Looking Back

River ferries and Google Maps

/ 04:04 AM February 19, 2020

Traffic has made travel on the Pasig River viable again, and after three or four failed attempts, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the Guadalupe-Escolta route will succeed this time.

Air-conditioned boats were not popular, especially when the periodic stink from the river wafted on board. These boats came into operation but did not succeed because, we are told, the government did not fulfill its commitment to build commuter stops along the route, or the stops were ill-designed in certain places such that during low tide, the ferry could not dock to load or unload passengers.


There are many ways to see our blighted metropolis: One can do it street-side, the slow way; by bus or car along Edsa and other major roads; you can take the MRT and LRT for a view above ground; or, by far the most scenic — taking the Pasig ferry to relive the days when water, instead of potholed concrete roads, was our highway.

When the train service was still running, one could go from Manila down south to Bicol and up north to Pangasinan. When I was a boy, our family made a trip up to Baguio by train from the Tutuban station all the way to Damortis, and from there were ferried in black cars up to Baguio. All that is a faded memory now.


I have always wondered why we allowed the train system to deteriorate till it was no more. Someone suggested that the Manila-Dagupan Railway, being a British concession during the Spanish period, was discontinued by the Americans who prioritized building roads to exporting cars to their far-flung colony. Then there is the story of Filipino mismanagement and corruption that led to the decline of the train service. US Governor General Leonard Wood wanted to correct this by attempting to get government out of business and let companies, like the railroad, be run more efficiently by the private sector. Wood has been painted in history as a racist, anti-Filipino bureaucrat partly because of this.

These days, I take Point to Point Bus to work. It is very convenient, with trips every hour (every half hour during peak periods) from Glorietta to UP Town Center in Katipunan. It is a cheap alternative to Grab, which is taking advantage of its monopoly to charge twice or thrice what I used to pay Uber for the same distance. If I have to go to downtown Manila or Chinatown, I would choose the Pasig ferry because it is a scenic route the highlights of which are the unglamorous sights of the city. It passes some historical places: Guadalupe, for example, is the site of “Buwayang Bato,” a reminder of a legend about a Chinese who called on San Nicolas when threatened by a crocodile; the saint turned it into a stone that used to be a landmark on the Pasig.

On the Pasig, you pass by grand homes that have seen better days, one of them marked, if memory serves me right, as the British Rowing Club or the Manila Boat Club. When the ferry passes by Malacañang, a Presidential Security Group soldier would board to watch the passengers and thwart any bomb-throwing as well as picture-taking. This is a clear case of tradition going against modernity. You can’t take photos of the Palace from the ferry, but Google Earth provides crisp satellite pictures and precise coordinates that can guide a missile to its target.

Google Maps provide a range of viewing options on a desktop, tablet, or smartphone. Google Maps views can vary from a sketch and labels such as those you will find on a traditional (some would say “old-fashioned”) paper map, to those converted with a flick of a mouse or fingertip into a colored satellite image, like those projected on long-haul flights to provide passengers with a sense of where they are, in relation to the points of departure and arrival. If you have the time and patience to tinker with Google Maps, you will learn that any searched or searchable place can be viewed further: from a bird’s-eye view that can be zoomed in to see laundry drying on a roof, to a street view, worm’s-eye view, and other points of view you would never have imagined possible on a physical map that is, at most, a flat representation of places on a sheet of paper.

The difference between online Google Maps of the Philippines and antiquarian paper ones from the 16th to the 19th centuries is that the former is slick and accurate—Google and Waze can can tell us how to get to a destination — but old maps contain much more: artistic design, obsolete texts, the romance of the old. Bored on the road, I look up old maps on my phone to understand how human beings tried to make sense of the world by geo (Earth) graphia (writing).

[Comments are welcome at [email protected]]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Google Maps, Looking Back, river ferries
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