It is easy to misconstrue things because of what they appear to be. Take this scenario, for example: houses are patchworks made from scrap materials—galvanized iron sheets, wood, even the tarpaulins you see along EDSA go a long way here; they serve the purpose of protecting families from rains, and repurposed rotten wood are turned into much-coveted makeshift doors. The air is foul, a mixture of dried-up urine mingling with the smell of garbage.
Kids here run around with a slipper missing, their bare foot black and scabbed from the rough, dirty ground. But this is the least of their problems. They are all-smiles, some are missing teeth, as they huddle around the static-stricken television screen, awaiting their favorite noontime cartoon show as their mothers line up outside what seems to be a sari-sari store, looking forward to buying plastic bags filled with some sort of fried chicken that you get from your favorite go-to fast food joint.
“We call this Pagpag”, says Ate Rose in the local dialect. “Every night, trucks come here to dump different kinds of trash: paper, plastic cups, Styrofoam containers, and also, food waste. First, all the non-edible items are separated from the edible ones and set aside for recycling. Then, the edible items are brought here to be sorted out by the elders to be turned into pagpag the next day.”
She introduces us to Nanay Jean. We catch her during the early hours still rummaging through the food waste, picking out pieces of fried chicken, half-eaten burger patties, and some square-shaped meat burgers with swipes of ketchup and mayonnaise. They are placed inside her green basin with her earlier finds, which she will clean and cook to sell for lunch.
We are welcomed inside Nanay Jean’s home where she houses three of her children, who also have kids of their own—they are eight in total living under the same roof. “These good ones here,” Nanay Jean says, showing me one of the untouched fried chickens, “the ones that still have enough meat and breading on them will be refried, while those that are half-eaten will be cooked with a bit of soy sauce like an adobo,” Nanay Jean explains. “Even the oil we have here is taken from the dump, but we make sure to thoroughly clean the food we find cause we are very much aware that is dirty. Now let me heat up the pan…”
“People think that the community gets a lot of stomach ailments because of the pagpag, but it’s really because of the water. Especially for the kids, they just drink the water straight up without boiling,” Ate Rose tells us as Nanay Jean prepares all the items she needs for cooking. The food scraps are placed in two separate bowls—one for the re-frying and the other to be cooked adobo-style.
“Of course, I keep some of the pagpag for my family,” Nanay Jean tells us. “See that red splotch on the chicken? That’s not ketchup, it tastes like strawberry—I think it’s the jam they serve for breakfast, but it gets dumped in the same bin as the other food items that get thrown away. But it’s fine, no complaints. At least we get to taste something different!” she says with a hearty laugh.
As the meat hits the skillet, the whole house smells like a fast food joint. The addictive smell of the MSG-laden chickens fills the entire room, and maybe, the entire street as well, as mothers start lining up for Nanay Jean’s pagpag. “I sell these for PHP 20 a bag. You’d think people would be grossed out by this, but it sells faster than the home-cooked meals I prepare,” she points out.
We step out to check the crowd queuing outside Nanay Jean’s home, and we are greeted by the warmest smiles and a friendly “hello” here and there. Children gamely pose for the camera—shy at first, but they warm up easily. The people here are polite, friendly, and warm. Then finally, Nanay Jean emerges from her kitchen, a batch of pagpag in her hand. A barrage of twenty-peso bills are waved towards her face, each orange paper eager to be taken in exchange for a plastic bag filled with re-cooked food scraps. “They’re pretty good, but sorry, I won’t share,” says one of Nanay Jean’s regulars. “I’ve had the real thing only once in my life, and this hits the spot pretty close. Sometimes, you just have to close your eyes and you can almost see yourself in a fast food restaurant licking the bones clean.”
Ate Rose gives us a tour of the community, showing us around and the efforts being done to help improve the conditions of life in the area. “It’s not much, but at least there is progress,” she tells us as we enter the community daycare center she runs.
Going back to the subject of pagpag as we spend our final minutes at Nanay Jean’s place, she tells us about the reality of life here and how pagpag has become one of the more stable means of income for her. “There are days when all I can put my trust into is my faith. There was this one time, someone entered my house and stole all of my oil, but that’s how it is here. There are days when there is absolutely nothing to eat, but there are good days when I am grateful that people toss out a lot of their food scraps for me to earn money from. For them it may not mean much, but to me, it means everything.
See, this is how we live…our only way to live. We do this to survive.”