A Foreigner in a Manila Slum
By Ted Lerner
My American friend lives in a Manila Slum. He doesn’t seem particularly bothered by this cold fact. Actually he seems to be taking it all in stride. As if he knows his situation is only temporary. He had been traveling through Asia like a gypsy playing music, came to the Philippines, had most of his things ripped off, found a wife and they had a child. His mother back in the States is sick. His father he hasn’t heard from in years. He knows something will soon come together. He just doesn’t know when. But it will come, he says. You just gotta have faith.
From the bustling main road outside you walk down a small side street, past lines of tricycles and bicycle pedicabs. Uncollected garbage sits piled high in an empty lot surrounded by flies and several mangy dogs. A couple more quick lefts and rights and the road narrows and this is where you start to see the real ghetto. The single lane road here is actually paved in what looks like one giant solid slab of concrete. Basic homes and tin and scrap wood shacks line this road, but they’re just a front for others, perhaps even more squalid homes going back behind, in an impossible maze of dark depravity careening in infinite directions.
He lives in what could best be described as a hovel. More like a small room inside of a hovel. It’s a small hallway with about ten rooms. Each room is occupied by a different family and is divided off by plywood walls that do not go all the way to the ceiling.
His wife, their one-year-old son and himself sleep on a mattress on the floor. Several suitcases filled with their belongings are stacked in one corner. A karaoke stereo machine sits against one wall. Right next to it stands a large new refrigerator. A two-burner gas stove sits on a table. Next to the table stands a wire rack containing plates and utensils.
The lack of complete walls and the proximity of every room means you can hear everything that goes on. Every discussion, every domestic dispute, every time a man and woman make love. Nothing is private in the slum.
The ten families share a common CR (comfort room or toilet), which is just down the hall. The CR is more like an outhouse. The actual toilet looks like a cement anthill. You squat over the anthill and do your thing. It is everyone’s duty to keep the CR clean, which they seem to do quite well.
I noticed many of his neighbors have karaoke machines. They don’t have much but they have karaoke. Got to be entertained. Singing sad love songs takes people out of their misery, for a few moments anyway.
He likes to smoke Marlboros, the local version, and with a case of beer I bought from the sari-sari store across the way, we sit outside the compound and he tells me how it is. The first thing he wants to tell me is that there’s order in the slums. That’s one of the most surprising things. When you just drive by and see the teeming masses, it’s easy to think that life inside the slum must be complete chaos. Well, it’s chaos from an urban sociological point of view. Yes from afar it may look like mass confusion, the way a human standing tall over a colony of zillions of ants going in every direction thinks there’s total bedlam down below. But when you take a close up view, say on the Discovery channel, you find out these ants are really a well-trained army.
In a Manila slum, he says, the day starts early and ends early. By 5 AM everyone’s up and practically out the door. It’s as if they can’t wait to get out. The kids are washed and dressed in school uniforms. Many of the adults are out before dawn, trooping to the main road with hair still wet so they can flag a jeepney, perhaps one of many, to take them to work.
During the daytime hours, people are out and they are everywhere. When all you have is a small hovel for a house, nobody wants to stay inside if they don’t have to. Anyway, it’s hot as hell inside. And so they hit the streets. The action really heats up in the afternoons. The kids return from school and the adults from work. Hordes of children are constantly running in all directions. People hang out outside their homes, just like we were doing, at the various smoking grills selling barbecue, small carinderias or at the many sari-sari stores. Every afternoon the slum looks like one big fiesta.
Come night, though, the slum seems to shut down. When I visited my friend I marveled at the sheer number of people that were there or passing through this one small area during the daytime. What was just as interesting was what happened when nightfall came. Nearly everyone seemed to disappear.
Yes, there’s order here, he says, in just about everything that goes on. When you have people living on top of one another, it can be no other way. He points to a gang of shirtless kids hurriedly pushing a wobbly wooden cart filled with bags. They are the barrio garbage boys. Residents give the boys a few pesos to pick up the trash everyday, which they take and add to the pile out by the main road.
He’s been playing his music, finding jobs here and there around Manila, but he’s discovered the ugly fact for artistic types in the Philippines. Creative pursuits are slave jobs in this country. So he took the first ten thousand pesos that came his way and he went right out and bought the refrigerator. Nobody in his small compound had a ref., and hardly anyone in the slum had one.
Besides the music, the ref has been his ticket for survival. He and his wife have been making ice candy and making merienda foods. His wife has a special recipe for ice candy and all the neighbors seem to have become addicted to it, as they’ve been buying the candy by the bag full. He makes a little more than one peso a pop. It may not seem like much but it can add up.
That’s one of the more fascinating aspects of the slums in Manila; the economy. It runs on fifty centavo and peso profits--which may not seem like much--but it really hums. Some people are actually making real money turning that peso over. There’s a sari-sari store perhaps every few feet in this village and, from what I’ve seen, they never lack for customers. I noticed that attached to some of the bigger stores were decent cement houses, some two floors high. A cement structure in the ghetto is no small accomplishment.
Most of the owners of the small stores are buying their products right down the street at the Uniwide store. Of course anyone can just walk in to Uniwide and buy. But it’s all about convenience and numbers. There are enough people in the slum who want what they want right now.
My friend recalled the time somebody down the street brought in a couple of pigs. They kept the pigs in their house for several days. The noise of the pigs could be heard all over the area and acted like a sales pitch. When the pigs were finally slaughtered, people in the neighborhood made a beeline for the house. The fresh baboy was completely bought up in minutes.
He points out there’s a misconception that people are desperate to get out of circumstances like these. We agree that people are perhaps too busy with the daily grind of just trying to keep this level of dignity going. Who has time left to worry about building something up? They’re just trying to hang on.
But it’s also not always as noble as that. People get comfortable. He tells me about a 40-year-old man he knows who gets by on P50a day and is quite happy.
“This guy helps his auntie around the house,” he says. “He sweeps up, helps her cleans. She gives him P50 a day for the chores, plus feeds him. Would you believe this guy is actually spoiled? A 40-year-old man spoiled on P50 a day! Man, that’s something I tell you!”
Also very much evident here, he says, is the crab mentality. Gossip runs rampant. He got to telling people that he was going to get his wife a visa and take her to the States. That’s his stated goal, even if he has to go there first and fetch her a couple of years later. When he would relate this idea to some of the local guys, he could see they were jealous.
“They were like, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’” he said laughing. “ ‘You think you’re getting out of here? You ain’t goin' nowhere.’”
His landlord has also been giving him problems. The landlord’s small two-story cement house is attached to the compound. My friend says the old man is a drunk. He always comes down in the afternoon, completely sauced and gives my friend a hard time. More out of jealousy. Since the beginning he was charging my friend extra rent because he and his wife were not married. The real rent for the room was P700 a month, but my friend had to pay P1000 a month.
“Imagine that?” he says, “Even in a shit hole ghetto I get hit up with some kind of Christian social mores. It’s a bunch of bullshit.” We laughed and agreed at the absurdity of it all; that that’s what you get for a whopping P700 a month rent. Ridiculous headaches like that.
But my friend wasn’t going to let the landlord get away with it. A few weeks back my friend and his wife had finally gotten married officially at Paranaque city hall. One of the first things he did was to show the marriage certificate to the landlord. As usual the landlord was drunk. He said he thought the marriage certificate was a fake and that he was still going to charge the extra rent. My friend got pissed and the two started shouting at each other. Several of the landlord’s children, whom my friend noted are always nice to him, stepped in and kept the two apart.
The row was settled over at the barangay’s office. The barangay captain sided with my friend and even noted that the landlord had no right to charge extra rent just because the two hadn’t been officially married. My friend’s rent suddenly went down to P700 a month.
He says he’s got his eye on another less crowded place about a kilometer away and that he’s planning on making the move soon. Certainly not the lap of luxury but with an extra room and a quieter neighborhood, it will definitely be a step up. He has a line on some gigs and that, combined with a few more bags full of ice candy, might do the trick.
In the meantime he’s keeping constant watch on his cell phone and on his state of mind. Because in the slum, there’s two things you can’t afford to lose; a chance to turn a peso and your faith. The latter, especially. Yes, if you want to survive in a Manila slum, brother, you gotta have faith.
*Ted Lerner is the author of the classic book “Hey,Joe—a slice of the city, an American in Manila,” as well as the book of Asian travel essays, “The Traveler and the Gate Checkers.” Both books are available in hard cover and e-book on Amazon.com. He also works in professional boxing as a writer and ring announcer, and professional billiards as a writer and TV commentator. He has lived in the Philippines for 21 years. Visit his website at tedlerner.com