Manila – A city of Two Tales

I truly enjoyed my action-packed first day in Manila, during which time I felt I have poked my head into the society.

It wasn’t my first trip. I first made my way here exactly 15 years ago, when I was heavily pregnant with my younger daughter Kirsty.

I only did the touristy things back then. This time, I’d like to do something a little more interesting.

I had wanted to visit a slum. Everywhere I go, I try to visit people’s home or slums, places that allow insight into the society. When I told this idea to a lovely Filipino friend Dana in Beijing, she said she wouldn’t recommend that at all. But she suggested that I could visit her parents’ house in St. Antonio Village in the eastern part of the city, and they could take me to see the squatters in the village. Of course, I snatched the opportunity.

St. Antonio was the first such gated middle-class communities in Manila, established in the late 50’s. At first, it was a cluster of bungalows. Slowly some of the houses gave way to condominiums, housing 6-8 families where one family used to live.

Dana’s parents, both established artists, live in a charming house, its wall draped over by pink bougainvillea. They received me in their semi-open reception area, which was decorated by their art works. Thanks to their interest in art, theatre and in theatre, I felt connected with them straight away.

Then they drove me to the squatters’ quarter, as promised. The slum is not nearly as bad as the images I’ve seen on the Internet but it is a world apart from Dana’s house. The original condominiums were unrecognizable. There are some roughly constructed low buildings. The streets are so narrow that a super-sized American would have difficulties to pass. There were lots of little children running around, naked or in their torn shots. Dana’s mum said children are the only things that the squatters produce. Typically, the husbands have some piece-meal jobs and the wives look after the home. Sometimes the children beg in the city. If they are lucky, some wives or the daughters work abroad as maids.

It seems that they don’t get a lot of help from the government. Many of the children don’t go to school. Sanitation is very poor.

With one of the worst gini co-efficient in the Asia, inequality is one of the problems that has plagued the Philippine society for years. Millions live in sheer poverties.

Slums have been an eye sore for the government. Last July, thousands of squatters from San Juan in Northern Manila clashed with the police as the authorities attempted to evict them and build a business center in the place.

Since Dana’s parents have never visited the squatters’ quarter and didn’t know anyone there, we only drove through. The kind couple took me to a colorful, rather up-class, restaurant run by Dana’s uncle, a keen collector who decorated his establishment (a mixture of western and Filipino) with antiques and interesting objects he has picked up around the world.

Only a few hours later, my curiosity about what a slum home was satisfied.

In the late afternoon, I visited Intramures, the old walled city. “A spacious borough of wide streets, leafy plazas and lovely colonial houses”, if I may borrow a line from the Lonely Planet Guide.

When I got out of my taxi, a small boned little Filipino guy on his tricycle offered to take me to all the sights for only 200 Pesos (less than five dollars). Why not? The light was fading. And the kid smiled so readily. In his not so fluent English, Orlando tried to feed me some historical background of all those spectaculars buildings. I only understood half of the things he uttered. When we were on the street a stone’s throw away from San Agustin church, he pointed to a lively neighbourhood, and said: “That’s my home, very poor.” I asked if he lived with his parents, he said: oh, no, I live with my wife and two children. What! I thought he was still a child. I requested if we could visit his home, he agreed, providing that I didn’t mind the poor conditions.

His neighborhood reminded me the slum I saw earlier in the afternoon: very narrow streets, houses built closely together partitioned by corrugated tin sheet, wet ground – people have to fetch water from a communal tap. In the street corner, there are quite a few virgin Mary statues. They are all devoted Catholics. A lot of people, adult and naked children, were hanging around and they all seemed rather jolly. Filipino’s easy going and cheerfulness much impressed me during my first visit.

Orlando’s house is a pigeon hole, virtually. There are two parts, a tiny sleeping quarter about three or four square meters – they all sleep on the floor and a living room/kitchen of similar size. A 12 inch TV that was flashing out slightly distorted images is the only piece furniture. His wife and children were at home. She apologized for not being able to invite me to sit on a chair. I only wish I could have brought some gifts for his children, aged at 4 and 2.

Orlando himself is only 24. He also grew up in a slum like this one in Manila. He had a few years’ education but his family was too poor to allow him to continue. He said he is working hard so that he can save money for his children’s education.

I am pleased that, despite the poverty and backwardness I saw, the day ended on a hopeful note.

Funny enough, after Orlando dropped me at San Augstin church, the priest was talking about counting one’s blessing. Very appropriate.

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