I stood on the slope of a trash heap in the Philippines that was the size of a small rolling hill. An army of Filipinos–some of them had walked over ten kilometers to this heap–scavenged the surface with homemade picks, looking for materials they could sell in bulk: glass, metal, large plastic sheets. They wore loose, long-sleeved shirts and broad-brimmed hats for protection from the sun, but their clothes did little against the heat or the flies. The surface beneath our feet was a jigsaw puzzle of crushed cardboard boxes, red soda and tan beer cans, white paper cartons, yellow and red food wrappers, blue plastic bags, bits of shiny metal and unbroken clear glass bottles. Everything was powdered with a brown dust.
The waste, which, surprisingly, did not smell much worse than a full kitchen trash can, had compacted enough to walk on. Every time I stepped down, the dust kicked up and caked my feet and sandals. Still, I did not regret my choice of footwear. The heat radiated from both the sky and the ground, roasting us like beef, which the high humidity kept tender.
For several minutes, all I could do was wander around on the hillside and watch people in silence. My mind continually drew a blank as I tried to find something in my past experiences that resembled this place. I had traveled through Eastern Europe and in parts of Asia and East Africa, but I had never seen anything like it.
The morning of my visit, some other Americans and I hired motorcycle taxis, which had side compartments for passengers, to take us to meet a priest working in the community near the dump. Shortly after we had started, I lost my sense of whether we were heading east or west because of the driver’s speediness, because of several changes in direction, and because I was absorbed in watching his roughly seven-year-old son straddle the gas tank of the motorcycle while holding on to the center of the handle bars with a concentrated look, as if he contributed to the steering. The driver dropped us off on the outskirts of Manila. Somewhere.
We met with the priest and discussed his role as a community organizer. I do not remember our conversation with him. The memory of the dump overpowers any other recollection. After our talk, he took us up a dirt road, and then we crossed over a ravine, at least ten feet deep, on a footbridge to get to the base of the hill of trash.
Halfway across the footbridge, I looked down and saw a man, wearing just a pair of tan shorts, standing in the middle of a polluted stream. He was bent over at the waist looking for something in the black water, which almost rose up to his knees. He pulled out a large sheet of plastic and carried it over to a part of the stream he had fenced off with bamboo to make a rectangular pen in the water. Similar structures were used to hold fish that people caught in rivers. His catch was plastics.
Once on the other side of the footbridge, our group split up to climb different parts of the slope. The brightness of the sun assaulted the eyes and caused a dull ache.
Squatting people hacked at the surface with their picks—typically small thick rods of wood with a bent piece of steel either taped or tied on—digging out an item and placing it into an old cloth or plastic bag. They shuffled forward, not taking their eyes off the ground, until they saw something else of value. Once they had accumulated a large amount, everything was bundled together and carried away on their heads or backs.
After walking over a third of the way up the hill, I noticed a boy crouch down about eight feet from me, examining the ground. He looked healthy: his cheeks were full and his loose, well-worn T-shirt did not outline a swollen belly–usually a sign of malnutrition. His hand brushed at the surface, removing bits of paper, then dove in and twisted out a whole undamaged apple. Clutching his prize, he trotted towards his parents.
I took my camera from my backpack. I held it in my hand. My gut tightened, and I wondered if this action made me a concerned person trying to capture the inequalities he had seen or an opportunistic vulture using someone else’s misery for his own future gain. Yet, the more I thought about it, the stronger my urge to photograph this little boy became. The scene was so surreal. I needed the picture to verify to myself later that I had really seen it.
The boy’s father noticed me, spun around, gripped his son’s shoulder, and turned him towards my camera. He fired a quick burst of commands at his son and pointed a dirty, gloved finger at me. The child’s shoulders dropped forward, head tilted down, eyes filled with pain. Nearby workers stopped and yelled at the boy while gesturing at the camera with smiles. I grimaced. I took the photo and nodded in an attempt to communicate thanks before rushing off up the hillside. Now, this picture of this child is tucked in a photo album along with snapshots of monkeys, sunsets, and temples.
Less than ten miles away other children ate at McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts in one of the air-conditioned malls in Manila that resemble their American counterparts. In the same buildings, they could have also had Filipino noodle soup, Kenny Roger’s roasted chicken or Wendy’s hamburgers. The stores were stocked with American paperback thrillers, music in English and Hello Kitty merchandise. The mall’s multiplex offered new films starring Adam Sandler, Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and locally made features as well as Coca-Cola with ice and several flavors of popcorn.
No one sweated. And nothing was covered in dust. The mall’s climate control kept the room temperature in the seventies with no humidity. Cream-colored tiles covered the walls and floors and strategically placed wooden benches and fake plants gave the entire structure a uniform brightness and cleanliness. The electric bill for the climate control and lighting alone surely was astronomical for a building whose length could be measured in miles.
Trudging up the trash heap, I thought about the malls and this dump. The mall reminded me of suburbia in America and a close look at the garbage revealed distinctly American products like Coca-Cola cans, Gatorade bottles and Snickers candy-bar wrappers. As I watched people collect the American soda cans, I thought about how many of them could probably not afford the products they collected. It occurred to me that as other countries sought to imitate the image of America that was projected in films and TV shows, American products were playing a large role in the global look of affluence. And when those items were used up and discarded, the world’s trash dumps were taking on an American appearance as well.
For me, like other tourists, part of the joy of the traveling was seeking out the “exotic.” For us, the “exotic” was something so alien from our daily lives that we could not imagine it appearing in our “normal” everyday lives. The “exotic” had to be foreign enough to our normality that its mere existence confirmed to us that we had left our drab boring world behind us. Instead, we had come to a place that we felt qualified in describing as “mysterious,” “magical,” or some other travel brochure cliché. So the appearance of 7-Elevens and Dunkin’ Donuts in downtown of Manila was disheartening. It reminded us of what we were seeking to temporarily escape.
At the same time, from talking with people from Eastern Europe to Africa, I recognized that so many genuinely wanted the lifestyle of Americans. Part of that was McDonald’s hamburgers, Hershey bars and Pepsi’s soft drinks, whose garbage was now beneath my feet. Buying these products was a way to show the attainment of a certain economic status, or at least the appearance of having done so.
If people desired these commodities, I had no right to deny them in order to preserve my sense that I had I briefly escaped from my everyday life. This need for preservation was asking people and cultures not to change in order to fulfill some romantic notion of what the “exotic” should be, which was a selfish. It assumed that people were uninterested in changing their life without ever asking them. Also, focusing on saving the “exotic” shifted our thinking away from the more troubling question: Had it created poverty and had the world’s desire to purchase global brand names helped to create the circumstance in which people survived through the collecting of the refuse that these products generated? Every time I remember standing on the crumpled wrappers and crushed cans I think about this question, but I still do not know the answer.
The slope flattened out at the summit. About a dozen people were standing or sitting in salvaged chairs underneath wooden poles holding up a patchwork of canvas and plastic squares. Inside, the owner of the tent sat on a stool towards the back serving customers tea, orange soda and finger food. The flies swirled the thickest here, but no one cared as they wolfed down cookies and squares of cake.
Wood crates served as tables to display the snacks. On a wooden box a small barefoot boy squatted. He chewed on one thumbnail and looked tired and cranky. A couple of feet away from him, a girl, maybe three years old, in a red dress stood with the face of tranquility watching everyone.
The owner noticed my camera. His eyes lit up, and with a broad smile he pointed at me and made a limp wrist wave toward himself.
“Take picture. Take picture,” he said.
I was angry at myself for causally wearing my camera around my neck like some pale-legged tourist on a package cultural tour. These people could be scraping through the contents of my hostel room’s trash to survive. They had not been hired to give a traditional dance exhibition. Yet the stall’s owner continued to wave at me. I comforted myself with the thought that he was proud to show off his business to a foreigner and took one photo. Before a sense of embarrassment from barging into their world with a camera that was probably worth several months’ wages could turn my face red, I walked away.
I went down the slope and crossed over a different footbridge to a village where the squatters lived. Their community resembled any other in the rural areas. In the dirt road, a group of boys, either barefoot or in sandals, were playing a game of tag. Chickens squawked and sprinted away in zig-zags to avoid being trampled. Sitting next to plastic wash basins in front of their wooden houses of scrap lumber, women scrubbed clothes while their daughters watched nearby. The clothes were wrung out, one by one, and flung onto laundry lines that ran between homes or from a house to a nearby tree.
One woman in a dark blue blouse crouched over her soapy wash and smiled at me. Several steps behind her, a girl stood in the dark doorway of her house, kept her head down slightly and avoided looking directly at my face.
After being on the trash dump, the village’s similarities to other places I had been to in the Philippines made me smile. Though thinking back, part of the comfort in being there was it matched my sense of how a village in the Asian countryside should look: small dirt pathways, small tropical trees and roaming domestic animals. I am certain that the feeling of familiarity would have faded if I stayed longer and learned more about how this community’s life depend on the trash dump.
I would have been compelled to ask questions about the villagers' daily struggles that had not occurred to me as a walked through the village. For example, even though I crossed over a polluted stream twice during my visit, I had failed to consider where the village got its drinking water from and whether it was sanitary. I think the longer I would have stayed, the more awkward I would have felt knowing that at the end of my visit, I would be returning to the hostel and, using indoor running water, wash the dust of my feet, while the Filipinos I had meet would still be scrapping out a living on the trash heap.
Continuing down the main dirt road, I saw a man sitting behind a window without glass in a house made of thin rectangular sheets of wood. Using an electric sewing machine, he stitched together bits of colorful cloth into an oval. He bent his head low, focusing on the needle a couple of inches from his nose. Glancing up, he motioned with his hands for me to approach him.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Mat,” he said and pointed at the ground next to his door.
He and his mother gathered the fabrics from the dump and washed them in order to make the doormats, which he sold in the outdoor markets. Behind him his short, stout mother stood inside the doorway. She held back a worn curtain, with a faded print of a lake scene from North America, which functioned as a door. The room behind her was dark. They had no visible lights and the sun was not shining directly into the house, which was probably the reason the man sat so close to the window to do his work.
The village had other small businesses that served hot food or made crafts from scraps. Many of the inhabitants still searched the slopes for bulk materials to sell, but a minority had created a community that gave the impression of normalcy. Maybe not everyone would be digging in the trash forever. Maybe with outside help they could progress.
But I was making these assumptions based on spending a couple of hours in the area, which turned out to be naive of me. I had failed to understood how precarious working in the trash dump really was. Like many others experiencing the exotic, I had assumed that my experience of a place had given me a sense of what it was like without considering how much I had failed to comprehended about it. I had recognized the unsanitary environment was a problem for people’s health, but I had not recognized other dangers such as the instability of the trash heap.
About a year and a half later, in the summer of 2000, I was spending some time in Vermont. One evening I went to a college computer lab to surf the web. While skimming over news headlines, one from the Associated Press caught my attention. The brief paragraph accompanying the title mentioned that 80 people in a dump around Manila had died after a section of an enormous trash pile swept them up in a landslide of garbage and buried them. I stared at the screen and just knew this text was about the dump I had been to during my stay in the Philippines. Later I spoke with other Americans who had visited the landfill with me. They had tracked down more information and confirmed that the deaths had taken place at the site we had visited. But at that moment, as the screen held my gaze, I had no desire to speak with anyone. I knew those around me could not understand my shock and sadness from reading the article. They had not stood on the trash and watched people salvage a living from trash.
I stood up and went outside into the cool evening. Normally, I would stare at the night sky or look for fireflies. This time I could not stop thinking about the mat maker. The stall owner. The boy who plucked the apple. I could not stop wondering, did they live? Or did they roll in dust and darkness amongst hard, solid objects: glass bottles, soda and metal food cans, random chunks of sheet metal? Were their lungs choked not by water, but by other people’s trash: cigarette butts, paper coffee cups, newspapers, rotten fruit? I could not stop wondering what they were thinking to themselves. Would they have avoided being swept away if they had been standing six feet to the right? Why had the trash not given away when they were resting safely in the shade earlier in the day? Why had they brought their sons with them?