Photo Essay

Pasig’s Floating World

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WHAT floats and can carry a load a hundred times its weight?

If you live in Pasig City, that would be anything that has buoyancy and can be glued, nailed, or tied together, including flood-ruined freezers or laundry machines, and even discarded bath tubs. These days, all these and more are being used to ferry people and goods from one watery point to another in what is still among the most flooded areas in the metropolis.

Two weeks after Typhoon Ondoy inundated Mega Manila with a volume of rainfall reaching biblical proportions, those who live or work in places that remain underwater have had no choice but to, well, take like ducks to water to a new kind of commute.

“I’ve been earning more as a boatman than as carpenter the past week,” says Rudy, who used his hammering-and-nailing skills to build a boat a day after Ondoy struck. With a capital of P1,500, he bought plywood and coconut lumber and put these together with the help of nails and industrial-strength glue. His finished product, a boat that can accommodate up to six people, has since been earning him P600 a day.

He charges as much as P30 per kilometer, which is pretty much the standard fare in these soggy parts. Several subdivisions near the Pasig City Hall, where Rudy and others like him have taken up posts, still look like poor imitations of Venice, and people who live there are the “boatmen’s” customers. So, too, are City Hall employees, as are those who have business to transact with the city government or papers to file and trials to attend at the Justice Hall in the same compound.

Some destinations can take an hour to navigate, as floodwaters can be tricky to cross at times, and vary in depth. The closest destination, Rudy says, can take a boatman as long as 30 minutes to reach.

Commuters can choose from boats like that of Rudy, or “like-boats” made of anything from pieces of styrofoam tied together to huge, empty metal drums held in place by God-knows-what. The “like-boats” often come equipped with stools or plastic chairs or benches where passengers sit, while the boatmen pull the contraptions to their destination.  There are also inflatable beds to ride on, complete with a makeshift mat on top.

The options depend as well on how much a customer wants to stay dry. A contraption with wheels means it can take passengers to a dry point, and thus costs P50 upward per person. Those sans wheels can only go as far as their hulls can float, which means passengers have to wade through a few meters of shallow floodwater before reaching dry land. One can also choose to come equipped with an umbrella, or to ride a boat with one, if not opt for a floater with a roof.

Yet while Rudy is raking it in like most of the other “boatmen,” the biggest earners seem to be those ferrying not people, but high-priced products, like cars.  In one afternoon alone this week, one group managed to deliver two vehicles to higher ground.

While no one wants to divulge how much they were paid, some of the “boatmen” guess that the fee for a ride on the drum-and-wood contraption run up to thousands of pesos per vehicle.

The differences in fees aside, those working in the quaint flood-transport system in Pasig share something in common: athlete’s foot. The filthy street soup composed of garbage, human wastes, and rotting animal carcasses is not friendly to one’s health, and doctors are already warning of outbreaks of leptospirosis. In truth, in some areas, even a whiff of the foul-smelling, black water is enough to make one retch.

Still, in the days to come, Rudy and his friends are determined to squeeze as much money out of their watery world – before it runs dry and they have to go back to their real day jobs. – PCIJ, October 2009