Into the depths of horror at Smokey Mountain
Travel Writer: Kate Lawlor meets the people who eke out an existence on a rancid Manilla dump
The Smokey Mountain slum area in Manilla, home to 10,000 people. Photograph: Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images
Al Gore brought me to Manila. It was 1am and I stood on a quiet street near Roxas Boulevard. A dog quivered nearby, his skin glistened with scabs and long nails curved into the dirt. A naked baby lay a few metres away on her back, asleep. Her mother was selling black bananas and what looked like bubble gum on cardboard.
The city was vibrant and pungent – a frenzy of smoke, stray animals and garbage under polished skyscrapers. Remnants of an Eastern history lurked behind Western food-chains and colonial Spanish architecture.
I was here, along with hundreds of others from around the world, for a Climate Change training program run by Al Gore, the environmentalist and former US vice president. It was a few weeks away from the Filipino presidential election. To Rodrigo Duterte, who eventually won the vote, the event was sheer hypocrisy.
Rommell was gay, a talented artist and climate change activist from the capital. He spoke of a country that was culturally lost; yet to me he was a shining example of purpose and identity. Beatrice, was also from Manila and worked for the Red Cross. “My dream is the UN.” I pictured her there, gentle and determined.
On our days off, our Filipino hosts led us through the ancient walled city, Intramuros. We ate crispy pork, halo halo and duck embryo, rode crowded jeepneys. The US war-trucks, now a main means of public transport, echo the intricate past and enduring struggle between the two countries. Their psychedelic, martial charm encased a gritty interior, the city pulsing through iron-grated windows.
We travelled to Batangas on the coast – factory pipes poked from the forest clearings and black smoke charred the landscape.
The villagers took selfies with us. A boy of 8 fiercely pulled on a cigarette, took our hand and led us to his boat. “Ma’am you will come out on our boat – ma’am.”
On the second last day we visited Smokey Mountain, a rubbish dump near the port of Manila; home to 10,000 people. Shacks made from bin liners and old debris house families who live off the landfill.
My eyes watered from the rancid plumes, from the anguish in my chest. It was a cocoon of horror and truth – I emerged not myself.
We walked into the depths of Smokey Mountain with The Purple Community Fund, a charity that run a school for the slum’s children. One of the charity workers explained many would grow up into a world of crime, some sold into the sex trafficking trade.
Blackened feet, naked except for oversized t-shirts, the children played happily in the smut, oblivious to all.
I thought of Rommell and Beatrice, the world waiting for their dreams.
Entries to The Irish Times Travel Writer competition, in association with Travel Department, are now closed. The winning writer will be announced on October 29th in The Irish Times Magazine. See irishtimes.com/travelwriter