Smokey Mountain is a world you'd rather don't want to see. In Manila's largest dumpsite the poorest of the poor are making their livelihood by picking up garbage.
I left the upscale neighborhood Makati by taxi and headed towards the north of Manila, towards Tondo. I was on my way to visit Smokey Mountain, one of Manila's slums and the largest dumpsite where over 25,000 people pick up garbage for a living. The sad truth is, Smokey Mountain is one of the most impoverished areas in the world.
I used to dislike Manila. Manila is not like Bangkok. Or K.L. It's more like Mumbai. Most of the travelers I've met didn't like the city. It's certainly understandable.
Almost a third of the Philippines' population live below the poverty line.
I'm lucky. I'm even more lucky that my friend who is hosting me these days in Manila is living in the fancy neighborhood Makati, Metro Manila's central business district. He lives in a beautiful apartment in a high-rise tower. Makati is nice, if you stay inside. But today I'm leaving Makati to see another side of Manila. The other side of Manila. Smokey Mountain. Manila's slums.
A few months ago I received an email from Smokey Tours if I were interested to join one of their tours. I said yes instantly.
It's exciting to see the slums, but on the other hand I felt guilty for joining such a tour. I don't like human zoos. But this time it was different. This was not a tour neither a tourist attraction. This was an incredible experience that opened my eyes and changed my whole perspective.
After a 45-minute taxi ride and another 20-minute tricycle ride, I arrived at my destination. A new world opened up to me. It reminded me of my travels in India: I was sitting in a rickshaw going to a specific destination and when the driver stopped to drop me off I just thought:
Oh my god, please don't tell me we are there yet, this looks horrible... Under no circumstances I want to get out here, please... just bring me back to my hotel!!!
But this time I got out of the tricycle. Thank god I wasn't alone. I was in a group of people, Yoshke Dimen and Edward Cheng, two fellow bloggers joined me for this trip. We were accompanied by two absolutely awesome guides, Remy and Inna. Both are locals and volunteers for Smokey Tours. All the profits (yes all, 100%) go to the people who live in the slums, for feeding programs, medical check ups, education, etc. You can read more about it on Smokey Tours.
WHAT IS SMOKEY MOUNTAIN?
Smokey Mountain is a completely different world. It's a gigantic 50-meter high mountain of garbage that consists more than 2 million tons of waste. It's insane. If you get closer to the mountain you can see all the layers of rubbish: plastic bags, wood, metal, bottles, iron, fabrics, tires and more plastic bags. All squashed together. It's heartbreaking.
The place is called Smokey Mountain because of the constant fire. They burn tires and wood. The air smells rotten and is heavily polluted. I have no doubts that breathing this air every day is poisonous for anyone. It's hard to believe that over 25,000 people are living there. Families with kids. Every day people die here and babies are born.
The living conditions are unbearable. If you grew up in the Western world like me, you've probably never seen anything like that before. It's the worst. The poorest of the poor people are living in Smokey Mountain.
You probably wonder, why the heck do people live there?? It's simple: to make a living. Most people came from the provinces, dreaming of a better life in Manila but unfortunately the big city didn't fulfill their dream. In Smokey Mountain, everybody can live and work. But not everybody survives.
Early in the morning, the residents of Smokey Mountain are waiting for the garbage trucks that drop off the waste from the city. The people are rushing towards the trucks, some people even jump on the driving trucks to be the first ones who get to scavenge the rubbish.
The people in the dumpsite are making a living from picking up garbage. They collect any recycable stuff like plastic or iron and earn about PHP100 ($2) a day.
The scavengers are all dirty, their faces are covered in mud, their clothes are worn out, their arms have scratches.... I saw some people barefoot which seems kinda crazy despite the fact we were walking over garbage.
We walked further and passed one of the coal producing areas. The air was filled with black smoke. Our tour leader Remy gave us all masks. At first, I thought I won't need it but after a minute, I realized that the smell was unbearable. It was shocking to see kids playing next to the charcoal, breathing the black air.
The people are burning discarded wood into coal and sell it afterwards. The work involved so many kids, it was painful to see. The kids were working so hard, carrying big baskets and bags around... I felt terrible.
How is life in Smokey Mountain like exactly? Imagine garbage. Tons of garbage. EVERYWHERE. There was absolutely no empty ground to step on, it was like walking on sponges because of all the layers of rubbish.
We wandered around some small alleys to see how the people live. In three words: it was SHOCKING.
They live in simple shanties or shelters, some of them in huts made of wood, iron, plastic or whatever they can find to build walls. I even saw bedsprings, used as a fence. How creative! These people became experts in knowing what stuff is recyclable or useful for a different purpose.
Not all of them have doors or even any furniture inside. People were sitting on the floor and eating. Everyone was greeting us. There was no moment where I could have felt unsafe or anything like that. In fact, the people were smiling!
A girl was washing her hair outside with a bucket. I had a look into some of the houses. Most of them have no water and no electricity. Poor sanitation. No toilets. The residents can use a public toilet if they wish, but it costs PHP 5 (US$ 0,12). You can imagine most people would rather spend the money on food than using a public toilet.
The majority of the residents can't afford to buy fresh meat, so they eat rice and dried fish on a daily basis.
One thing that really struck me was the fact that I barely saw old people. It's a very young population. And the more I'm thinking about it, it's actually clear why:
How can anyone get old in such horrendous living conditions? The average live span is between 40 and 45. People are physically done by that age.
Many others die of diseases. There are plenty of diseases that comes from lack of hygiene.
I couldn't help but wonder how these people there kept their smiles. I mean how?
LIFE GOES ON
It's been over 3 months now since I went to Smokey Mountain. I wanted to write about it weeks ago but it was incredibly difficult for me to put this experience into words...
These few hours with the people of Smokey Mountain were a life-changing experience that opened my eyes and questioned myself. It really got me thinking about the basics in life and what's really important...
I was thinking about my first world problems, about my friends and my family who live in the Western world. We're complaining about BULLSH*T every day and having no idea how lucky we are to have a shelter, a bed to sleep, clothes to wear and something to eat in the fridge.
And then I thought about the children I met at Smokey Mountain. They don't have a future. But they laugh. They run around with their dirty faces and worn out clothes and they seem happy.
Seeing their joyful faces has changed my mind and enlightened me. Happiness has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with wealth. Humanity shines even brighter amidst poverty. These kids can bear more difficulties in life than we can ever imagine...
Life goes on. But I will never forget this day.
Thank you for reading.
PS: I've found this video about Smokey Mountain which can give a more authentic impression how the place really is...
Video © Jörgen Lindskog
The Smokey Mountain Tour cost PHP 750 (US$16) and all profits are donated to the local organization Bahay at Yaman ni San Martin de Porres. I can't promote them enough, Smokey Tours is doing an outstanding job at raising awareness and helping the people in the slums. Thanks thanks thanks for this powerful day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sabrina Iovino is the founder of JustOneWayTicket.com. She's half German, half Italian and has traveled to more than 50 countries around the globe. She feels weird to write about herself in the third person, so she'll switch now. Phew...much better! Let's restart:
Hi, I'm Sab! This is my blog and I write about the things I love. Mostly.
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