In your country, these may be called the ghettoes or slums. Here, they are referred to as squatter areas.

You may barely notice them as you drive around the city, these pockets of poverty where the population density is high and hygienic standards are low. They are all over the city, tucked out of sight but home to hundreds of thousands of urban poor. The urban poor is comprised of a small minority who have low-income jobs - barbers, waiters, janitors, jeepney drivers, machine-shop workers - and the unemployed masses.

There are no streets in the squatter areas; that would be an intolerable waste of space. Narrow alleys - barely a yard wide - extend from the streets, avenues and boulevards and branch out into dozens of even narrower alleys that pass under bamboo balconeys and through what may look like somebody's kitchen. You may spot a group of people walking along a wide boulevard, and doubt your eyes when they vanish into thin air; the dark, narrow alleys leading into the squatter areas are often hard to spot.

The government may call them squatters, and it may all seem like chaos, but amidst the poverty there is order. No "squatter" lives for free. Rent for an "apartment" - an enclosed space of recycled plywood and construction timber - could be between 500 and 1500 pesos a month.

Families share latrines and buy water from water sellers at a few pesos per five gallon container - not purified water, mind you, but tap water. An MCWD connection is hard to get and even some small eateries subsist on hand-delivered tap water.

Fishmongers set up their stalls by torchlight, candlelight, or naked electric bulb, in the evening, as the working poor return from their jobs. The fish sold here are not the same kind of fish as you will encounter in the hotel restaurants or the airconditioned supermarkets, where the varieties of fish available will set you back between 100 and 200 pesos a kilo. The fish on sale by the roadside costs between 20 and 50 pesos a kilo. The strange thing is that these varieties of common fish (such as tuloy or baronggoy) often taste better than the expensive varieties (such as lapulapu or tangigue).

Of course, there are many who can't even afford the cheaper fish, or even buwad - salty dried fish - which costs about 5 pesos per small pack. Some subsist on nothing but fishbones and rice, plain maize gruel, or - on a bad day - a small helping of humor and hope.

The only way out of the ghetto is to get an education and qualifications. But many do not bother, for in the Philippines poverty does not necessarily equate despair. As darkness descends on the squatter area, singing erupts from all corners; men set up rickety tables in the narrow alleyways, right on top of the open sewers, and spend the evening drinking beer, snacking on chicharon, and playing cards until late into the night. Life can be good, even in the squatter area.


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