BBC's London bus driver braves Manila streets

By Edward Lao, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at Mar 25 2011 12:06 PM | Updated as of Mar 26 2011 04:24 PM

LONDON – The BBC recently aired a 3-part series where 3 British nationals, all with different professions, were sent to ply their trade in some of the world's most challenging environments. One of them was sent to Manila to drive an iconic Filipino symbol – the jeepney.

Josh West was a bus driver when he was selected to appear in the BBC's production 'Toughest Place To Be A...'. 2.1 million viewers in the UK's capital tuned in to watch the show, which aired in Britain on February 20.

During a conversation with ABS-CBN Europe in Shepherds Bush, London, the 39-year-old shared his Philippine experience and spoke about his aims to give two children “a better start in life” through education.

Prior to his stay in the Philippines last November, West admitted he knew very little about the nation and its culture before heading out.

The 6-foot-3 Briton, whose family originates from Montserrat in the West Indies, recalled the moment his host and mentor Rogelio Castro introduced him to the vehicle he would drive.

“They played a little trick on me. What normally Rogelio does is drive his jeepney home. Has it at home and then drives it from his house... but he left it for me to see the terminus, so I said no problem.”

“When I got there, after getting on a really rickety bike, which I didn't like, I saw these buses and coaches first, so I thought it’s got to be one of these, but he just kept on going and going and going. Then he said, 'Josh, this is my jeepney'. I looked at it and thought, oh my God you can't be serious. This thing only came about to here (raises hand to eye level) on me and it looked like someone had thrown it together themselves. Where the headlights should be, they were painted completely yellow so I was thinking, what do you do at night?

“Over here we drive a bus, which is 31 feet long and weighs 10 tons. I just couldn't understand how he could drive something like that. When I sat behind the wheel, my knees hit the wheel without even touching the pedals. I thought to myself, I didn't know how I was going to drive it. I was so shocked. It really threw me. It really threw me.”

From Paco to Pier South

His task was to learn Rogelio's 4-kilometer route from Paco to Pier South, and eventually, drive the jeepney with passengers without any guidance. After seeing the jeepney for the first time, Rogelio took West out on a run to give him a taste of what lay ahead.

“At first I wasn't worried about the traffic. I thought, how am I going to get my foot on the brake? If I'm driving I want to know that I can stop when I want to stop. Basically I wasn't looking at the traffic, I was looking at his feet to see what he [Rogelio] does. What he does, he sits sideways like this, and that way he can use both pedals, but for me that still didn't work because my legs are too long and my frame is just way too big. Then after a while I started looking around.

“He knows his route really well, he positioned himself... so that other cars and bikes couldn't go up the inside of him or overtake him on the outside. He's been doing that job for a very long time, but I see people go by me and they keep tooting their horns, so as they're tooting their horns, I'm looking to see what they're tooting at, realizing I'm taking my eyes off the road. So he's trained not to listen to that sort of thing. Bikes revving up on the outside of him, people talking to him, other jeepney drivers waving at him. I'm thinking, how am I going to learn all this? And then, he showed me what he did with the cash, having them wrapped around his fingers and doing the coins behind his ear. My head was spinning by that time.

“When we stopped filming, I was thinking to myself... I couldn't believe he does this all the time, every day in that vehicle. I went home that night and just thought to myself, there's no way I'll be able to do it as well as he does. No way. And obviously it was proven.”
When West was eventually ready to drive the jeepney without Rogelio beside him, he had more obstacles to overcome.

“I don't speak Tagalog so I had a translator on the bus as well, and she would tell me what was going on. Some of the people saw me driving, and were going to get on the bus, and then got off. Then she [the translator] said, 'No, no, he knows what he's doing. Come on, sit down, he'll be okay, he's a skilled driver'...

“Normally I would have Rogelio next to me saying, 'Josh, you have to stay here, and I just kept playing his voice over in my head to help me through it. Doing it on my own, it became a lot more stressful and I felt the heat a lot more.

“You sit in traffic and beads of sweat are forming on your forehead... and then you've got buses coming up on you from the other side. I actually parked one time at a red light and this tricycle came up on the inside and hit the bus. I was like, I can't believe you just hit the bus. I said, 'What are you doing mate? We're stationary. You ran in to me!'. That shocked me a bit as well.

“It was difficult but because I had a lot of respect for Rogelio, what he does and the jeepney he drives, I felt that I had to do the absolute best I could... and I couldn't have driven that jeepney any better in the space of time I had, even if I wanted to.”

No work, no eat

West also lived with Rogelio's family at their home in San Andres, Bukid, Manila for five days. He even had the time to stop by Rogelio's hometown in La Union, Ilocos Sur, for a short visit. During his stay in the Philippines, West developed a bond and admiration for his host.

“The difference between what I do and what Rogelio does is, if he doesn't work he doesn't eat. A bit of money for a couple of days and that will be it. He has no safety net and if he's tired he still has to work.

“The reason why I admire him so much is he does it for the love of his family. He does it for the love of his children and grandchildren, and he feels that for you to get ahead you have to work hard, which is a great principle to have. I think that's kind of lost over here sometimes. I think people want to get the shortcut to make riches. He has realized there isn't a shortcut and he's doing it the traditional way. Going out there and grafting hard. That has given me a lot more respect for him. His job in comparison to what I did is twice as hard at least. The responsibility that he has is far more than I have.

“It (the experience) has changed me as well. I'm a lot more humble now. I don't waste stuff anymore. And when I'm going to buy something I say to myself, do I really need that or am I getting it because I want it? That makes the difference in me. I've realized I've got a lot more money than I thought I had just because I'm doing that. I just don't spend my money wherever I want to.”

Education for Rogelio's grandchildren

Following his 13-day stint in the Southeast Asian nation, West not only returned home with a lifelong memory, but also an aim to support the education of Rogelio's two grandchildren, Russel, 6, and Janell, 4.

A part that was cut from the program showed West visiting a school in Manila with Rogelio. Rogelio told West that he would like his grandchildren to attend the school, but would not be able to afford it even if he works constantly. That was when West came up with the idea to help.

“I realized it cost £10 a week to send him (Russel) to that school so when we calculated it, it worked out to be about £300 a year. For an average bus driver that's a weeks pay, which, if you split that over a year, it's not that much, especially from the circumstances that I'm living in, so I decided that I'd help him with that.”

Since he got back in the UK, West has been raising money through various means. The donations have then been passed on to a fund held by international charity Hope For Children.

“At the moment we've got just over a £1000 saved and it will be used when Russel is old enough to go to secondary school. So just to let people know that the money is not going to Rogelio. I'm not sending money over to his bank account. The money is going to the school. The school will bill the charity and then the charity will pay for Russel to go into school first, and then Janell later on. So, if anyone's thinking that Rogelio's getting all the money out of this, that is not the case. Not the case at all. What's going to happen is, I'm going to help his grandchildren have a better start in life. One of the things which comes across as a very, very important thing is education. So if they get a good education they can get a better job.”

At the moment, Rogelio does not know about West's plans. On Thursday, March 24, West is getting married in Ireland but before he ties the knot he intends to surprise Rogelio with the news.

“I haven't actually told him, but I have mentioned I was working on a plan to help him out as much as I can. I do text him every Thursday because that's his day off, and I'll probably tell him this Thursday coming, just before my wedding, and let him know exactly what is going on. I'm sure he'd be pleased with it because I certainly would be.”

Deeply moving

Since appearing on the show, West has noticed that a lot of people were touched by his experience. Not only has the fund received donations from beyond the UK, he has also been randomly stopped in the street by people that have recognized him, His Facebook and Twitter accounts have also been inundated with messages.

A woman on his Facebook group 'Toughest Place To Be A Bus Driver' wrote: "Fantastic documentary, Thank You! Really moved me and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. With all the comic relief stuff on TV at the moment it really makes you question the material world that we live in. Makes me feel very inadequate!"

For one Filipina, the documentary brought back some memories. "Thank you Josh for your kindness, and for doing a very heart-warming documentary, really touched my heart and was in tears watching it... reminisce my highschool life where I used to ride on jeepney :-) Well done & God bless you..."

Another person wrote: "I was so deeply moved by the docu featuring you and Mang Rogelio. Kudos to you and all the men like you and Mang Rogelio who, value honest work and family more than anything!"

Shortly after airing on February 20, someone uploaded the show on YouTube. The video had over 170,000 hits worldwide before the BBC had it removed from the website around mid-March.

In total, West is aiming to raise £15,000 to fund the education of both Russel and Janell up to the age of 18. If he is successful and exceeds the amount, West revealed he would like to reach out further by giving other underprivileged children a chance to go to school as well.

To add to the fund, West will be doing a sponsored 10-kilometer run in London this June and welcomes others to join him. He chuckled and said: “I hate running."

Asked if he would ever return to take on the roads of Manila once more, West smiled and replied, “I'd like to drive a jeepney again but not in service."