Barangay Tupal is an active garbage dump site about seven kilometers from Cebu City. It is home to more than two hundred families who live off of the garbage, subsisting entirely on what they can sell, reuse, or repurpose from what comes out of the garbage trucks.
On the road to Emmaus, in Israel, two men walked about 2000 years ago. They were so distressed that they failed to recognize the third man who showed up and taught them. This “stranger” to them was Jesus, in all his resurrected glory. He stayed with them for a short time, shared and ate with them, then departed. Later, once they realized who it was, they asked each other: “Were not our hearts burning within us” as this man taught, and opened our minds and our hearts to understand?
Were not our hearts burning within us?
On the road outside of Cebu City in the Philippines, I am now journeying by vehicle, towards an active garbage dump. The going is arduous, uncomfortable even in our jeep. It’s hot, even with the air conditioning. It’s impossibly winding, and I briefly imagine even our vehicle getting sick and disgorging its contents of gas and wires, just as I feel like doing my own. Will this vehicle make it? Will we?
The heat is relentless as we drive on. The hills come up abruptly, as sharp and as unforgiving as the sun. You really have to know what you’re doing back here, in Barangay Tupal – thank God my companion on mission, Brother Paul, knows what he’s doing. He has been visiting the scavengers here for twenty years. Everywhere I’ve been in Cebu here in the Philippines with Br. Paul, people know him as a saint, a hero, a life-saver, in many cases literally. They love and respect him to the utmost as a true gift, a true representative of God’s unconditional love. I know that they must have a special place in their heart for him here, in this garbage dump which is literally and figuratively on the furthest edges. Brother Paul most certainly cherishes this place; it has a special place in his heart by the way he talks about it. (Feel free to read more about him, his work, and all that he can teach you by visiting my post The Giant).
This is my journey with Brother Paul into the Barangay Tupal garbage dump and its people. I invite you to take a part of it with me.
At first the site looks small and uninhabited. And then we go further down.
As we descend the last hill into the valley that’s filled with garbage, a slew of about five kids recognize Brother Paul’s truck and come racing after it. They climb up onto the back, waving and shouting and bouncing on the rear bumper. Their smiling faces press against the windows, leaving smudges and prints all over in nice patterns of their height.
We get out and distribute crackers and biscuits, some bread, and medicines. Brother Paul has a sack of clothes as well, and one of the kids ends up with a dress shirt that’s at least four times his size. They grin, they laugh and giggle, and make jokes about being a monkey. I ask them about this: there are monkeys, here, surely! YOU! One of them points to another boy. Then he proceeds to lead me into his home, and points out the pit below their house where they like to swim. The water is black, and I can’t isolate its smell from the smell all around me, but apparently this doesn’t stop them from having a good time.
Then they all stop cackling about the black swimming pool below them, and their hands move together towards the road Br. Paul and I had just come down. A black jeep is descending towards us. This belongs to a non-profit group from Cebu that comes and delivers meals on Saturday. The kids all race off towards the truck, and I find myself with two of the mothers and a couple older men. They explain to me that they bring enough supplies for the scavengers to eat for a few days. Another group will come perhaps on Tuesday or Wednesday.
I walk with some of the kids further in to the site, up the road lined with piles of garbage, up to my shoulders on both sides.
This is the fabric section. Here, trucks come from clothes factories and deposit load after load of old clothes, cloth, scrap fabrics, mesh, and hundreds of other bags of miscellaneous materials.
Collecting the garbage. Most of this is sorted into canvas sacks, like this boy has, and then taken up to junk shops in town at the top of the hill. It fetches various prices. Keep in mind, one U.S. dollar is about 51 pesos.
After it’s sorted and sacked, it’s hauled off uphill into town. The town has a ratio of junk shops to other stores like Starbucks in Seattle. They’re everywhere. The town’s entire economy is based off of the dump site.
Below is a run-down of the various materials and their prices.
Plastic: 10 pesos/kilo
You name it, it probably comes in plastic, and most of it is actually resellable. Old cups, lids, bottles, wrappers and old Ramen noodle cups and their labels, toothpaste tubes, plastic liners, dirty to-go food containers, and even straws are all good. Bags do not get recycled.
Glass: one peso/bottle
Tin/aluminum cans: 50 pesos/kilo
Wires, cables, electronics, etc: up to 200 pesos/kilo
When in doubt, ask one of the experts if it’s good. If it is, it goes straight into the canvas sack.
The system is pretty incredible. In about fifteen minutes my tutor, Jennifer, was able to fill up one of the biggest sacks with plastic. Brother Paul also learned a lot – you will always, always be learning in Barangay Tupal.
Brother Paul with Cherissa, a matriarch of Barangay Tupal. She is a caretaker to many and a community organizer.
Th arrival of the fabric truck. A new truck comes once every thirty or forty minutes or so, enough time for the scavengers to pick through its contents and start to sort into sacks. Fabric is used by the women to make rugs, doormats, and round hot-pads, which are used for wiping sweat and keeping cool.
Cherissa with her apo, or grandson. He is four, going on five, and helps with her sorting the fabrics. He is able to get into areas of the garbage piles where she has trouble, because of his size.
My time in Barangay Tupal was way, way too short. Br. Paul had an appointment that afternoon, so we were to head out – but I have not stopped thinking of this lost little area in the hills outside of Cebu since I left. Day and night, the place sears itself across the neurons of my memory. I cannot stop thinking about these people, these scavengers who work so hard, who smile so readily, who get so very, very little, who do not hesitate to jump into a pile of garbage because that’s where they will get their day’s wages.
What is it about this place? Why does my heart beat like that when I think of Barangay Tupal?
The two disciples finally recognized Jesus, after he taught them, and then chided them for being so slow to believe and to see. They ate with Jesus, and then they finally remembered. Then they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us?”
Were not our hearts burning within us?
Jesus comes, and we – I – may see but not recognize. I for one certainly wasn’t sure where Jesus was in the midst of all of this dirt, the heat, the mess, the smells. Yes, my faith tells me that Jesus loves each of us. The saints tell us that Jesus is in the smiling face of the poor, that he is there in the glance of the destitute squatter. We hear that over and over again. My faith tells me that Jesus is especially close to the poor and the abandoned, the lonely, the lowly, the orphaned and the widow.
Yet reality tells me that this place is exceptionally harsh. It’s miserable, and the reality is that it’s very, very hard to imagine divinity here. Where is Jesus?
And yet. Yet when I left Barangay Tupal, I found myself asking the same question. Was not my heart burning this whole time? Was not my heart burning within me as the squatters spoke to me, as I picked up bits and pieces of Cebuano, the local language spoken in the barangay? Words like pangit or “ugly” referring to the reject scraps of fabric? Was not my heart burning within me just as I burned under the sun, talking and laughing with the pickers about how fast they could get through all the fabric? Was not my heart burning within me this whole time as I learned from them – just as the disciples learned from Jesus?
Was not my heart burning, because Jesus was, in fact, quite present and quite real, this whole time?
May your faith, today, right now, be as strong, as burning, as bright as the disciples on their way to Emmaus. Even in the midst of despair, of ugliness, of despondency over life and its situations, may your faith be a light that never dies down.