The morning was strong, as I. And my stomach made noises as it did yesterday, but they were weakened, I observed. I tested it with crackers. Waited.
I tested it again, water.
I was determined to go on this trip, but worried about whatever had invaded my stomach yesterday. Dehydration was my number one priority. I said a prayer to an Almighty in the heated sky above and swallowed two Immodium pills, asking for strength for whatever lay ahead of me.
We took a taxi and I was grateful for the air-conditioning. With only a few clouds in the sky, Manila heat can be unforgiving and dangerous. Becky looks my way, knowing I am not well. Her eyes ask if I am ok. I smile thinly and nod.
We change to a jeepney and the driver is aggressive in speed and rough with stops. My eyes upward, I summon all strength to at least get to 12pm, just enough time to be exposed to the life of so many urban poor. I want to understand. Somewhere inside, a voice asked, “At what expense?” I answer, “Even if it kills me, I want to understand. Even just a little, I want to see this.”
The group gets off and I do not know where we are. There are vendors, cars, taxis, and jeepneys. Crowded, but I do not notice anything but the stench. It smells of rotting everything. The odor is so sharp my mouth opens in reflex, but closes quickly when I see flies heading toward my gaping face. My eyes cannot hide, I am terrified. I am disgusted. I want to leave.
We board another jeepney and I hear the weakened army in my stomach begin another rebellion. I bargain that they can do whatever they like later in the day, just not now. They obey in agreement.
The jeepney takes us to a small community surrounded by garbage. I hear someone mutter, “How am I going to do this?”
I turn quickly and meet her eyes, “Mind over matter. Don’t think.”
The earth smells of decay and my soul darkens in misery, sorrow, and disbelief.
Without pants or underwear, I see the children wailing. Someone is soulfully singing into a karaoke machine. I recognize another Journey song. The new lead singer is Filipino. Another source of pride for the people. The narrow walkway crosses makeshift bridges over green and white water with flies attacking something I cannot see, something I refuse to see. I quickly walk further, wanting to escape the smell, the dirt, but it is everywhere.
We stop at a house and enter the room. I feel stupid because we wear our shoes inside and we are covered in dirt and they leave their tsinelas (sandals) at the door. They bring us broken dirty chairs to sit in and I sit by the couch, my mind is numb from the situation.
They tell us the story of their lives.
They pay 3000 pesos (roughly $66.00) for a whole truckload of garbage from which they sift through for things to resell and also PAGPAG, leftover food they pick up and they shake free of dirt and then re-cook to eat. They scour for plastic utensils, metal, soda bottles, plastic bags, and anything edible.
The prices change depending on where the garbage comes come. If it comes from condos, the price is high. If it comes from a construction site, it’s even higher because you will find good wood and metal, which can be sold at a junk yard. The least expensive garbage is from chain fast food stores and restaurants which throw out perishable foods and unused ingredients.
We survive off the garbage, they tell us.
And they pay for the scraps.
I turn my head in disbelief.
I look into her face, the woman who is talking with us, and smile even though I don’t understand her words until they are translated after she is finished speaking. My eyes gloss her home and become fixated with the staircase. Uneven wooden blocks. The last step is incredibly steep. The stairs look like something for a tree house. Some of the climbing ladders in US children’s playgrounds are sturdier and better built than this house.
I close my eyes.
They open a door to show us one truckload of garbage they keep next to their homes. Coughing, someone is gagging. Steps backward. The smell is indescribable. I want to cry for a hundred reasons and apologize a thousand times and give everything to them and kill whomever breaks their promises to these people. All those feelings, all in one moment once he opened that door.
Another moment, they show me a bag of organized food they have put together. It is full of leftover bread, stuffed in a bag and left on the ground near the garbage. I take a picture of it and walk away. I wonder if I’m in an alternate universe.
Actually, I am.
Across the street there are shirtless men watching us. They are not leering or glaring, just watching us take out our cameras and document what we see. Tourists at a garbage community, their home. I feel wrong. My camera is worth more than 30 truckloads of garbage, but I don’t want to give them 30 truckloads of garbage. I want to give them homes, clothes, healthcare, clean water, fresh food, education, chances, changes, life, more.
We move on.
We go to another community.
Our leader, who is wearing a shift that says, “Real Men Wear Pink,” warns us to keep our bags in front of us and do not take pictures because they will be, basically, stolen right out of our hands. Kim nudges me, “I know he doesn’t have to tell you that. You already guard that thing with your life,” she nods toward my Nikon SLR. I smile mischievously and do a karate high-kick in the air, “I feel bad for anyone that even tries.” She laughs.
We crawl into a trike (motorcyle with extra seating on the sides) and take off.
We walk through the town and I move my brain into turbo strength.
Mind over matter. Mind over matter.
The smell of the vendors' items makes me want to hurl. Fish, hanging meat, a salad with a village of flies sitting on it. I tuck my bag closer to me and walk straight ahead.
Blend right in, we were instructed.
We stop at the top of a hill and our guide says it’s safe to take pictures here, but not when we go back to town. A few hundred yards away is a mountain of garbage. At the base of it is the village we are standing in. I pull my camera out but cannot take a picture yet. My mental pictures are always better than Nikon, anyway. Theresa whispers to me, “The children are asking you to take their picture.” I look to my right into a doorway. The darkness cloaks them but I see small feet and hear giggles.
Images of my niece and nephews cross my mind. I swallow hard, missing them.
I start snapping shots of the doorway and they peak out with the whites of their eyes. Reviewing their pictures on the screen, I check the exposure of the shots. Their shyness comes alive in my photos.
I hear a movie playing in someone’s house. The sound amplifies and carries so far that the entire group can hear a hundred feet away. We can’t identify the movie but it’s in English and the gunshot sounds reveal an action movie. I hear tires squealing and screaming.
Why more violence? Why more death, even if it’s fictional? Is that entertaining?
We navigate a narrow pathway and find ourselves at the base of the basura (garbage) mountain. The heat is bearing down on my skin. The smell comes in waves, my nausea as well.
An unfamiliar man begins asking if we are students. Someone explains we are from the US taking an immersion trip. He explains their community.
Many of them were displaced from the homes and placed here by the government. Now that foreign development companies want to develop the land, they are trying to move them out of their homes. Some of the families take the small amount of money they offer because they do not know what else to do and the government moves them again with promises of stable homes and better conditions. Instead, they are put in flooding areas with tents. No water, no electricity. Their promise of a better life is unfulfilled.
Not too long ago, one of the garbage mountains grew too high and collapsed from the weight. Three hundred people were buried alive in the garbage and left there to die. Many of them were husbands and fathers looking through the trash for survival. When the story broke, billions were raised and donated to the families for aid. The families have not yet seen one peso of that money. Strangely, any money that passes through the government never sees its intended destination.
The government of the Philippines, the man said, asks for assistance of other countries for arms. The government uses the language that the US military will understand: “terrorists” and foreign countries donate arms for the military to use against the civilians.
So they ask other countries for arms to use against its own people? Yes.
The military is used against the people here. The weak, the small, the helpless communities are threatened, harassed, and bullied with arms when they do not want to move, refuse the development companies, or voice their concerns over their living conditions. Their organizing for rights is considered “terrorism.”
His voice becomes louder, “I am not a terrorist!” He is nearly screaming.
There are undercover military all around. They are used as a frightening tactic to prevent people from organizing. “Organizing” means fighting for their basic right to live with decent living conditions and surroundings. The government blankets their surveillance of the people as “anti-terrorist.”
I look down at the ground while absorbing his words.
Much later, one of the leaders later tells a story of how he left for a few months to get out of town. To travel, experience, get away. When he returned, in the late hours of the morning, he was taken from his home by the government. They put military guns in front of him asking him to assemble them, if he knew how, and what he was doing for four months away from home. They thought he might be in terrorist training.
He went away for travel. To live his life.
They have no rights here. They have nothing.
“I am not a terrorist!!” The man is once again proclaiming.
He tells the military, “You can kill me! I will not move!” He retells his convictions to us.
My translation skills slow…I feel lightheaded and I see the man’s mouth forming words, “…Bush and Cheney…” but I cannot process it anymore. The mountain stands before me. The smell is in my body. The sun beats on my skin. I walk to Theresa, “Something is happening to me.”
I wander to a fallen tree and use the trunk as a seat.
I put my head between my legs.
I cannot breathe, though, from the smell.
Relax, I’ll be fine.
I’m not fine.
Kim. I call out.
Kim. I call again.
KIM. She turns around. I wave her over.
I look at the mountain of garbage and my brain is turning fuzzy. I’m becoming so disoriented I wonder if I’m looking through the lens of my camera because everything looks fluorescent white and overexposed similarly when I don’t put the right settings on my camera. To my left, my camera sits.
Oh God, it’s me. Something is wrong with me. It’s not my camera I’m looking through. It’s my eyes.
I look up and Kim’s face is blotched with circles. I blink slowly to make them go away. They scatter, small circles all over her face, her body, even the garbage behind her.
Her hands touch my forehead. “Oh God….” Sweat is dripping off me like a faucet.
“I can’t see anymore.” I’m terrified.
“When did you eat?”
I slump forward, “Crackers.”
“No, WHEN did you eat?”
“This morning, crackers.”
She blows air out of her lips, worried. She knows I barely ate yesterday because of my stomach.
She grabs everything out of my hands. She’s talking but I don’t hear her.
“Help me, please. What’s happening?”
A cracker goes into my mouth. I crunch once, but there’s no saliva in my mouth. The crumbs are pebbles in my mouth.
My ears are slowly filling with jelly and my vision is dimming. My head begins gaining weight and needs to touch the ground. I cannot hold it up any longer.
“I AM NOT A TERRORIST.” He’s still talking.
Images come through my mind as someone forces a straw in my mouth loudly commanding me to drink soda.
My brain neurons are everywhere.
Far away, I see Nick working in his office and hear my mother’s voice telling me to be careful in my travels.
I’m sorry, Mom, I wasn’t careful enough.
The mountain is now nearly pure white and the faces are almost gone. My hearing is underwater.
Theresa pulls out small packets of sweetened jello candy and slides it into my mouth.
Another bottle is shoved in my face. “Sip this!”
I sip with whatever strength I have left. Warm, red Gatorade goes down my throat.
Gatorade. The taste brings up memories of the Borchers and Russia and how I almost never drink Gatorade unless I am in Russia. I hope I drink Gatorade there again.
Am I dying?
I panic and wonder if the light I’m seeing is “The Light” and if this is the end for me, to die at the base of a garbage dump surrounded by people who’ve known me for only three weeks of my life. Everyone and everything most precious to me is on the other side of the world.
I can’t be dying. They say when you die, it’s a peaceful process. I’m scared as hell.
Wait. Maybe this is hell.
A small, rough, and unfamiliar hand touches the nape of my neck. It’s soaking and cold. “Malamig!” The women’s voice rang with worry that I was cold despite the sun beating down on us. Her worry heightened my panic.
I am nearly blind and deaf and cannot speak.
Becky forces her way to be in front of me and lets me rest my head on her, “We’re taking care of you. Close your eyes.”
I’m afraid if I close my eyes, I will fully pass out and never regain consciousness. I open them and see a dog looking at me curiously. The ground is covered in garbage. The smell is enveloping my last thoughts.
I am almost crying, “Please help me. Please help me.”
Three people are wiping me down with cloths while the town women fan me down.
Kim is nearly exploding, “She needs to get out of this heat. She needs to get out of here.”
I hear voices, all muffled.
“The stretcher can’t make it down the pathway. It’s too narrow. Can she walk?”
“Look at her! She can’t walk!”
My hands begin tingling.
“We’re too far from the clinic.”
“Can she eat ice cream?”
“She can’t! Her stomach…”
“Is she diabetic?”
“I am not a terrorist!”
“Where’s the medic?”
“I’m an artist, I use art to bring peace in the world.” Philippe is explaining himself to a local. He doesn’t care that I’m slipping away.
Out of nowhere, I miss my sister and want to talk to her. My heart squeezes with love. My eyes close to listen to my body.
I realize my heart is racing and my breathing is labored. I want to lie down, even if it’s covered with the most horrendous garbage, my body feels like it weighs a ton and I cannot hold it up any longer. I am slipping off the tree I was sitting on.
Pray. I hear my Mom.
I try to focus on something other than my fear.
Dear God, if you get me through this, I’ll…I’ll…I can’t think of anything at this moment, God, but whatever it is, I’ll do. I’ll be better or more loving or more forgiving or less selfish. Just get me through this. Whatever is happening to me, just give me enough strength to get me through this. Please help me.
I remember that was my prayer this morning.
I pushed myself too hard. I’m so foolish.
More soda in my mouth. Theresa pops open more cherry flavored jello candy.
I hear Lexie in the background saying she has chocolate. Someone opens my hand and places a melting candy bar in it. I don’t have enough mental strength to explain that I don’t like chocolate. The wrapper is too strong for me.
“Keep drinking the soda!” Whoever is talking to me is talking loud because I can hear it through the pillow stuffed between my ears. The cool sweetness coats my tongue in sugar.
I hear Kim, “It’ll take effect in a little while.” She’s talking about the sugar I just ingested. Her parents are doctors. It shows.
Behind her a man has a machete and slams it toward a coconut. It splits open and they gather the juices in a glass for me. I close my eyes.
When I reopen them, the glass is in front of me, “You need potassium.”
There’s a long hair on the glass and I feel like I will vomit if it comes near me. I shake my head, refusing the glass. I feel awful that I am not drinking it after they opened a coconut for me, but the chances that the glass has been properly cleaned are relatively low. I think of the bacteria already in my stomach and know the last thing I need is to build that army in my digestive system.
I shake my head again. I am not drinking it.
I can’t win.
I need the juice to recover, but I’ll probably get sick again from whatever’s floating in it from the glass. I detest my odds and whimper, “I want to go home.” Not sure which home I meant. Home means so many things. It means Nick, family, familiarity, clean, fresh water, and safety. Geographically, the last home I remember is Boston, but I no longer live there. Cleveland was my home for three days before I left. “Home,” though, at that moment had limitations. It meant somewhere familiar, somewhere cool where I can lie down and cry alone. Some place that made sense. Home, at that moment was Casa Clementina on Timog Avenue, Metro Manila. That is my home for now, where my flip flops are, where my notebooks and pens lie, and where my laptop is stored. I sadly reflect, “home,” is where my “things” are, not people.
“Should we call someone? Nick? Your Dad?”
I shake my head. “They’ll just worry.” I am not dying on this mountain of garbage, I decide.
“What about your Uncle here in the Philippines?” Becky pushes.
“No, he’ll call my Dad.”
I open my eyes. The mountain has some color. That brings me relief.
Kim peers into my face, “You’re better,” she diagnoses, “your face doesn’t look green anymore and I can see that your lips are a normal shade.”
“What happened?” My brain is moving toward orientation.
“Dude,” Kim explains with experience, “this happens to me, too, sometimes. It’s hypoglycemia. You barely ate yesterday because you were sick and you only had some crackers this morning." She shakes her disproval. "You’re out in this heat, walking around, and, well, we’re here…” she gestures to our surroundings, “your blood sugar just dropped.” Her hands fly from above her head to low near the ground.
“Am I diabetic?” I scream.
“No. It’s just you only had crackers this morning.” She looks at me as if I did heroine for breakfast.
“Oh. I kept drinking water because I was worried about dehydrating.” I feel embarrassed that I forgot about the simple act of eating. I turn and see everyone milling around my emergency.
“You need to go home and rest. I’ll go with you.” Becky is still holding on to me.
A feeling of loving gratitude spills over me. I want to cry again, I'm so overwhelmed by everything and everyone, good and evil.
My body still feels like it is a pendulum between hot and cold and it’s dripping with sweat, but my senses have returned. Shakily, I stand.
Hands hold me up as I make my way to town where Becky and one of our trusted group leaders and I ride a trike and then a taxi back home.
My head clears in the taxi as I rest my head on the door. The experience inundates my memory.
I return to the apartment and shower, eat rice with soy sauce and drink ice tea.I google “hypoglycemia” and absorb the websites explaining the symptoms. My worry deescalates as I read that it is common to experience it after the stomach empties itself from illness. This never happened to me before, but I learned a hard lesson about self-care, limitations, and eating breakfast for goodness sakes. I snuggle into my bed and turn the air-conditioner on low.
The clock reads 12:31pm.
What a morning.
I thought about how simple the problem was: not enough food, not enough sugar. And yet, truthfully, felt like I was possibly dying. Shit, when all your senses are disappearing and everything around you is reminding you of death and survival is on a thumbnail, it's an easy thought to conclude that death is the next step. Even with what happened, in which I had never been so frightened in all my life, I am glad that I saw what I did. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn, even if it took everything out of me.
It is a privilege to be able to visit, because to visit means I am free to leave.
No one there had that same choice.