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With 2 days planned in Manila i knew i wanted to do a slum tour, i had watched a program a few years back on how big Manila’s population is, how rapidly it is growing and just how many people live below the poverty line. When we travel i think its important to open our eyes to situations like this instead of sticking to the wealthier parts of the city and of course when visiting these areas its important to go with a company who will give back to the community and will help improve the situation.
After doing some research online I found Smokey Tours who offered a slum tour just outside of the city and had really good reviews, this sounded great however they didn’t have the availability on the day i was in Manila!
I had booked to stay in Our Melting Pot hostel and luckily on arrival i saw they offered a ‘True Manila’ tour, the receptionist said it was a tour of the slums in the city so Sarah and I signed up for the next day!.. Its funny how things work out.
We met Edwin outside our hostel the following afternoon. Edwin runs the tour and at the start only gave a little bit of information away however over the next few hours my admiration grew for him and i would say he’s one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met!
Along with Sarah and myself there were 2 other girls from our hostel and 3 ladies who were friends and from the Philippines. These ladies arrived with bag loads of clothes, nappies and toys to give out and at this point us other girls felt a bit silly for not bringing anything however we hadn’t had much time to plan and we weren’t 100% on what we were going to be seeing.
We jumped into a Jeepney which are the ‘local buses’ that run all around the city and are what the locals use. On the way Edwin taught us some local words, how to pay the driver and told us that these drivers work all day/night and earn roughly $10 a day and often have families with as much as 5 children which does not go that far at all, he recommended we gave the driver a tip which we all did. The jeepney fare for a 20minute journey was 7 peso/ £0.10, i gave 20 peso/ £0.30 which is still nothing!
On the way Edwin also gave us a little briefing to explain what we would be seeing. He told us that this Sunday was not a normal Sunday as today they were celebrating a Fiesta! He said everybody would be playing games so we could join in and he also advised us how the children will probably come up and hold our hands but they were just pleased to see white people in the area.
We got out of the jeepney and could already see that we were in a different part of the city than i had seen so far, the buildings around us were quite shabby and there were lots of children out and about. We followed Edwin onto a road which was decorated and the sound of music was apparent a long with a lot of people… Welcome to the Fiesta!
We were a bit nervous and weren’t sure what to do but the children soon came up to us as they knew we were with Edwin and True Manila and indeed they did grab our hands and took us to play their games. The children questioned us with things like ‘whats your name?’ ‘where do you come from?’ and their English was surprisingly good for their young age and what i presume to be a lack of education.
The children were having fun and it was great to see however within a few minutes of me looking up and really taking in where i was i noticed just how many children were there and the major lack of adults, how although they were all dressed their clothes were in poor condition and quite a few had no shoes on and the houses around us were very small, generally wooden buildings.
After we had a play we went inside Edwins house, his house burnt down in a fire last year and he explained it burnt down so easily as it was made of wood just like so many in this area. He has now rebuilt his house with concrete bricks and its 3 stories high but it was very small inside and not at all finished. From the top floor we had a great view of the street below but also the skyscrapers of the business district in the background which remind you how different life can be within just a short distance.
After playing with the children a bit more and trying to distribute our focus and energy on as many children as evenly as we could.. they were full of energy and very demanding of your attention at times, we took the bags of things that the ladies had brought so we could hand them out.
Edwin gave us a bag each and told us to keep it closed and out of reach of the children, he would tell us who to give things to as he knew who needed them the most. This is actually what i loved about the tour and how Edwin is running it, he is making sure that the people who get the help are the right people and you couldn’t do this without the obvious experience he has in this area.
We headed into the cramped alley ways that lead off the street, now and again they opened up into a little yard where adults were sitting around eating and enjoying fiesta. There were also a lot of people in their houses and even now when i think back i don’t think i appreciated just how many homes were in this tiny area, there were people popping out of doors everywhere often holding babies and small children.
We gave out the bags of gifts when advised by Edwin, we gave teddy bears and nappies to the younger babies/their mothers and clothes to the older children as those were the sizes we had. We were given lots of ‘thank you’s’ from the adults around us and some really appreciative smiles that moved me very much.
We headed into a room and were told to take a seat, it was nice to stop as it had felt quite overwhelming watching where we were walking, still holding hands with children, making sure we gave bags to the right people and trying to take it all in at the same time.
While in this room Edwin explained just how many people lived in this small area and just how poor they were, he also explained that this slum was just a small section of the huge overall area of slums in Manila, each time they have a True Manila tour they visit a different area but because it’s so big it takes a good few weeks to come back to where they started, so a tour wouldn’t be coming back to this area for a month or two at least to be offering gifts and help again. I didn’t see, but Sarah said when she gave a teddy to a young child the lady holding him said thank you and a tear ran down her cheek as we were leaving..
After about an hour once our bags were empty we headed back onto the streets to partake in some games. This time we seemed to be with older children, more like teenagers/ early 20’s, it was nice to spend time with people of this age too who have grown up in this area, often the name True Manila was thrown around and people would say thank you to us as they passed by and this really showed that they appreciated what Edwin was doing. All i could say in reply was ‘no, thank you for having us’.
At the end of the day each of us put some money into a bag, i gave 200peso/ £3.00 which was nothing really but seeing the food costs i knew it would go quite far. We headed to the local shops, Edwin made a point of reminding us that by using these shops instead of the chain store of 7/11 we were also helping the community in this area.
He brought lots of sweets, chocolate and biscuits for the children and at first i wasn’t too pleased about this. The children already had very bad teeth and of course no access to a dentist or education on the hygiene of their teeth however he said later that he was only getting them this type of food because it was fiesta which is fair enough, i just hope that that’s true as i would rather give money for games, pens etc rather than sweets.
We did however also go into the main market and purchased some rice with the remaining money, we brought enough rice to feed 50 fairly big families one meal and i was a lot more content with this purchase.
Before we knew it we were leaving the fiesta and getting back in a jeepney to head back to the hostel (it was a little rushed as Sarah and I had a flight to catch that evening), as i said, at the start Edwin kept his past and story quite quiet but on the way back he told us a story which put all the pieces into place..
He told us how some children were out playing on the streets when one day a few white people walked past, they took some photos of them and tried talking to them but the children didn’t speak any English, they carried on walking to their house and one child followed them, they asked ‘why are you following us? what do you want?’ of course the child couldn’t reply so they made the universal sign for eat and the child entered the house to eat food with them which was full of foreigner’s, the next day the foreigners went back to find the children and invite them all in for food, they also got someone to come and translate and ask the children where they live, they find out the children just live everywhere and seem to have no real home, so from now on they feed the children as much as possible.
One day they find the child they first saw and take them to a restaurant, they ask ‘why do you live on street?’ but again the child can’t speak English, they become very close to this child and they notice the child has bad teeth so one day they take them to a dentist who pulls out all the bad teeth and after a week they give the child a toothbrush and explain what to do and they become very attracted to this child and try to teach them as much as possible as they know no-one is looking after them.
After a year of looking after the child they have to leave Manila, they give the child some paper so they can keep in touch after they leave along with their address. They write to each other for years however one day the child just stops responding, instead of stopping responding their end they continue to write but this time including money as they think the child might not be able to pay for stamps, they keep writing and sending money but the child still does not respond, after almost 2 years the child finally wrote back and this time they start giving more money like $20, $50 and they tell this child that the money they are sending should be used wisely- go back to school, buy what you need for school and thankfully the child does as they say thanks to the guidance.
After this Edwin stops and asks us who we think the child is? And of course, its him!
He then explains this was his dream for when he grew up, to be able to help out just like they did to him and this is how he got the idea for True Manila, he helps feed the children with the money we can provide. He says how we may be giving just one meal out to a family which is only worth a small amount but this is not what counts, what counts is the gesture and this is what they will remember from you, just like he did.
He then goes on to say about the foreigners who helped him all that time ago, which by the way was a good 30 years ago, Edwin was 10 at the time and is now 40; they live in the USA and he has visited them there once as he was making a documentary film of his story and True Manila. On his laptop, which was donated to him by an English guy who took his tour a while ago we watch the moment the couple opened their door to him, they knew he was in the country but didn’t know exactly when he was coming and it was very emotional to watch!
When we got back from the tour we purchased a t-shirt from him with True Manila on which cost 400peso/ £6.00 and i knew this money would be going to good use!
If you are in Manila then i would 100% recommend doing this tour, of course i have just spoilt the story of Edwin but i hope from hearing it it makes you want to go and meet him even more. I was lucky to visit on the day of the fiesta but I’m quite intrigued to know what its like on a normal day in a worse slum as i know the situation in and around Manila is a lot worse than i saw.
If you do want to go on the tour i would recommend contacting him first regarding dates as he doesn’t do them everyday (he has 6 other jobs on top of this one!), the best way would be via the True Manila Facebook page. I know that when i return to Manila i will 100% be getting in contact!
Make sure you also check out: 5 Places in the Philippines You NEED to Visit & How to Get to Them All!