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Water life gives Manila some claims to the title of "Oriental Venice." The general level of her streets is but a few feet above water, and should some earthquake lower the plain ten feet, or some tidal wave raise the water in the bay, there would be a permanent or temporary reproduction of conditions in the famous Italian city.
When the big flood of July, 1904, occured, this very thing did happen and men went everywhere about the streets in bancas carrying passengers for any fare they might be able to collect.
There is however, plenty of material for Venetian scenery without waiting for a flood or an earthquake, and the traveler has not far to go to find bits of water and landscape that make the soul of an artist stop to gaze and rejoice that he is in Manila. Some of the estero windings with zacate-laden bancas and brown-limbed boatmen are thoroughly Oriental and characteristic of the leisurely life of the tropics
There are five divisions of river life: the shipping behind the breakwater belongs to the deep sea; the lower Pasig harbors the inter-island merchant marine; The Pasig above the bridge of Spain is the terminus and general rendezvous of the lake traffic, the large canals and esteros of Quiapo, Binondo, and Tondo float a large burden of provincial freight and the smaller esteros serve as distributers of produce and building material all over the city.
Any map of Manila shows a network of these canals that reaches nearly every part of the city. So obvious was the usefulness of these waterways in the days of primitive methods of transportation, that they were used for nearly every class of freight, and often passengers were wont to travel about the city in slender bancas propelled by the banquero who was as much a part ofthe household force as the cochero. So much were the esteros used that a Spanish royal decree was passed, and is yet in force, by which no building is allowed within ten feet of the bank of an estero.
Manila's bridges have a history all their own. The mother of them all is of course the old Puente de España that crosses the Pasig below the post office. The original bridge at this point was built of pontoons some time between the years 1590 and 1600. It was first known as the "bridge of boats," and later the :puente grande." During the rule of Governor Niño de Tabora, about 1630, this structure was replaced by a solid stone bridge which has stood until the present time, The old bridge has been extensively repaired several times after various big earthquakes, notably those of 1824 and 1863. Twice since the American occupation it has been widened to accommodate larger traffic, and now the electric trolley chases the carabao carts across the oldest bridge in the islands. This bridge is the only structure in the Philippines standing in good repair that is entitled to rank with Fort Santiago in point of age and long usefulness, and the church of San Agustin.
Before the new Santa Cruz bridge was built the congestion of traffic on the lower bridge was at times formidable. The line of carromatas used to extend away back down Bagumbayan drive and people sometimes had to wait an hour for a chance to cross. The cochero of former days had a habit of driving from the bridge down to the Escolta at a full speed, on the principle that it was a dangerous place and the sooner through it the better. This led to so many accidents that an ordinance was passed prohibiting any one from leaving the north end of the bridge except by the road down the bank of the river to Calle Rosario.
The estero bridges are nearly all of stone, built in solid arches, and most of them are of long standing. As a rule they take their names from the streets on which they are situated, but the larger ones are named in honor of some saint or celebrity. The bridge at the end of the Santa Mesa car line, known as the San Juan bridge, is famous because it was here that the first gun of the insurrection against the United States was fired on the fourth of February, 1899. The situation was getting rapidly worse, and at ten o'clock that night a drunken insurgent officer drew the fire of an American sentry. Immediately the insurgents fired a volley upon the American picket line and the battle of San Juan bridge was on. The old bridge stands unharmed by its exciting history, its three strong arches bidding fair to span the stream for many years to come.
The river population of Manila is a class by itself. Over fifteen thousand people liveon the cascos and lorchas that ply the waters of the river and its tributaries, all within the city limits.Thousands of children are born, grow, live and die on this floating cargo carriers, and never dream of any other world than that which floats about them and is towed or poled from place to place.
The interiors of these house boats might not suit an American millionaire as a pleasure yatch, but they serve their 'day' and down into the mud, and then the other end against his shoulder, takes the position of a big spider and crawls back his narrow beat to the stern of the boat. It is surprising what a load two men can pole up stream in this fashion if given time enough; and time is the heavy asset of those who live the river life.
The largest contributions to the mud of the esteros are made by the wallowing carabao. The sight of twenty black noses raised just enough above the surface to breathe, is suggestive of silurian monsters, and when the Oriental buffaloes drag their shining bodies out of the water it is left about the consistency of brown paint. I have always had an admiration for the carabao. He is ungainly, but his very ugliness is so openly and frankly hideous that there is something fetching about it after all. Then the carabao is a philosopher. He has solve the problem of living in the tropics."High sassiety" and nervous prostration have no terrors for him. He is not very bonito to look at, but when he moves, the world moves with him.
The banca is not a very luxurious substitute for the gandola. IT is narrow and shallow,and, when covered, leaves sitting room only for the cramped-up passenger. The banquero is expert enough with his paddle, and sends the hallow log along at a good rate., but the water is dirty and the banks are dirty , and the traveller soon feels dirty himself. The uninterrupted view of everybody's backyard is not inspiring, and the tanned gondolier's demands for more pay take the romance out of the whole thing. It's too much like the days when the public cochero ruled the city with high-handed scorn and utter indifference to the rights or wishes of the public.
Leave the esteros to the carabao. They look alike, they smell alike, they move alike; surely they were made for each other, and what the mud hath joined together let no man put asunder.
There are times, though, when the sight of the sub-marine quadruped stirs a kindred feeling in any-one who has not so far degenerated as to entirely lose his primeval instincts. He looks so comfortable; no stock exchange disturbs his stock repose. The market is evening trip on the pasig. He may easily count a hundred or more people using the great bath tub that flows by their doors, and the bathing costume is the simplicity itself.
It grows dark before the landing is reached, and from the cascos tied by the river side comes the sound of revelry by night. A bamboo orchestra is practicing a symphony after Beethoven (some time after) and the sounds wheeze and boom across the water like some monster in distress. The bass bazoo, or whatever it might be called, had but two tones in its voice, and when it was not busy sounding one of them it bellowed on the other. There was some sort of a fiddle, the one with the cat in it, I think, that played the other parts, and natives were hopping about on the floor of the empty casco enjoying a fancy dress ball given on board their private yatch. The affair was strictly full dress , in fact it outshone the most daring costumes of the fashionable butterfly, for the Filipina belle was not only decolletee, half way to her waist, but her ball dress was as short at one end as the other. So far as I could see her feet looked as well as her shoulders and what's the difference anyway? The carabao now, but let's drop that long suffering beast.
Fort McKinley landing at last! We crawl out of the crowded quarters, painfully straighten our cramped joints, pay the agreed price and start for the barracks. But halt! The boatman has somewhat to say. What? "Un peso para chow?" Did you ever: I had paid twice the regular fee and now another peso. No sir! Adios, Señor banquero. May you live long and happily, and may your evening hours be as placid as the peaceful carabao.
The launch life of Manila is a world of its own. Over five hundred steam launches ply the waters of the bay and river, and they vary in size from the foot toy to the lake steamers. All of them are provided with whistles of enormous size and they blow them as much of the time as they can keep steam in the boilers. The consequent din along the lower river is enough to break the nerves of any except the natives who are nerveless.
The lake traffic is a considerable factor in the business life of Manila produce market. Thirty steamers make more or less regular trips to the lake ports which are the only outlets of a very rich country from which come cocoanuts and sugar and hemp and bananas and oranges and all sorts of native fruits and vegetables and fowls. the number of people that can be crowded onto one of these flat steamers is surprising. With the Filipino it is not a case of "room for one more," for a dozen or two can always be put in after all is full. It may disturb a gamble or a cock-fight, but only in extreme cases.
If not viewed too closely, there is, after all, much that is picturesque about the Venetian phase of Manila life. The Binondo canal viewed from the San Fernando bridge is a picture of life and interest. Some striking bits of scenery are found here and there made up of canal, casco and native boatman with some church dome in the background. When the day is done and the evening shadows fall, the sharp outlines soften and one forgets the muddy water, the dirty banks and the wallowing carabao and over it all falls the spell of the Orient and the quaint and curious scenes of the water streets of old Manila.
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