Without a doubt, one of my favorite travel stories ever was an article by the amazing Sabrina Iovino about "Smokey Mountain". The place described in her piece was in a part of Manila (the capital of the Philippines) called Tondo and looked like something out of the movie Mad Max. It was one of hundreds of slums in the city where residents subsist on the throwaways of the city's hard-working citizens. The people who lived here were the bottom of the barrel of society and as someone who grew up quite privileged in Sri Lanka, I knew I wanted to see it for myself. Throughout my childhood, I was not shielded from abject poverty. No matter where I turned, there it was, tugging at my heart strings and sending my empathy gauges into overdrive. I then moved to the United States where the severity level of the homeless and underprivileged was far lower than what I grew up with. After nine wonderful years in the first world, I returned to my birthright in the third world (the Philippines) in preparation for my RTW trip and Sabrina's article spurred me on to jolt my comfort zone and reinitialize my expectations of being on this side of the world again.
As I was settling into my new (albeit temporary) digs, I was fortuitously introduced to a friend of a great friend who let me know that a family member of hers had done some social work in the area and would be happy to be our guide. Lo and behold, I later found out as we ventured to Tondo that Smokey Mountain closed down a few years ago causing my heart to sink a little but was lifted when we got word of a place called "Happyland".
We cruised on the main highway parallel to Manila Harbor when we finally saw the entrance to Happyland. I was immediately surprised that it was actually called that. I initially thought it was an ironic nickname the locals gave to such a decrepit and derelict neighborhood. The people who tipped us off about the area also warned us about being careful and not leaving the car. As we sat there parked, we took stock of our surroundings from the inside looking out. I was pleased when everyone in the car drummed up the courage to get out. To be completely honest with you, I was hesitant to get out at first and was somewhat content at the blurry photos I had taken through the dirty windows of the car. As my comfort in the relative safety of the car set in, I remembered what this day was all about and that I was doing the complete opposite of what I had set out to do. After emptying out my pockets and with only my camera in hand, I strolled into Happyland. This is what I found.
(Click on the pictures for an enlarged view)
Right off the bat, the maze of power lines catches your eyes and quite quickly becomes the only thing in your view. This chaotic web of power lines could be a trope for the area in general with order and organization thrown out of the window in favor of survival. It didn't look pretty but it kept the lights on.
A few more steps and I started to get deeper and deeper into the neighborhood. As I looked around, a lot of the houses seemed to be constructed with a thin sheet of plywood or metal (almost like tin foil), or an unusual combination of the two. I will also admit that I was incredibly naive believing that I would stick out like a sore thumb and attract a horde of people like a crazy scene out of The Walking Dead. I realized quickly that there was no chance of that happening here. After catching a glimpse of me, everyone then went about their business and were rather oblivious of my camera and I. An older gentleman sat shirtless to beat the heat whilst reading his paper; children played with other children of similar age and so on.
I was now venturing on my own, firmly leaving my companions back at the entrance to their own devices. As I walked through the alleys formed by the cardboard houses and piles of recycling, I heard the faint sound of a basketball being dribbled. The alley I was walking through eventually opened up and to a pick-up basketball game with the local boys. I stood there for about 10 minutes watching this take place and it was like a scene out of any Filipino neighborhood minus the surrounding junk and debris. Also, it was only after I began processing the photos did I notice the young man with this killer jump shot not having any shoes on. Think about how much that might have hurt. Alas, I wished I had a pair from my former collection of basketball sneakers to give to him.
Following the game, I walked back to the main strip (the path that follows the Happyland facade) and caught up with my friend speaking to a pancake vendor. We inquired about what he was hawking and he told us that it was a flour based hotcake that everyone in the area seemed to love.
I looked to my left after listening to the pancake vendor and I spotted a really young boy scooping up gravel into a plastic cup of dirty water. As I anticipate your scrunched up face of disgust following that visual, I am happy to report that the boy did not consume any of it. He was genuinely entertained by something that was simple and didn't require any power, the internet or mega money electronics some kids his age couldn't live without. "It's the little things" shot straight into my mind and it couldn't be more applicable than this very moment.
From a young boy to a group of women, we had a chuckle when the one on the far right had a momentary lapse in thought and couldn't remember what the name of her baby was. I was laughing so hard that I never caught the baby's name in the end.
It has been a full 45 minutes since we arrived at Happyland and I could sense my companions itching to make a swift exit. I decided to do a final lap beginning with an unexplored alley. This one seemed a little different from the others with several rundown buildings, made in earnest with bricks and concrete, lining up alongside it covered in graffiti.
It would be interesting to see this area from a bird's eye view with these 10-foot walls being constructed from piles of recycling and junk. There were times I was afraid that I would be crushed under all that clutter. The thought of having "death by garbage" on my headstone is a comical one.
I walked 100 feet further and the putrid smell in the air intensified ten-fold in a matter of seconds. I look to my left and stumble into the sight of a frame of an old building enveloped by a mass of rubbish that also created a revolting moat of sorts. Up until this point, the smell was intense, but the toxic combination of such a large volume of trash and dirty water took it up several notches. I hurriedly scampered away and was thankful that I could hold my breath for 30 seconds in order to take this photo.
As I snapped more pictures of the derelict buildings around me, I noticed that a family took refuge on the upper floor of one of them having lunch. Shortly after this picture was taken, the head of the household waved at me and invited me to join them. I was immediately taken aback with their kindness and while I politely refused, I couldn't help but have the warm fuzzies in my heart.
I was coming to the end of the road. One last trash valley with the highway that brought us here on the other side. As I looked up at the mounds of trash, I saw several people up top feverishly picking through it in hopes of finding something of value. It was another scorcher of a day, but still, people worked hard like their lives depended on it, when in fact, their lives DID depend on it.
The relative calm of Happyland was now behind me, leaving me with the noisy cars whizzing by on the highway. As I headed back to rejoin my companions, I reflected on an interesting afternoon in Happyland. The people here were survivors and were the embodiment of someone appreciating and working with that they had. Sure, they were dealt a shitty hand and were expelled to the lowest of the low in Filipino society, but I got very little sense of contempt for their everyday. There were genuine smiles on faces and a work ethic that was commendable. I walked in there thinking that the name of the place was an ironic, twisted joke but after spending a couple of hours there, it is safe to say that it was far from it. This is Happyland and it was home.
About The Author
Nico Atienza is a Philippines born, Sri Lankan raised traveler who sold everything, quit his job and escaped the rat race to travel the world in 2016. Apart from his love of travel, he is an award winning volunteer, miles + points aficionado and perpetually epicurious story teller. You can peer into his life by following him on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram or send him an Email.