You may have spotted one of these on the streets of the Philippines, more so if you grew up here in the ’90s and earlier. These days, it’s a pleasant surprise to spot one trotting along Manila or nearby provinces in Luzon.
It’s called by different names. In Cavite, we call it the gypsy or viajero. In Manila, they’re referred to as gypsy caravans, traditional mobile stores, or [insert type of working animal]-drawn caravan stores. Historians call them cattle caravans. For me, it’s the gypsy caravan.
But for Marvin, one of the last two gypsy caravan drivers from Pangasinan, it’s simply the caravan. I’ve been seeing Marvin’s cow-drawn caravan for years in Cavite City, sometimes parking in front of my Tito Edwin Guinto’s Café Antix. I told Tito Edwin, an antique collector and fellow ’80s-90s nostalgic, to ring me as soon as the caravan makes a rare stop in front of his café.
He called me the weekend before Christmas, and I was there faster than you can say kalabaw. I finally met Marvin and his working cow, Bobby.
They live in Pangasinan, where most of the cattle caravans originated from. From there they begin their arduous journey through Manila and Cavite, which marks their final stop before heading back to their home in Pangasinan. Marvin hauls native handicrafts, such as broomsticks, woven baskets, chairs, and the bestselling duyan (hammocks or swings) onto the caravan, which is pulled by Bobby.
I asked if he made everything by hand. “Yung iba (some),” Marvin said. The rest are rattan and bamboo items he would buy in bulk and then sell for a profit, lest customers haggle to death.
For Marvin, a widow, each seasonal journey takes about three months. His earnings are for his children.
If it weren’t for the modern cars driving along the street and the tambays (loiterers) glued to their smartphones, I would have thought I time-traveled back to the ’90s.
Animal-drawn vehicles were once commonplace. Horses, cows, or buffalos pulled carts, sledges, and wagons that transported goods and services in the Philippines until the end of the Spanish era in 1898. Smaller cattle caravans from different regions would come to Manila to trade goods until the 1990s when they were slowly displaced by modernity. [Source: “A Look At The History of Transport Caravans PH”]
The life of a caravan driver is often compared with that of an ocean mariner or pirate, especially back in the day when we had no mobile phones. Marvin braves the uncertainties of the streets every day while selling his goods. At night, he sleeps inside the makeshift room of the carriage, where we peeked to see his personal effects just within reach.
As for my fellow animal lovers, I know what you’re thinking: How is Bobby the cow? If you look closely at the photos, one eye has an infection. As if by kind coincidence, one of the members of CAWAG Inc. (Cavite Animal Welfare Advocates Group) chanced upon Marvin’s caravan at the same time I was there. She (Hello, Lemmor!) checked on Bobby and donated eye medication and cattle supplements.
After I purchased several items from Marvin and Bobby’s caravan, another type of caravan rolled up—a modern version pulled by a tricycle. They sell a mix of native goods and plastic household items, like the tabo (dipper) and pails. It didn’t evoke as much nostalgia as the original gypsy caravan.
My friend and former Real Living magazine editor Rachelle Medina also dropped by Café Antix that afternoon. She told me about an early noughts documentary by the Probe Team. It followed Robert Alejandro, the famous artist and businessman behind Papemelroti as he traveled with a gypsy caravan for one week. They explored and traded around Manila and its neighboring provinces as Robert learned the stories and struggles of the Philippine gypsy caravans.
Unfortunately, neither Rachelle nor I could find the documentary online.
But you’ll always find Robert Alejandro’s illustrations of the gypsy caravan in his Papemelroti notebooks and stationery.