I call them street mariners. Sometimes, a jeep's conductor will be hanging on to the rear railings of his jeep as it hurtles down the boulevard, and the wind will course through his hair, billowing his shirt. His skin will be a deep mahogany from days spent in the hot sun. The sight reminds me of the mariners of old, who would hang on to the riggings of their sailing ship, their clothes fluttering, their eyes squinting to keep out the glaring sunlight.
The conductor is usually found standing near the jeep's entrance at the stern. The conductor's job consists essentially of four tasks.
When a passenger is about to board, the conductor gently touches the passenger's back. Apparently this is to lend a sense of security, because jeeps often start accelerating madly even before the passenger has fully boarded. Conductors often have to run a few steps and then jump on. Amazingly, I've never yet seen a conductor left stranded by his jeep.
- To yell the destination and beckon to potential passengers, urging them to take the jeep.
- To help incoming passengers cross the road.
- To collect the fare and give change.
- To wildly wave arms and - sometimes - feet, indicating to following traffic that the jeep is about to swerve to the left or right.
Not all jeeps have conductors. There are almost no female conductors, though in some cases, the driver's wife will be seated in the passenger section and help with the collection of fares. (She may also be making sure her husband doesn't blow the day's take on beer!) In many cases, the conductor will be a kid. I interviewed one; a nine-year old, depicted on this page. He told me he's not in school because his family can't afford to send him (although tuition is free, some families can't afford school supplies and uniforms). But I'm not sure if that's the real reason. Some kids would just be happier earning 100 pesos a day cruising around the city, than stuck in a classroom all day.
The juvenile conductors, even those of very tender age, are treated exactly like all the other conductors by the commuting public.
Most conductors are gaunt young men with hoarse voices (from all the yelling), dressed in a ragged shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Often, the conductor will have a towel tied around his head.
Conductors and drivers have all manner of tricks up their sleeve to entice you to ride with their jeep. For instance, at a major stop, the conductor may yell "DIRETSO DIRETSO!" i.e. indicating that the jeep will hurtle directly to its destination, without stopping to pick up any more passengers. This is usually an outright lie. Even if passengers are already squeezed tighter together than sardines in a can, the jeep will pick up as many passengers as it finds along the road.
Another wily manoevre is aimed at beating the competition. When a gaggle of commuters approach a cluster of jeeps, the driver will rev the engine loudly and inch the jeep forward a little, while the conductor screams out the destination. The commuters will panic, thinking that the jeep is about to leave, and hurriedly scramble aboard. But the jeep will proceed to idle a few more minutes, and perhaps even repeat the charade.