A Manila Slum Tour

I began my second full day in Manila with a slum tour. Well, actually, I first began with getting to the tour meeting point, which was in an entirely different area of the city. I’d intended to simply take a taxi but, when I mentioned this to the hotel staff, they suggested I take a “jeepney”. Jeepneys are ubiquitous in the city and add some unexpected colour to the surging traffic. These are troop transport trucks leftover from the war by the Americans and converted to public transportation. Their name comes from “Jeep” and the fact that crowded seating means you’ll be knee-to-knee—or ney-to ney—with your fellow commuters. The vehicles are painted in wild colors and given names emblazoned above the windshield. The hotel staff told me where to grab a jeepney and which one to take but I simply couldn’t figure it out. Destinations are scrawled on the side, under the driver’s window, but I never spotted the one I needed.

So I walked, having given myself a half hour to get to where I needed to be. Eventually, though, a tricycle driver waved me over and I agreed to have him take me the remaining third of the way or so. I say tricycle but these are actually motorcycles with a covered sidecar, a motorized version of the bicycle tour I’d described on my first full day here. I had to hunch forward to keep from banging my head on the roof but it took all of ten minutes and got me there on time.

There were only two of us on the tour, myself and a French woman named Chloe. Our guide was Janet. She explained that the tour would be of an area called BASECO, or the Bataan Shipping and Engineering Company Compound, and sometimes referred to simply as Bataan. Approximately 150,000 people live in the area. No photos were allowed on the tour, which is understandable.

To get to the site we first took a jeepney and then a tricycle. Though seating is tight on the jeepney, the most fascinating aspect was the method of payment: people would shout out one of two or three destinations and pass their money down to the driver, bills and coins moving from one commuter’s hands to another until it reached the front, at which point the driver would pass the change back.

BASECO is made up mostly of small joined shacks connected by narrow alleys and walkways. Janet works for Smokey Tours, who have gotten permission from the area’s elders to conduct their excursions, and so the residents mostly go about their business and aren’t surprised to see us. The children are particularly friendly and excited, shouting their hellos or running over to get a high-five from the visitors. A few of them were especially fascinated with my tattoos. It’s not expected or even permitted to give the children—or anyone—any money or food and the residents clearly know this as there is no begging or even selling going on.

The conditions, as you’d imagine, are dire. Water is scarce and expensive. Residents buy their water from a private company but, to get water, they must first connect their home to a water meter. The water meters are located in a single spot and so, to connect to them, residents must run pipes from their home all the way to the meter, which could be hundreds of yards away. The pipe, of course, must be bought and, if the pipe is damaged, it’s up to them to repair or replace it. Every morning, the residents must walk to the meter and turn on the water and, every night, they must shut it off. No one has toilets. There are two wells but, given that the entire complex is built on layer upon layer upon layer of trash, the water is not potable and used only for washing. Electricity is also rare. All power originates from one home, with the wires spreading from this single house like strands in a spider’s web. The cost of power is twice what it is in the rest of the city given that shorts happen so often, increasing the cost of producing electricity. Refrigerators are not permitted as they put too great a strain on the fragile grid.

Most men work either in construction, for minimum wage, or they are “fishermen”. Fishermen actually collect green mussels. They swim out to the nearby shipyards to collect the shellfish clinging to the boats and docks. This is dangerous work done at night by headlamp, given that the shipyards are private property and the fishermen are trespassing. These men are illiterate and don’t know how to navigate the cutthroat markets, so they sell their wares door to door, usually for about the equivalent of 50 cents a kilo.

Women work as salespeople, selling just about anything from kiosks and stalls throughout the city. How much they are paid depends on their employer but, typically, they will receive about 300PHP a day, for about 8 to 10 hours’ work, minus the cost of transportation to and from their workplace and the cost of food during the day. In the end, their take home is typically the equivalent of $2.50 a day. Otherwise, they peel garlic. Garlic is sold and used in huge quantities, so farmers pay women to peel the cloves. In a day, a woman could peel about 15kg of garlic, for which she will be paid the equivalent of $2.

Janet explained that she peeled garlic before she became a tour guide. She was and still is a resident of BASECO. We even met her son (it was registration day at the high school, so she took a moment to tell him what he needed to do, to go to the school and register himself, as she was working and couldn’t do it for him). She explained that peeling garlic had caused permanent damage to her sinuses and that the oils would cause blisters on the hands and fingers. You’d actually smell the garlic as you walked through the slums and, sure enough, soon you’d see a young woman stripping the husk from countless cloves.

Smokey Tours had recruited Janet to lead tours, sending her to university for one day a week, where she learned history but, more importantly, got to practice her English and gain confidence. More recently, she began her own initiative providing family planning for the residents. As with most poor communities, rampant pregnancy is a problem in BASECO. However, she said that it has diminished markedly since she’d taken it upon herself to give the women of the community options. She could not educate them through group meetings as they could not afford to take time off from work. So, she went door to door, meeting with the women at their homes and discussing the issue with them as they peeled garlic together. She first would see if they were interested, not wanting to force anything upon them, and then gave them the option of a contraceptive injection, which lasts three months, or an implant (inserted in the arm), which lasts for as long as it is present. She said the implant is by far the most popular. The pill is too expensive and, given that it must be taken every day, it is not practical.

The area has a single elementary school and a single high school, with most classrooms containing 75 students. The teachers come from outside the community. There is also a small library, where volunteers teach children to read, with a special emphasis on English as it gives them the most opportunities to work abroad. School was out for the summer and children were everywhere. Despite the poverty, they were a cheerful bunch, playing in the bay and jumping off derelict boats that had been bound together to form floating platforms. Most were naked and the water was the color of a kale and chocolate milkshake. Skin rashes and lesions are a problem due to the children spending so much time in such filthy water. Still, even Janet chuckled at the fun they were having.

The people collect driftwood from the bay and stack it in great piles to dry so that it can be used for basic building or to fuel fires. They also turn some of it to charcoal to be sued for cooking.

The community also hired a few people to act as trash collectors, given that the city sent only one small truck once a week. The collectors go door to door, taking the trash to a processing area which consists of sorting bins and a single composter. They’re trying but with 150,000 residents, it’s an uphill battle. It is, though, a testament to their pride and determination. As is the fact that nearly the entire compound has to be rebuilt following every typhoon season, given that it is located on the bay and flattened by winds and waves at least once a year. The reconstruction is done entirely by the community. They’ve planted mangroves, hoping these would help act as breakers, but the trees grow slowly due tot he poor quality of the soil, and they haven’t grown large enough to avoid being uprooted by the winds when a typhoon strikes.

As expected, it wasn’t a pleasant tour in the purely touristic sense, but the impact was undeniable. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if ever you want to complain about immigration, don’t do it to me because I will not listen. Janet showed us some of the “nicer” homes in the area, buildings that could actually be described as small houses rather than shacks. These, she said, were built with money sent back by relatives who worked abroad. This is why people emigrate: to give themselves and, especially, their families back home a somewhat better life. We can afford to let them try to do so. Still, the property those houses are built on is owned by the government so, if it’s decided that the land could be put to better use, well . . .

Next I join Janet again but this time for something a tad more typically pleasant: a market and street food tour, during which photos are permitted!