Today we went to Smoky Mountain. The smoke refers to both the burning of the dump right next to the community and the 117 charcoal “factories” inside the community. The ‘mountain’ refers to the mounds of trash. It is located on the west side of Manilla right on the bay.
We were told to keep the cameras hidden. The community and the dump are monitored by strategically placed cameras. Smoky Mountain has received international attention as being one of the worst trash dump communities in the world. I would hate to see worse.
The original Smoky Mountain has been closed for awhile. It sits just across the street from where we are and ‘high rise apartments’ have been built on top of it. What the government calls high rise apartments is actually blocks and blocks of 7 to 10 story structures built out of scrap lumber, recycled metal, and torn tarps. It looks like the set for the latest apocalyptic movie out of Hollywood. The haze and smoke from the charcoal factories add to the effect.
Pier 17 is the actual location of where we are but nobody calls it that. It is called the New Smoky Mountain or Smoky Mountain 2 or just Smoky Mountain. This was supposed to be a better situation than the old one. It isn’t.
We walk into the community and quickly all eyes are on us. We stick out. Tall, white, big Americans. Everywhere I look there are eyes looking back. Can’t make out all of the faces. To much dirt. The road is packed down trash with layers of mud, broken glass, and shattered plastics. The smell of burnt wood, rotting fish, and sewage breezes in and out.
Children are roaming the streets, not in school. Most are picking up bottle caps and smashing them. Many are naked. All covered with dirt and mud. All smiling.
Their curiosity gets the better of them as they approach us asking us our names, where are we from. They want high fives and hugs. We start picking them up and throwing them in the air. Laughter starts filling this desolate, dark place. The soundtrack of these kids doesn’t match the visuals. It’s not what one would expect in this setting.
They want to play and laugh. They either have no clue how bad they have it or maybe they do and they are choosing joy instead. They and the adults we meet are generous and warm. Not one person asks us for money.
The streets are narrow. Barely enough room for a motorcycle to get through. About every 6 or 7 houses, there is a store of some sort. It’s very active. Bikes full of salvaged wood heading to the charcoal factories or plastic gallon containers heading to the wash factories.
The houses have a floor of packed mud and trash. All the wood is scrap plywood or palettes pieced together. Many of the houses have one room on the bottom with a second floor for sleeping mats. There are a few cut-out windows in these structures.
We weave our way thru 15 blocks of this. I keep wondering when will we get to the end. We don’t. We cross over a canal of black sludge.
We meet three heroes of the faith – Pastor Reynixon, Pastora Cora, and Thomas. Pastors Reynixon and Cora have built a church in the middle of this place. They serve meals to close to 1,000 kids a week. Thomas is a photographer and works with Empowering Lives Asia. Reynixon grew up in Smoky Mountain. He has two college degrees and chooses to spend his days inside this place to rescue as many as they can touch.
The numbers are hard to take in. There are over 50 football fields of what we just walked through. Over 2,000 families. Estimated between 20,000 and 30,000 people crammed into this space. I ask about crime and death. He says there is more crime outside Smoky Mountain than in it. Death? Mostly by sickness or malnourishment. Completely preventable if the kids lived just 1,000 meters away.
We eat lunch at the church. Rice and pork stew of some sort. I realize that I’m eating more than these kids get in a week….perhaps a month. It’s humbling. There is no sense of bitterness from these people either. They are eager to share. To refuse their hospitality would be unthinkable and the most insulting thing I could do.
After lunch, Thomas and Cora take us on a tour of the neighborhood. Pastor Reynixon has acute asthma. He can’t walk through the charcoal factories. He asks us to stop by a families house to pray for a child named Dennis.
We stop by Dennis’ house. Dennis is a 10 year old suffering from a disease that makes him spasm uncontrollably. He needs expensive antibiotics. He is lying in the middle of the floor, shaking. He doesn’t look 10. He looks 6. His mom is nursing a sibling in the floor beside him.
Pastora Cora asks the family if they would like for us to pray for them. She nods. There are six huge white American pastors that now cram into her home. The roof is only 5 feet tall but we manage. Not a one of us is going to refuse her hospitality. One of us prays. We lay hands on Dennis. Words cease but the prayers continue for a few minutes more.
We exit the house and start walking back through the neighborhood. Pastor Cora is telling people as we walk through that we are all “Americano Pastors.” Faces light up and smile when they hear that. Their connotation of pastor means help. It means someone who cares. This is all because of the work of Pastors Reynixon and Cora. They have defined “Pastor” and Christ to these people.
We walk through the charcoal factories. It’s surreal. They get scraps of wood from broken palettes and burn them inside a packed earth furnace. They don’t vent the smoke up through a chimney – which would be healthier. Instead they keep the smoke inside the hut as it shortens the amount of time to make charcoal from 12 days to about 3. Every person in the factory is covered with soot. There are kids from ages 6 working in the factories.
“This is a good day” Thomas tells me. “Not as much smoke as usual.”
Thomas tells me there is about 117 of these factories. There used to be over 200. Thomas and Pastora Cora walk through here to make sure the kids connected to their ministry go to school, not work. I see Pastora Cora playfully swat a couple of boys in the behind. She is speaking to them very firmly in Tagalog. I understand her clearly and I don’t speak a word of the language. You just sorta know when you are getting chewed out. The boys run off and smirk at each other. They’ve been busted but they know they are loved. They take the scolding with a good heart.
We circle back around through the plastic recycling center and wash center. More children, more nakedness, more filth. More smiles and laughter. It’s hard to reconcile the two but these people seem to do it everyday. Our pictures and video can’t capture it all. It’s impossible for a 2D medium to come close to what we’ve been through the last 3 hours.
We are all veterans. We’ve seen poverty before. Across the globe and in our own home cities. But nothing like this. Nothing like this. Even the TMP guys were quiet on the ride home.