Today we travel to a feeding site called Happy Land. It sounds like it should be a nice place to visit, doesn’t it? Well Happy Land is actually a dumpsite and it doesn’t look too happy to me. It is an earthly example of what hell must be like. And living in the dump is a whole community of people that are basically the garbage sorters and recyclers of Manila.
Fr. and DC escort us into the dump. Fr. does ministry in the dump once a week and so many of the people know him. Jerry gave strict orders not to hang around one spot too long as we could be easily mugged. Imagine two well heeled caucasian men walking into a desperate dump by themselves. If not for the Filipino priest we would not have been able to travel into the dump. We are privileged guests to get this experience of film and photography footage. This is not your ordinary tour. It’s only, where missionaries dare trod. In fact most of people in the Philippines have never seen this or even know about it.
It’s totally fascinating and depressing at the same time. We walk along, people are eyeing up the cameras that I am carrying. Some try to brush close to me, but I step aside. Kids start waving from the 2nd floor of a building that looks to be barely standing. I shoot pictures. We get to a corner where Father has stopped and he is talking with a kid that looks to be about 12-14 years old. He is sorting garbage for little pieces of paper and plastic. This is My first real scene- “The Garbage bag digger”. Imagine taking your kitchen garbage bag full of all sorts of organic materials along with greasy junk and shredded paper things and digging though it with your bare hands. It did not look pleasant. I could see flies circling around. The smell was overwhelming – I tried not to breath through my nose because of the stench. It made me want to barf. His dirty, calloused and cut up hands would sort out minute pieces of garbage and put them into little piles. I saw no value in the pieces. He wouldn’t look at us and kept trying to change his position to make it difficult for my camera angle. Father would ask him questions and he would respond in short sentences and keep on working without looking at us. I asked how long he had been living in the dump.
He said he was born there and his parents still live there. Really? Incredible! Jerry said we had to move on.
We get to another corner and there is a man cleaning up plastic bottles and sorting them. He is very fast and efficient at what he is doing. The “bottle collector” -A true garbage dump entrepreneur. He grabs a bottle and using a razor blade he removes the label. He unscrews the cap. If there is soda in the bottle, he will pour it on the ground. If there is water, he will pour it into his bucket. I wonder what he does with the water. He throws all the bottles into their respective bin. He is so fast I wonder how many bottles he has done in his lifetime…thousands…millions…tens of millions?
The ground is getting muddier. Jerry’s daughter Pam, had told me before we left that I may want to bring two pairs of boots because of what I would be walking through. I’m glad I took her advice and brought two pairs of hiking boots. We pick our path through the rutted up garbage dump streets. I peer down other alleys and into shanties along the way. I’m almost scared stiff and walk quickly as people keep looking at the oddity of two white men walking through the dump. We are taking their pictures, basically invading their homes and their life. Some don’t care if we take their photo, others turn and hide if they see me raise the camera. Others want to “ham” it up for the camera and hold their hands a certain way to indicate a framed photo. We come to where the feeding site is. It is closed today. The priest that runs this feeding site did not want us to come to the dump because it’s so dangerous. The children play with a broken chair. Their only toy. It is amazing to see the little children. They still have joy in their eyes. I don’t know if they realize the squalor they are living in. The adults and adolescents have sadness in their eyes. They realize the lot they have in life. It makes me want to cry. How do they bear this depression? We continue though the dump looking for other entrepreneurs.
We came across a restaurant. Yes, really – a restaurant! I was pretty taken back by the fact that there was a restaurant in the dump. A “Chef” actually preparing food in this stinky, dirty, dump. The food sits un-refrigerated out in the open. This man told a story about how he used to live in a regular house. But, his children were all sent to jail because of dealing drugs. The court posted a high bale, so he sold his house to get his kids out of jail. He has no money now and has been forced to live in the dump. He feels horrible and ashamed that he has to live there. But there was no other place to go. We speak with him for quite a while with the help of the interpreters. I ask if I can pray for him. He says yes, so I lay hands on him, make the sign of the cross on his forehead and asked God for his deliverance from this living hell. I give DC 50 pesos to give the restaurant owner. He is appreciative. Jerry waves to me and says that there is another person that I may want to interview. I call him the “cart pusher”.
The Cart pusher will go out with his cart starting at about 9pm and collect plastic bottles and other materials. He can earn about 2 cents for each Kilo of plastic they collect. said he can make 100 pesos a day doing this. On a good day he can make 150. That converts into $2.00-$3.00 American dollars a day. How can you feed a family on that? Well you can’t. There are hundreds of thousands of malnourished or starving here. We’ve mostly seen only the kids that are getting fed so far. I asked to see his house. He takes me into his little shanty composed of tarps, wood framing and a steel roof. I was taken back at first because it was really clean, neat and tidy. The raised floor had linoleum and carpet. I apologized to him that I had muddy shoes on in his house. He said it was okay. I was glad because I would have been afraid to take them off. He had statues of Jesus and Mary and holy cards with the sacred heart placed around his little hut. I asked him if he believed in Jesus. He said “yes”. I asked him if he went to church. He said, “now and then.” I was surprised to see that he had power and that a light bulb was turned on. I asked how he got power. He said it was a sub panel. They way it works in many areas is that one residence near by or across the street will have regular power service from the utility company and then will sublet it to many others and charge them for the service. I looked around his shanty. It was actually kind of nice and it felt comfortable. Like a kids deer hunting shack you might find in the woods. The place was filled with nick nack type things that looked to have come from the dump. He had a television and a stereo. It always seems so odd to see these desperate looking shacks and then inside they will have a TV and some monstrous stereo. Humanity is funny. Gotta have TV and tunes! I looked at his latrine. That was scary. I didn’t ask where it drained too, but from seeing what it looked and smelled like outside, it couldn’t be hooked to anything. I took more photos of him. Great photo’s, award winning photos. I asked him how he felt about where he lived. He said he likes being his own boss. I am amazed at the strength of the human spirit. Humans will descend into the deepest depths of impoverished living conditions and do whatever it takes to survive.
We have been out in the hot sun too long now. Jerry is getting very tired and we are both dehydrated. We forgot to bring water with us. We need to get out of the dump immediately. I would have liked to stay longer and explore more, but we must stick together. As we are walking out, a young boy approaches me and takes my hand. He wants me to take his picture. I start taking pictures of him. His appearance is striking, dirty face, penetrating black eyes, an orange streak in his hair and more than half naked. The hair of a Filipino is normally jet black, but he has a streak of orange through it. The orange streak can be a sign of vitamin deficiency. It is a form of malnutrition. He is very skinny looking too. I look into his eyes. It is one of those “Jesus” moments. His face will haunt me. Go up to the movies menu to watch “Happy Land” the movie.
Click to watch Happy Land the movie