I woke up in my bunk in Makati, Manila’s Boutique Hostel. It was 6 in the morning but impatience woke me before my alarm had the chance to irritate the others with whom I shared a dorm. I laced up newly bought sneakers I’ll never wear again, and I hailed a taxi en route to Smokey Mountain—a 50-meter-high smoldering dumpsite composed of more than two million tons of waste and of the most impoverished places in our world, let alone in this Asian city infamous for insufferable poverty. But I went to experience resilience—to meet people who have literally nothing but smiles.
Human zoos feel wrong to me, parading white people wealthy enough to travel to the Philippines around the less fortunate. But that’s not what this was. My money went to educate and to feed the communities that I’d visited and my camera remained concealed in my pocket in an effort to be as little invasive as possible. My group was just four of us. Not a single person that day begged; not a single person looked ashamed. Every single person, however, offered a smile and broken English words that spoke more to me than any I’ve heard. What I learned: happiness is resultant of personal choice; when you insist upon it and believe relentlessly in its manifestations, you achieve it, despite everything you don’t have.
Remy Cabello is 38 years old. She has two children and she lives on Smokey Mountain; she does so by choice and is now a Smokey Mountain tour guide and reproductive health advocate on the frontline of Manila’s battle with overcapacity; the capital city remains among the world’s densest with a population of 12 million people. Cabello works to educate the women in her community and to mobilize public support for women’s rights to practice family planning.
“I came back,” she told me, having left the slums for a short time. “I am living here for almost 40 years.”
Though Cabello has little formal training, she plays a crucial role in an area where few can afford to pay for medical care and where the population remains among the highest of regional growth rates. The U.N. Population Fund counts 3.4 million pregnancies in the Philippines annually; half are unintended.
More specifically, Cabello is among four million others who live in a Manila slum. Her home in Smokey Mountain is just one located in the area of Tondo, where about 80,000 people live per square kilometer. Slum-dwellers, squatters, esteros. Call them what you’d like, but the sad truth—they’re people. They’re people recycling one man’s trash into treasures and burning discarded wood into charcoal, then selling it all to junk shops.
“If you are living here, you are working here. If you can’t find work outside, you come here to work, because everyone can work here,” Cabello said of the allure to living in a slum. Scavengers profit about PHP150-300 ($3-7 USD), which is more than many.
A third of the Philippines’ population lives below the poverty line on just $1.25 USD a day. That’s $1.25 to feed an average family of six.
The most destitute of families live in shantytown homes en route to Smokey Mountain that choke the Pasig River and suffocate spaces beneath the scaffolding of the Capulong Bridge where some live in stilt houses made of wood, tarps and bed sheets. A thick odor of raw sewage and untreated industrial waste is palpable, rising off the black water that heaves putrefying food scraps, tires, plastic bags and feces.
A mother sits packaging pagpag, garnered food waste cleaned with water and resold. A child breathes black air playing in the traffic-congested street beside the waterway. He’s no longer permitted to swim in the river not because the pollution will surely kill him, but because last year a child ransacking the river for recyclables fell out of his Styrofoam boat made of an old refrigerator box and drowned; the muck that coats the river floor swallowed his feet and his life.
Though, for most, the river has become a lifeline. There are no sewage facilities, so they throw their waste in the river. Residents can use a public toilet, but it will cost them five pesos (about 12 cents). Purified water costs two or three pesos for Pasig River dwellers and those on Smokey Mountain, respectively, or six pesos for delivery. Electricity costs another 25 or 35 pesos per kilowatt and most cannot afford it; most live without it.
But neither sanitation nor electricity is the worst of their problems. “Whenever a typhoon hits in Manila, all of these houses are being destroyed,” Cabello explained. “Then they are coming back here to build again their houses, because they don’t have any choice where to put their houses but to come back.”
If it rains for just a few days, Cabello said, it can take a month or two to dry out the area.
In September 2009, Typhoon Ketsana dumped six hours of rainfall, leaving around 80 percent of the Manila region under water with nearly 500 dead and tens of thousands homeless.
Since then, the government has become under increasing pressure to improve drainage infrastructure and evict those in flood-prone informal dwellings, but cannot do so without ousting them. And they’re reluctant to leave.
“Some have lived here for 20 or 30 years,” Cabello said. “This is how they can survive.”
Survive, she said—but it’s killing them.