By Abu Poblete
This horse is Rarey. He’s been a kalesa horse in Binondo, Manila for the last four years. His owner, Mang Ric Danganan, has been a kutsero or a carriage driver since the tender age of 18. That was 40 years ago. The pair braves through the traffic and heat of the Metro everyday just to keep food on the table and grass in the shed.
Rarey battles through the streets alongside the many jeepneys, cars, pedicabs and trucks, not thinking much of why the humans he passes by cover their noses and regard him with confusion. “It’s almost meal time,” Rarey is thinking, and he can’t wait for the grass Mang Ric will give him as soon as he gets out of the gridlock beside the Old Chinatown arc.
Kalesas continue to be one of the modes of transportation in Binondo, but their numbers have dwindled while Binondo has stayed the vast and thrilling market that it is. Although diminishing, those slowly and persistently pumping the thrust of this historic vehicle don’t believe that their time is drawing nigh.
Here are 8 things a kalesa horse and his kutsero want you to know about an industry that has stood the test of time. Buckle up!
8. Morning prepping
“Taking care of me takes extra effort and care–just like you humans. Hell, I literally have the future of my owner’s family on my shoulders, so I deserve it!” Rarey says as he shares his beauty regimen.
In the morning, Rarey’s owner Mang Ric, gives him grass for breakfast. He then prepares buckets of Rarey’s essential daily diet of molasses, rice bran and soya pulp, which are mixed with water, turning it into a dense, brown mixture.
Rarey is then brushed, bathed and then fastened to his kalesa, which Mang Ric had made from a kalesa maker in Tondo, Manila.
7. On the job
After their preparations, Rarey and Mang Ric are ready to hit the horse to bumper traffic from Sto. Domingo Church all the way to Binondo’s winding streets.
Rarey and Mang Ric hang out in Plaza Lacson with his other Kalesa pals under the blistering heat to wait for their day’s passengers. After a whole day traversing Binondo, Rarey and Mang Ric have hopefully earned enough to make their way back to Quezon City.
6. Kalesas in Binondo
Kalesas were the norm back when our grandparents spent their Saturdays in Escolta’s ice cream parlors and department stores. It was even dubbed the Queen of Streets, and rightfully so because they were used by everyone, everywhere. This was a time when tricycles and jeepneys weren’t even a blip on their creators’ imaginations–the kalesa, tranvia and cars dominated the streets. Escolta was even called the parking lot of kalesas because all the owners and operators would park their kalesas there after a long day of carrying people.
“We dominated the roads. We were the stars. We galloped away with no worries because everyone needed and loved us. Hello, us horses are pretty majestic creatures. Just look at my calves–have you seen anything as glorious? But it’s all so different now, with pedicabs and jeepneys going against us on the streets. Sobrang hassle talaga, bro,” Rarey shares of the glory days.
5. Our daily bread
“Financially, we’re pretty much on the edge because of the decreasing number of passengers willing to ride us,” Mang Ric confides regarding the fickle income he and Rarey earn every day.
Because of a lack of official rates given by the government, kutseros are free to charge their customers any amount they want. “A normal ride costs about P40 per person, but a tour around Binondo or anywhere else will cost about P150 or more. I had a passenger once who wanted me to take him to MOA, which I did, but we charged him P350 because nine kilometers ain’t no joke kaya,” Rarey says.
Mang Ric shares that he only earns up to P600 a day when he chances upon a generous tourist or first-timer, but on a normal day, he’s lucky enough to earn P150. Some kutseros, unlike Mang Ric who owns his horse and his shed, have operators who give them a daily quota of P300 or more, which they need to meet. Otherwise, they will have to pay for it out of pocket or earn it the day after.
Compared to the influx of passengers before pedicabs, kuligligs and jeepneys came, kutseros now can barely break even. Between the cost of basic necessities like food (including their horse’s), electricity, and tuition of their children, Mang Ric shares that it’s a good thing he doesn’t have an operator because he gets to keep whatever he makes.
When it’s raining, though, kutseros earn a little more because stranded passengers are assured safety thanks to the height of the kalesa. This is dangerous for the horse though, because he can’t tell if there are potholes on the road. Mang Ric shares that he had a colleague whose horse fell onto a pothole. Thankfully, the horse only sustained a few minor injuries.
4. It’s not the healthiest job
Horses are born with an tough immune system able to survive rough environments–even if that rough environment is filled with smoke-belching vehicles and noise pollution. But horses still have limits, especially when they’re exposed daily to an environment like Metro Manila.
“Yeah, we get sick too. Besides the usual colds and sprains, colic is the real pain in the ass (and stomach) talaga for horses. Sometimes all we need is medicine to make the pain go away, but when it’s pretty serious, some owners just choose to put their animals down.”
Besides having a job that barely pays for food and their horse, kutseros don’t have enough means to consult with veterinarians. “Binibigyan ko na lang ‘yan ng maraming Buscopan kapag may sakit; gumagana naman eh, kailangan lang mas marami ang pakainin kasi kabayo ‘yan,” Mang Ric says.
This kind of treatment is not advised because human medicine is specifically prescribed to humans (duh), which is why consulting a veterinarian should and always be a must before giving Enervon to your horse.
“Oh hey, if you’re wondering where the bodies of dead horses go, I heard Malabon’s pretty nice at this time of year!”
The kalesa is extra tough for kutseros because their bodies aren’t as strong as their horses. Imagine having to breathe air from all kinds of vehicles every hour of every day under the heat of the sun–really, anyone’s body would reach its limit.
3. The support that we (don’t) get
“Okay, buckle up because I’m going to tell you a big secret: we don’t really get that much support from the government. And that makes us horses really, really sad. Huhu.”
“Officials from the government used to actually go to us to remind us to register permits for our kalesas, but recently no one’s been bugging us to do so, so we don’t anymore to save some money,” Mang Ric says in Filipino. A permit for kalesas are worth P65, and failure to renew it costs them P325.
Executive Order no. 120 refers to the proper process and maintenance of accreditation to govern kalesas providing transport services to tourists. The order clearly states that a kustero is required the following before being accredited: a mayor’s permit or municipal license, attending a seminar for kalesa drivers conducted by the Department of Tourism, a police or barangay clearance and a certificate of good health, as well as a fixed charging rate and proper maintenance and care for the carriage and horse; but these rules that aren’t followed for the kalesas in Binondo. It also states that an inspection team is to do oculars to check the implementation of the order–something that hasn’t happened in recent years, shares Mang Ric.
Barangay 289’s barangay captain Nelson Ty says, however, that he and his team never fail to remind the kutseros to be mindful of where they park and throw their trash, but that’s the most action they take regarding the carriage drivers.
2. Stuff we’re sorry about
“Here’s another secret: some kutseros (unfairly) charge extra because #life. And we horses are really sorry for that.”
Just like our beloved taxi drivers, Rarey shares that kutseros charge passengers extra especially when they’re far from earning their daily quota. “Wala nang sumasakay talaga masyado sa kalesa kasi namamahalan at nahihirapan sumakay yung mga pasahero. Ang mahirap kasi talaga diyan ay wala kaming magagawa na. Kapag may natutuwa sa kalesa, doon na lang kami nagkakakita,” Mang Ric shares.
Some kutseros even come to the point of scamming their passengers by charging them more than their agreed upon payment. Mang Ric shares an incident wherein a kutsero charged P40 to the customer at the beginning of the ride but then wanted P400 as they arrived at their destination. The kutsero was fired by his operator.
“Hey, we’re also really sorry for the smell and the health hazard you get from our stuff. The barangay never fails to tell us to use receptacles, so now we do…well, some of us.”
1. What we want
“I love my job, I really do. Me and my mates get to keep the culture of the kalesa, therefore keeping the culture of old Chinatown. But it’s nice to have the same support as our friends in Intramuros. Just look at the nice kalesas they have and how they’re being taken care of!”
What the kalesas of Intramuros have is everything that the independent kalesas of Binondo don’t have: a fixed rate and route (they’re not allowed to go out of Intramuros), kutseros in uniforms, a shed for all horses where they get food and water, and an official waiting area right by the entrance of Fort Santiago. Handled by the Castillan Tours and Carriages under an agreement with the Intramuros Administration, these kalesas are being taken care of to assure the essence of the Walled City, keeping it as authentic as it was during the war.
This isn’t to say that the system in Intramuros should be absorbed by the Binondo kalesas, but it sure is nice to see a local government’s support. All the Binondo kalesas hope for is more than just tolerance for those who are dedicating their lives to keeping the culture of the oldest Chinatown in the world.
“It’s a tough life on the streets, but us horses and our kutseros have been through the ups and downs of our business–believe me, there are more downs than there were even ups–but we’re still here galloping away. We just hope that when you’re here, you’ll look at us with less disgust or pity and more respect and consideration because, again, just look at my magnificent calves!”
What are your feels about kalesas? Sound off in the comments below!