BACOLOD CITY, Negros Occidental, Philippines – Tell someone here “daw bag-o ka lang kapanaug sa Ceres (seems like you’ve just gotten off a bus)” and you’d probably get a sucker punch for calling that someone naive.
People in most places here call riding a bus “masakay ko sa Ceres (I will ride on a Ceres).”
Indeed, Ceres is a brand so synonymous to public transport as “Xerox (sometimes called sirup)” is to photocopying, “Tide” is to detergent bars, “Zonrox (or Zonrok)” is to bleach, “Lucky Me” is to instant noodles, “Snow Bear (Snubir)” is to menthol candies or “Armalite” is to automatic rifles. This ubiquity is born out of decades of transporting goods and people across this sock-shaped island region of more than two million, and recently, even across the entire archipelago.
From people to bleating goats perched on its buses’ rooftops to ducks to chickens, okra, kalabasa, bisol, takway, and other farm produce stashed in its cargo holds – meat and vegetables that will soon meld in soups or stews, Ceres seem to have moved them all, serving as a lubricant of life. In dusty remote villages once served only by carabaos, horses and karosas, small Ceres buses called “Bulilits,” literally small kids, blazed their way in clouds of dust. Into once uncharted territories these buses roared, even across long stretches of unpaved roads.
One was in the town of Cauayan (the longest municipality in the province) where a bumpy stretch ran for kilometers – once called “abortion road” – then the only way to get to the city of Sipalay now famous for its beaches, and the mining town of Hinobaan.
The arrival of Ceres buses in remote villages used to be an event by itself.
People craned their necks by the roadside, cocked their ears to catch the sound of diesel engines.
It was like waiting for popular soap opera actor Coco Martin or a relative arriving home from Manila lugging cans of MY San or Rebisco biscuits.
It can even be said the buses were more awaited than the politico who would rarely show up throughout the year but is usually around for the punsyon during the fiesta.
The buses were, and remain to be social equalizers.
On its coaches, squat peasants with golden-brown skin and calloused feet and hands from villages as remote as Inapoy in Kabankalan City sat next to lanky tourists wanting to soak in the Negros sun.
Many a time, Communist rebels travelling to their guerrilla camps deep in the mountains sat next to soldiers or military agents.
Ka Frank Fernandez once called the owners of Ceres as part of the “dalagku kumprador burgesya.”
This is a Hiligaynon term for “big comprador bourgeoisie” – the mark of being a proletariat’s class enemy – doctrine culled from the teachings of Mao Tse Tung learned by rebels on the run from a little book.
Ka Frank is the former priest who once headed the Communist Party’s regional leadership.
While Ceres was part of the “kaaway (enemy of the revolution),” it was not fiat for its guerrillas.
During the 80s when the CPP’s armed strength was at its peak, armed offensives by the New People’s Army were impossible without Ceres buses. “Kapila ko kasakay sa Ceres nga dala ang mga armas (I rode the Ceres several times bringing guns),” a battle-hardened ex-guerrilla once told this writer.
The cargo was undeclared, camouflaged. Gun parts of rifles or pistols were usually put in sacks along with takway or taro tendrils or vegetables that would pass of as produce to be sold during the tabo, the market day.
These sacks were then stashed under the benches.
How these weapons made it to the hands of guerrillas is a totally different story that we will write about in the future. As the anxiety of rebels and government spies rose, there were no wuxia films or Tagalog movies or Eddie Peregrina songs (the playlist being totally dependent on the driver) playing on the loop back then.
Then, as now, bated breaths or excited conversations were broken by the rhythm of ticket punchers. “Diin ta (Where are you going)?” the conductor in white shirtjack would ask while leaning in if the bus is noisy. Sometimes, passengers who are asleep (or pretended to) will be roused with a gentle tap on the leg or arm.
Sometimes, before the ticketing round starts, sleeping trippers would be startled awake by shouts of “Itlog da, orenj!” or “mani, mani, mani!”
The first was a vendor’s cry that meant he or she was selling hardboiled eggs and orange-flavored soda while the second one heralded the peanut vendor. First-timers on the bus would usually hear the first cry as “Itlog mo day orange!” a joke among city dwellers once understood as racy. Itlog in Hiligaynon means both testicles and egg.
And then there were the “other” stories.
When Ceres buses got torched after its owners reportedly refused to pay “revolutionary taxes” to the CPP-NPA, talks swirled about the “injustices” of the bus company.
One was management’s alleged unfair treatment of its employees, another was the sweetheart deal between the owners and the union led by a moderate labor federation.
There, too, was the “kill the victim” policy of management.
The story goes that passengers bumped by Ceres buses must not be kept alive.
If the person was alive after the crash, the driver was to go in reverse and crush the victim.
The logic was that payment in damages to the dead would be lower than extended patient care. Of course the story was not proven.
Most Negrosanons have their own stories about Ceres, so interwoven this bus company is into the fabric of the island’s life.
Today, more than three decades after Ceres’ first bus, a retrofitted Chevrolet six-wheeler truck plied the Valladolid-La Carlota route (hence Vallacar Transit), Ceres is on a bumpy road.
With the Yanson family divided into two factions – one led by the matriarch Olivia, the other by eldest son Roy – stories have started to fly anew. Some sound factual, others seemingly mythical.
Like the thousands of criscrosses its buses have made across the islands and the thousands of feet that have boarded its buses, fact and fiction intersect. Distinctions have to be made.
This article is the start of a series of multimedia content by DNX that will focus on the Ceres Group of Bus Companies, now reputed as the largest transport company, and rightly or wrongly, a beloved brand in the island. This is Rough Roads, Bumpy Rides, the first of the DNX Focus series.