By James Hehre

When I’m in the field I become obsessed with logistics — the art and science of getting myself and all of my stuff from one place to another, ideally in one piece or several large, easily fixable pieces. This is probably because logistics takes up a significant chunk of my time here in the Philippines. When I’m not moving my stuff from research site to research site, I’m usually setting my stuff up or getting permission to do things. If there’s any time left over, I get to do some actual science.

Okay, I exaggerate. (A little.)

Anyway, when I decided to trek to the southern part of Bohol to look at seaweed farming in seagrass ecosystems (which I plan to compare to seaweed farming in shallow coral ecoystems, the focus of my own study), I was confident I could do it on the cheap. I had a room booked, and the hotel even offered to send a van to pick me up in the town of Tagbilaran once I arrived.

“Pila? (How much?)” I asked.

“Only 500 peso sir.”

500 pesos! What was I, a tourist? There was no way I was going to spend 500 pesos to go a mere 15 kilometres!

To give you an idea, 500 pesos is the equivalent of about 12 dollars. The jeepney, the local equivalent of a bus (called a jeepney because they were initially constructed of jeeps left by the US army after WWII) costs about eight pesos, or $0.25 to go the same distance. I sensibly opted for the latter.

Three motorcycles, an outrigger canoe, trike and van ride later, I arrived at the public market in Tagbilaran and easily located my jeepney because it had “PANGLAO” — my destination — written on the side in large, friendly neon pink letters. I entered through the back and, since I was the first person aboard, had my choice of seats.

Seating in a jeepney requires some strategy for longer rides. Sit too far forward near the driver and you wind up having to pass fare change back and forth for everyone getting on and off. Sit too close to the rear door and everyone getting on and off climbs over you. I sat forward and on the right because a swarm of red ants had chosen to nest in the opposite seat.

By the time we had picked up all the people just off from work and every schoolkid destined for Panglao, we were carrying somewhere in the neighborhood of forty. This particular jeepney could probably seat 10 people comfortably. The passengers were squished together and sitting on each other’s laps across the benches and plastic stools placed down the middle aisle. Boys were piled on the roof with my dive bag and they clung to rails along the back and sides.

Since I was fortunate enough to be the first on, I was pinned against the wall that separated the back from the driver’s compartment. I couldn’t move my legs or arms an inch, but I had an excellent view of the driver and the road ahead. He was an amazing man, a paragon of efficiency. He could shift, smoke a cigarette, talk on the cell phone, make change, and if time permitted, actually steer — all at the same time. And as if to show off his multitasking super powers, he even yelled out to a woman who was getting off that she had forgotten to pay. How he even knew she was on the bus, let alone that she hadn’t paid, is a mystery to me. For a moment I considered taking a leave from my thesis to train as a jeepney driver. Acquiring his skills would definitely be an asset in my line of work.

As we bumped down a hot, dusty, potholed maze of dirt roads somewhere in the middle of the island, we started down a small incline and I couldn’t help but notice that the driver's right leg was suddenly pumping up and down faster and faster, the universal signal for “no brakes.”  For all his effort, it was having no appreciable effect on the bus as we careened down the hill. It was when he actually put down his cell phone and grabbed the wheel with both hands that I began to worry.

Luckily, it wasn’t a very steep hill. When we reached the bottom and began up a small incline we gradually rolled to a standstill, and then rolled backwards to the bottom again where we finally came to a gentle stop. The cabin was filled with the acrid smell of burning brakes. The people around me were quite casual, as though this happened all the time. They hopped down onto the road and disappeared into the evening.

Since I was the first on, I was also the last off.  The last remaining schoolkid slid my huge bag of dive gear down from the roof and walked off. I suddenly noticed something very odd. Except for the driver, I was alone. It was as though forty people had suddenly vanished. I looked at the driver and said, “Sa dagat?” (Which way to the ocean?) He grunted and pointed in the direction we’d been heading and returned to his burning brakes.

I slung the heavy bag of dive gear over my shoulder and began what was to amount to about a three-mile walk as the sun faded and darkness fell around me. It occurred to me as I walked alone in the quiet, muggy night, watching the arcing shapes of giant fruit bats silhouetted against the blackening sky, that 500 pesos suddenly seemed like a bargain. 

James Hehre is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.