This is Zaldy.
Zaldy’s cart is full of glass bottles. There are dozens and dozens of different types: there’s the famous Philippino Emperador rum, of course. There’s also Emperator lite, Tanduay Rhum and Tanduay Dark, Gran Matador brandy, and Kung Fu Tonic Wine for Vigor and Vitality. There’s San Miguel gin, and San Miguel beer. There is a spattering of Cerveza Negra and Red Horse singles.
Surprisingly, though, there are no wine bottles. This is not such a popular drink in these parts.
Zaldy and I are in Balut, on the edges of Smokey Mountain.
This is Smokey Mountain, near the port area of Manila.
It is as noisy, lively, colorful, and entertaining a place as you can imagine. It is also a home to more than 35,000 slum-dwellers, scavengers or basureros as they’re called, and “squatters.” The exact number is most likely much higher, but accurate statistics are understandably hard to gather.
In these parts, the sounds alone are enough for a few dozen documentaries. Just like Zaldy’s cart, the air is full of all kinds of variety.
There’s the sound of the street vendor behind me gossiping at full volume with her partner, cackling between customers about something apparently hysterical – or she just loves to cackle. There’s the sound of ice cream vendors and their bells, and their occasional pronouncement to the entire neighborhood of the price of their cones: ten pesos only.
There is the sound of laughter, because Zaldy and I are near the entrance of a grade school, and because it’s the Philippines. There is also the sound of videoke: this means various singers of all ages, in restaurants and houses and on balconies and in bars, on the left, right, and often in the middle of the street in these parts. Kids, friends, entire families, even the occasional bored homeowner passing the time on a bench with a microphone.
There is the sound of random passersby on bikes, many of them carrying used/damaged electronics loaded up on sidecarts which will be sold as scrap at the nearby (and often not-so-nearby) junk shops. They smile and they shout out to Zaldy, because many of them know him in these parts.
There’s the sound of a laundromat to my right, a bulldozer in the river a hundred meters behind me, tricycles and motorbikes zipping past to the left and right, and giant cargo trucks grinding their gears and pulsing to a scary, shuddering halt as they navigate the very not-so-giant streets.
And then. Through and under and in and around all the other noises, there are the sounds of the jeepneys.
The jeepneys! Let me tell you about the jeepneys.
These things pierce and punch and wrap and suffocate with their noise. They belch, they fart, they scream. They whistle and shriek and honk, they brake and scrunch and grind and whine. These things don’t just permeate with their noise, but invade every space that they can until every nook and cranny is completely taken over. A couple of months in the Philippines, and you’ll hear these things in your dreams, in your cells, in your soul.
But there is one sound that carries towards me, one sound which I focus on.
That is the sound of Zaldy’s voice and his story, and it [mostly] blocks out the rest of the din.
Zaldy grew up in the area, on the edges of Smokey Mountain. One of five children, he spent his childhood mostly on the edges of starvation, not eating consistent meals until sometime later in his adulthood. His father passed away when he was younger from alcoholism, an irony he couldn’t avoid commenting on while he stared at his cart of empty liquor bottles he was about to sell. His mother could not provide for her children on her own, and so, from what I gathered, the family split. One of Zaldy’s siblings ended up at this relative’s, another one at that one’s. This, unfortunately, is all too common in these parts as extreme poverty dictates so much about family dynamics.
I’m not sure with whom Zaldy ended up, but he stayed on in Smokey Mountain and made his living scavenging trash. At that time, Smokey Mountain used to be the main active garbage dump for Mentro Manila, receiving as many as 10,000 tons of garbage a day and burning day and night under a cloud of smoke and pollution that gave the place its name. As a young man, Zaldy scavenged through the refuse along with thousands of others, picking through to find plastic bottles, aluminum cans, tins, electronics and old toys to be sold at junk shops and Material Recovery Facilities for varying prices.
Eventually Zaldy started his own family and worked doubly hard as a scavenger. Now 51, he is dedicated heart and soul to providing for his children. One is now studying in high school, one in elementary, and one has started college as an engineer. To provide for his children so they can study and eat, Zaldy wakes up at four in the morning to wander the various establishments of Smokey Mountain with his cart. He visits sari-sari-provision stores, restaurants, and houses of all his neighbors to collect the empty glass bottles that fill his little mobile world. He then rests for a bit, and begins his walk towards the junk shops in Solis, roughly three kilometers east. It is still relatively early at this point, as he explains, because he has to get started before it’s too hot.
This would be approximately Zaldy’s route:
Nakakapagod, he explains to me as he leans back a bit on his cart. It’s tiring.
Considering there are over two hundred bottles in Zaldy’s cart, that this man is thinner than I am, and that he’s been hauling this cart around since before the sun came up with several more miles yet to go, I don’t know how to handle this five-syllable Tagalog word. It sounds so simple, such an unbelievably flippant understatement, I almost laugh.
Yet should I? Is that going to offend him? I don’t know, because I certainly don’t think he’s being ironic, and so I must just stare at Zaldy with a slightly open mouth. He himself laughs at that, somewhat shyly, and then he starts talking about his kids. I eventually think I closed my mouth and tuned in again to what he was saying.
I realize something as I continue listening, and as he goes on and on about his kids.
What I might be tempted to call his “remarkable feat of superhuman love” is, for him, not a feat at all. It is daily life.
I realize, as he deftly returns over and over to the topic of his kids, that what is so extraordinary for me is quite ordinary for him.
I realize, as I find myself wanting to grill him about how he manages to do what he does every day, that there is, for him, no question at all. My questions die somewhere in my throat, senseless before such a humble man.
Zaldy wasn’t going to take pride in his own strength. He wasn’t going to pat himself on the back for walking over file miles a day with this heavy cart across and through the heat of the streets, and I don’t know how he would have responded if I patted him instead. I could have lauded him and given him a standing ovation right there, and run to the nearest sari-sari store to stand on the rooftop and shout his praises, but it looked like he would not have had that at all.
And that is precisely what makes him so extraordinary. Zaldy is not taking pride in his own feats of strength, and I doubt he’s counting the miles he walks to proclaim it from the rooftops. Rather, as he shared with me, he was taking pride in the fact that his kids eat properly at a younger age than he did. He was beaming when he told me that his eldest son is studying in college.
As we kept talking, I realized how truly, deeply, madly heroic this man was. What he was doing, day in and day out, is a sacrifice that could have no other explanation than the highest love – I mean, how this man beamed when he talked about his children! It’s all he wanted to talk about.
This is a man just like many I’ve met in Smokey Mountain, in some respects, if you just look at him in passing. This is a man who may blend into the milieu of carts and people on the streets – carts mostly just like his, except for his unique name on the side. This is a man who looks way past his age, who’s missing so many teeth it’s hard to tell if he has any. This is a man who’s way too skinny for his cart. This is a man who may or may not ever sleep, someone who’s seen a lot of pain and loss and suffering.
Yet this man is one of the truest and most selfless heroes I know.
This is a man who has no thought for himself other than a five-syllable word said demurely and off-handedly: “Nakakapagod.” It’s tiring.
This is a man whose love and sacrifice can move not just his own heavy cart of recyclable glass across Manila for a few hundred pesos. This is a man whose love moved my world, the afternoon I met him. This is a man whose sacrifice shattered my own pathetic attempts at avoiding suffering and sacrifice, as if one of the bottles of Emeperador rum were to fall out the side of Zaldy’s cart on the street.
This is Zaldy’s story. May his love move your universe, too, and inspire you to find a heroic soul in your own life.
Share below! Leave a comment about someone who has moved your mountains lately, who has changed your perspective on either suffering or sacrifice. Inspire us and let the chain grow!