We approached her and asked if we could take her picture.
“But I look filthy,” she said in Filipino, looking embarrassed.
Her face was covered with soot and so were her hands, her clothes, and her feet.
But she wiped the soot off her face with her hands anyway, looked directly into the camera, and smiled.
We were at Barangay 105 in Tondo, Manila, more commonly known as Smokey Mountain, where people like her live in the middle of thick black smoke and garbage—two things that also mean cash for their families on a daily basis.
At Smokey Mountain, Manila’s largest dumpsite, people scavenge for garbage and make charcoal for a living. Scavengers can take home as much as P300 or as little as P150 for putting in eight to 10 hours of work a day. Charcoal-makers can rake in just as much (or as little), but it can go up to P500 on a particularly good day.
But this is not without hazards: pneumonia is the leading cause of death among residents in the community, says Nympha Flores, our guide for the day.
Nympha is also a resident of Tondo. She works for Smokey Tours, an organization that offers experiential tours around Manila’s slums, cockfight areas, and markets. It also offers bicycle tours around the city.
“Smokey Tours are not just tours. We offer experiences, believing that deep experience equals deep insight,” the organization says on its website.
Proceeds from these tours go to the Bahay at Yaman ni San Martin De Porres, an NGO providing food and education for kids and livelihood for mothers of impoverished families in Tondo.
The San Martin de Porres building—a tricycle ride from Smokey Mountain—is brightly painted in green, pink, and blue. By noon, the ground floor is filled with the chatter of kids having their lunch. The upper floors have classrooms, dressmaking rooms, and craft rooms. The top floor offers a sweeping view of colorful Manila covered in grey urban haze. Paper cranes made by the kids hang from its walls.
It is a far cry from the neighborhood of Smokey Mountain—at least at face value—with its open drains and narrow, dark, and garbage-strewn alleyways. The shanties are clumped together—a maze of wood, GI sheets, tarpaulins, and electric wires. People eat pagpag, food scraps from fastfood outlets recooked and sold to residents.
It is a very busy place and everything can get overwhelming fast–the smell from the garbage, the thick smoke from the ulingan, the hot summer sun; garbage trucks coming in and out, people pushing sikads containing pieces of discarded wood.
But although Smokey Mountain is far from ideal, there is a semblance of a typical neighborhood: there are sari-sari stores, day care centers, police, and NGO offices interrupting the garbage dumps. There is also karaoke.
People greet strangers with warm smiles, and some scold their dogs for barking at what they call are visitors. There are handwritten signs offering haircut, and women have their pedicure right outside their homes. There are children everywhere, and at least one monkey in a cage too. And perhaps because of all these, Smokey Mountain didn’t strike us as unfamiliar.
Nympha is also very keen to point out that the community is safe and drug-free—a distinction that we think needs to be made in order to separate it from the stereotypical Manila neighborhood that is as poor as it is dangerous.
Smokey Mountain also happens to have a beach—a garbage-littered one, just behind the ulingan. Here, boys in their underwear take turns jumping into the waters, coaxing and cheering, unmindful of anything else. It looked just like any other scene from any other beach with any other group of kids trying to take a break from the heat.
That’s when we realized that although there are a lot of things Smokey Mountain is not, there is one thing it is: a home where people live, work, and probably even dream big dreams. Whether that involves getting out of its carpet of garbage and cloud of smoke, only time—or the government—can tell.
Thank you to Smokey Tours for making this visit possible. For more information on their tours, please visit their website.
Words by Nikka; Photos by Owen & Nikka