Smokey Mountain: A day in Manila’s slums

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.

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

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.

Smokey Tours

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.

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

Smokey Mountain, Manila

Smokey Mountain, Manila

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

TWO2TRAVEL: Smokey mountain

~
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

Faces of Batanes

The winds and the seas have perfected the Ivatans of Batanes.

We see it in their lined faces, wrinkled hands, and bare feet. We see it on the veined, muscular arms of men as they pull fishing boats back to land. We see it in children’s sun-kissed skin and their legs so adept at biking hilly terrain for hours on end.

Despite living so far away from the rest of the country they belong to, Ivatans find it easy to give away smiles to strangers. They open their homes, they share their stories, they oblige with a photograph. Sometimes they also say I love you when they are drunk.

We spent 12 days in Batanes this year. And on those days, we went to four islands and met countless people. We hitchhiked on a truck, walked in on at least six homes to eat, and downed brandy—the province’s preferred liquor—with a few men.

Each encounter with the people was different, but somehow they all fit together to help us understand, through photographs, who the Ivatans are. This is our retelling of their stories.

FACES OF BATANES

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

The life of the Ivatans revolve around their vast lands and rich oceans. People farm their own fields and pasture their own cattle, men and women both. Most of the men also go out into the sea to fish. Those who fish also build roads, as in the case of Itbayat, so it’s not unusual to find men on a tataya one day and by the roadside the next.

Faces from the fields

Nanay Fely was coming back from her farm on the hills very early in the morning. Slung on her head was a basket of wakay, a root crop the Ivatans consider their staple food.

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang Island, Batanes, Philippines

Outside Batanes, wakay is synonymous with Ivatan, at least among the locals. “When I tell you Wakay ka, I mean to say you’re Ivatan,” tells Jun, a fisherman at a village in Batan.

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

The women—or at least those in Itbayat—use the vakul, a protective headgear made from dried vuyavuy, a wild palm endemic to Batanes.

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Ivatans produce garlic, their cash crop, as well as an assortment of other root crops and yams. They do not grow rice, so whatever supply comes all the way from the mainland. This is why rice remains largely a luxury, and for most Ivatans, it’s still wakay all the way.

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

We met this woman by the roadside as our group of three, accompanied by our land lady, made our way up the port (yes, in Itbayat, you need to climb the hill and then descend rather steeply to get to where the boats are) to wait for returning fishermen.

The woman, upon learning we are tourists, tells us quite eagerly that her children are in Manila and abroad. “I go and visit them in Manila when I get the chance,” she tells us. “I don’t get to exercise there though, because I only stay inside the house.”

“I love it better here in the fields,” she adds.

Page 1: Faces from the fields Page 2: Faces from the seas Page 3: Life under construction Page 4: Faces of the future Page 5: Faces from everyday


Faces from the seas

“Life here is simple. When you learn how to fish, you will never go hungry,” another man, also named Jun, told us a few months back.

He is from Isabela who married an Ivatan woman in Sabtang. They live in a two-storey concrete house right at Sabtang’s sentro with their little boy. Jun fishes most times, when the waters are friendly. Apart from ridiculous airfare prices—which prevents the rest of his family from visiting, he says—he seems to have no complaints about his new home.

Batanes’ waters are as rich as they are violent, and fishing is something the men learn from an early age.

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Jun, a fisherman from Diura, a fishing village in Batan, tells us, “When we were kids, we would sneak on a boat to fish before everyone else was up. We would return with a big catch and the older ones would be left speechless.”

Conditions are harder in Itbayat, where men sometimes stay on islands for days to bring home substantial catch, most of which are only for sustenance.

TWO2TRAVEL: Vuhus Island, Batanes, Philippines

There is also the continuous competition with poachers, who have bigger vessels and far more advanced fishing equipment.

Of course, there is always the matter of coming back home from sea—which in Itbayat isn’t as easy as docking on the shore, because it doesn’t have one to begin with.

Cargo boats—three of them—connect Basco with Itbayat daily except on Sundays and when Mother Nature (and the Philippine Coast Guard) says no. This is also the cheapest (P450) way for visitors to get to Itbayat—a journey which, many fondly and laughingly recall, will ‘let you remember all the saints’ names you learned in school’ while the wooden vessel navigates perhaps the biggest waves in the Philippines.

Take the cue from the crew, most of them would also say. “If they look relaxed, if they’re lying around, there is no need to worry…”

Getting from the boat to the port is another matter too, and depends again on the waves. Itbayat, a contiguous coral reef, has no coastline. Ports are built sloping sharply from the mountains to the seas, so that boats have to wait for the waves to propel them up to the edge —

before a passenger can jump—

before cargo is thrown—

into the waiting hands of people on the other side.

Everything—mattresses, a stack of Monobloc chairs, sacks of cement, and large LPG tanks get transported this way —

one by one.

TWO2TRAVEL: Ibayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Page 1: Faces from the fields Page 2: Faces from the seas Page 3: Life under construction Page 4: Faces of the future Page 5: Faces from everyday

Life under construction

Although most native Ivatans farm and fish, not everyone does—at least not anymore. Batanes is changing, and with it, the way people make a living. With it, their lives. Roads are being built, little by little, one faluwa trip at a time. And those who are fishing one day are the same ones shoveling the next. When it is time to plant, they will ride their carabao to the fields.

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

Just the day prior, we saw these men helping their neighbors get back to land at one of the ports, unloading the fishing boat and pulling it up foot by foot for hours. Here they are building their island home’s roads.

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes, Philippines

This man, Mang Eduardo, works for the local Public Works office. He was cleaning up dead leaves and burning them by the roadside.

ATWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Tourism is also picking up, giving birth to jobs that pay directly in cash. Tourists now have guides, drivers, caterers, boatmen, and even dive masters.

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes, Philippines

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes

two2travel: faces of batanes

two2travel: faces of batanes

Tourists also have places to stay, from vernacular homes to brightly painted concrete hotels with tiled floors and air-conditioning.

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes, Philippines

This is Faustina Cano, a retired schoolteacher who now manages a homestay in Itbayat. Most people in Batanes call her Nanay Cano. Immediately after arriving, she gathers her guests at her yard’s al-fresco dining area where she has plastered a framed illustration of Itbayat’s map, covered in shiny plastic. Over repeated offers of coffee, she spends the next 30 minutes delivering a well practiced litany (in English) of Itbayat’s history, mysteries, and tourist spots.

two2travel: faces of batanes

Inside one of Nanay Cano’s rooms, where beds are comfortable, walls are thick, and sleep is always pleasant and mosquito-free even without the nets.

two2travel: faces of batanes

This is Mang Felix, who works on benches that come in the iconic blue color we have come to associate with Batanes. He works for the only (and most expensive) hotel in the province.

two2travel: faces of batanes

Inside a typical vernacular house in Sabtang — a wooden divider separates one small room from the rest of the floor space, where tourists sleep on mats and pray the wind doesn’t blow too hard during the night, when all power on the island would be turned off.

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Woven baskets, placemats, and hats from Ivatan homes make their way into shelves, ready for purchase. That, and wakay chips and vakul, both neatly packed in clear plastic, ready for air transport.

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Chavayan, Sabtang Island, Batanes, Philippines

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Page 1: Faces from the fields Page 2: Faces from the seas Page 3: Life under construction Page 4: Faces of the future Page 5: Faces from everyday

Faces of the future

Ivatan kids are another matter altogether. Some are shy, others are game. Some stare at strangers squarely, others hide behind windows and curtains. All of them had been a joy to photograph. All of them also knew how to ride a bike.

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang Island, Batanes

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TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

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TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL Batan Island, Batanes

Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

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There is one encounter though that would stick with us long after we’ve forgotten their names and faces: It was just 7 in the evening, but most of the lights at the town plaza were out. Hardly anyone was around.

It was Valentine’s Day, and we were in Batanes, on an island called Itbayat, where the northernmost community of the Philippines lives. And tonight was their prom night.

We walked uphill to the local high school and saw what appeared to be the whole community in attendance. The girls were wearing silk dresses—white for the juniors and pink for the seniors—looking like they came from a single tailor. They formed a square on the grounds, and at the back were their parents, and on some parents’ arms were younger children. All of them were wearing jackets. It was a chilly Valentine’s night, and the moon was full.

And then they were lighting candles and singing Miley Cyrus’ The Climb, which, according to them, was symbolic of many things: conquering mountains, keeping the faith.

With hardly a stable Internet connection, Itbayat was the last place anyone would have expected to hear pop music. It’s less than 200 kilometers from the southern tip of Taiwan, nearer that country than its own. But times seem to be changing—the Itbayat National Agricultural High School, it turns out, has a Facebook page, albeit the last post was from three years back. Its first post was the lyrics of its loyalty song:

“We’ll travel our ways for your side
To seek the golden shores that await
I-N-A-H-S, we leave you behind
With memories so dear, we shall keep”

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TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

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Page 1: Faces from the fields Page 2: Faces from the seas Page 3: Life under construction Page 4: Faces of the future Page 5: Faces from everyday

Faces from everyday

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

Ship crew of MB Itransa take their day’s first meal onboard. Can also be taken as a good sign for an uneventful passage.

two2travel: faces of batanes

two2travel: faces of batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Cockfight in Ivana, Batan Island, Batanes

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TWO2TRAVEL: Mahatao, Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Itbayat Island, Batanes

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TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Batan Island, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

TWO2TRAVEL: Sabtang, Batanes

two2travel: faces of batanes

Meanwhile, all over the islands, people drink brandy on cold nights. On Sundays, they watch cocks fight.

They wait for their brothers to come home from sea before sundown. They till their lands, they wait for a big one to take their bait.

They bike to school most days. On other days, they get a haircut.

Life goes on.  

Page 1: Faces from the fields Page 2: Faces from the seas Page 3: Life under construction Page 4: Faces of the future Page 5: Faces from everyday


Words by Nikka, Photos by Owen and Nikka

Encounters in Sabtang

“You have to go there tomorrow because they’re celebrating their fiesta,” our host told us matter-of-factly as we settled at her two-storey lodge that would be our home in Batanes for the next few days. We were in no rush to plan our days, but we couldn’t blame her: Batanes had just come from a very strong typhoon, the strongest in more than 20 years they say, and our host seemed hell-bent at making us enjoy whatever sunshine we could.

She was referring to Sabtang Island, one of the only three inhabited in Batanes province. Thirty minutes by boat, she said, and more stone houses than we could count.
Continue reading “Encounters in Sabtang”

Snapshots from Albay: Pinamuntugan Island and Bacacay

Although it is home to one of the Philippines’ most recognizable landmarks, Bicol still has way too many secrets. This island in Albay is one, despite being next-door neighbors with the ritzy Cagraray Island, home to Misibis Bay. We’re talking about Pinamuntugan, an hour’s boat ride from the town of Bacacay in Albay. Our stay on this island was short, sweet, and (relatively) cheap, since there’s really nothing to do here—dolce far niente, ladies and gentlemen.

TWO2TRAVEL: Bicol - Pinamuntugan Island, Bacacay, Albay
Continue reading “Snapshots from Albay: Pinamuntugan Island and Bacacay”

Batanes: The perfect trip

Just like everyone else, we had our eyes on Batanes ever since we started traveling. We daydreamed about its rolling hills (and plastered them on our walls for good measure) but never actually thought we could set foot on them—not this soon, and not this time of the year.

When 2013 came, we never thought we’d finally tick this off our bucket list (we were actually hoping somebody will send us there for an assignment of some sort, so that we’d never have to worry about anything including the expenses and the weather).

But as it happened, the opportunity to travel to Batanes came in the form of discounted fares in September (50% off the year-round ticket price), so we grabbed them immediately. We booked our flight just two weeks before departure, so it never really sunk in until we were finally at the airport, and then a smug-looking attendant wearing very thick makeup told us something we never wanted to hear: our flight was cancelled.
Continue reading “Batanes: The perfect trip”

Timelapse: Breathtaking Batanes from sun up to sundown

There are absolutely no words to describe Batanes. It is, quite simply, the most jaw-dropping place we have ever set foot on.

We don’t know if any of the photos we took home will ever accurately depict what our eyes saw, but we tried, we really did. And this video, taken from Sabtang and Batan Islands during the four full days we explored Batanes, is one of these many attempts.

Locations:
BATAN ISLAND: Valugan Beach, Radar Tukon, Naidi Lighthouse, Vayang Rolling Hills, Diura Fishing Village, Marlboro Country
SABTANG ISLAND: Chavayan, Sabtang Lighthouse, Morong Beach

One day, one night one moment
With a dream to be leaving
One step, one fall, one falter
Find a new world across a wide ocean
This way became my journey
This day brings together
Far and away
~Book of Days
 

Check out our other travel videos here!


Photos: 24 hours in Donsol

Small, quiet, uncomplicated–well, at least on the surface. That’s how Donsol in Sorsogon province seemed. Coconut trees rose above the concrete, and small fenced resorts lined up the coast, which, to anyone who didn’t know better, could easily look unremarkable.

TWO2TRAVEL | Donsol, Sorsogon

Continue reading “Photos: 24 hours in Donsol”

Tips for your trips: Subic Beach, Calintaan Island, Matnog, Sorsogon

We’ve been asked a few times how to get to Subic Beach in Matnog, Sorsogon so we decided to be magnanimous (!) and write this travel guide.

Or you could look at it this way: we just have so much time on our hands to spoil.

Subic Beach is found at Calintaan Island in the town of Matnog in Sorsogon province, which is in the Bicol region. If you can’t picture it yet, we’re providing a map here too.

TWO2TRAVEL | Subic Beach

Continue reading “Tips for your trips: Subic Beach, Calintaan Island, Matnog, Sorsogon”