For a time, life was not unhappy. There was much celebration, I am told, when I was born, and I remember myself the joy of Felipe’s arrival when I was five years old. Papa was so proud of his new son and had many plans for him. But another child meant another mouth to feed, and on my papa’s wages that was not easy. And then came a bad season which cut the wages in half. And then a new landowner that kept them that way. After ten years during which the combined efforts of the four of us were just enough to keep us alive, my sister Imee came into the world.
Papa did not believe we could survive any longer in Isabela, but he had heard of opportunities in Manila and decided the time was right to move. Mama was not so sure, I think, but she could not let her new baby starve. So we sold what few possessions we had and set off for the city.
We travelled hundreds of kilometres by train and bus and foot. We slept wherever we could - on the train, in a hut at the station, beneath a bridge. One night we slept under the canvas of a covered grain wagon, huddled together like birds in a nest. As we slept, we dreamed of a proper house and a good job for Papa.
But when we got to Manila there was nothing for us. Papa went from hotel to hotel looking for work, and no one would listen to him. Many times he was called a fool. Many times he was told to try in the country, where it was said there were opportunities.
After the hotels, Papa tried the factories, but there were queues of men at the gates every morning, all of them being turned away. It was the same with the smaller sweatshops. There were too many workers and not enough jobs. A more dishonest man, a man prepared to use violence, might have found a way - it is not difficult to believe the stories of men being stabbed to death in dark alleyways by those who would replace them at the start of the next day’s shift. But Papa is a good man who craves only a decent life for his wife and children. He is a brave man, too, though he knows how to cry, as I learned during those first few days in Manila.
We had been in the city for a week when Papa was sent to see a man called Dalmacio, who was known as a friend to the needy. He offered Papa sixty thousand pesos for one of his kidneys. When Papa said no, Dalmacio gave him his mobile phone number, written on the back of an expired lottery ticket, just in case. I know that Papa still has that number.
We had been in the city, and then, with no other options remaining, we found ourselves at the Payatas Dump, where we have been ever since, just one family of thousands trying to earn a living from what others throw away. We know that, short of finding something miraculous amongst the rubbish, there is no chance of a return to Isabela, even if there was something to return to.
Hundreds of lorries come to Payatas every day, bringing vast amounts of waste. My papa, my mama, Felipe and I work from as soon as it is light until it gets dark again, collecting plastic, cardboard, paper, wood, glass and metal for the recycling man. It is a dangerous job in a stinking landscape of foul, shifting mountains. If you do not climb, you are lucky to earn thirty pesos a day, not enough for a living. When you do climb, it is with the knowledge that at any moment you might find yourself slipping into an abyss of filth. Every day people are hurt in such falls. One day, about two years after we had moved here, a young boy called Joel damaged his right arm so badly that they had to cut it off just beneath his elbow. He had always been a cheerful boy, forever smiling, and he learned to smile again after the accident, but always you could see the pain in his eyes. And then one morning his family took him away. Perhaps they had found something miraculous in the rubbish.
In order to survive on the dump we work a system between us, so that we can be as efficient as possible. Felipe is in charge of food and drink cans and four times a day we meet to pass any that we have found to him. He rolls them beneath the wheels of the passing dump trucks to flatten them, making them easier to pack and carry. I spend most of my time gathering paper and cardboard. My mama looks for plastic and glass, and because of the glass any gloves we find are saved for her. The bigger, heavier materials are collected by my father. It is very hard for him as he has lost much of his strength since our time in the countryside. The hair on his head is still thick and black, but the face beneath it has become old and tired. There are dark bags beneath his eyes and deep lines of worry on his forehead. He has lost two of his front teeth and his ribs show through his skin.
While we work the dump, Imee goes to the Water Centre, where she spends her little days in happiness. The people at the Water Centre are very kind. They give their time and money to help look after the children too young to work; they feed and wash them once a day, and while the little ones are there they are safe. The female workers arrange games for them and teach them to count and to sing. The male workers split their time between carrying water and guarding the perimeter against scavenging adults. In the mornings, when Imee’s hand slips from mine and she goes whooping through the gates to meet her friends, skipping into a place where the filth cannot follow her, it is impossible not to smile. But then I remind myself that when she is six years old she will no longer be allowed to go there. Papa says that when that time comes she is to attend school so that she can one day get a proper job. He has not explained from where the money for her schooling will come, though. I wonder if Dalmacio’s offer is in his mind; the thought of it makes me shudder.
In 2005, before we arrived here, there was, after a day and a night of heavy rain, a massive landslide. Hundreds of shacks on the edge of the dump were buried, many with the people still in them. A fire was started, either by fallen power cables or an overturned stove. No one knows how many died, but some say it was over a thousand. Most of them were children. The dump was closed, but not for long. Once the TV reporters had moved on to new stories it was quietly re-opened, and newspapers carrying politicians’ promises that such a thing would never happen again became just more pieces of rubbish waiting to be salvaged.
Mama and Papa heard about the disaster soon after we arrived and, though they tried to keep the details of it from us, it was only a matter of days before Felipe and I found out. There are still many here who lost members of their family in the landslide and the flames and Felipe met a man who, in return for food, would draw charcoal likenesses of lost children for their parents to place in makeshift shrines. The man had known some of the dead, and if he had not known them he would ask questions of the parents in order to provide the best likeness he could. In the darkness you can still sometimes see the shrines, wherever someone has managed to find a candle, glowing in the darkness. But despite such reminders, more squatters arrive at the dump every day, and Papa must know that one day our lives here will become impossible.
It was the thought of Papa’s body being cut open that first made me consider José’s proposal. I have known José for many months, and though I am wary of his promises, I think he is not an entirely bad young man. His smile is a little too ready for my liking, and I find it insulting that he walks amongst the wretched of this stinking place eating candy and reeking of aftershave, but there is a kind of sincerity in his eyes. He says he can introduce me to people who can find me a husband abroad, an arrangement which could solve many problems. If he could find me a nice man with a secure income, I could send some money home. Perhaps I could find myself a proper job and send yet more money. Imee could go to school. Mama and Papa and Felipe could leave the dump forever. Such thoughts make me dizzy.
I have to think of myself also. I owe it to my mama’s careful teaching that by the time I was twelve I could read a newspaper written in English, and, at nineteen, I have come to understand much about life via yesterday’s news. Still, there is no substitute for a proper education. I have no future here and the men I meet, apart from José and the volunteers at the Water Centre, look upon me with disgust. Not because I am not pretty, but because I am a dump person. My hands are black with dirt, my hair is matted and greasy, and my clothes are filthy and torn. And even if I was not a dump person, even if I was clean and sweet smelling and you could see my prettiness, the men in this country are not always the best of men. My mama says that respect such as my father gives her is a rare thing in a man here, and I know this to be true. And I want that for myself: I want respect.
As I go about my work, I sometimes ask myself: Who might I end up with, and what would such a life be like? In the magazines I find, I sometimes see pictures of American and European houses, and I try to imagine what it would be like to live in one. They are not unlike the houses of the rich here in Manila. They have clean white bathrooms with hot and cold running water. They have softly furnished lounges dedicated to reading and watching TV. Their kitchens alone are bigger than our entire hut. There is no smell, and flies do not crawl over every surface. I think it is the flies I hate the most about this place, because the way they live is too much like our own.
I should not complain. I try not to. I know that our hut is better than most. It is a solid timber construction, with thick, hardboard walls and a roof of corrugated tin.
In the evenings we try to make life in the hut as happy as possible by playing games. We have two packs of cards and we play gathered around an oil lamp, the four of us, after we have eaten and Imee has gone to sleep. She always sleeps well, in her bed of old clothing, clutching the doll that Papa found the day after we arrived. It is a large plastic doll with a broken arm and a twisted foot. The doll is called Baby. We think sometimes that Imee loves Baby more than she loves us, but we do not mind. There is no such thing as too much love.