In most of South-East Asia, haggling, in its various shapes and forms, is part of everyday life. And I’m really impressed by how Z has mastered this vital skill. If a little unnerved by the implication that he feels himself now the man of the family.
When it comes to bargaining, Z has a number of disadvantages to overcome. His age. His size. His voice, which is still rather piping, with a slight, cute lisp. And his hair, which he is growing. Not for the first time. But certainly for the longest: he’s at curly-headed moppet status at the moment. (I give the look five minutes once his dad arrives in Hanoi with the clippers, but that’s by the by.)
But here in the Philippines folk tend to take it in good heart. Back in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, he halved the price of a tricycle ride to the proper fare instantly, and got a nod of respect and recognition from the amiable driver, by saying loudly and clearly, “That seems VERY expensive to me.”
So too, yesterday in Manila. Show me a city in the world where a metered taxi won’t take the piss when they think they can get away with it, and I’ll show you a police state.
While we’ve had the odd run-in with guys who won’t switch the metre on and quote fares so high as to be literally risible, I’m surprised that it took as long as our third visit to this fine city to encounter the old Euston to Kings Cross via Paddington routine.
It was one of those paradoxical cabs you get only in Manila. A filthy white, with aircon advertised on the sides but not evident in practice, red leather seats, dodgy doors — so far, so normal. A black and white card, featuring Saint Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, in saintly black and white (cilice and other SM equipment not shown), dangled from the mirror where more secular drivers boast lucky horses.
Yet the driver — and maybe, just maybe, it was his dad’s cab? — was a young guy with an advanced case of amphetamine jaw, chewing like an absolute bastard to a diet of pumping techno-lite. It made for quite an entertaining ride. At least to begin with.
We were travelling from the sparkling canyons of the business/yuppie/bank district, Makati City, to the Vietnamese Embassy on Pablo Ocampo street, a thoroughfare of more than respectable size, if an utterly disreputable street population, which sits between Makati and the central sprawl of Ermita-Malate-Remedios. It should be, traffic depending, about a dollar’s ride.
I am buried in the last chapter of a trashy thriller when I realise the meter is racking up. Look around. Consult my map. Realise the piss is being thoroughly taken. Say to Z, “Oh god. We’re in Malate! What are we doing in Malate? We’re going to Pablo Ocampo Street!”
Z says, “Give me the map!” I point out where we are, where we started and where we were going. “That’s ridiculous!” he says. “Stop the car and let’s get out now.”
“No, no,” I say. “Wait!”
I turn to the driver. “Look!” I say. “Why are we in Malate?”
“Robinsons Mall,” he says. “There is Robinsons Mall.”
I like Robinsons Mall. We have spent many happy hours in Robinsons Mall. But it is a long way past our destination.
“I can SEE that’s Robinsons Mall,” I say. “But what are we doing in Malate when I asked you for Pablo Ocampo street? And you said we were going to Ocampo!”
“Traffic,” he says. We have, indeed, spent a long time sitting in traffic. Most of it not en route to our destination. Meter still ticking, techno still pounding, he turns around into yet more traffic.
“This is ridiculous!” I say. Then, exaggerating slightly, “We could have got to Quezon City for that money! Why are we in Malate?”
At this point, the driver’s English strategically deserts him. We head back in the direction of Pablo Ocampo street, meter ticking up.
Z starts to wave the map in his face. “We are going HERE,” he says. “We started HERE. Why are we HERE?!” The driver blenches.
I take over the map. “Look,” I say. “We were in Makati. Ocampo is near Makati. We go down Taft, we turn off, and then we are on Ocampo Street. Malate is past Ocampo Street. Why are we in Malate? We’re nearly in Ermita! How can we go from Makati to Ocampo via Malate?”
“Traffic,” he says, hopefully.
“We’re getting out,” says Z. “Let’s just get out now.”
He exits the vehicle. I haul him back while I try and work out what notes I can bung the driver to avoid a) an ugly scene and b) paying three times the going rate as per the meter.
The driver chews. The traffic clogs like a pig farmer’s arteries.
Z continues to iterate the key points, “Taft. Makati. Ocampo. Malate,” and jab at the map. The driver is beginning to look a little careworn, in fact, rather like someone on a bad comedown. And, let’s face it, there’s nothing like a child taking issue with your navigation to induce a bad comedown…
“OK,” I say. “Please can we pull over?”
We pull over. Z exits the taxi. I hand over 60 pesos, which is less than half what’s on the meter but, I reckon, slightly more than the journey would have cost us had he gone to our destination straight away in the first place.
“We are going now,” I say with vigorous hand gestures. “But I am giving you this, not THAT, because Makati is near Pablo Ocampo, very near, and you take us to Malate, which is too far, and the WRONG WAY. Makati to Pablo Ocampo is down Taft then one turn. Now we have to go back to Pablo Ocampo again. You take us THAT WAY. We need to go THIS WAY.”
Our driver takes it, to give him credit, in good spirits. Even the ironic salute which my spawn decides to deliver from the pavement, as we go in search of a jeepney, is water off this meth-duck’s back.
The weird thing is, I really like this city. And my spawn does, too. It’s cosmopolitan, slightly savage, slightly cynical, slightly scuzzy with more than the odd bad smell, but Manila has a real heart and soul that opens up when you spend time in it. It’s a city, I guess, as cities should be.