New Internationalist

Welcome to Manila, the gates of hell

Manila traffic by Mike McKayThere is a furore in Manila now, as heated as the scalding sun, here in this densely populated country of 94 million people where on most days these days, the thermometer reads 34 degrees Celsius.

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.

Photo: Mike McKay under a CC Licence

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  1. #1 Nelson Magana 03 Jun 13

    Manila, Philippines. THE GATES OF HELL.

  2. #2 Christian 17 Jun 13

    Not sure about your statement that the Philippine Government doesn't have a relocation plan for the residents of demolished shanties. In fact, the Department of the Interior and Local Government has announced plan to relocate 60,000 families.

    It should also be noted that the PHL national and local governments have in the past tried to relocate illegal settlers, however the relocations usually occurred far from the urban area and into the local provinces. Having no means to commute, many settlers return to the capital and resume illegal settlement, leading to sad cycle of incompletely conceived good will having no effect whatsoever in uplifting the lives of these settlers.

    To address this issue the current PHL government under Benigno Aquino III has decided to shift the relocations to housing developments within the capital and to possibly provide subsidized transportation for residents of this housing.

    Just thought I'd add a tad bit of objectivity to your article :)

  3. #3 Spenone 24 Apr 14

    First if the Government Wanted to they Would Separate Church & State so they could Start issuing condoms, This would help in reducing or at a minimum slow the population rate. Second Filipino women are NOT forced into prostitution they do it because they want more money than can be offered by a legal job. A poor man has less of a chance of getting out of poverty than a poor woman. How many foreigners marry a Filipina & compare that to the foreigners that marry a Filipino. What you will find out is that most marriages are Foreign men marrying Filipino Women and the Filipino woman gets out of poverty!!

  4. #4 Otakore Literantadodist 29 Jul 14

    Added to that, inhaling the air of Manila, theoretically could result to lung problems in time. Overpopulation is an issue too and yet some Filipinos are against RH Bill. It is indeed Manila is an inferno.

    I've wrote a blog about Dan Brown's latest novel Inferno, If interested, kindly visit this link:


  5. #6 Flights to Manila 03 Sep 15

    I agree that manila may fail to impress you in one glance. But there are many thing which can be a reason to love manila. I strongly believe that places and things do not add beauty to any place in fact it is the people who are the real asset of the national.

  6. #8 joseph 13 Dec 15

    Jeepneys are a dumb idea, they should have been phased out a 25 years ago. They're gas guzzling slugs that prevent everybody from moving. And as mentioned, corrupts regulations. Hey Manila Authorities, You reap what you sow.

  7. #9 Tanya Cayetano 15 Feb 16

    Let's not be hypocrites. We don't need to lie to ourselves and sugar coat Manila (and the Philippines as a whole). We, the filipinos, all know that Manila is a mess and indeed, gates of hell. Just look at the pollution, exasperating traffic jams and severe poverty around the city. Everything that Dan Brown said is not a fiction, but a true depiction of Philippines' capital..

  8. #10 Tanya Cayetano 15 Feb 16

    Let's not be hypocrites. We don't need to lie to ourselves and sugar coat Manila (and the Philippines as a whole). We, the filipinos, all know that Manila is a mess and indeed, gates of hell. Just look at the pollution, exasperating traffic jams and severe poverty around the city. Everything that Dan Brown said is not a fiction, but a true depiction of Philippines' capital..

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About the author

Iris Gonzales a New Internationalist contributor

Iris Cecilia Gonzales is a Filipino journalist and blogger. At present, she covers economic news for a Manila broadsheet, but she also writes other stories here and there. She has been blogging since 2004 on various issues including women and children and human rights. She is among the winners in the TH!NK 3 global blogging competition organized by the Netherlands-based European Journalism Centre.

You may email her at [email protected]

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