Maybe it was the afternoon shower that took place which washed away the top soil, revealing broken glass and rusted electrical cables strewn everywhere. Maybe those things can be seen every day. I don’t know. What I do know is that the sight of these items made our entire team pay extra attention to where we placed each footstep that day.
I’m focused on watching where I walk, but every so often I find myself lifting my head to see the world around me. The most amazing thing I see is the speed and agility of 2 local children walking where we walk amongst the broken glass and rusted item. One child has bare feet, completely oblivious to the dangerous foreign matters on the ground all around us.
These two children approach. There are big smiles on their faces with maybe a touch of mischievousness included. We get flashed the “two thumbs up” sign and I watch in amazement as they just keep running on ahead.
For these children, this mountain is easy to climb. For me, it might be the most difficult one of my life.
Maybe it is because our team is technically trespassing in a restricted area. The main entrance is fenced up by the local barangay (village) council and they are adamant that no families other than the estimated 50 current resident households are allowed to set up homes in this 100ft piled-up heap of the Original Smokey Mountain, without their permission.
Maybe is is because we’ve all realised that the ground that we are standing on is not soil that one would expect. It is instead a combination of loose ash and dust that has piled up over 40 years of rubbish dumping and disintegration. There are more than 2 million metric tonnes of waste that our feet are standing upon. Some of this ground could even still be flammable.
This mountain has claimed many lives in its past. Memories of the past linger here, making the stomach churn.
Maybe it is there in the distance. There is an uncomfortable gaze into the Manila waterfront. In the distance, we all can see where the new Smokey Mountain once stood. It has now been cleared out and razed to the ground for an upcoming government project. The inhabitants were displaced into the already crowded Aroma slum area or sent to make their homes next to a cemetery.
Maybe it is the idea that this mountain has been created as a place to separate people from one another because they aren’t seen as being “good enough.” The thought is almost laughable. Are we all not good enough to be human? Are we all not part of a special moment right now in this life?
It’s a heavy sigh that weighs down my chest. All I have to do is turn in the other direction and I’ll see the rich and famous Makati city, just a 20 minute drive away, and within its borders I think we all know for certain that a mountain like this would never exist. .
20 minutes. For many here, 20 minutes is the separation between heaven and hell.
Maybe it is the surprise in seeing that what I would find unbearable, others find to be joyful. Our team has its spirits lifted at the sight of how happy and carefree the children of this mountain are at almost every single moment, despite their terrible living conditions. They always have a ready smile for one another and visitors are welcomed with open arms.
There is a certain level of childhood innocence that seems to be everywhere. The children here give no thoughts to the close boundaries that separate the city of Tondo and Makati. They instead look for the perfection of each moment, found even here amongst bits of broken glass and rusted metal.
Maybe it is in the defiance that we see all around us. It is quiet and it is never mentioned out loud, but I can see it in the eyes of every person who lives on this mountain. The spirit of resilience isn’t just in the human soul. It’s also on the planet itself.
Crops and plantations were growing on the ground where only rubbish could be found not long ago. Some of these crops were barely surviving the Manila heat, but they were surviving nonetheless. I cannot help but notice that there are some places where life is thriving so well that there are enough crops to provide for the sustenance of some households on this mountain.
Our team can even see some flora sprouting out from the ground, beautiful in their strength and steadfastness. The strength and will to survive serves as a parallel to the communities living in the old Smokey Mountain.
Maybe it is in the fact that I look around, I do not see any despair lingering in the air around this mountain. My struggles to reach its summit are not from the roadblocks that the mountain has put in my way but are of my own design. Children run and play without a second thought. The people who call this mountain home go through their daily routine with joy and a sense of contentment.
I take a deep breath. Then another. Suddenly the mountain doesn’t seem like such a dark and difficult place anymore. The footsteps become easier to take.
Maybe… just maybe life can be what we make of it each and every day. It might be in the richness of a great city or on the boundary between heaven and hell, but there is an overwhelming joy that can be found in the contentment of a perfect moment.
On this mountain, beauty has once again been found. There is life here in the smile of a child, the hard work to grow crops, or the simple pride of flora that refuses to be told where it should grow.
The mountain is still hard to climb. It just isn’t the hardest mountain to climb any more.
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