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Friday, September 27, 2013
THESE are words that seem to belong to the past, to another girl, about a place that once was called by another name. Yet upon reading it again, I recognize it could very well belong to the present, to the same girl, about places and lives that remain unheard and unseen by those who should listen and see.
There was only one word for it all -- what she saw, what she smelled, what she felt -- garbage. She could feel the smell, perhaps older than her 16 years, as it seeped into her breathing and clung to every inch of her skin, every stitch of clothing. She looked around, half-thinking of walking out, running away.
Sheets of discarded iron roofs, plywood, and even cardboard boxes tied or nailed together served as the toy houses of those playing at what could only be temporary lives. But what cruel game was this? Did these shelters protect them from the browned rain filtered through the gray smoke above? Through the holes of these shaky walls, those passing by could watch the daily motions of the families eating, sleeping, and sifting through found “treasures” from the rich garden of garbage outside. Among these treasures were the clothes that they wore, and even the food that they ate.
Here in this place where things dead and worthless found their last destination, where things disgusting and repellent were thrown away, life existed -- human lives. They lay in wait for the coming of the garbage so that they could eat, and live another day in this land of… garbage. Their homes, their clothes, their food, their livelihood, every breath of air, everything that kept them alive everything depended on this wasteland. What was there in their eyes when they looked up from their bending to the murky gray skies above? It was to the mountain that they gave their daily supplication, bent over its face, seeking.
Some of the children scampered toward where the girl was standing. “Ate, let’s go up the mountain!” they urged, smiling. They were wearing smelly and tattered clothes and smiling. They sounded like they were used to this -- entertaining passing tourists coming for a view of the mountain, a look at their houses, a taste of their lives. She allowed herself to be pulled up the mountain, ignoring the slush of something not quite like soil beneath her now muddy shoes.
Up close, it was becoming quite clear to her where the smoke was coming from. The fumes rose from every crevice, every gap between and beneath the unnamable flood of waste that made up the mountain. Her eyes burned, not just from the heat, nor the smell, nor the filthy feeling crawling all over her body, but also because of the laughing children running ahead of her, looking back, beckoning.
If one of them had asked, “Ate, where do you come from?” Would she have told them that she came from places where houses were far apart, where lanes were wide and huge trees grew, where the skies showed all its colors, where buildings were as tall as this mountain, where one’s room had concrete walls painted white – all that space all to oneself. She might have, in a whisper, with bowed head. And when she left, would they ever speak again, would she ever see them again?
Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on September 28, 2013.