It’s eight in the morning and you’re still on your way to your 7:30 am class. “Why does it have to be so traffic?” you ask yourself, and so do the other people in the cars beside you. The heat is insane. Thank god for the inventor of air conditioning, right? You look at your rearview mirror and you suddenly see a lone horse looking at you. Intently. The truck in front of you moves slightly; you follow, and so do the horse and its wooden backpack. Thanks to the guidance of the kutsero driving it, the horse doesn’t hit your car. It turns to the left into the wired streets of Binondo.
In an unofficial waiting area beside Santa Cruz Church right by Escolta street, a herd of kalesas and kutseros can still be seen basking under the sun, waiting to take willing passengers into the fast-paced roads and markets of downtown Ongpin. These urban drivers are of the independent kind.
Hop on and let The Menagerie take you on a tour with these unique drivers.
The morning regimen
Ric Danganan, or Mang Ric to his Binondo-area friends, wakes up at eight o’clock every morning to feed Rarey, his chestnut brown horse who, he says, is the nicest one he has owned out of his 37 years of being a kutsero—a horse carriage driver. He puts Rarey’s typical morning meal of grass and water inside the stable. Rarey eats happily, as if he could eat a whole horse.
While Rarey munches on his veggie fix, Mang Ric readies buckets of darak (rice bran worth P10 per bucket), pulot, or molasses (brown syrup made from raw sugar costing P30 for a bucket), and sapal ng taho (fermented soya pulp priced at P25 a bucket). These three ingredients, when mixed together, make Rarey’s lunch and dinner for the day. Mang Ric says he has never tried eating this brown mixture, but it does smell like taho. He then hangs these buckets to the kalesa.
Interestingly, the sweat of a horse, when left dried on the horse’s body, turns into some sort of powder. So after Rarey finishes his dose of grass, Mang Ric takes him out of the stable to get the horse’s dried sweat off his body using a special kind of brush. This part of Rarey’s morning regimen makes the outside of Mang Ric’s house look like a slight sandstorm with a strong smell of horse.
After the sweaty encounter, Mang Ric properly and expertly wraps, locks, and fastens the ropes and leashes around Rarey’s head, then pulls the entire wooden kalesa onto Rarey before doing another round of fastening and locking. After washing Rarey’s face and feet with a hose, he straightens out Rarey’s brunette locks with a comb.
Newly bathed and feeling fresh, Rarey is ready for his day in Chinatown.
Teaching the horse
From the area of Sto. Domingo Church in Quezon City, Mang Ric and Rarey brave the urban jungles of Quezon Avenue and España to get to Chinatown. Rarey and Mang Ric expertly and effortlessly weave through the cars, trucks, and jeepneys.
Mang Romeo, a Chinatown kutsero for 35 years now, shares that disciplining a horse to be accustomed to the busyness of the road takes time and patience on the part of the kutsero. “Kailangan ikaw ang maguunawa sa kabayo, pag di mo inuwaan yan edi sasakmalin ka bigla niyan,” Mang Romeo shares about the dangers a kutsero has to go through in understanding his animal.
The horse is a fickle animal, Mang Romeo says, and the kutsero and the horse have to see eye-to-eye before the horse will be able to brave through Binondo’s sea of pedicabs, kuligligs, and motorized vehicles.
Rene Fernandez, another veteran Binondo kutsero, shares that his horse Botchi was particularly sensitive to cars and noise, and he would run as fast as he could whenever he saw or heard a car near it. Botchi was even bitten on its nape by another horse because it tried to fight it. “Kailangan marunong kang umalalay. Ang ginawa namin dyan, tinakpan namin ang buong mata para dire-diretso ang takbo niya. ‘Pag nakarinig ng paputok, bigla nalang tatakbo ng todo, kaya lalagyan mo siya ng bulak sa tenga para di siya makarinig.” It took Botchi a year to be taught and disciplined.
Kalesas in tourist sites like Intramuros and Luneta are actually under the company Castillan Carriage and Tour Services, which require their kutseros to wear uniforms, to charge at a fixed rate, and to always have a guide for tourists. Castillan also has a large stable for the horses, which means that their kutseros only have to worry about taking care of their horses and the tours.
The ones in Binondo, however, are basically on their own in terms of everything: horse care, daily income, and permits. Independent kutseros are bound by only one legal contract – their permit to operate, issued by the City of Manila, but that’s the most support they have from the government, the kutseros say.
This permit comes in the form of a typical business permit, similar to what sari-sari store owners get for their own businesses. For kutseros, it is a piece of paper that costs P65 and formalizes their accreditation by the local government. If a kutsero fails to renew a permit, a 500 percent (P325) increase of the original accreditation fee shall be paid.
“Ang pinakamababa kasi 50. Tapos may 100. Conforme sa layo. May 150, may 250,” Mang Ric says about the lack of fixed rates in Binondo kalesas. A trip from Binondo to MOA, for example, costs about P350. A ride inside Binondo costs about P50 to P70. From Binondo to Intramuros or Luneta, it costs about P150. Some kutseros also charge by the hour. A one-hour tour around Binondo or Intramuros unofficially costs about P350; it all depends on the negotiations of the passenger and the kutsero.
Mang Ric shares that the least he can earn in a day is P100-P150, but on a lucky day (maybe if a gallant tourist comes his way) he can go home with P500-600 in his pocket. For kutseros with operators like Mang Romeo and Mang Rene, though, it is more pressing to get passengers because they have to meet their daily quota (usually at least P300). Otherwise, it will carry over to the next day’s quota.
This pressure to earn more sometimes triggers kutseros to charge unsuspecting passengers more than the usual fare. Overpricing cases are abundant among independent kalesas. Customers may initially agree on a P100 trip, but upon arrival, the kutsero might charge P100 for each passenger.
How they survive
Escolta Street was once heralded as the parking lot of kalesas back in the day. Kutseros used to park their kalesas on the iconic street alongside its many theaters, banks, department stores, and ice cream parlors. Mang Romeo shares that the number of kalesas before were as many as the pedicabs and jeepneys today.
“Nung araw pag pumarada ako sa isang kanto eh may sasakay kagad, ‘di na kailangan hahanap-hanapin; kahit matulog ka sa kalsada, gigisingin ka ng pasahero. Yun ang kagandahan ng pasada nung araw,” Mang Romeo shares. “’Pag ganitong nasa lugar na alanganin ka, hindi ka na masasakyan. Kailangan pumarada ka talaga sa kung saan maraming tao katulad sa LRT, mga pasyalan, sa mga simbahan.”
Mang Ric says that he survives being a kutsero because he has a loyal Chinese patron who calls him whenever he needs to go to Binondo. With curious tourists and nostalgic passengers, the kalesas in Binondo continue to live on.
Some kutseros like Mang Rene are very content with their lives now. Mang Rene shares, “Gusto ko ikot ng ikot, parang namamasyal, kung ano nakagamayan ko. Katulad nito gamay mo na yung pangangabayo, yun na lang ano ko, gusto kong hanapbuhay. Parang ayoko nang umalis sa pangungutsero.”
“Sabi nga nila hindi raw matatawag na Maynila ang Maynila kung wala ang kabayo eh,” Mang Ric confidently declares. From the Spanish era hundreds of years ago to 2015, the legacy of the kalesa still roams the streets of Manila. Every layer of concrete on the darkest and densest roads of the city has heard every possible rhythm from a horse’s feet. To continue this legacy is the reason why Mang Ric, Mang Rene, Mang Romeo, and the many independent kutseros still kick against the tests of time.