Poverty is pungent. And few places on earth stink of destitution more than the Philippines – an archipelago where the wealthy, corrupt few lord it over their impoverished constituents.
I’ve been to many poorer parts of the world; Africa, Bolivia, and myriad Asian destinations but when it comes to the stench of deprivation Manila wins hands down. Whether it's the garbage dumps of Payatas, the slums of port side Tondo, the amoral goings on in Ermita, Metro Manila does poverty in loud, full technicolour – an assault on all the senses. Yet, perhaps the most intriguing slumville area that until this weekend had eluded me were the rail tracks by Bicutan.
I presumed by the deep, well pressed garbage into the buffers that no train passed this depressed area. The kids played, the garbage stank, cockerels faced off to fight each other, while ingenious converted wooden crates ferried folk up and down the tracks. The stench was awful, the huts lined up close to the tracks, electric wires bunched overhead and sewage flowed freely. Yet happiness reigned.
I guess this is the key point with being poor – people get by, their glass tends to be half full, where as us with a living and bills, etc are forever stressed. God knows this is a lame comparison but when I was poor (this coming from an Old Harrovian!)– when I first came to HK and literally scavenged to get by for a while – I now look back as some of the happiest days of my life.
Back to Bicutan. I’d walked up and down the tracks, snapping away, attracting much attention – the typical Philippine call out ‘Hey Joe” – and was still getting to grips with the torrid smell when a loud whistle blew. Up ahead a slovenly, battered train made its way through the trash. As it passed me, kicking up near vomit inducing dust, a plane soared up overhead. I knew where I’d rather be at the moment.