Manila, The Philippines

International Confederation of Midwives

May 1999


To get to Manila, we first flew to San Francisco, then to Japan and finally to the Philippines. After an endless flight, chasing the dawn across the world, we arrived in Manila at night the next day… and yet we were still 12 hours ahead of Ohio. Even though it was nighttime, it was hot and humid and the chaos at the airport was unbelievable!

Manila is an international gateway city that is the political, economic, social, educational, cultural and recreational hub of the vast group of 7,107 islands that is the Philippines. It is home to nearly 2 million people with approximately 3 million daytime transients.

Arriving in Manila’s airport is about as far as you’ll ever get from a streamlined process….poor signs, crowds and an illogical layout all contribute to the chaos. Once we finally made our way to the street, things began to look up. We found a cab and rode through the darkened streets of the city to our hotel.

Orchid Garden Suites

There was little to see at night until we pulled up to our hotel – The Orchid Garden Suites. As we pulled through the gates, we saw a lovely hotel of white marble bathed in warm lighting, surrounded by tropical landscaping. We were greeted by several smiling, crisply uniformed Filipino doormen who were charming and hospitable and treated us like queens.

In the morning, after a welcome rest in our deluxe suite, we explored our hotel by daylight….a lovely, clean and inviting building, surrounded by a high wall.

It even had a small courtyard with a lovely, cool and inviting pool. But as we stepped outside the gates of our air-conditioned hotel to explore the city, we stepped into a totally different world!

Aside from the oppressive heat, the first thing I noticed was the overwhelming smell that assaulted you as you stepped into the busy streets with shockingly dangerous looking tangles of electric wires overhead….sometimes with stray wires dropping down to the sidewalks.

The water in the gutters looked like anti-freeze and smelled like urine! You would not want to step in it by mistake…even with shoes on! And yet, notice this woman who we saw bathing her body in that water each morning outside our hotel! She also did her laundry in this filthy water and slept right there between the flower boxes. I have never seen such horrible poverty…a filthy, overcrowded, polluted city.

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos

At the close of WWII, the United States granted independence to the Philippines. But in 1972, elected president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, which soon became total dictatorial control. His government was riddled with corruption and economic mismanagement.

View from our hotel room

The people became so impoverished that many left the countryside and came to the city to get a job…only there WERE no jobs and no money and no place to live and they had no money to get back home…so they live in these shanties which we could see from our hotel windows…thrown together shelters made of cardboard, corrugated tin and scraps of wood with open cooking fires.

We tried to take a taxi to Chinatown, but it is an area of the city that is so crowded that even cars can’t go there. We walked down a back alley to escape the traffic, which was probably not a great idea. It was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Manila.

We walked along the canal – smelly sewer water filled with excrement. People were living in the shelters you see on the right that look like carts. Like bag ladies, all their belongings were on their carts. They would just park their cart and spread their mattress out.

This was one of the homes along the canal. Their front yard was the sewer. The older girl was caring for the little children. These families were just grateful to be up off the ground. They tried hard to keep their homes clean. Notice that they removed their shoes before entering their home.

In the barrios, tiny houses are clustered together, without roads or sidewalks. In cities, homeless families sleep on the sidewalks. Or they become squatters, building shacks of corrugated tin or even cardboard on unused land. Some shelters were right on the ground and some were on a cart like this one.

Looking across the canal, we could see this housing development. They were really nice, comparatively speaking, except the sewer lines from the apartment ran right into the canal.

People are crowded in wherever they can fit and the traffic is appalling…mostly second hand cars or cars fitted together from scrap cars. The streets were jammed with traffic. Each time we traveled through the city in a cab, we felt like it was a miracle to survive the trip without crashing. The traffic was fast and chaotic with apparently the only traffic control being car horns! Diesel fumes abound and choke everyone. The drains are open or broken and if there is a pavement, that, too, is often broken.

After World War II, American GIs left thousands of jeeps behind. Filipinos quickly claimed them, calling them Jeepneys…fancy, colorful, garishly decorated, open buses. They extended the back part of each jeep to accommodate 14 to 18 passengers. Each one was uniquely decorated with flags and streamers and painted slogans to suit each owner, the gaudier the better. Curtains, usually crocheted by the driver’s wife, are hung across the windows of the vehicle. There may be 2-20 radio antennas (but not necessarily a radio). Jeepneys have become the Philippines’ taxis—the most common form of transportation on the islands. In Manila alone, more than 30,000 jeepneys crisscross the streets. They take you almost everywhere around the city for a minimal fare.

They flew through the streets and as they slowed, people would jump on or off…not even waiting for them to stop…which they rarely did unless the traffic forced them to do so. Most were overcrowded with several people hanging off the sides or sitting on the spare tire attached to the back!

As I walked through the streets, I saw things that shocked me…whole families living in shelters fashioned under trees or in the 18 inches of space between buildings…with no water, no electricity, no sanitation…

…or they lived under tarps strung between trees in the median in the middle of the highway! I even visited a cemetery where families fashioned homes from cardboard boxes between the headstones. We were told of one very sick small child who was being treated at the clinic. His illness was puzzling until the health care workers attempted to visit him at his home….a dark, abandoned, septic tank.

Every day we were approached by beggars in the street. This man and his family lived right outside the convention center on the street.

Outside our hotel, one small girl (perhaps 8 or 9 years old) would greet us pleasantly each morning with her baby sister on her hip…begging for food. We soon found ourselves saving most of our hotel meals to give to her. We suspected that the baby may not even have been her sister, but rather a “prop” to appeal to our sympathies…but it didn’t matter…clearly they were starving.

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