The mud is black.
There’s trash everywhere.
And the smell is…well…the smell is like a mixture of wet clothes and rotten wood. It’s not necessarily unpleasant, but definitely distinct.
I look around at the kids running through the alleys, the women selling ‘useful trash’ such as plastic bags and recycled paper, and the elderly lounging peacefully on their balconies, looking out over it all.
These are Manila’s slums, where, without any provided housing, the homeless have been forced to squat. It’s a very different place to the Manila I’m used to.
My day in the slums starts early. I meet Remy, my guide from Smokey Tours, at 9am at Jollibee, and we jump on a jeepney out to the slums in Barangay 105.
The first slum is actually tidier than I expect. They have rooms with beds and tables, some even televisions, the alleys are paved and running water is available. Life is not easy here by any means, but at least basic human needs of food, shelter and clothing seem to be met, if only barely.
In many people’s imagination, slums are lifeless places full of sick, starving people, fighting to survive, but surprisingly it’s quite the opposite here. People are up and about early, getting on with their day, cooking, washing, cleaning, working. It’s actually a rather lively place.
As we walk through the alleys, we pass an old man cooking something on charcoal made from coconuts. I am not sure how he does it, but it works. Clearly, resourcefulness is key to survival here.
Huddled in one of the corners, we come to a group of kids gambling for rubberbands. It’s obviously popular, as I’ve seen it getting played in a few different corners of the slum now. They laugh and scream wildly, having the time of their lives. It is always refreshing to see the innocence on a child’s face, happy and oblivious to the complicated world around them. I think about how, and why, I was given such luck in the ovarian lottery, born into a two-storey home in upper-middle class New Zealand. Compared to these kids, I grew up in a fairytale, yet their smiles are brighter than ever.
Eventually we get to the river Estero de Vitas, which lines the slum.
By the riverside, I spot two ladies working on a few piles of fish. I walk over to take a closer look, and they glance up and smile at me. The fish they are processing is bangus, a Filipino food favourite, and they work through them at light speed; one does the cleaning and gutting, the other bones the fillets. Soon it becomes clear how they do it so fast – they’ve been doing it for 40 years.
It is jobs like these that keeps the households fed – most fish are sold, some are kept for food, and the income gives them a means to keep on surviving.
As we come to the end of the river, Remy points out another type of slum-dweller underneath the main bridge. Here, homes hang over the water, made from tarpaulin and scrap wood, seemingly hanging in mid-air. I stare at them for several minutes, and still can’t figure out how they’ve managed to build them.
These homes are far more primitive than the ones I’ve just seen. The men who live here work mostly as scavengers, sorting through the river trash for useful bits of plastic, metal and other materials. This is then sold to junk or recycling shops, allowing these people to make a living.
As we cross over to get a closer look, a couple of girls living there come to show us around. We walk through the houses above the river, of which there are many, all made of recycled wood and other scrap materials. I feel like at any moment it’ll collapse and we’ll go plummeting into the water.
I look inside some of the homes and see how tiny they are. Somehow, families of 7 or more manage to live together in a shack no bigger than a standard western bathroom.
At this point, I am not quite sure what to think. The conditions just seem so unlivable to a first-world child like myself, almost on par with some of the places in rural Africa. However, at least in those places there is land to farm and build proper housing. Inner city poverty is a different beast. There is no land, no toilets, no electricity, and to make things worse, typhoons destroy the slum each year, after which the dwellers are left to rebuild. With the comforts of the city so close by, it is hard to understand how so many people are left to live like this.
Next, I’m taken over to the temporary housing slums over at Barangay 105. This houses the residents of the now closed Smokey Mountain slum, which sits just a few metres away.
Again, the most common way of making a living here is by scavenging. Residents will spend the day looking through trash and collecting bottles, tyres, plastics, papers and metals.
Once collected, these items will be sold to junk shops who will sort and on-sell them to be processed. Most scavengers can earn around $3 a day doing this, which is usually enough to feed their families.
Like everyone, people here need to eat, and again they depend heavily on the city trash for this. In a separate sorting area, people rummage through the trash from fast food restaurants, mostly from KFC and McDonald’s. Scavengers pick through the trash and collect leftover scraps of food to be cleaned and sold.
Each morning, residents of the slum come to purchase the bags of food, which have been sorted into small packages. One common item is the ‘pagpag’; leftover scraps of fried chicken, which are then re-fried and served with rice. Lots of different scraps are sold, but the pagpag is by far the most popular; usually sold out by 9am each day.
Down the road I’m lucky enough to find a woman cooking up her pagpag for the day. As is, it hardly looks appetising.
Once it’s been washed, it’s thrown into the wok to be deep fried. It actually smells pretty good.
After a few minutes of sizzling, it’s time to eat:
Once it’s all been tipped onto the plate, she holds it up to me and gestures for me to take the first piece.
How could I say no?
Funnily enough, it tastes just like KFC. Who would’ve thought?
We spend the rest of the afternoon wandering through the slum in the midday heat.
People often stop to smile and say hi to me, or stand up and wave from a distance. Despite the warm welcome, I feel like an intruder. I feel many of them may be embarrassed at my presence, as if their home is so poor and desolate that it’s actually become a tourist attraction. If they only knew how much I admire their resilience, and it is I who feels small walking next to them.
Interestingly, despite the hardship, I come to the conclusion that the slum isn’t exactly a sad place. People are fed, they have water, they have shelter, and seem to go about their day with a smile on their face. It’s a hard life, definitely, but not a hopeless one. Families eat and play together, sing karaoke, and do their best to enjoy what’s been given to them. It’s a welcome lesson in gratitude that we could all use from time to time.
Smokey Tours runs this tour in partnership with an NGO called BYSMP (Bahay At Yaman Ni San Martin De Porres), which receives all of the tour profits (yes, all). After the tour, we go to check it out.
Here, children from the slum are provided with food, schooling, clothes and healthcare. The facility is excellent, with a fully equipped dining room, kitchen, classrooms, dentist and health clinic.
It’s incredible how small NGOs like this can stay so under the radar yet make such enormous differences to people’s lives. With a little help, they’ll give many children from the slums a chance at a much brighter future than the generation before them.
And, with the revenue from these tours, Smokey Tours is able to bring some level of awareness to Manila’s inner city poverty, while also contributing financially to the cause. It’s an excellent initiative; one that I am happy to lend my support to.
Interested in a slum tour?
If you’d like to get out of the Makati markets and shopping malls and get a look at the other side of Manila, I’d highly recommend a slum tour with Smokey Tours. Locals from the slums are employed as guides, and the profits from the tours all go towards providing food, schooling and healthcare for the children living there. I never recommend tours or attractions where people profit from poverty, and thankfully this is not one of them.
To book a tour, simply head over to their website and get in touch!
Heading to Manila?
- If you’re looking for affordable accommodation in Manila, I highly recommend using Airbnb. You can get $25 of Airbnb credit, absolutely free, using this link.
- I highly recommend travelling with insurance. The Philippines is an unpredictable place to travel and you should be prepared for the unexpected. For a beginner’s guide to travel insurance, what it is and why you need it, check out my post Travel Insurance 101: Everything You Need To Know.
- For more useful websites for cheap flights, accommodation and other travel needs, you can check out my Resources page.
Disclosure: I was invited to write a piece on this tour by Smokey Tours. Smokey Tours covered the cost of my tour. Photos are not normally permitted on the tour, but I was given a pass for media purposes. All opinions are my own. You can read my Disclosure Policy here.