Thursday, November 11, 2010


I meet my friend Josie again who has offered to take me to her home in the Payatas dumpsite. Josie is athletic looking and if it wasn’t for the lines beside her eyes I’d put her in her mid 30's, not 51 and a mother of 4. I was surprised at QC City Hall when she had to excuse herself and go have a coughing fit in the corner. She speaks English well and tells me she’s happy even though she’s is ‘very basic’. She asks me if I’m comfortable taking a Jeepnie - the local public transport which is like a stretch 4 wheel drive with 2 paralell rows of seats and an open back and sides-I tell her I’m okay. I’m learning some jeepnies are bigger than others and to sit down in the one we get I basically have to kiss my knees. After we’re underway Josie chats to me-seemingly oblivious to the the diesel fumes we’re being marinated in-and tells me reassuringly that she wanted to make sure our transport was okay with me because we’re going to an area with ‘a lot of crime’. I ask what kind of crime and she grins like she’s about to tell a mildly risque joke and says “hold you up and they shoot you, mostly happen to foreigners”. I tell her I really appreciate her telling me this now but my sarcasm doesn’t make it across the cultural gap and she just grins at me.

The ride’s uncomfortable which makes it seem long and I'm feeling sorry for myself and the well dressed little Filipino next to me that I’m sweating on. I’m genuflected in the tight space so I cant see much but from the smell I can tell when we get near Payatas.

We get dropped off in what serves as the market and the combination of what Josie said and the sideways glances I get from men start making me nervous again. We have about a five minute walk down a gradual slope before the full panorama of the dumpsite comes into view. It looks like something from a movie set after the apocalypse. You can see the densely packed shanties spreading off down the slope right up to the base of this mythic sized mountain of filth that dwarfs everything. When I read about the tragedy I had trouble picturing landfill that could kill people, but when we get down to the base of the pile it still looks precarious and you can see how the wrong conditions could turn this situation lethal.

You need a permit to be able to take photos at Payatas (Josie warned me about this earlier but I forgot). On the net you can find more than one official investigation that has found the dumpsite to be hazardous and recommended its closure - especially since the tragedy. But its operation is too profitable, and the people at risk are those with the very least political clout. Hence the dump stays open with these efforts to keep publicity to a minimum.

Josie tells me if I get seen taking photos they’ll kick me out. I tell her I’ll be sneaky but she says that she will also get in trouble so most of these photos are taken from further inside the settlement-you have to look in the background-where we’re not in full view of the garbage mound and the uniformed supervisors, and when we were I turned my back on them and took photos from my hip.  The pictures dont do it any justice.  The whole time out in the open it was like you could sense the wieght of all the filth perched above you, its scary. Those dots on top of the mound are people.   

We walk further in until we meet the fenceline thats divides the dump from the settlement.  I’ve never seen people working in conditions like this, the ones we pass are squatting and picking through the muck separating out bits of wire and plastic bottle caps. Josie talks me through the whole thing telling me whats valuable waste and whats not. Everything reeks, everything is covered in flies and we’re not actually in the dumpsite proper.

We go further from the garbage pile and into the settlement so Josie can show me her house of 18 years. I do notice that the people who aren’t working seem to be impeccably clean, and in some places its obvious that people are taking pride in their surrounds. I can see someone’s gone to the trouble of sweeping these bits of disjointed concrete I’m walking on.  I get the impression where the Jeepnie dropped us was a dodgier part of Payatas then where we are now but the unsafe feeling I've had has gone.  As I understand these people don't have security of tenure, nevertheless there's a lot vested in this place.  We walk past a community centre, a health centre with a spotless tiled floor and a primary school full of spotless kids in ironed uniforms. 

I have to bend in half to get in Josie’s front door and see a beautifully clean room of about 15m2 with a wall covered in framed photos and a mini Christmas tree in the corner. One of her daughters is sitting in the corner cutting up something and she announces ‘My daughter’s work!’ and proudly shows me a little thank you card made from bits of coloured recycled paper. I ask her where I can buy some but she doesn’t seem to understand and I also seem to be scaring her daughter so we exit and she takes me a walking tour of the rest of the settlement.

From talking to her you can tell that Josie’s genuinely got absolute zero faith in the government and when I mention the NHA her natural smile drops into this look of disgust. She says she’s seen many aid workers and ‘missionaries like you’ come and go and the situation has improved very little. So I ask her if she could do anything to help the people what would she do, she shrugs and says “Change the system”. I cant get her to be any more specific.

I’d heard that vote buying was a fundamental problem eroding genuine democracy in the Philippines. If nothing else the poor here have got the numbers and politicians can exploit their predicament by offering a very small sum in exchange for a vote, 500 pesos ($11) was the amount I’d read. I ask my tour guide and she says last Barangay (local government) election a woman knocked on her door and told her that she would give her 1500 pesos if she bought 5 people with her to vote for her candidate at the polls. Josie refused but was sympathetic with people who didn't “You are poor and you need to feed your family you take the money and have solved your problem for that day."

Two motor bikes pass us and the driver’s don’t look like they’re from around here. Josie tells me that they’re Pakistani and they’re the money lenders in the slum. That job description doesn’t seem to have any negative connotations here. She tells me they give very small loans (she had one for 300 pesos) and come around and individually collect weekly repayments. I ask her what happens if you cant pay and she doesn't seem to understand the question and tells me again that they come around once a week to collect. Enterprising Pakistanis have apparently given Payatas its own micro-financing scheme without the help of any aid organization.

Josie walks me out again, I take her to lunch to say thank you and she invites me to come and stay at her house (i accepted, on the 21st we’re having a slumber party). I’m so impressed by her to come from where she does and still be so generous and hospitable. Every time she smiles at me I remember to be grateful that I’ve still got all my teeth.  The below are Josie's cousins and neighbours and some kids that followed me the whole morning - the one in the pink was fascinated by my socks. 




  1. If you're wondering where you can buy the beautiful Thank You card that Josie's daughter made, it's at a wonderful non-profit in Quezon City called Samaritana Transformation Ministries. They are worth visiting and one of the most life-giving places you'll ever find. I spent a year volunteering there and I actually know Josie's daughter. You can also purchase the cards online at

  2. If you're wondering where you can buy the beautiful Thank You card that Josie's daughter made, it's at a wonderful non-profit in Quezon City called Samaritana Transformation Ministries. They are worth visiting and one of the most life-giving places you'll ever find. I spent a year volunteering there and I actually know Josie's daughter. You can also purchase the cards online at