Implications and intentions: A day in Manila's biggest slum

March 26, 2019

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. 

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