Tondohan / by John Javellana

It is an innate perception amongst Filipinos that Tondo is a haven for crooks, thugs and criminals. My job as a photojournalist has taken me to so many different niches in our society that I could have never have seen or experienced if not for the profession.

My usual drive around Manila to look for a picture led me to a desolate compound that is occupied a range of people ranging from the relocated to the derelicts. The compound was very surreal and photographically phantasmagorical. The way the light hit different corners and areas of the compound was fantastic. So many colors and most of all, so many different things to see. The residents there primarily thrive on garbage to sell as recyclables. Everywhere you look, there was somebody probing through assemblage of garbage collected from the nearby dump site. Residents collected and segregated everything from scrap metals to plastic bottles and products. There was an area where a woman re-cooks food scraps recovered from fast-food restaurant discards and children lining up to have a share. There were small businesses such as pool hall, a sari-sari store and even a playstation gaming area. It was really more of a community within their own.

The compound was literally a factory of children. Babies, infants and toddlers scattered all throughout the litter encompassed dwelling. The unnerving part was where the people were sniffing glue. From children to the grown-ups, it was such a wonted thing in the area. The fact that it was something so accepted really shocked. I had to ask them why they do it. Most of them said that sniffing glue appeased their hunger. Some said they just wanted to do so to pass time. As i countinued to make an ocular of the area, I was acquiring stares and taunts. To be honest, I must say that I was afraid to not make it out of the place alive. I started to talk to the residents there and that’s where everything changed.

It was a surprise to me that people there were quite receptive. It is true that the atmosphere of the place is nothing short of petrifying. But once the quintessential language of a simple smile broke all the barriers of unfamiliarity, I was shown a different side of Tondo from what we all generally know. They welcomed me into their makeshift houses with warmth and they were very open to share their stories with me. The most heartwarming thought was when a family offered me food and drink when themselves have none. They made sure I was comfortable as I could be even in such a place. That simple gesture of kindness made a mark within me. A mark that I will never forget. At first I said to myself not to go back there anymore, but I found myself coming back over and over again.

I saw sorrow and despair through every person I got to talk to. Everybody had a different story, a different scenario. But something that binded them all was that they all had hope. Hope of a better future. Hope of a better life even through the pungent smell of garbage. Yes, they admitted that there are some who live by miscreant means, but it was just a small part of their community. Most of them still believe that living an honest life will still reap its rewards. If not here on earth, maybe some place after. Through all of the hardships, they also admitted that they were content. Collecting and selling garbage gave them a more dependable means of living making them satisfied with their current arrangements therefore making the option of having a real job impracticable.

Life can have a funny way of manifesting its beauty. Behind all the masks and clouds that surround how we generally percieve Tondo, I saw and experienced the uncanny Filipino trait of resilience and hope despite all odds. Most people there suffer and go through the pangs of poverty not through criminal means but with dignity - even if it means digging through heaps and heaps of garbage. For me , the experience was about the irony of seeing life’s beauty behind its ugliness and despair. Tondo’s not so bad after all.