Time in: 7:30 AM
I went out early for our trip to Inayawan today. I met up with the other interns at the McDonald’s right across the Metro mall in Colon. I was the first to arrive, and when the others came we went inside the fast food restaurant so they could get some breakfast.
With me were Ate Bea, Janita, Ate Niza, Ate Janille, and Grace. Phoebe wasn’t coming with us as she was on rest because of her UTI diagnosis. Ate Khyz had excused herself for the day as well. So while waiting for Ate Jude, Ate Niza received a message from her that she was sick and stuck at home with a fever. And so we headed out for Inayawan at around half past eight, short of three people.
After a ride of perhaps thirty minutes, and a short walk up the street of our destination, we arrived at the Enfants du Mekong Foundation.
We were welcomed by Ms. Jessa, who had scheduled our meeting with the children at 1 PM today, something we weren’t informed about, since Ms. Shane instructed us to go there at nine in the morning. Nevertheless, we settled into their living room and made ourselves comfortable. Ms. Jessa told us that the children were told to meet with us this afternoon because she couldn’t accompany us to the kids’ homes this morning, as she had to attend a meeting in the center. They had their meeting in a gathering area outside the building, right next to the room we were staying in.
We were passing the time when Ms. Jessa went inside and asked us who was assigned to the girl named Marissa. I responded that it was Grace and I, and we learned that Marissa had classes that start in the afternoon, in the nearby night high school, so it was more convenient to give her home a visit this morning. We obliged, glad to have something to start working on now instead of in the afternoon.
Grace and I left the center and let Marissa take the lead. Introducing ourselves to her, we asked her a couple of questions along the way, discovering that she was fourteen, and currently in the eight grade. We walked a little further down the street we were currently on, and then Marissa took a left turn, going from the paved path to a dirt road flanked by some concrete houses on the left side and a field of grass with a few cows grazing on it on the right side.
At the end of the dirt road, we were met with a much narrower path, leading to a community of houses that were much less stable and well-built than the ones we’d passed by a while before. The pathway was often muddy and soft, so that our shoes sunk into a ground a little as we walked, and we took care to walk on the small boulders positioned as steps to guide us as we traversed the way. We passed by makeshift houses cramped side by side, and Marissa kept on walking quite a few steps ahead of us.
Soon we came out from the place to find a rice field in front of us. Marissa’s home was located in the group of houses right in the middle of it, which we were soon about to see. I’d never before crossed a field of rice paddies before, even with my mom’s family owning one or two, even as I grew up for several years in a province with fields that stretched as far as you could see. Today was the first time I did.
It wasn’t anything too difficult, nothing as tedious or messy as some presumptions would claim. The carved dirt path only often allowed for one person to occupy the space to walk forward, so it would be hard to have someone walk beside you. A few wooden planks to walk over here and there, and soon we crossed the field over to Marissa’s house.
Upon our arrival, we were immediately able to see her mother, who was situated by the side of a rickety wooden house right in front of us, a table with several dishes beside her. She was sitting on a plastic chair, wearing Crocs, which were speckled with black mud, the gooey dirt that surrounded not only her feet, but the chair she was resting on, and the table that was positioned there to sell her food. We had to hop over on blocks of stone to a concrete platform.
We introduced ourselves, telling mother and daughter we were to film them in an interview as we peek into their daily lives. We asked them our questions right there, as Marissa’s mother was busy watching over her little stall. We questioned them about their family, how they were doing, what their means of livelihood were, how Marissa was doing in school, and Rise Above’s impact on their lives. This was of course followed by the usual portraits of of child and parent, then of them both.
We didn’t take too long, and soon we were on our way after thanking Marissa and her mother for their time. Marissa guided us on the way back, now with the company of some of her friends. Outside the interview, we filmed some filler videos – pans of the field and their community, footage of Marissa walking across the field, walking with her friends on the road. Soon enough, we were back at the Mekong center.
All the while, I was feeling a pain below my abdomen due to cramps. After returning to the center and enduring the pain, and then deciding I couldn’t just endure it anymore and be productive at the same time, I went out to get some painkillers at a nearby drugstore. I took one tablet when I arrived back, and had been sitting down for a couple minutes or so when our group decided to go out for lunch. The pain was still throbbing, but I was also hungry, so we all rode a tricycle to the nearby Gaisano mall.
We headed back just before 1 PM, arriving to find some of the children had already come. My cramps had subsided in the middle of our meal at the mall, so I was feeling quite fine by the time we came back. Some of the kids who had arrived were assigned to us, and Ms. Jessa told us we could now all go and head on over to each of their residences.
The first one we stopped by was assigned to Ate Niza. It was a small wooden house, so that when you enter the threshold you immediately step into a bathing and laundry area, where the other side of the room was a bed, separated by a curtain. Another entryway led into a tiny kitchen, with a ceiling even lower than the laundry and bed room. The family there had been living without electricity for years. The kitchen, which also served as their dining room, in which they conducted their filming, was then dark and hot. Janita had to shine a light in the direction of the interviewee as she talked, and the interview team had sweat dripping down their faces and neck as filming proceeded, and in time, some tears too.
It was one of those sad and unfortunate cases you feel helpless with, and sometimes you’d have to live after that wondering how they’re doing now. The family lost nearly everything when their mother died, and their father was the only supporter, with a little help from an aunt. The visit took some time, but soon after they all came out of the house, and we then went on deeper into the neighborhood and stopped at a house not very far from the previous one.
The interview there started on a much lighter mood – the little boy assigned to Ate Bea was adorable. We set ourselves up in their house’s front yard, and he sat facing all of us, who were sat on a bench. His mother was watching over by the doorway, quipping in here and there whenever the boy hesitated in his answer, encouraging him whenever he got shy. But I’ve learned that most of the time, these kids weren’t really shy in nature. They were sweet little ones who always had pure and honest answers, and they only got shy at times when they lacked a little encouragement and reassurance.
Grace and I discovered during the interview with the boy and his mom that one of the kids assigned to us belonged in their family, an older sister of his in their huge family of fourteen – he had eleven other siblings. The problem was that his sister wasn’t home. She was in school, at a half-day class on a Saturday. She was to come home at around five, and Grace and I were doubtful of being able to meet her today.
Our group soon went on with our journey to the other kids’ houses, and I talked to Grace about the time that we could spend instead going to our third subject’s house, who was already with us the whole time we went to the two houses. She was a little girl of six, and had her older brother along with her, and they both knew the way to their house. I proposed that we go on ahead with the siblings to where they lived, instead of going along with the others, as we still hadn’t yet had progress with our own assignments so far in the afternoon. It was already around 3 PM then, so Grace agreed. I talked to Ms. Jessa with Grace, and she agreed, saying we meet up at the center when we were all done. We all agreed, and so went our separate ways. The others with Ms. Jessa took a right turn while our little girl, Ashley, walked with us straight ahead to her home.
The way to their house was even more challenging than our visits to Marissa and the others. A huge change in atmosphere while we were on our way was the smell. We were in Inayawan, and the neighborhood we were visiting was right next to the infamous Inayawan Sanitary Landfill.
We weren’t even close to their house yet, and we were already met with an overpowering smell, no doubt coming from the nearby dumpsite you could see while walking on the street. The garbage was piled high as excavators drove around the large piece of trash-laden land. There were piles of garbage on both sides of the street as we walked on, garbage trucks every several meters or so. People were going through some of the piles of garbage, probably looking for scraps of metal and recyclable materials they could sell at the junkyard, which wasn’t far away from there too. Besides those milling around the garbage, there were also those who collected leftover food to create sacks of lamaw, a combination of the leftovers that is used as pig food.
Right next to the dumpsite was a slaughterhouse, from which a putrid smell intensified as we came closer to it. The sight of it all, as we trudged along on the road, with the dumpsite in view, people rummaging around in the trash, pollution from the many garbage trucks that came and went, made me think of a dystopian world, where human waste had accumulated most of the Earth and downgraded society to depend on getting rid of the waste for a living.
We took a turn from the main street, and went deeper into the community, where the stench was even worse – a combination from all the garbage around us, unsanitized surroundings, a ground covered with so much trash you’d have to walk further to see a patch of the actual ground under all the junk. And there was something else too – mixing in with the already horrid stink was the smell coming from a number of pig sties. The moment we turned the corner, my nose met with the unbearable stench, making me gag. I could actually taste the smell when I swallowed. It was hard to breathe too – every time I tried to unpinch my nose or breathe through my mouth, I couldn’t bear the smell, and made the journey by holding my breath every once in a while as long as I could. But of course, I had to breathe normally, so I had more than a whiff of the fetor occasionally.
On the way to Ashley’s house, I caught sight of the huge Inayawan landfill, only a stone’s throw and a fence away from where they lived. I intended to take a look at the place after meeting with Ashley’s family.
Their house was one of the unimposing, rough-and-ready homes squeezed among many in the poor community. Ashley’s mother came out to meet us, and we promptly introduced ourselves and told her our purpose for coming. She readily agreed to the interview, and set up a couple of chairs outside their small household. We started without delay, and learned that Ashley was a child among four, whose parents’ main livelihood was skimming through the mounds of garbage in their barangay as garbage pickers. On average, they earned 100-200 pesos a day, an amount they make do with to feed six mouths and send the little ones to school.
The interview proceeded smoothly, pictures were taken, and we took our leave soon enough. Ashley and her brother, Jimwell, walked back with us to the main road. Ashley had long since on our way to their home gotten comfortable enough with me to take her hand into mine as we walked side by side. At first I was surprised, but went along with it. During the interview, her mom told us that Ashley had a lisp, and had a hard time saying a lot of words, but I thought she was plenty talkative before and after I had known that I hardly noticed it.
On the main road, Ashley suddenly pointed at a man who was busy packing something into a sack, and yelled, “Si Papa!” (“It’s Papa!”) It was indeed her dad, and Grace and I introduced ourselves briefly. She filmed a little as he went on with his work, while I asked him a few questions, one of them what he was doing.
“Naghimo’g lamaw,” he replied, still engrossed in his task. (“Putting together pig’s food.”) We left him a short while later to his job.
I asked the siblings where their mother worked, and they pointed to a dirt road on the other side of the street that clearly led to the dumpsite we had been passing by. Grace and I decided to see the place for ourselves.
It was familiar enough in the way I’d seen similar views in pictures and documentaries. But just as today I first crossed a rice paddy, I also visited the site where an entire city’s garbage is dumped every day for the first time. Surprisingly, the smell was less intense in the actual site than it was when we were in the residential area. Nonetheless, for the people of Inayawan, seeing a literal mountain of garbage is part of everyday life. But for me, it was a sight I never get to see everyday, no matter how dirty I’ve seen Cebu City be.
I once asked Ashley, in Bisaya, of course, “You’re used to the smell, aren’t you?” She didn’t really seem to understand me at first, so I repeated my question. “What smell?” she asked me back.
We left the site and moved on, now to enter the landfill, which was at the end of the road. We reached it to find a heap just as large and imposing, but on a much wide scale. We didn’t really go in by entrance to look at the most of the dumping site, but we were able to be right next to a part of the landfill. Grace actually climbed the mound, following Jimwell and his friends, who were just as small as him, and like him, wouldn’t heed our advise to not climb up there. I didn’t go up like Grace, because that meant Ashley would come with me too, and I much preferred to keep her on the ground.
After the boys and Grace climbed back down, we decided we’d seen enough and went down the road on the way back to the center. We told the brother and sister they could go home now, but they insisted to escort us all the way.
When we finally arrived back, the others had not yet returned. It was past four in the afternoon, and Grace and I rested in the living room and passed the time to wait for the others.
When they came, they immediately shared with us what they experienced after we broke away from the group. It seems both of our groups had visited the dump sites. While everyone was busy exchanging stories, the mother of our third subject came in to meet Ms. Jessa. When she finished meeting with her, I approached her and asked when we would be able to meet her daughter, Michelle, and ask her our questions.
Michelle’s classes were to end at perhaps 5 PM today, so she should be here right now, she told us. On weekdays, though, she took the night classes, which were from 2:45-8:00 PM. We were agreeing to meet on Monday morning, when she saw someone at the door and said, “Oh, Mitzie’s here.”
Michelle had arrived, and it was almost 5 PM. Her mom said we could do the interview right then, and there was still some ample lighting we could work with, so Grace and I immediately set to work.
We held the interview in front of the Mekong building, which was a bit inconvenient with all the vehicles passing by, but it was the place with the most lighting, and we didn’t have much time. We were further challenged when we learned that Michelle was a bit slow, so to speak. She had trouble saying a particular sentence and keeping calm in front of the camera. Grace’s camera battery went dead in the middle of filming so we had to borrow the foundation’s camera, which our group had brought along.
There was much relief when Michelle was able to say that one line perfectly, and then we soon cleared her part of the interview. Her mother had already been interviewed by Ate Bea from earlier, so she had a bit of a handle on what to say. But only sometimes. Still, by 5:30 PM we deemed we had enough footage to cover the story of Michelle, this lovely and cheery girl who was fifteen and still in the seventh grade. We found out her delay in school had been due to a lung condition, because of which she had to undergo surgery and put her schooling on hold for two years.
Even after we had turned the camera and recorder off, and Michelle had gone home ahead, her mother stayed with us to chat about her family’s story, and in a way, her own. She opened up beyond the camera and we listened. Before we knew it, it was getting quite dark, and my fellow interns were ready to leave. It was past 6 PM when we said goodbye to Michelle’s mom, and several minutes later, after thanking our hosts, especially Ms. Jessa and the old lady who was so hospitable to us, we left Enfants du Mekong.
This is quite a long post, I realize – almost as long as today was. I’ll never forget what I went through today, including the people I met, the children I got to know, and the environment I was thrust into. As I experienced today’s events, the people who crossed my mind include the many people who endure in similar circumstances across the country, around the world, the children from Sambag Dos and Guadalupe, my own family, the people around me, and myself. Seeing the people in Inayawan made me think how some people have it really bad, but how some people have it worse, how some other people have it even worse, and yet how there are surely more people who have even much, much worse, you would feel compelled to never be ungrateful again. It all took a lot of empathy, and that’s saying something for me.
On the way to get a jeepney, one of us asked the group, “If you were given a million pesos to live there for a month, would you do it?” Most of us said no, including myself. I realized then that there are a lot of people who, no matter how much they want to rise above (no pun intended) their circumstances, if they are presented with no opportunities at all to rise, will forever be limited by their circumstances and be forced to live with it. It’s hard especially when not everyone possesses the initiative. It’s made even harder when the will to rise is weakened by becoming used to their present circumstance to a point where they believe its limits are their own.
What a day.
Time out: 6:30 PM
Number of hours: Eleven