It may have just been a stroke of bad luck on Friday the 13th, but getting ripped-off twice in one day left me utterly bewildered. Nor did it help that my companion was a foreigner and that we did intend to play tourists for the day. It seemed like we were asking for it in the end, but allow me to elaborate nonetheless. After all, it is a matter of national importance.
The plan was simple. We would hire a kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) to chauffeur us around the stone walls of Intramuros− the old fort city of Manila then proceed to the world’s first China Town only a stone’s throw away. It was a no-nonsense, relatively cheap and quick way to go sight-seeing. Unfortunately, the Philippine Department of Tourism (DOT) and our Manila taxi driver had other plans.
Upon our arrival at the entrance to Fort Santiago, we were immediately approached by a short gentleman dressed in traditional Filipino garb. The man conveniently offered a packaged, kalesa city tour, complete with an English-speaking guide. After much debate and computation (it cost 2,000 Pesos or around 35 Euros at the time), we naively agreed to the offer, considering we were pressed for time and were guaranteed that the tour was officially certified by the DOT. We decided to take a cab right after. Little did we know the regret that was to follow.
Long story short, the tour was quite an embarrassment. Our English-speaking guide spent the majority of our time making hardly comprehensible inside jokes about Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippine National Hero. His comments were both irrelevant and inappropriate, given the rich, centuries-old history that lay before us. Not only were we misinformed and lost in translation, it also appeared as if our expert had more important business to attend to, hurriedly rushing us from one location to another. Needless to the say, our pit stops were made at random, bypassing iconic landmarks such as the San Agustin Church and the Manila Cathedral in exchange for an abominable golf course and souvenir shop.
Even more depressing was the animal cruelty inflicted on our horse. The mare was in such a state of duress, having to maneuver through horrendous Manila traffic while struggling to pull more weight than it was able to. Let us just say that if the DOT aims to continue promoting this sort of city tour, they should expect several threatening calls from concerned animal activist groups any time soon. I’m not so sure the 35 Euros they managed to swindle from us would be enough to cover the damages. That being said, our taxi driver may have gotten a better deal.
After a disappointing 45 minutes and brief look at the sullen Manila Cathedral, we were forced to take a cab to China Town in order to make our lunch appointment. Being Filipino, I was all too aware of the shenanigans Manila taxi drivers are notorious for − from refusing to take you to your desired location to meter fixing and hoodwinking. Ironically, we were the victims of all three.
Our 600 meter journey began innocently enough. The driver of the third cab we managed to flag down (the previous two refused to take us) mercifully agreed to provide his services despite the standstill traffic due to the advent of Chinese New Year. Checking the meter, the legal tariff was displayed at 40 Pesos (less than 1 Euro) and since China Town was quite close, I thought nothing of it. Apparently, we got lucky, up until the driver decided to open his mouth.
At this point, it must be said that not only was my companion foreign, she was tall, fair-skinned and unapologetically beautiful. Attributes, I might add, that all Filipino men desire, which our driver was quick to point out. Being polite, I tried to humor him as best I could, laughing at his dirty jokes, his pathetic attempt to be cute by speaking broken English and making small talk.
Inevitably, our conversation took a turn for the worst. While it was obvious that my friend and I were from abroad (we were sightseeing in Intramuros after all), the cabbie stealthily took advantage. Oblivious to his bag of dirty tricks, I was more concerned about our timely arrival, only to realize the meter had jumped up to 150 Pesos (3 Euros) in the span of 8 minutes.
This guy was good.
His methods of trickery were comprised of, but not limited to, stroking my ego (the cabbie repeatedly mentioned how beautiful my companion was, insinuating that I was the luckiest man on earth), guilt (he claimed to be from Cagayan de Oro – a Southern city on the island of Mindanao that was recently devastated by Hurricane Washi) and brutal frankness, aggressively demanding an unreasonable amount of cash up front. Our original 40 Peso fare now soared to 300 Pesos (6 Euros) plus gratuity for being stuck in traffic for a good 15 minutes.
Although I did not have any qualms with paying this amount (cabs fares in the Netherlands are the most expensive in Europe and 6 Euros is more than reasonable), I utterly disliked the fact that our driver had to resort to such thievery. I intended to overpay for our fare from the very beginning, but the man beat me to it. What was supposed to be an act of charity quickly turned into highway robbery.
Adding insult to injury, I was only given 90 Pesos in change after handing the cabbie a 500 Peso bill. The reason being he did not have any smaller denominations, even though I had asked him repeatedly whether or not he did.
I can only imagine how many foreigners go through this circus every day and how many cabbies get away with it. Given the fact that a taxi driver may be a foreigner’s first encounter with a Filipino and that a cab is still the most convenient way to get around Manila short of hiring a private car, getting bamboozled is no laughing matter. Granted, these men live a hard knock life, having to hustle their way to make a decent living. Despite rapid economic development, poverty is still the most prevalent issue in the Philippines as a result of deceit in all levels of society.
Yet, as cliché as it may be, situations like this reflect poorly on our country’s image and its people. It is rather disheartening, to say the least. No amount of branding or advertising can remedy dishonesty, opportunism and selfishness – the remnants of the “cancer of society,” forever ingrained in Philippine culture. ✌
Manila, The Philippines