As we take the winding road down, I see evidence of their resourcefulness -- the kids pile up cans in front of us so the tires of our trucks would crush them, making them easier to recycle. The children are all malnourished; eleven-year-olds look half their age. The first girl I meet hides her dirty fingernails as I point out her pretty ring. She found the ring in the garbage heap, and she tells me, once, she even found some money. "Who would throw away money?" she asks me.
Quezon City, Philippines
Entering Payatas is like spiraling into Dante's Inferno. Before we even get onto the road leading to the garbage dump, we are assaulted by the unbelievable stench. I see young boys cover their faces with their T-shirts, guerilla style.
I meet Rosemary, one of the scavengers who live at Payatas. Although we are the same age, I tower over her by at least a foot. Her clavicles are so pronounced they look like handles; her dress hangs off her frail body like a tent. Rosemary moved here from the provinces in search of a better life but it has become a daily struggle for her and her husband to keep their three children fed. At the age of 27, she has already lost a child. When I ask her what she hopes for, tears well up in her eyes. I suddenly feel horrible for asking her that and I start questioning why I am there. What right do I have to come here and ask her about her hopes and dreams when she has clearly buried them under layers of stoicism?
I brace myself for her answer because deep down I know that this has nothing to do with me; I am simply a conduit, a channel for Rosemary's story - Amy Eldon
Quezon City, Philippines
Sometimes, good intentions lead to even better results.
In 1997, when Martin Sheen paid a goodwill visit to the Payatas garbage dump on the outskirts of Manila, Philippines, he was moved by the desperate conditions he saw and expressed a wish to show solidarity with the tens of thousands of people who live there as squatters.
He formulated a plan with local activists Bill Keyes, a former Jesuit priest, and his wife, Nightingale, to build showers right at the dumpsite, where 3,000 tons of garbage arrive daily by truck.
"The plan was that at the end of the day, after picking garbage all day, the people should have some capacity to restore their human dignity," says Bill Keyes. "They should be able to go to sleep clean before taking on the burden of the next day."
Thus, the "Water with Dignity" began, with financing from Sheen.
But soon, the plan took on a life of its own. To entice parents to bring their children, they also built a small wading pool. And then a playground was added, followed by a small concrete building.
What started as a few simple showers turned into a day care center and a schoolhouse for more than 250 children: a true oasis surrounded on all sides by rotting garbage. With donations from other sources, the center also feeds the children once a day.
"Because of all the brains put together, we came up with something even better for the community," says Bill. "It turned out to be a social magnet beyond our expectations."
He credits the women, many of the mothers who volunteer their time, for making it a success. They also turned the center into a meeting ground, a place where they can gather, discuss serious issues, and organize themselves to improve their welfare. It gave them a sense of empowerment they previously lacked.
Still, their journey out of the dumpsite will be a long one. The scavengers make only three to five dollars a day from the plastics, bottles and cans they collect for recycling - not enough to pay rent in the worst slums of Manila, even if there was vacancy.
"Before, they were very timid," says Nightingale. "I think now, after four years, we can see that the women are proud to be actively participating and making decisions."
Their integration into society will require long-term government policies that take into account the needs of Manila's poor, most of whom were forced to flee devastated rural economies in the provinces.
For now, Payatas remains their best chance for survival in an overpopulated Manila, even if it means their children spend their childhood picking through society's waste.
Such a life can have dignity too and you can see it at the "Water with Dignity" center, the only place in Payatas where children's laughter can drown out the roar of passing trucks.