Lessons from Tondo

Around ManilaEnvironment
March 19, 2010

I’m having a hard time letting go of this experience, feeling that my sharing is still incomplete.  I’m hoping that in doing one last post, I’ll feel like I did Tondo the justice it deserves.

Over the last 24 hours I’ve been noticing the impact that Tondo had on me.  First there was the physical toll – the burning eyes from the methane, the exhaustion from being out in the sun and then the inability to sleep.  It was hard, no doubt, but insignificant compared to the emotional toll that came next.  I am fairly certain that I experienced true despair for the first time in my life.  It was compounded by a sense of hopelessness and desperation; a fear that perhaps I couldn’t handle being with sorrow and pain of this magnitude.

Surprisingly, the vastness of the problem made me want to shut down instead of stepping up, which is not a typical reaction for me.  Once the overwhelm passed, I was still left feeling disturbed but also discovered a deep sense of gratitude that radiated to the core of my being.  I realized that I may not be able to make a large difference at Tondo, but I have the skills and the will to make an impact somewhere else.  My thoughts turned to my Coaching and I felt myself being called forth to step into something bigger with my life, to better use the education and resources that have so abundantly been given to me.

I do not  know what the final impact of Tondo will be, but I can already sense that it has changed me, that I can no longer be the same person given what I have now experienced.  Big stuff, I know.  No idea what I’m supposed to do with it yet, so I’m going to let it incubate for awhile.  I will keep you posted as things develop…

I want to leave you with a few last images that I feel compelled to share.  The first is of the swimming hole.  Kids floated around on scraps of foam while children swam unabashedly in the nude.

Here is the scrap wood area, where lumber and tree parts are collected and either re-purposed or sold.

This area was where charcoal was being made, also to be sold.  I couldn’t get over the soot-covered toddlers running right by the fiery coals.

Mmmm, appetizing.  This appears to be a stew made of chicken that was scavenged from the trash, with the addition of some fresh veggies as well (or those might be scavenged too).  I was amazed to realize that almost everything gets put to a second use.  It was truly incredible…

I leave you with this last vignette, which was perhaps the most impactful exchange I had the entire day.  I was photographing a young girl who was fiercly clutching a giant m&m’s bag.  She pulled some smashed, dirty m&m’s out of the bag and handed them to the boy that was with her.  He ate a few and then extended a hand to offer me some.  That soot-covered hand generously offering to give me half is the perfect metaphor for what I have come to know about the Filipino people.

Even those stripped of their possessions or overtaken by disease will still have the grace to offer you a smile and half of whatever they have left.  I truly believe that such radical generosity could start a movement that would change the world.  I am grateful to be learning these lessons hands-on, as I know they will stay with me the rest of my life.

I leave you with one of my favorite Filipino sayings, “Bahala na, God will provide.” Translated, it becomes: Happen what may, God will provide.

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  1. shyestviolet says:

    these posts have been truly moving. I hope each of us can muster a fraction of the initiative you’re feeling, however it manifests itself.

  2. minnesotagal says:

    I’m glad it touched your heart as much as it did mine. It is truly a moving story. I hope it will create a ripple effect of good deeds in communities around the world.

  3. Katrina Buetow says:


    Thank you so much for sharing this amazing story with us. What a true life changing experience. I have hears in my eyes from just reading your blog-I could not imagine what it would be like to have actually experienced the Tondo first hand. I know you will find a way to do good with this experience, you always do!

  4. It’s Friday, and that means that the Fifth Weekly State Department Blog Roundup is up – and you’re on it!

    Here is the link:


    (If I quoted your text or used your photo(s) and you would rather I had not, please let me know. Please also be sure to check the link(s) that I put up to you, in order to verify that they work properly. If you would rather that I had not referenced you, and/or do not want me to reference you in the future, please also contact me.)


  5. Chris Coleman says:

    Hi Sarah – you are feeling exactly what I felt in 1990 after going through the Romanian Revolution. I was the CLO at the time. Along with the nurse practitioner at post at that time, we were responsible for distributing the huge outpouring of aid that came to the embassy for the Romanian orphanages and hospitals that were full of babies that had been infected with the AIDS virus. I’ll never forget my first visit to deliver some baby clothes to a mother and her dear, sweet baby who was infected with AIDS in a rundown hospital in Bucharest. There were so many ill children that we could only give each child one outfit and a box of diapers. You would have thought we had given them a complete wardrobe from their gratitude and huge smiles – both mother and child. It was heart wrenching and heart warming all at the same time.

    Another incident occurred at a Romanian orphanage – we were there also to distribute aid and as we walked around the orphanage we witnessed children who had been so deprived of physical attention that they were either either staring blankly into space in their cribs, or trying to wrap themselves around our legs as we walked through the facility. I wanted to take each and every one of them home. In time, many Americans from the Embassy and the US, Britain, and other countries adopted children from these orphanages.

    These experiences changed my life significantly in many ways – all for the better. It sounds like you are having the same feelings, and I agree that only positive things will come forth as a result of your experience.

    Keep sharing your wonderful experiences with the world.

  6. minnesotagal says:

    Thank you for sharing that Chris – it was very moving. I could picture it in my mind as I was reading it. I will definitely keep sharing all that I’m learning…

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