Fiction writer Dan Brown, the same man who said Jesus married Mary Magdalene, described Manila as the gates of hell in his latest novel, Inferno.
‘Six-hour-long traffic jams, suffocating pollution and a miserable sex trade,’ is how Brown’s heroine Dr Sienna Brooks describes Manila. She has never seen such teeming poverty. ‘I’ve run through the gates of hell,’ she says.
Authorities were quick to dismiss this depiction of Manila. The Catholic priests expressed displeasure while a presidential spokesperson gave the label a thumbs down.
Fiction or not, the depiction is by no means exaggerated.
Just ask any of the four million people who live in slums in Metro Manila alone.
The settlements are scattered all over the city as a result of urban migration. People in the provinces, where employment is more difficult and life harder, often choose to migrate to the city, hoping to find better lives.
Carlito Badion, secretary-general of the urban poor group Kadamay, said slum dwellers face a daily cat-and-mouse game with authorities that seek to demolish their shanties to give way to developers.
In 2012 alone, there were 782 demolitions, he said, and they have not stopped.
In fact, Badion added, on 4 June, there is an eviction scheduled in a riverside shanty in Pasig City, in the eastern part of the capital.
Authorities demolish squatter colonies to make way for big developers who want to build on the land where these slums exist.
However, it is no secret that the government does not have a relocation programme acceptable to the settlers. What happens is that people move to isolated sites after authorities tear down their homes but they often move back to the city to rebuild their life in yet another slum.
And poverty is not the only problem at the gates of hell.
Brown’s Brooks was right. The traffic gridlock in Metro Manila is hell indeed for thousands of commuters who brave the rush-hour traffic.
The few elevated train lines that ply major routes in Metro Manila become packed like sardines, especially during morning and afternoon rush hours, at least for five days a week.
Pickpockets thrive in the mayhem but hapless commuters choose to endure the chaos because in the roads down below, mayhem is a hundred times worse with the traffic jams, the thickest smog and the traffic enforcers, many of whom are corrupt.
Why traffic is so bad in Manila, however, is not at all puzzling.
Public buses, jeepneys and taxis congest the roads, because operators of these public vehicles can easily get franchises for their business if they know the right contacts in regulatory offices.
Corruption, indeed, is so rampant that even a driver’s licence is for sale in the Philippines.
Norma, a domestic helper, was able to get a driver’s licence without knowing how to drive at all. She bribed her way through the Land Transportation Office, the agency that issues licenses, to get a licence.
She was not interested in driving. All she needed was a government-issued ID such as a driver’s licence. She needed to have a government ID to be able to apply for a passport.
‘I paid P3,000 ($75) for my licence,’ she said.
What this reality tells us is that it is easy for anyone in the Philippines to have a valid driver’s license. Never mind if, like Norma, they don’t really know how to drive or know little about road safety and traffic rules.
I believe that rampant corruption is one of the big reasons behind the traffic in Metro Manila and poverty itself.
This extreme poverty, in turn, is what forces many women to work in the sex trade.
Poverty is so bad that in May last year, when the Philippines hosted the annual meeting of the Asia Development Bank, authorities had to put up a fence to cover a long strip of slums on the road from the airport to the conference venue.
So yes, welcome to Manila, where roughly four million people live in slum areas, where traffic is a mess every single day and where extreme poverty forces many women into sex work.