Monday, March 31, 2014

Enjoying a nostalgic kalesa ride around Old Manila and in Ilocos and Cagayan cities

Note:  This photo essay appeared in the 28 Mar-03 Apr 2014 issue of FilAm Star, "the newspaper for Filipinos in mainstream America."  This author/blogger is the Special News/Photo Correspondent in the Philippines of the said paper.

Before he was declared National Artist for Music and Literature, I had a couple of memorable conversations with popular composer and lyricist Levi Celerio (1910-2002), during his breaks from playing the piano during lunch hours at one of the restaurants on Morato Ave.  He regaled me with anecdotes about his life as a music man and I liked it when he’d play a tune with a leaf, a feat that had earned him a citation in the Guinness book of records. He easily comes to mind when I see horse-drawn vehicles of various structural designs plying around Rizal Park and Intramuros. He penned the lyrics of the popular song Kalesa that our choral ambassadors bring to the ears of overseas Pinoy during their concert tours abroad.

In this musical tribute, Celerio endowed the kalesa with nationalistic and romantic attributes. The kalesa, he wrote, has its own charm and beauty to appreciate; and it is a comfortable pambayang sasakyan (public transport).  In this song, he recalled kalesa rides that his generation and their loved ones took when they went out in the evening.

 “The horse is not a problem,” Sylvia La Torre continues to sing in Pilipino from her records, “molasses and grass are enough to make the vehicle run at comfortable speed, and there’s no need for gasoline.” Choirs echo this ecological message from YouTube videos of their choreographed renditions of the song.  

The cochero (kutsero) in Metro Manila no longer goes out to harvest the green grass to feed his horse.  Grass supplies are sold by zacate gatherers from the nearby provinces like Laguna.   

The song evokes historical memories.  “Kalesa ay panghatid tuwina/Nang panahon nina Maria Clara/ Mga bayani nitong bayan / Sa kalesa idinuduyan;” the country’s heroes swayed with it when they rode the horse-drawn carriage during the Spanish colonial times.

During the 19th century, it was the carruaje (karwahe) that plied the provincial highways.  To ensure public transportation between towns in Zambales, for example, the provincial civil government conducted tenders for carruajes de alquiler (carriages for hire) among the big businessmen of those times.  Artist Jose Honorato Lozano included a painting of this carriage drawn by two horses with passengers in colorful attires in his 1847 album of Philippine views and costumes.

The guidebooks for American and other foreign visitors in the early 1900’s contained information on public vehicles that they could use in visiting places around Manila.  Kemlein’s handbook of 1908 described three classes:  carruajes drawn by two horses; the quilez drawn by one horse and can seat four people; and the carromatas drawn by one horse and can accommodate two people.  Another source described a carruaje as being four-wheeled, and the rest have two wheels.

The local government of that period fixed the fare rate for each public carriage calibrated according to the number of passengers (one up to four) and time of use (during the first half or first hour plus the succeeding hours).   The brackets for “carriage for two horses” were more expensive than those of the “calesa, carromata, quilez or other vehicle for one horse”.  A lone passenger or a pair paid 50 centavos for a 30-minute ride in a carruaje, for example, but cheaper at 30 centavos in a calesa (kalesa).

Travellers were warned of cocheros or drivers who often demanded excessive fees, and were advised to insist on paying the regulated fare.  Times apparently have not changed.  Today, many taxi passengers often report of similar encounters with cab drivers who want to negotiate the price instead of the metered fare.

The carretela (karetela) was the term for the kalesa in my town when I was growing up.  It was described in a 1926 Hispanic-Tagalog dictionary as two-wheeled with seats for four.  The cheaper version of this carriage, according to another source, is the lighter and “box-like” carromata.

Long before lahar came down from Pinatubo, high school boys like us learned how to ride a horse from the cocheros of our town.  If one was an officer of the Preparatory Military Training corps of cadets, he led his platoon or company in the fiesta parade on horseback.   Horses were borrowed or hired from the karetela owners because the cocheros do not work during the town fiesta.

The horse-drawn vehicle is still very much around today when the jeepney/taxicab/tricycle drivers have become the kings of the road, a title held by the cochero for a very long time, from as far back as the Spanish colonial times until some years after the Second World War.

During my journeys in northern Luzon, I saw the kalesa plying the streets of Tuguegarao, Laoag and Vigan.  Each time I go to the archives on Kalaw St. or on Arzobispo St., I see plenty of variations of the traditional horse-drawn carriages bringing tourists around Luneta, Intramuros and Fort Santiago.

The Tuguegarao carriage has been dubbed the Ibanag kalesa.  It is made of wood and galvanized iron sheets, and has a pair of rubber wheels, similar to those of a motorcycle.  It can seat as many as eight persons. While there are jeepneys and tricycles crowding on the streets, many residents apparently prefer taking the kalesa when they do business around the city. I learned that tourists can take the kalesa to visit the city’s attractions at very affordable fare, around Php50-100 (a little over USD 1-2), almost the cost of one serving of their noodle delicacy called batil patong.

The Laoag kalesa is also used for tourism and public transportation. Like in all places today, it adds to the traffic of jeepneys and tricycles on town and city streets.   According to a traveller’s report, short rides cost around PhP10, well below a dollar.

In Vigan, only the kalesa is allowed to traverse Crisologo St., the cobbled heritage thoroughfare hemmed on both sides by antique houses. It competes with the tricycle in bringing tourists to other sites of interest quite far from the city proper like the pottery making factory, loom weaving houses and the Baluarte, a private zoo.  The kalesa
fee is fixed at PhP 150 (roughly, USD 4) per hour. 

For sightseeing around Fort Santiago, Intramuros and Rizal Park or Luneta, one can pick the type of kalesa from among the four-wheeled and two-wheeled variations parked by the entrance of the Fort or the standard karetelas in front of the recently reconstructed Ayuntamiento, left of Plaza Roma and opposite the Palacio de Gobernador. The tour fee ranges from PhP250 to PhP300 (about USD6-7) for 30 minutes.
In Chinatown in Binondo and around Divisoria in Tondo, the kalesa remains the vehicle of commerce for many in transporting goods and marketing, and the preferred conveyance of stall owners and residents there.  

Touristic kalesa rides in Tuguegarao, Laoag and Vigan, and around Intramuros are not expensive compared to the price one pays for a horse-drawn carriage tour of Central Park in New York City.  A walk-up ride there costs USD50 for a maximum of 20 minutes with additional fees for extra ten minutes.

Horse-drawn vehicular transport gets a thumbs-up from green advocates. These vehicles are environment-friendly since no pollutants are emitted when cocheros drive passengers around a town or city.  Horse-y solid wastes are very well managed through the use of portable toilets hang by the rear of the animals although they may take a leak anywhere, which explains the whiff of urine along the usual kalesa routes. 

Kalesas are arguably eco-friendly alternatives to petroleum fuel guzzlers and polluters that would contribute greatly in reducing the carbon print of the Philippines in the worldwide environmental map.  Definitely, they can spell more fun in a nostalgic balikbayan trip of overseas Pinoys to their native land.

No comments:

Post a Comment