Their smiles are broad and they seem to have nary a care in the world. The kids who live along the South Line in Lucena City, Quezon Province spend their days propelling push carts laden with a few passengers up and down the abandoned railway line that used to connect Manila via Lucena to Legazpi.
They’re excited to see a big, strange, white guy in their neighourhood. There are not many that venture down this way. I’m greeted with the customary Filipino enthusiasm and a “Hi Joe!”. Of course, there are plenty of curious looks and a few giggles.
The Philippine National Railway abandoned the railway line in 2006 after Typhoon Milenyo damaged bridges and infrastructure. With typical Filipino ingenuity, the local communities along the railway line flourished, and took advantage of the lines to instigate their own local transport system consisting of light-weight carts with roller wheels and a few kids to push them.
The railway line serves as the main artery of the community, with rudimentary dwellings crammed side by side all the way along the line. People sit in front of their homes, some selling a small selection of home-made foods from their ‘bangketa’ — the equivalent, perhaps, of your child’s lemonade stand except that this is a key income stream for their family. As I walk along the railway, I see people crafting timber products inside huts which are too low for them to stand up in. And someone cutting hair.
In front of her home, a woman sits washing the laundry in a plastic basin. Her neighbours chat with her as they each go about their daily chores. A couple of kids are taking turns to shoot hoops into a vaguely circular ring attached to something resembling a pergola. They have to be careful, because the ground slopes and, if they step backwards, they’ll tumble down some stairs.
As I walk past the houses and stop to chat with some of the locals, I struggle to know what to feel. At times it feels almost like summer holidays, with a laid-back, chilled out atmosphere and people seemingly with no agenda or anywhere to be. Most of the people seem chatty and cheerful.
And yet at the same time, no one seems to have much more than the shirt on their back. In this moment, everything seems fine — but I worry what happens when someone gets ill, or a family member dies. How does a family that already has nothing pay for medical care? The short answer is that they probably don’t.
The next day, I heard fire trucks. The sirens wailed as they circled around in loops trying to find a path for access to this community built along the railway line. Plumes of smoke billowed. From the distance, I could only hope that the damage was not too severe.