I only took two photos in Manila. One of the sunrise at 5 am through the uber window when we arrived and the other one 24 hours later at the bus terminal that was supposed to send us to the other end of Luzon. All the snapshots, recordings and impressions in between are captured and saved in my memory. Rather etched in my mind. Sorted to the category of “crazy-stuff,-don’t-ever-forget”.
I had heard a lot about Manila. I was confused, scared but mostly excited to find out the truth. Every Filipino I know has warned me to go to Manila. As soon as they realized I would go anyway, they looked at me with big begging eyes: “halong palihog, ok?” (=take care, please). They tried to drill into me some bizarre stuff like I could not walk the streets with my phone in my hand. Manila, the place where everybody wants to rob or kidnapp you, streets are closed at a certain time at night, because nobody can be responsible for what happens there. The place where bodies lie on the street, where people are selfish and coldhearted. Nonetheless, the capital is the place where dreams can possibly come true, THE place where economic growth happens, the country evolves. In my head Manila was one big slum. I was aware that this picture cannot be true, but it is what the media had created. In fact a third of the inhabitants of Metro Manila live in slums. The region consists of 16 cities with a total population of 13 million people which makes it around 4 million people living in incredible incredible poverty. The area is one of the most populous urban areas in the world, one cannot be sure of the census of course.
Ahead of the trip, I have prepared myself for this part. On the one hand I was scared which is definitely not wrong and on the other hand so keen to experience it all. I told myself I would be fine, since I know the country and its people well now. What can possibly happen? Coming from Singapore the cut couldn’t have been more intense haha. Once I was sitting on that Cebu pacific plane (literally never had a pleasant flight..), I was so unbelievably happy. It was 2am, I had just finished my last cheese naan for a while, but I couldn’t wait to be back. I have missed the Philippines so much, I had just not realized it yet. There was so much left for me to explore and experience all over again. The Philippines got me back at 5 am with the biggest smile on my face.
We were Couchsurfing again for this one night in the city at this really chill guy’s place. He lives in Manila, works in the time zone of NYC though. Kind of weird I know, but I am glad about every minute we spent together. He has travelled to every country in Asia except for Brunei (hehe) and got loads of stories to tell obviously. He told us everything he learned about life in Manila so far, even though he wasn’t able to do too much of exploring himself because of his tough schedule.
Firstly an astonishing fact: Manila has a subway! Three lines if I remember it right. The trains break a lot. When it’s raining they break every single time actually. In that case people have to walk along the rails to the next station. The ticketing system is so inefficient that during rush hours, the subway is basically unusable. To get to the subway station we had to accomplish a challenge, I felt more than ready for: discover Manila’s jeepney network. It wasn’t easy, but an hour later we were at the station. I wondered all along how this complex system of jeepney routes would look as a map. Not that anybody would create one. I am pretty sure locals only know the jeepneys of their district. There are just way too many. Not to mention that they all change routes at certain times of the day. (I just googled it. There is only a map for Makati, the business district.) The jeepneys look awesome though! I really have to compliment Manila for having the most colorful and creative jeepneys of all haha. The MRT worked really well for us every single time. The train broke only once, but we went in the opposite direction so all good. You just ought to go with the crowd and copy what they do: Press yourself backwards inside.
Only when we were almost there, I began to realize where we were heading. On the way, I have only met nice, open-hearted people. The contrary to what they say about people from Manila. I was still in that gratious-glee-mode so that nothing could upset me and I would be happy about every jeepney and tricycle that passes by. Don’t get me wrong, you see a lot of poverty on the streets already, but our final destination is worse, I knew. We got off at the MRT station Blumentritt, a Philippines researcher from Prague, I later found out. From the station it was not far to the Northern Cemetery. A place whose existence I could hardly believe. A slum that shows how bad the situation in the city really is.
I have been to a slum before in Iloilo, but it is different. It is different if you are by yourself, not with locals. It is different when it is a cemetery instead of a dumpsite. It was intense. It was grotesque, yet normal, somehow not special.
There was a girl who washed her hair in a grave. There was a family with 4 kids who lived inside a mausoleum. There were two guys who ran an open-air karaoke place on a grave.
Somebody told me there are 10,000 of them. Informal residents. 10,000 people that could not find a place to live because the city just doesn’t have space anymore. By now the cemetery is listed as a barangay (district) with something like an administration. Some of the residents have agreements with the relatives of the dead person to take care of the mausoleum in return. It is unimaginable. A place so hopeless, I couldn’t even realize what I saw. We walked through it with nothing but a few pesos and some bananas that we gave to the kids. I have no words.
I personally have a big problem with tourism like that, always had and I haven’t found a proper point of view yet. On the one hand people should see. See what is happening, see faces of people who are affected. This is what motivated me to go there. I wanted to see if it’s real and how people manage. But I would have liked to go invisibly if that was possible. Because what could I do? I walk around like in a museum, say hi, buy myself some lunch and when I leave, the world is fine again. It is freaking difficult.
I decided not to go with a tour. I feel like a big group only makes it worse. I would have gotten more information I guess, but it’s got even more of the museum character. If one doesn’t want to go on his or her own, there is a pretty cool organization though called Smoky Tours. Residents of the former Smoky Mountain, that was officially closed by the government back in the 90ies, guide people through the dumpsite. All of their proceeds go to residents.
Later that night we met with some friends in Eastwood, where we stayed. A full security western-ish district with them crazy malls and all that. Suddenly we escaped Manila. We sat there for dinner talking college and traveling. Two things the majority of those 4 million people will never experience.
There is this one documentary that really shaped my view on Manila, poverty and the Philippines ’till today. I recommend everybody to watch it. It’s a 6 part series about residents of Manila’s Tondo slum. This is part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uwo5rjiIEsQ