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Filipina Explorer is a travel blog that believes in the power of stories to connect us to the world, shape ideas, and move us to action. Read these stories from the archives.
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About Filipina Explorer
Hi! I'm Gretchen, a travel writer based in the Philippines. I created Filipina Explorer in 2009 to document my journeys through places, parenthood, and word weaving. This blog is a collection of those stories and everything in between. (Photo by Martin San Diego)
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Implications and intentions: A day in Manila's biggest slum

A friend once said, "Slum tours are best left to those who know the subject well like sociologists." This is not an unconventional opinion. Slum tours, popular in many third world countries like India, are a controversial topic in tourism debates. They are often frowned upon and viewed as exploitative and unethical. At the very least, the phrase seems to imply that poor communities are mere subjects to gawk at and treat as tourist souvenirs.

In the Philippines, where poor is the norm, there is little interest in such tours. Only a few operate them. One of the more well-known ones is Smokey Tours, a non-profit organization that offers "eye-opening day tours around Metro Manila", including bike tours, cemetery tours, and slum tours. Smokey Tours' first slum tour - the first of its kind in Southeast Asia - was held in 2011, in the now-defunct dumpsite called Smokey Mountain. Today, the organization's slum tour takes place in the 53-acre BASECO Compound, a reclaimed land 10 minutes by tricycle from historic Intramuros.

Children look for plastics and other scraps they can sell on a mound of garbage.

Manila's largest slum, BASECO is home to approximately 48,000 inhabitants, and children make up a sizable population. Walking on its skinny, maze-like alleys, one realizes just how massive this community is. Wooden homes, tightly squeezed next to each other, run endlessly along the banks of Pasig River. There are internet cafes, sari-sari stores, carinderia, schools, a basketball court, chapel, and a police station. To circle the community, one has to walk for two to three hours on alternating mud and pavement.

Most residents have lived here for decades. A significant number of them came from far-flung provinces in search of a job in the city. However, BASECO itself lacks diverse and lucrative work opportunities that others in the Philippine capital enjoy. If not running home-based shops, residents, particularly women, work full hours skinning garlic cloves outside their homes and packing them for large-scale distributors - an eight to nine-hour job that pays a measly Php75 (around USD1.50) a day.

Due to poverty, many residents in BASECO resort to drinking what they call "criminal water" - a play on "mineral water" -  which is basically tap water poured straight from the faucet into these plastic containers. Tap water in the Philippines isn't potable for drinking. As such, many become infected with gastrointestinal diseases, including those caused by Salmonella and E. coli.

Meanwhile, men burn driftwood to create charcoal, or turn to Pasig River to fish whatever is left of its polluted waters. Along with their parents or sometimes alone, children dive into the river at night to haul mussels that cling to foreign barges. During the day, kids would be found on the garbage-ridden shore, scavenging for scraps to sell.

BASECO has a souvenir shop showcasing slippers, bags, and accessories made from the stalks of water lilies, which grow abundantly in the river. The items are woven by hand with the help of wooden implements. Smokey Tours partners with the local community in training women to weave in order to create additional income.

Local and foreign volunteers

Majority of the tourists BASECO receives come from first-world countries like Japan and Germany - all intent on seeing a glimpse of a world starkly different from theirs. Interactions are an integral part of Smokey Tours' slum tour. Participants are encouraged to come inside the residents' homes, talk to them, and ask them questions. Some would return home with a new perspective after tours. Some would stay and become volunteers for Smokey Tours.

"That's exactly what happened to me. I wanted to make a bigger difference," Ella Daalderop, a Dutch National who's among Smokey Tours' small circle of local and foreign volunteers, says. Ella joined one of the slum tours, and in 2017, decided to move permanently to Manila to work on the ground as a volunteer. She is joined by local tour leader and BASECO resident Ate Tes, who serves as our guide for the day.

Ate Tes is one of many residents that Smokey Tours continue to tap and train as guides. They possess a wealth of insider knowledge on how the community works and help raise awareness about slums in the Philippines.

Ate Tes is among a handful of locals in BASECO who now serve as a Smokey Tours volunteer, all raising awareness about their community and what can be done to help. Volunteers are trained in an extensive program and can speak both English and Tagalog.

Since funds from tours go to community projects and pay for the training of residents ("sometimes office supplies like pens and paper", kids Ella), tour leaders are only given allowances during tours. Visitors are free to give them tips.

Asked why she continues to do pro bono work, Ate Tes replied, "I grew up here and see how these tours have helped our community. They do medical missions and educate people. Instead of turning to drugs, our kids can give back as tour leaders and raise awareness that BASECO is just like other communities. It makes me happy and fulfilled even if I have to work long hours and have little money in return," she intimates in Tagalog.

This sheer optimism isn't a rarity in slums like BASECO. Born to difficulties, the children here are oblivious to the harsh realities of their world. They would trail tourists and hold their hands. Always smiling, they find joy in the simplest things, like asking for portraits and having strangers show them how they look on camera.

Real dreams and hopes

Slums are stereotyped as dangerous sites for tourists, and as such, they are advised to avoid these areas at all cost. Growing up in a neighborhood where only a block away, a huge slum flourished for decades, I know well about this common perception. Drug peddling, thievery, knife-to-knife brawl - name a hazard and a slum has got it. Or so we think.

In immersion trips in rural slums in Quezon, I've come to know better than judge slums for their exterior appearance. My experience with these communities has so far been enlightening and heartwarming.  Residents are always happy to share their homes and feed visitors even when food on the table doesn't suffice for their needs. My day in the urban slum of BASECO was no different.

Like their more privileged counterparts, residents here have hopes. They are fighting to live each day against and with their circumstances. Some of them are fighting for a dream.

Kuya Ramil's small home doubles as the community library. He started collecting books to help children in BASECO learn how to read and write - something he says he wasn't fortunate to have.
One of them is Kuya Ramil, a porter in Divisoria, who transformed part of his ramshackle home into a community library. Stacks of used books, donated by visitors and NGOs, are piled on a wooden cabinet in his house. Residents are welcome to read and do their homework anytime on Kuya Ramil's singular table.

Like others in the community, he came from an impoverished family. From his hometown in Mindanao, he traveled to Manila in the the 1980s to job-hunt. "I only finished first grade. I do not know how to write or read. Finding work is hard. I spent weeks sleeping in Luneta before I got here. It's just me now raising my four kids. My dream is for them to have what I didn't. I want them and all children here to be educated. That's why I opened the library," he shares.

Implication versus intention

The debates will continue. There will always be those who will argue that slum tours are not necessary, especially in a country where there are omnipresent reminders of poverty. "We all know that poverty exists in the Philippines. There's no need to participate in slum tours to make ourselves aware of their plight," a comment on one blog reads.

But the questions stand: Is it enough to know to say we really understand? Can we truly understand simply by definition or common knowledge? Should we care to look or should we just look away, fearful of offending?

"That's why we don't want to call it a tour. We do not take photos and go on our own ways. In fact, we don't allow photos to be taken unless needed. And you always need to ask permission from the residents in those cases. We would rather call it an experience. Because that's what it really is. What we do is empower communities. The words "slum" and "tour"...have bad implications," says Ella.

In BASECO though, implication doesn't matter as much as individual intention. Here, it is not debates on linguistics that bring jobs, food, and healthcare aid. It's the collective effort of residents and outsiders who help them stand on their feet - on a slum tour or not - that make the difference.

Much thanks to Smokey Tours for hosting. You can learn more about Smokey Tours' slum tour on their website. 

Letter #17: To a Child Who Wants to Become a Mother

Hello, Lia.

You often tell me that you want kids of your own when you grow up.

I'm here to tell you that everything they tell you about motherhood is true. It is difficult, nerve-wracking, and time-consuming. It cuts you off from the world; makes you feel like an exile. While your friends are talking about careers, parties, casual dates, and other things that do not revolve around parenting, all you can share are diapers, vomit, moving up ceremonies, Saturday soccer games or ballet classes, walking the dog, milestones, and household chores. Because these are things that will dominate your daily life. They will for a very long time. It's normal to hate it once in a while.

I woke up today realizing I haven't seen a couple of my best friends for seven or more years. The last time I saw one was when she got married in 2011. The last time I saw the other one was when she attended your Christening in 2012. We talk on Facebook perhaps once every six months and just pick up where we've left off. We all have kids.

There are plenty of other friends, single or married without children, I haven't seen in a year. Sometimes they have extra time to spare, but as a working mother with a child who constantly tails her and pleads for play time, I have trouble fitting socialization in the equation.

I currently have a whole page of to-do's and deadlines. By the time I cross one out and feel the least bit triumphant, I would've already written an extra line or two of to-do's at the bottom of the list. Sleeping at 11 pm and waking up at 5 to 6 am, you’d think I’ve got plenty of leeway to get those things done, but that is NEVER the case. In the nearly seven years I've parented, I’ve yet to encounter a day when I succeeded in crossing out all to-do’s on a single list.

On work assignments, where I spend weekends in hotels like the one in this photo, I spend most times working and parenting. Mothers don’t take breaks from mothering. You only mother in a different place.

Some people say it’s wrong for a mother to make a child the center of her universe. That it’s too romanticized and oppressive to mothers. I partly agree. A woman must take care of herself too, so she can take better care of people she loves. But the reality is, the moment you become a mother, everything else really comes second including you. You will relinquish your position as the center of you - at least until a child learns autonomy bit by bit. That's not overly romanticizing. That is just the natural state of motherhood.

Loneliness, guilt, doubt, and debility are more real than they ever have been. There will be buckets of tears. In those times, there will be people who would know the chaos in your life, but some of them too won’t be able to comprehend it in full including friends. They will question, in secret and out in the open, “It doesn’t take too much time to do this and that. I got time for this and that and those - and I work and do chores too! Why can’t she?” 

You will question yourself too.

Some of them will stay. Some won’t. Prepare yourself for that, because at the end of the day, motherhood is a decision. That involves deciding what and who you will prioritize. Often, there will be an overwhelming number of matters to prioritize that you will lose people in the process. If you do, don’t beat up yourself for it. Those who do stay not for convenience but for the love of you are real gems. There are only few in this world. Treasure them. Thank them. Profusely.

I know this is all hard to swallow in one read (even moreso without coffee and a decent bath - both likely when you become a mom), but do know this: In between the tears, self-loathing, sleeplessness, and the times you want to give up, there will be unfathomable joy. Humility. A lifetime of learning. Pride. Fulfillment. Purpose - yes, even in those times nothing makes sense. Above all, a sense of belonging.

When friends resent you, everything goes downhill, and no place feels like it used to anymore, you will have one place where you belong. After hacking your way through a maze of a day, you will always end up in a place where you are loved. You will have that place forever, because a mother once is a mother forever. That is a success, a life to be grateful for. Don’t let anyone else make you feel less.

The world may not understand that, but your child's heart and yours do. Mine does. When everything or everyone has emptied the room without the promise of returning, I will always have the certainty that I have you - here or without. One day, when you do decide that you really want to be a mother, I wish the same for you.

Behind your back at all times,

For Women’s Day, this is what I have to say. And it’s not what you think it is.

For Women's Day, I wish I would be able to tell females out there something inspirational or heroic. But I don't.

Instead I will tell you that on that day, as women around the world celebrated their womanhood, I was at home, feeling like a bug under a glass torched by the sun's seething rays, and life is the kid that's holding the lens.

I will tell you that at 11 am, I was cleaning poop of kittens that decided they want to be un-litter trained, cooking breakfast for my child, and mopping spits of wet watercolor from here to there while my cup of coffee grows cold. That after I’m done mopping, I’d have to mop spills anew every other hour. I did this while thinking of the six client deadlines I missed again the last couple of days, and which I have to figure where to insert in my messy, chaotic life.

I will tell you that instead of triumphing over my deadlines, I have spent the past days in clinics and doctors’ offices because of a cough that isn’t caused by an infection but won’t go away. It turns out I am fine, but I also might not be, because my liver could be faulty. During these back-and-forth trips, I weighed on two different clinic’s scales and found out that whereas I used to be severely underweight before I started treatment for hyperthyroidism, I am now 10 pounds overweight.

I will tell you that while waiting in those pristine, bleach-smelling offices, I chanced upon mothers in my Facebook feed who are earning 100 fucking thousand a month and paying off all their mortgages and debts in three years. “If I can as a single mother/ breadwinner/ working mother, you can too!” they exclaim. I wondered if I am doing something wrong with my life, because as a freelancer, I now make more than double of what I used to earn in the office, but now on my second year of payments, I am only one-third through completing mine. I can’t even begin funding a six-month buffer yet or enjoy that 50-30-20 system financial gurus advise (50 percent of earnings on living expenses, 30 on savings and investment, and 20 on leisure), because 95 percent of what I earn goes to living expenses. That’s despite my only leisure being eating biweekly in a carinderia or local cafes with my daughter where average meals cost P50 to P70.

I will tell you that at that moment, I wish I could un-see those posts. They made me want to kick myself for never thinking of emergency savings and investments before getting married or bearing a kid. I didn’t bother with life insurance until my daughter was already a year old.  “I have a stable job. What could possibly go wrong?”

What does Murphy’s Law say? Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. 

I will tell you that we brought our 10-year old dog to the vet because she had been peeing blood all day, and that the doctors suspect a tumor. We can try to save her, but saving her “might not be humane because she’s too old for surgery”. I will also tell you that when we got home, one of the cats is also sick and won’t eat.

I will tell you that in the middle of all these, I wanted to cry because a voice inside me was saying, "I am so tired of this life", but I can't because my daughter might hear, and she’s the only thing in my life that really makes sense right now.

I am a woman. A mother. These are my everyday struggles - the struggles of many, too.

The world thinks mothers are deities on their own right. We put them high on a pedestal and expect them to never run out of hope and energy to nurture, soothe, and fix. Don't women have superpowers by nature?

But not every day is a heroic day for mothers. Some days are a mess. Some days you just want to get the day over with like everyone else. Some days mothers also feel overwhelmed. Weary. Helpless. On those days, like all humans, they could use a break from being reminded of their faults and being told how to run their lives. They could use some kindness and compassion - a hand, positive reinforcement, a talk. They could use a “How is life treating you today?” They could use change.

Global perception expects mothers to carry the weight of parenting and household duties on their own, whether or not she contributes financially to the household. When fathers do household chores or look after their children, they are exalted as if men are not supposed to share in mutual responsibilities or to parent. When mothers parent and do chores, we look for one tiny mistake to shame them and call them inefficient.

This Women’s Month, may we not forget the women from whom all beings come from. May we always think about the repercussions of our expectations from either sex. May we be careful in tipping over the line that glorifies the double burden many women carry and refer to it as normal, exemplary mothering/ housewife-ing, or - God forbid - martyrdom. To hand over a catastrophic amount of responsibility to women and expect them to stay in control isn't empowerment. It's stereotyping and enabling the misperception that chores and child raising are reserved only for women, and men ought not be required to partake in their share based on gender.

And we wonder why mothers are prone to burnout and postpartum depression.

May we always remember the fuel that drives equality runs on a shift in mindset. It starts with viewing both men and women as capable in the household and giving them equal tasks. There is no better place to learn equality than at home.

Your US Road Trip, Covered

When you are young and are looking for a way to get out and see the world, meet new people and experience exciting activities, there is truly no better option than to plan an incredible road trip. The United States is the perfect country to undertake your road trip, as the cultural difference between each state means that you can experience a diverse and exciting range of activities that will leave you with some of the happiest and greatest memories of your life for you to look back on and pass down the generations.

To help you plan this trip of a lifetime, this quick article will give you the three bases you need to cover to ensure your adventure goes off without a hitch, leaving you free to enjoy yourself and see more of the world.

Making plans

The first thing you need to do your research on is how to plan a road trip in America so that you know exactly what is happening where and when. Doing your planning doesn’t mean that there is no room for being spontaneous, it just means that you have a plan to follow when you need it and you never find yourself at a loose end and wasting time.

Get a map of the USA and put marks on all the places you would like to visit in your lifetime. Once you have done this step, you have a better idea of which places you can fit into this trip and make a route for and which can wait until next time.

Always be prepared

One of the biggest things you need to have sorted when going on a road trip is the essentials. Knowing what you need to have in your car is valuable knowledge and could get you out of a tight spot if you find that your car has broken down or you get lost.

Some of the essential things you need to pack into your car include a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher, jumper cables, foam tire sealant, and a good flashlight, as all of these items will help you out in a sticky situation.

If you are traveling in colder climates or during the winter months, a good idea is to invest in some snow supplies, such as a shovel and some anti-freeze, incase you get caught in a storm. Another good idea, especially if severe weather strikes, is to learn some basic car knowledge so that you can do minor repairs yourself.

Having somewhere to rest your head

Finally, going on a road trip means spending a lot of time in the car, which means that it is extra important to find suitable lodgings when you arrive and your chosen destinations so that you are not suffering. You can find lots of great places to stay through VacationRenter.com all across the USA and, once you have your route planned out, be able to book excellent accommodation well in advance.

In Conclusion

A US road tripis often seen as a rite of passage for the younger generation, whether you’re a US native or traveling from overseas. Before you take the leap into your vehicle and set off across this great nation, follow the above tips to ensure you have every base covered.

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