18 December 1991
If you are driving this time of the year, you should avoid the
commercial centers -- unless, of course, you are panic-buying and you
don’t mind heavy traffic or the lack of parking space. In times like
these, I dream of Manila’s streets before the car was invented. They
must have been less crowded and obviously free of carbon monoxide. Old
Manila had a different kind of pollution from horses and carabaos -- you
either smelled their dung or made the mistake of stepping on it. Worst
of all, based an article I read recently in the Ilustracion Filipino of
1859, were the drivers of colonial Manila.
Judging by the condescending tone of the article on cocheros I can say
it was obviously written by a member of the leisure class whose cocheros
were called Quicoy, Pancho, or Pololo. A man usually tried his hand at
the other areas of domestic service -- as portero, muchacho de cuarto,
sota, and finally cocinero -- before becoming the family cochero. Thus
honored, through without driving experience, he soon gains enough
audacity to get on the pescante or driver’s seat. (Pescante, which has
its roots in pescar, meaning “to fish,” described the cochero as seeming
to be fishing as he holds the reins.) It was claimed that ninety-five
percent of the cocheros in Manila did not know what they were “fishing”
for! Cocheros gained expertise at the expense of their amo’s money and
patience. Does this sound familiar?
When I was a child I never understood why, in directing drivers, old
people said “mano” to turn right or “silla” to turn left. These words
literally mean “hand” and “chair.” One cannot use the terms with a
Spanish taxi driver who responds to izquierda (left) and derecho
(right). As a matter of strange fact, derecho in the Philippines means
to go straight! The origin of these terms exclusive to the Philippines
goes back to colonial times when a proper cochero sitting on the
pescante held the reins with his right hand (mano) while his left hand
rested either on his seat or its handle (silla). Thus, the amo uttered
mano if he wanted to turn right and silla if he wanted to turn left.
“Buena mano” was also a common term in those days when the amo compared
cocheros. It did not mean a lucky first sale in a store as it does
today when tinderas urge you to buy something at a discount “pang buena
mano.” At that time, it mean that a cochero literally had a “good hand”
in handling both horse and carriage which were also kept clean.
Ordinary cocheros fed the horses cheap grass (probably the equivalent of
diesel) bought from a zacatero, but a good cochero supplied a horse with
a diet of palay mixed with honey (the equivalent of premium gas). A
cochero knew his horses not by name but by their colors: el bayo, el
moro (black with white streaks on its head or feet), el castano
(chestnut brown), el blanco (white), etc. He also kept them healthy and
Good cocheros kept in mind that vehicles stayed on the left side of
road, and they were able to make the horses move in unison to ensure a
smooth ride. In the same way as a modern drayber (from the English
“driver”) learns the gear shifts primera, segunda, tercera, cuarta,
quinta, and atras, the cochero learned the three different speeds of the
kartela or calesa: trotando (trotting), galope (full gallop), and
escape (when one is in a rush). Aside from the grunts and shouts used
to communicate with the horses, cocheros knew the hand signals and
shouts they must use to warn other vehicles and pedestrians of the
direction they were heading for.
Cocheros parked the carriage in the shade when the amo got off.
he either slept in the pescante or at the back seat while waiting, or
compared notes with other cocheros about their amos. Gossip overheard
in the pescante was also exchanged -- which why swift news is still
called kuwentong kutsero.
There seems to be no change in the traits of family drivers. Whether
they are driving a car or a karatela, they are still on call day and
night an usually remain faithful. Even the advice of the Ilustracion
Filipina still holds true as if it was said only yesterday: “no lidiar
con el cochero”, that is, do not fight with a driver.
Source: Ambeth R. Ocampo, “Bonifacio’s Bolo,” Anvil Pub., 1995.