It was last year when I first went to Tondo.
I didn’t see anything. It was World Tuberculosis Day 2022, and I went to a health center for an event. I was anxious about going there. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what the neighborhood would be like.
My husband dropped me off early in the morning. We drove past the pier, past shanties no worse than any I had seen in Quezon City or other parts of Manila. We entered a tiny street, crowded like the ones in other parts of the city. I entered a health center which looked as if it had been constructed fairly recently. It was well-lit, and the paint on the walls had not faded from sun, wind and rain. I found my colleagues, did my job, and went home. I can’t say it made any particular impression on me.
It was my next visit that really struck me. A German journalist was visiting the Philippines, and he wanted to interview people from our TB project. I met him at his hotel, and together we went to our main office in Ermita, where we got a briefing on what we would be doing, where we were going, what we would see. From there we rode a van and went to Smokey Mountain.
I remember narrow streets. I remember rows of tricycles and motorcycles. But it was the tenement housing that hit me hard.
All Filipinos knew about Smokey Mountain, how for years it was where the city’s garbage would be dumped, how the poorest of the poor scavenged and dug through a literal mountain of trash. But I didn’t know about the housing, and the relocations.
CJ, one of our staff, told me how the government had stopped dumping garbage there years ago, and built tenement housing around the mountain. The people who lived in Smokey Mountain relocated to temporary housing while the tenements were being built, and many moved in when construction was completed. There were thirty buildings, squeezed together like cans on a grocery shelf. Each building had five floors of maybe twenty units each. Each unit housed a family or two, anywhere from five to who knows how many people, so that means maybe 500 people lived in a single building.
Each floor had low ceilings, half covered by exposed pipes and cables. Little light came in through the windows in the hallways. Graffiti, posters and makeshift announcements covered the walls. Narrow doors led to units that were often subdivided into smaller rooms, for some semblance of privacy perhaps. So cramped was the space in each unit that people and their lives spilled out onto the hallways: a woman set up her shop, while her next door neighbor built wire brushes, and a few floors down was a group playing cards. In another building half the hallway would be full of laundry hanging to dry, while the other half was covered in plants; on other floors would be junk of all sorts, or pigeons kept in cages, or those boxy bags used by Grab or FoodPanda riders.
I could not wrap my head around the fact that our bedroom at home was bigger than a single unit of those tenement buildings. My home, where I lived with only two other people, seemed like a palace, and I could not even find the words for the unfathomable gap between my life and theirs.
To be continued