suggests. Miserable little shacks lean against one another along the narrow, garbage-filled alleyways. Whoever named the place was either making a sick joke or blind.

 

Located north of Mindanao Island, on ‘Carmin Hill,’ this little shantytown community is home to a people suffering from the worst effects of unemployment and economic chaos. The most basic necessities of everyday life are hard to come by, to say the least. There is no water or electricity and for the children, the idea of ‘school’ is a luxury they don’t even bother thinking about. Their dreams of escaping this misery are hinged on a purely local activity invented in 1982 by a small group of ingenious young inventors: the now-famous builders of the Carmin Hill pushcarts.

 

Because the villagers of Bella Vista lacked proper provisions of water, a handful of industrious children decided to attack the problem, and earn a few pesos in the process by offering their services to deliver water. The materials needed to build their carts – planks of wood, steel rods, wheels and countless other objects – are simply lying around, rusting or rotting in the alleyways or vacant plots of the village. With many hands chipping in and a certain amount of expertise, it takes about a week to build a cart. 

 

When fully loaded with a ‘crew’ of two or three children and several old canisters for collecting water, these marvels of improvisation make as many as four trips a day to the bottom of Carmin Hill to keep the village on high supplied with water. The trips are more like roller-coaster rides or rounds of Russian Roulette for the ‘brakes’ and ‘steering systems’ leave much to be desired. The children go hurtling down the recently paved roads in their makeshift carts, with cars and trucks flying past with an even greater reckless abandon - thus forming numerous and deadly obstacles to the children.

 

After the terrifying ride to the bottom of the hill, the children load up their 14 containers with water in record time. At this crucial point every minute counts to make their working day profitable because the hardest part of their journey remains. To bring back their precious cargo, the children have to hitch a ride from a passing truck driver prepared to risk losing his job to tow them the 5 kilometres up the steep hill back to the village of Carmen. Already physically exhausted after hauling 3.5 kilo-containers of water for a good part of the day, the children sometimes have to wait for two hours in the heat and dust along the roadside for their ride.

 

Once at the top of the hill with their full load, the carters make the deliveries to their local clients, who use the precious water primarily for drinking and cooking. Each container is sold for 5 pesos or about 2¢ US. With four trips per day and about a dozen containers of water per cart, plus the various products that they often add to their haul – bananas, firewood, sacks of corn and rice – on a good day a team of children can earn up to 1,200 pesos.

 

Today, a small fleet of about 15 carts make the daily run up and down the road to Carmin Hill, and among the some 45 odd ‘team members’ who take turns driving the carts, four out of ten are girls. Members of the organisation are given assignments according to age and ability.

 

The oldest boys, who can be as old as 22, are the ‘drivers,’ while the youngest, some barely older than 6, are put in charge of filling and loading the water containers. Since this ‘occupation’ was born, 6 children have been killed and many others seriously injured. Young Angelina, 13 years old, shows us the stump of her leg, which had to be amputated after a terrible collision with a truck. Today, many of her luckier friends continue to speed down the roads of Carmin Hill, literally intoxicated by the thrill of the speed, the sound of the air whistling past their ears. The children are well aware of the risks they take and openly talk about the worst catastrophes.

 

But these children are not, as they appear, oblivious to fear. These young ‘Chariot Kamikazes’ are fully aware of the dangers they face, but know no other way of surviving. They have little choice and know all about life’s hardships. They are confronted with them every day.

 

The unemployment and poverty have forced countless families to seek better lives in the big city.  But in Carmin Hill, some 40 families have stayed behind, determined to succeed no matter how meagre the opportunities and resources. The average family here consists of seven children.

 

In many cases, a single young cart driver supports his entire family. It is a heavy responsibility, having to put food on the table, not only for up to a dozen siblings – in some cases – but for the unemployed parents as well.

 

Mindanao is not the only place in the Philippines where one can find enterprising children that have learned to adapt to their difficult surroundings. A few kilometres south of Manila, on the island of Luzon, in a suburb called Santa Mesa (Alabang), local children have developed their own version of the pushcarts of Carmin Hill. Only here, they are known as ‘trolleys,’ and for good reason: they run along the rails of the semi-abandoned railway that passes through their village.

 

Although the odd train still uses the defunct railway collisions with the children’s trolleys luckily, are not very common. Bigger than the pushcarts of Mindanao, these ‘poor man’s taxis’ on steel wheels transport a mind-boggling assortment of cargo. A typical convoy rolls past with 10 people, each with a variety of parcels on their knees: sacks of flour, baskets of fruit, and live ducks and chickens. The trolley ‘crew’ consists of two children, one acting as the conductor on the tail end, steering his precious cargo along the rails, a proud smile beaming on his young face.

 

In the region of Quezon, on the main island of Luzon, the main railway that links Manila with the southern portion of the island is in the process of being renovated. For several months already, an Australian company has been busy rebuilding over 1,000 kilometres of track. But for the past few years these rails – though abandoned by the railroad companies – have been in virtual full-time use by the children of Lucena and Candelarilla. 15 homemade ‘trolleys’ have been running along tracks with almost clockwork regularity.

 

More sophisticated than the pushcarts of Santa Mesa, the little wagons used here are equipped with a small motor, built entirely of randomly collected spare parts. For the locals, the mini-trains of Lucena and Candelarilla offer an affordable and relatively rapid alternative to the services provided by taxis or buses. The motorised trolleys travel along the 7 kilometre long stretch of track between Lucena and Candelarilla, carrying mostly passengers, but also small parcels and from time to time, the contents of an entire household when a family decides to move and hires the children and their services for a small fee.

 

The children here earn between 100 pesos (about US $4) on a good day, which is just barely enough to break even: a working trolley costs about US $400, and there is the price of fuel to consider as well. The burden of their investment motivates these junior businessmen to operate their material at maximum capacity, making as many trips as possible in a single day. From sunup to sunset, the children’s small silhouettes can be seen flying along the high ground of the railway. The sound of a sputtering, ‘toy’ motor mingles with bursts of laughter and the squeal of steel wheels on the rusty twisted track. The spirit of camaraderie between the children and the autonomy and freedom of their self-employment make all their efforts worthwhile. For these children, the trolleys are their toys, their livelihood, their treasure and their escape. The trolleys are their world.

 

Young and younger, big and small, today the taxi kids of the railways of Lucena and Candelarilla practice their thriving little business with even more relish and fervour, as they know that their days are numbered. The reconstruction of the official railway is progressing rapidly and before long, their section of track will once again be reserved for the regular train service. They will have to find some other scheme if they don’t want to fall back into the poverty that the majority of their peers now live in.

 

The most optimistic scenarios would have them finding some other equally industrious and original trade or service to carry them along. Hopefully, no matter what happens, their brief encounter with free enterprise and the confidence they gained from successfully  ‘paying their own way’ will have forever cured them of the paralysing fatalism that hangs like a dark shadow over many children with the same background. Perhaps this first brush with success will motivate them to fight on hard enough to live continue to live free, in dignity. In Carmin Hill, as in Santa Mesa and Lucena, the children are the ones who offer the hope and inspiration so sadly lacking among their elders.

 

The children pay dearly for their economic freedom, sometimes with their lives. The ones who have witnessed the terrible accidents, call the makeshift contraptions ‘chariots of death.’ But for almost every young Filipino given the opportunity – the good fortune – to earn their daily bread in this way, their pushcarts and trolleys are a vehicle to take them to a better world. For them, the carts are their ‘chariots of hope.’

 

Copyright © Eric Pasquier

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