Manila’s slums through the eyes of a visitor

While the experience was uncomfortable at times, with the smells and rubbish and the feeling of being a voyeur, it was definitely eye-opening and an education, writes Aya Lowe
As electricity is so expensive, the heat forces many people live out on the street as it’s too hot to stay indoor.Aya Lowe for The National.
As electricity is so expensive, the heat forces many people live out on the street as it’s too hot to stay indoor.Aya Lowe for The National.

Manila // The tour started in the slums near Pasig River, which runs through the heart of Manila. In the 1990s it was declared biologically dead after years of being used as a dumping ground by people living in the shantytowns along its banks. Now, residents make a living by scavenging the rubbish that floats along the waterway.

As we walked between the rows of houses built from bits of plywood and scrap metal, music blasted from karaoke machines at every corner. People chatting outside stopped to wave as we walked past.

I asked our guide, Remy, if the residents didn’t get annoyed at so many visitors traipsing through to observe their poverty. “It’s actually quite the opposite,” she replied, “they love the distraction and know that the more people who come, the more donations they will receive.”

The Filipino entrepreneurial spirit was evident from the variety of goods and services the residents were selling, from spring rolls to home pedicures and internet access from private computers.

We were taken to a bridge under which 60 families live, crouched between the supporting pillars and scaffolding. We had to bend over to enter the maze of houses, with the roar of traffic overhead.

Approaching the second stop of this special tour for the media and NGOs, the road was blocked by a hazy traffic jam made up of rubbish trucks. Eventually, the tarmac disappeared and was replaced by a carpet of compressed rubbish, telling us we had arrived at the Smokey Mountain slum.

Makeshift recycling depots for tyres, plastic bags and paper were set up across an area adjoining the giant rubbish dump. There was even one for thrown away junk food where residents carefully sorted through half-eaten burgers from McDonald’s and chicken legs from KFC and put together new meals to be sold on.

These scavengers each earn between 150 and 300 pesos (Dh12-Dh24) a day – barely enough to feed the average family of five or six.

Our tour ended with a visit to the charity Bahay at Yahan ni San Martin de Porres to see where part of our tour fees went. We were shown around the upper floors of the building, which had classrooms, dressmaking rooms and craft rooms where women learnt to make the bags displayed for sale on the ground floor.

Before going on the slum tour I had expected to see a sea of suspicious, accusing eyes of residents showing their discomfort at being treated like zoo animals. Instead, they ran out to greet us, happy to explain their meagre income, how many children they had and how expensive a simple thing like a bottle of water was for them.

While the experience was uncomfortable at times, with the smells and rubbish and the feeling of being a voyeur, it was definitely eye-opening and an education.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: November 4, 2014 04:00 AM

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