Pasig River

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Up close and personal

Civilization did not rise out of nowhere, it did not magically spring up from the ocean like a glowing Venus de Milo, but rather it was a centuries process of influences and interaction that made a civilization. Great civilizations and cities have sprung from these influences and interactions through the help of the great river-valley systems. As history has pointed out, rivers have served as the gateway and the main artery necessary for the survival of the great civilizations we know: Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Indians, and the Chinese have all sprung up from their respective rivers (Indus valley and the Ganges river, Yangtze river, the Nile, the Tiber and the Mediterranean) and more so their modern day counterparts. Manila is no exception to this rule, borne out of the riches of the sea and further improved upon by the arterial lifeline known as the Pasig River, Manila grew out of the banks of the river to the bustling and burgeoning metropolitan we know today.

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The banks of the river are flooded with people
For centuries Pasig River has served as the first nautical highway for many of our ancestors, a kilometers long river starting from Manila Bay extending all the way to the entrance of Laguna de Bay, the river played an important role in linking many of the early indigenous people of Luzon together. With the arrival of the Spaniards, they used it to explore deeper into the heart of Luzon. Fed by many estuaries, creeks and whatever imaginable water form I can possibly think of, the river has grown mightily, straddling many of the major cities of our bustling metropolis.

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Factories dot its banks

From its waters, our ancestors were able to exploit the river’s abundant resources, sustaining an infantile community and building it up to the flashy cosmopolitan that we live in. As the metropolis grew and prospered, the river declined, its banks filled with the city’s urban poor greedily encroaching on its rich banks with misshapen and haphazardly done houses. Factories and manufacturing companies have taken over much of the mangroves that once lined the river. And for the past 50 or so years the river is in a somewhat comatose state or even in a vegetative state, gasping for dear air yet drowning in the city’s excrement, filth, rubbish and all the synonyms associated with it.

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Great views while inside the ferry
At some point the river was practically dead, turned into the city’s largest toilet bowl, mortuary and garbage dump. The mangroves that livened up the banks were cut down and replaced with edifices of progress and development. Migratory birds who once called the same trees their home became fewer and fewer and the fish that once resided in the waters were all but dead. Sure there is still some foliage here and there but the lilies were replaced by floating garbage and whatever hapless animal died during the rainy season eventually turned up in the river.

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Nearing the belly of the Ayala bridge

But like anything and everything in Manila, there is resiliency in whatever it does. Politicians have come and gone, the same political banter has sounded throughout its banks, the same excrement has flowed through the river not just once or twice but maybe a dozen times and still the river remains here and very much alive. Albeit gasping for air and holding on to dear life, the treatment of course is a radical chemotherapy of urban rehabilitation.

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Two towers and a river

There have been many efforts, the first was the rehabilitation of the esteros lining the river, clearing up all the garbage and illegal structures along its banks, the construction of river walks for the pleasure of the people and so much more. A few years back, when I was still in college, there was this huge effort to bring back the Pasig River Ferry system, it succeeded for a few years but it puttered out. There was no carmaggedon back then, the idea of an MRT breaking down was statistically impossible, buses still remained the same, uncouth and every bit as rude barreling down EDSA at breakneck speeds.

Just a month ago, the MMDA decided to bring back the ferry system, so far the boats are incomparable to its predecessors, open to the elements with the entire stench of the river bearing down on its riders. I tried it today and I enjoyed it, it was a different riding experience than my normal fanfare going to the Escolta weekend market. I entered inside the once-abandoned ferry station in Guadalupe, checked out the timetable and paid the Php. 50 ticket to Escolta. At the appointed hour we were moving at a fast pace, meandering along the curves of the river, passing by urban developments and the occasional shanty town dotted along the way.

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It’s not always pretty
Moving along the river, we passed through many of the major thoroughfares and bypassing all the traffic and the heat. For the early riders of the ferry, they often complained of the emanating stench from the river, but today was different, the rainy season has started and it somewhat made waters less stagnant. With the ferry’s breakneck speeds and the strong wind, the smell is near imperceptible, though it is still there.

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Sights here and there to captivate you
The ride from Guadalupe to Escolta was 30 minutes long and there was a lot to see and it’s not everyday I get to to travel without the hassle of a clogged roadway and the endless honking of the jeepneys and buses along the way. For 50 pesos I had my own tour of the city, watching it from a different perspective and seeing oil depots, pumping stations and other forms of river transports passing each other by like an unforgotten road akin to the interstate highway in Pixar’s Cars. Along the way, I was treated to different views of the metro, we happened to pick up a Coast Guard from the Presidential Security Group, who reminded me to not take pictures when we neared Malacanang Palace. Rounding a corner and like a picturesque German schloss reminiscent of the Von Trapp family manor in “The Sound of Music”, Malacanang, with all its splendor and colonial glory amid the foul and the filthy of the river. If a metaphor for a government could be made, then seeing the palace alongside the garbage would be perfect, but I don’t want to talk politics here.

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In Guadalupe, where my alternate route to Escolta began
Though the river isn’t as grand nor as dreamy as the rivers of Europe, the Middle-East and even those of our Asian neighbors, for all its faults and weaknesses the urban charm of the city captivated me. The river captures the story of the city, with all of its lost treasures and memories, and also of its own triumphs and slow comeback. It may be in a vegetative state but there are still a lot of things and sights that make the river still feel alive. Take the ferry and maybe there might be something new.

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The timetables are subject to change and may be cancelled due to inclement weather

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It’s like taking the MRT and the LRT without the lines, the cramped feeling, and the steady drip of your sweat hitting the train’s floor
The Pasig River Ferry can be located at the following: Guadalupe, PUP, Escolta and Intramuros
The ferry provides trips to these stations at selected hours (please check the station’s timetables for the schedule of the trips). 
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