There is something beautiful in the slums of Manila
I walked through the poorest streets of Manila today. Tondo is known to be the slums of Rio De Janiero of Asia, isolated by the piers and inundated with the city’s trash and filth. It is virtually never visited by any outsiders, let alone tourists, and is an area that only Filipinos have heard of on the news. When I told some locals of my plan to visit the neighborhood, they fretted and looked at me with disbelief and concern. Tondo is notorious for its destitution and crime. One lady advised me to enter the slums with no personal accessories —watches, bags, jewelry—and any electronic items that will give away my foreign identity. The key to safety was to blend in as much as possible. The motherly figure went as far as instructing me to wear a dirty t-shirt with holes in it. I think her motive was to discourage me from making such an audacious trip, but in all honesty, the stakes and risks just gave me more reasons to go. I can’t think of anything more thrilling.
But putting my life in danger was not, or at least the sole, purpose of visiting Tondo. I have a close friend that was born and raised in Tondo and in each playful bickering, she tried to intimidate me by reminding me of her rough upbringing in the hood. I usually fire back with my could-have-been rap sheet, “I grew up in the streets of Brooklyn, the mecca of ghetto.” I too come from an underprivileged background, a grim neighborhood that was not safe to wander alone at night. But after today’s visit, Trina was right: Tondo was rough. I have never seen anything like it; the worst government projects, or ‘ghettos” of Brooklyn would be Beverly Hills compared to Tondo.
Tondo lacked the most basic public amenities and services: parks, street lights, sanitation or even running water. Walking through the road layered by extracted fuel and filth, I spotted a shirtless child pumping water from a well. Children, many covered in dirt, ran loosely and freely with nothing but skin under their feet. I am still curious whether some toddlers were naked because of the warm climate or if their parents were just too poor to cloth their newborns. Their homes were built by various sheet metals and auto parts and came in assorted shades of rusted gray. Some fortunate households owned televisions, a valued item that would entertain numerous families at the same time. The economy is self-sufficient. Families traded simple goods—fruits, fish, beer, meat—straight from the doorways of their humble huts.
I was fortunate to visit Tondo on a Sunday, the day that is culturally devoted to faith and family. Parents and their children alike engaged in social activities to pass time. In one alleyway was an all-female tug -of-war, possibly a competition between mothers from different blocks. In another was a line of anxious children pushing and shoving, impatiently waiting for their chance to swing at a piñata. The once-American top 40s—Filipinos sure love to “dougie”—were boisterously played and enjoyed by men dining, smoking and sipping on beer. Aside from music as a form of entertainment, the old love to watch their young perform. From a distance, the MJ song Thriller lured me to a little boy adorned in white gloves, black hat and the complete costume of the pop icon. His outfit was convincing, his dance-swagger captivating. If performed in the streets of Vegas, his dance routine would have easily attracted dozens of pedestrians, but in Tondo, it was only a show for four elderly members of his family.
The locals in Tondo are grateful for the simplest things. On a road lined by junkyards of recycled containers and bottles, I stumbled across a decrepit courtyard with a mob of children in laughter playing games administered by parents and chaperones. Parked on the side was an ice cream cart with its vendor and some infant consumers. Seeing the joy on the kids’ face when the red frost met their lips, I offered to buy five cups for the kids on the line. When the news spread, almost immediately, that a foreigner was providing dessert, I was suddenly surrounded by tiny hands and puppy-faces behind them. Five cups of ice-cream became thirty cups, adding up to a bill of around 3 US dollars. Mothers and grand-mothers walked over to greet and thank me. I have never witnessed such delight from a cup of sweets; it was like Christmas morning for these children. In many ways ice cream to them was like their smiles to me but with a slight distinction: the kids may eventually forget the very taste of that exact ice cream one day, but the memory of their sweet smiles, their sunny spirit, for such a petty and uncostly treat, will seize me forever.
Tondo was a humbling experience to say the least. I am once again reminded that true happiness does not require a glimmering Lexus, Beats headphones by Dre, or the latest I-phone—all items of material wealth. Even the poorest Americans, the bottom of the 99%, are living substantially compared to Tondo counterparts; I am truly grateful and blessed to be American.
My trip to the slums of Manila ended with a serendipitous encounter with faith. Strolling around the perimeters of the neighborhood, I idled into a mall where I came across a church service in session. The setting was nothing fancy, rather austere; I studied the worship for a few minutes before I found myself participating and singing along. “There is no better way to end the day than to praise god for all my loved ones and everything I have”, I thought to myself. I lipped the lyrics to each song trying not to run eye-fluids down my cheeks.
People travel to Philippines to enjoy various sorts of beauty: Manila for the beauty of the urban grind, Angeles City for beauty from sensual pleasures, and Boracay for the beauty of the picturesque beaches. But what about the beauty of life in its most primitive form? It was Confucius who taught us that “Beauty is everywhere but not everyone sees it.” In the slums of Tondo, polluted by cesspools of debris and waste, people are living in unseen poverty but despite their unfavorable living conditions they are indubitably rich of happiness, of faith, and of love. To me that is beauty.