Tuesday, 2 April 2013

TV Review: The Toughest Place To Be...A Bus Driver: Manila BBC2

For those in the UK who define "hardship" as not being able to afford Sky Sports or a second foreign holiday the day-to-day reality depicted in The Toughest Place To Be...A Bus Driver hits you like a slap in the face.

As part of the fantastic BBC series exploring difficult working conditions in the developing world, this programme focuses on Manila, officially the most densely populated city on earth. Much of its 20 million inhabitants live cheek by jowl in grinding poverty and the city was no doubt chosen due to its appalling road conditions and chaotic infrastructure. The producers no doubt thought they would get plenty of mileage watching a naive Brit flounder in the midst of Manila's madness.  Little would they have expected such an emotional human story to emerge.

A couple of years ago London bus driver Josh West visited the Philippines to trade jobs with local "Jeepney" driver Rogelio Castro to see what it is was like to ply his trade on the mean streets of Manila. Its is fair to say the experience was life changing for them both.

Before arrival, Josh admits to knowing little about the Philippines other than the infamous Imelda Marcos' shoe collection.  On the face of it their lives could not be more different.  Whilst Josh has a comfortable job driving a state of the art £35K Routemaster through London's well maintained streets, his conditions protected by a myriad of employment and driving regulations, Rogelio toils away for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week in a clapped out minibus through the chaotic, congested streets of Manila.

His gruelling days, where he acts as driver, mechanic, cleaner and ticket collector, earn him about £8 a day which is often not enough to pay for his wife's medication. Rogelio lives in a ramshackle, self built property  with tiny rooms inhabited by ever growing collection of extending family.

What made the show powerful and pushed it beyond the bounds of the realms of poverty pornography was the human relationship that played out between Josh and Rogelio. Despite only staying with him for 10 days the visit made a profound impression on the Londoner.

"When you see someone working that hard, how can you turn your back on them?"

On Josh's first visit Rogelio broke down when explaining the arduous treadmill his life had become and his inability to escape from the crushing weight of poverty.  He was basically running just to stand still. Josh was overcome with emotion as he realised that despite them both being bus drivers only one of them was destined for a life of drudgery.

‘If I was born here I’d be in the same situation as you. It’s just by chance that I was born in London‘.

Rogelio might be struggling but he is positively middle class in comparison to some of Manila's poor. There was one section of VT which turned my stomach and gave an indication into how far reaching and desperate the poverty has become in the shanty towns of Manila. Josh went into the slums to witness the phenomena of "pagpag", a form of food recycling . 

Scavengers will collect discarded and half eaten chicken remnants from the garbage cans outside Manila's numerous fast food restaurants and root through them to pick out the bits they can re-use (mostly bones, cartilage with the odd bit of rancid chicken attached).  They then sell these on to pagpag "restaurants" who will recook the detritus and sell it on to slum dwellers for pennies.  This is likely to be their main meal of the day.  It is truly a shocking state of affairs.

Despite seemingly being worlds apart the 10 days Rogelio spent teaching Josh the Tao of a Filipino bus driver had transformed their relationship into something of a "bromance" with them exchanging emails and photos after Josh returned back to the UK. Deeply affected by his visit Josh decided he would do something practical in order fund the one request Rogelio had for a better life. 
  I won't spoil it but Josh makes an emotional return to Manila two years later to reunite with Rogelio his adopted "brother" to see how his life has changed since the documentary first aired (he is something of a local celebrity now) and lays out his long term plan for Rogelio's family.  I must admit I don't know many people would make such a commitment after such a chance visit. Josh is a truly an inspirational character.

After years of being bombarded with images of poverty through Live Aid, Sport Relief, Red Nose Day it is testament to Josh and the programme creators for making an utterly engrossing documentary  packing more punch than any celebrity endorsed hand wringing I have ever seen. 

I urge you to watch the documentary on iPlayer and donate to Josh's Danceaid page that is attempting to raise money for Manila's street kids. After watching this documentary only those with a heart of stone could refuse such a request.

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