In Tondo, Manila’s poorest neighborhood, the dump site along Manila Bay is home to about 5,000 families. People have been living on garbage in this part of the Philippine capital for about five decades. Now, the area known as “Smokey Mountain” is open to tourists.
Nympha Flores guides tourists through Tondo as slow-moving garbage trucks and motorcycles ply the black sludge-covered main road into this 4.5 hectare trash dump. The pungent smell of rotting food and sewage hangs in the air. Along the road, shanties are buzzing with business.
Some shacks serve food called “pagpag,” which is leftovers picked from the garbage, dusted off and re-cooked. Others are trash-filled “junk shops” or places where garbage pickers drop off recycle-able material to be resold.
At one end of a well-kept basketball court lined with bags of trash, 16-year old Jayson Valderama is cramming used plastic containers into a long sack, hoping to have at least one kilo’s worth, which he sells for about $0.70.
“It’s hard digging around for trash. If you don’t work, you won’t have anything to eat,” said Valderama.
Jayson’s family lives in a shanty next to the basketball court. He had to stop going to school to contribute to the household income, which is usually around $3 to $5 a day. Jayson says he wants to go back to school and study computer science.
But in this neighborhood, everyone, including small children, has a role in the grueling and often dangerous trash-scavenging operation. Trash pickers are exposed to broken glass, endless swarms of flies, feces, oozing methane and other health hazards, often in oppressive heat or under torrential rains. They are among the more than three million people in Metro Manila who do not have an official address.
As tourists wind their way through the neighborhood, music occasionally blares outside shanty houses. The group even stops to watch people at a pub singing along to popular songs.
This community life is what tour organizer Juliette Kwee wants visitors to experience.
“If you’re already a long time in the Philippines, it’s sort of normal to see people begging on the streets, to see old ladies picking garbage bags. But if you actually think of it, it’s not normal! We all - at least many people in the world, they have a very good life. And I think it’s time to share,” said Kwee.
Kwee used to be a psychologist in the Netherlands. After visiting the neighborhood several years ago, she says she was touched by how people appeared happy, despite their abject poverty.
She partnered with a local non government agency to open the neighborhood to tourists. The tours began this year, with area residents working as paid guides.
Mari Ota, a Japanese national, lives and works in the metro Manila area. Ota said the tour and seeing other poverty in Manila has changed her life.
“When I shop something, I always - they come up with my thought. So… I cannot buy any big thing,” said Ota.
Ota said she was inspired by how people with very little could live happy lives.
Kwee acknowledges the criticism from those who say the poverty tour exploits local residents, turning them into a curiosity for visitors.
“It’s not good to make it sort of a zoo. But I think it’s also good to - actually without complaining whose fault it is - to actually see and experience the place,” said Kwee.
The founder of another non government agency located at the dumpsite was critical of the tour idea at first, but now says that she understands the value of such tours in making a compelling case for addressing the problems of Manila's poorest.