Just outside of Cebu lies the slum area of Talisay. Take every mental image or descriptive adjectives of slum that comes to mind and put them all together into one place. That is Talisay.
Underage prostitution, children sifting through garbage heaps to find food, rampant crime, homes made of scrap materials, and large portions of people who never completed even the basic levels of education compose this village.
Earlier this week I spent an afternoon directly in the middle of all this. I was on a quest to understand how people in these conditions still had a smile on their face. This is my account.
Within a few minutes of getting out of the truck, I found myself in the middle of a pickup basketball game. The teams were simple: Filipinos vs. Americans. Nothing about this game was normal. The court was sand/dirt. The rim was only large enough for the hand-held size basketball to fit in perfectly. Oh yeah, the rim was also low enough for me to dunk, which was a boost to my self-confidence! For the record, we won the game.
As we played basketball, kids started showing up in droves. What started as roughly 20 people watching turned into over 200 in 15 short minutes.
After the game, I squatted down like a catcher to get on eye level with the kids surrounding me. Most were shy and simply giggled, covered their face, and scampered away. A small boy about 4 years old took a chance and spoke back to the abnormally large white man (me) who had mysteriously shown up in his village. His name is Badon and for the next few hours, he rarely left my side.
I picked him up, gave him a big hug, and lifted him over my head so he could "fly". As soon as I sat him down, other kids had arms wide open and smiles from ear to ear. Each wanted their turn to do the same thing.
For the next hour, I got my arm workout by repeating this "game" with over 30 kids. It was a blast!
I was physically exhausted. To give my tired arms a break, I asked some of the kids to show me around the area. I was curious to see where they would take me first. Without hesitation, they all headed to the ocean. Quickly I followed with a child in each arm and a few more holding my legs.
Normal beaches consist of sand, but Talisay is anything but normal. The "beach" here is composed of trash and lots of it. Plastic bottles, old food wrappers, dead animals, and the like cover the sand for as far you can see. Still the kids were delighted to show me the areas where they play with friends.
Often the trash doubles as impromptu toys for the kids. Creativity was rampant among the kids as they turned used plastic into all sorts of handmade toys.
As we stepped over decomposing animals (mostly rats) on our exploration of the beach, I could not help but notice the smiles on the faces of the kids surrounding me. Each had a grin from ear to ear, and other people in the area had similar expressions on their faces. One man paused from repairing his fishing nets for a few moments to pose on top of his boat. I think his inner child was still telling him that modeling was in his future. At least for a few seconds, he was the center of attention as I took photos and the kids pretended to with their hands.
The walk back from the beach should have taken only a minute or two, but it took much longer since no one was in a rush to leave the moment. I was soaking in the atmosphere of love from small children who smile despite their poverty, and they were eagerly grabbing my arms for me to pull them up one last time.