Tuesday, November 9, 2010

North Triangle

On Sunday I meet up with Flora, a local political figure/advocate of the urban poor and the main organizing force behind my visit. Flora seems to be able to exude this calm authority that makes it seem natural when she takes up position as the centre of attention of whatever room she’s in. The effect she has is made more noticeable by the fact that shes about 4'10'’. She speaks quietly and deliberately when she tells me that she’s happy with the outcome of the clash with police and the MMDA in September and how the people were able to resist the demolition. Later on I ask one of her colleagues to describe to me what her role was in the conflict, he responds by holding up his fist and then punching it into his palm and laughing. I’m taking that to mean Flora was fairly instrumental in encouraging the people to stand their ground.

I tag along with her to a meeting at QC City Hall where different advocacy groups that come under the umbrella of her organization seek an audience with the Mayor. I get sat down next to two proud looking women that are introduced to me as leaders of a local street vendor's association. I ask them why they’ve come and one tells me “My community has problems with Kallap”.
“Yes Kallap.”
“You mean Crap?”
“Yes we have problem with Kallap”.
I ask her to elaborate on her problems with Kallap but my attempts at conversation seem to be making her uncomfortable so I give up.

I meet the more talkative Josie who’s been a resident at the Payatas dumpsite for 18 years and a scavenger of the landfill there for 10. She tells me she’s never had legal electricity and since her husband got a job in construction now she has free time so she’s been coming here twice a week for the past year to ask the Mayor to formally supply electricity to her community. I ask her about the garbage slide and she said that she was lucky because it didn’t destroy her home, but that the QC city hall estimates of the fatalities are inaccurate and it was more like 2000 people than 500. Since the MMDA initiated recycling programs the local government separates recycling at the source and the majority of the valuable part of the landfill no longer reaches Payatas. She estimates that waste pickers working there now earn about 25p (58 cents) per day. Josie says she feels privileged to be one of the ones whose family could find work elsewhere, but she wants to move because the dumpsite has problems with dengue and juvenile drug use.

On Tuesday Flora takes me to the North Triangle settlement, which at the moment is the center of the conflicted space. Next to a 16 hectare piece of land-now vacant after a recent successful demolition-the recalcitrant families display protest slogans and placards quoting the constitution in front of their shanties. Im not being melodramatic when I say this place is shocking.

Dilapidated hovels are literally built on top of each other and seem to be losing a slow fight with gravity to bring the whole settlement down in the mud. It looks like about one third of walls are concrete in various stages of decay, the remainder is sagging wood and what looks like fibro wilting in the damp. Roofs are a patchwork quilt of rusted corrugated iron weighted with bits of rock and/or metal piping and/or tires.

There’s been a downpour this morning and virtually all of what serves as a main street is under inches of water. Where the mud dips water and whatever else flows into these sporadic pools that make me regret being born with a sense of smell. The first power pole I see shows the signs of 3 decades of bootlegged electricity. The second floor of the nearest shanty has about 2 feet clearance from the pole and right now everything’s getting very wet. The major source of tarpaulin appears to be bygone election posters. The result is this tapestry of disembodied bits of smiling hopeful’s faces stretched between gaps keeping out the wind and the rain. Maybe there’s something poetic in that.

We walk further in and away from what I learn serves as the market and the gaps between the shanties get narrower. There’s a definitely a palpable feeling that existence here is a struggle. Yesterday I visited the Sitio Mendis slum that had recently won tenure and been the recipient of UN Habitat funding. Walking around with Kalinda-a local community organizer- everyone greeted me like I was a long lost relative. Kids followed me and grabbed onto my legs, everyone wanted to shake my hand and have me drink whatever they were drinking and I got half a dozen marriage proposals. The atmosphere in North Triangle is very, very different. About a third of the stares I get are incredulous the rest are just hostile. The further in we walk I start to get more and more grateful for for Flora’s company. This is the only time I can think of where a woman in her 60‘s who’s a bit taller than my elbow has made me feel safer.

What makes the whole scene harder to swallow is the backdrop of TriNoma- a boutique shopping complex, one of the largest in Asia-visible in the not-too distance. It seems that here is one of those uncommon places where you can see two opposite ends of capitalism on display right next to one another. In the first world I think we get the chance to have the transition from decadence to squalor a bit more gradual-which somehow makes the existence of the latter more palatable-no such luck in North Triangle. The contrast is made even more obvious by the dead flat topography, so the big box mall loom over the slum like a monolith. In context its impossible not to empathize with the hostility that's now directed at me.  If everyday day I woke up in the shadow of a giant reminder of all the things I can never have I'd be bitter too. 


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