By Pepper Marcelo
From the 1960s up to the 1990s, it was not uncommon for Metro Manila residents to witness a fragile caravan, teeming with assorted handcrafted wares, and pulled by a gaunt ox, moving slowly down a street, stopping only to sell product or to rest at a grassy patch of land.
Since the ’90s new industries and progressive methods of buying and selling have virtually rendered the ox caravan instinct. Long been taken for granted and unacknowledged, the caravan, or kariton, has since been lauded for its contribution to and enrichment of local culture and history.
Adong Ramos, 41, who has been a viajero for 30 years, says that his trade has changed drastically since he first started. “Mas maganda yung noon kesa ngayon. Mahina na. Kaya unti-unti nawawala yung ganyan.” During its peak period, there were approximately 10 to15 karitons operating around the metropolis. Now, there are only one or two. “Kami na nga lang, dalawa lang,” he laments.
The ox caravan originated in the plains of Pangasinan in the 1950s. Craftsmen would create an assortment of products made of bamboo and rattan. These would include: walis tingting (bristled broom), bigao (winnowing tray), an-duyan (baby crib or hammock), paypay (fan), bangkito (stool), as well as rattan hampers.
The caravan would then be loaded up to the brim with these goods, wherein the viajero, or traveler, would make the long trek to Metro Manila to sell the wares. Fronted by a Brahma bull, or bull, the mobile nature of the caravan made it possible for theses sellers to travel almost anywhere and be stationed for a prolonged period of time (provided there is a grassy area for the ox to eat and rest).
Slowed down by its own weight and the heavy load it drags, the bull competes for with jeepneys and buses for precious space along the busy corridors of the city, which worsens the traffic flow. Then as now, irate drivers would sometimes yell at the viajero who would only ignore them. “Minsan nayayamot ka din, pero sa amin, kailangan sa buhay namin, mahaba ang pasensya,” says Ramos.
He and his ox travel through different municipalities within the metropolis, including Marikina, Quezon City, and the neighboring towns of Montalban, Taytay, Angono, and Binangonan in Rizal province. He stops at each of these places for one or two days before moving on to the next. Basta hindi kami aabot ng isang linggo.”
He lives on the road for three months at a time, and when he goes back to the province, stays only one week there before moving out again. “Nakakalungkot din, pero okey lang ‘yun, kasi kailangan talaga. Sayang yung kikitain mo.”
For rest, sleep or general privacy, the inside rear of the caravan provides a small space, as well as shelter, against the harsh weather.
Wives and children would oftentimes accompany the merchant, but in most cases prefer to stay in the province, or settle in the city proper to establish a new home and livelihood. Ramos, who is married with five kids, does not expect or want his children to follow in his footsteps. “Wala akong plano na sundan nila ang hanapbuhay na ganito,” he says. “Kailangan mag-aral sila. Pero kung may gusto, pababayaan ko siya. Pero magtapos muna sila mag-aral.”
Dr. Ma. Crisanta Nelmida-Flores has described the life the life of an ox caravan and viajero as akin to a gypsy, selling during the daytime and congregating with others at night for company and protection.
“It’s a very peripatetic life; very mobile. Most caravan cultures, like in the Middle East, it’s associated with pilgrims and traveling. Here, it’s an industry,” she says.
In 2007, Nelmida-Flores published the book, “The Cattle Caravans of Ancient Caboloan: Connecting History, Culture and Commerce by Cartwheel,” tracing the history, plight and cultural significance of the ox-driven merchant. “Like the jeepney as a vehicle of art, the same goes for the caravan. Inside, there are posters of sexy girls, next to a portrait of the Virgin Mary. This is very Filipino,” she observes.
As part of her research, she followed the path of caravan trader Mario Banaag from Pangasinan to Quezon City. At the time Banaag had already “retired,” citing diminishing returns. He was then already driving a tricycle when Dr. Nelmida-Flores convinced him to go on a “last journey,” providing him with funds to purchase the goods.
The kariton is sponsored by a patron from Pagasinan, and is usually passed down from one generation to the next. It reached the peak of its success during the 1970s, as evidenced by the upgraded lifestyle of their patrons. “A patron was able to construct a two-story house made of concrete, very impressive for the time and place,” says Nelmida-Flores.
The first sign of hard times came during the ’80s with the mass-production and widespread utilization of plastic goods. “Plastics are more sturdy and colorful,” she says. “And it doesn’t mold or get dirty as much [as the bamboo-based products].”
The near death-knell for the ox caravan came during the ’90s with the mushrooming of malls and shopping centers where all sorts of household needs and decorative items could be had for lower prices. Despite their sturdy materials and unique design and construction, the viajero’s wares are no match to modern-day wares.
For Ramos, it was the rise in the cost of raw materials as well as competition from imported items that have made their trade extinct. “Mataas na ang presyo. Sobrang mahal na yung pagbili namin. At yun mga gawa ng Chinese – yung mga plastic.”
But for him, the life of a traveling sales-gypsy is the only one he knows, and is most satisfied with. “Ginagawa ko ‘to kasi dito ako kumikita ng konti. Wala na akong mahanap ng ibang trabaho; hindi ako nakatapos sa pag-aaral. Dito din ako masaya.”
Nelmida-Flores explains that with more and more grassy areas disappearing as a result of the expansion of roads and infrastructure, the karitons were having less and less places to park and settle. When she and Banaag reached Quezon City, he was arrested by the police (for unspecified charges), who also confiscated his wares and threatened to slaughter his ox. Fortunately, with the aid of Vice-Chancellor of University of the Philippines and other officials, Nelmida-Flores and Banaag were released.
Today, the ox caravan has mostly been relegated to a cultural showpiece, providing balikbayans and tourists with a glimpse into an antiquated livelihood. “Yung tourists, pag nakikita nila ‘to, natutuwa sila,” says Ramos.
The ox caravan is also utilized as a cultural exhibit during special events and fiestas to promote the tourism and local cottage industries.
“We should look beyond this being quaint and nostalgic, but look into the lives of the people there,” says Nelmida-Flores. “In spite of the mall culture, we still have this; it still exists and persists. It’s an assertion of who we are. It’s not only their journey but our journey.”