18 December, 2011. Sunday. 2nd day of our days off from work in Penang. *Arrival and Day 1 to follow.

Prelude : People who have been chronically exposed to coal dust of about 15 to 2o years are at risk to develop COALWORKERS’ PNEUMOCONIOSIS also known as “black lung disease” which is a progressive and incurable disease. Imagine the plight of those babies, children and their families living in Ulingan.


I tried to win the battle against the alarm of my mobile by curling up in bed a bit longer but my sleepy brain was telling me that I  needed to wake up at 4:15AM with the thought that I shouldn’t be late to my appointment on a very early Sunday morning.  Resistance as they say, is futile.  So after my quick but necessary morning rituals, I kissed my wife and our 7-year old son goodbye while they’re still dreaming and immediately hopped on a tricycle from my relatives’ place in Pasig City and rode a jeepney to LRT 2 Santolan Station. From there, I took the train for less than half an hour to Avenida, Recto Manila. One more jeepney ride and I found myself at the corner of Kalaw Avenue.

Because I left the house with an empty stomach, I felt the urgency to fill it in.  I surrendered to one of my favorite Jollibee breakfast meals -fried rice, egg, corned beef and coffee. Solb! 🙂

En route to our meeting place, I walked through Rizal Park (formerly known as Luneta Park back in my childhood). It’s  good to be back here after some time.

Glad to see you again, fellow MD –JPR.

To say that Rizal’s iconic is an understatement. The sight of his monument was so apt to further fire my willingness that day to participate in a medical mission of PROJECT PEARLS in Ulingan, Tondo, Manila. I had a chance to become a manggagamot again just like JPR in joining this worthwhile activity. Thanks to SIDNEY SNOECK  (a Belgian photojournalist whose heart is in the Philippines and thanks to his facebook account and his famous and award-winning blog, MY SARISARI STORE) that I got to know MELISSA VILLA (the soul behind the charitable organization) and PROJECT PEARLS.

I had arranged the schedule with him few days before my family and I left for Pinas.  Sidney and I met up in front of Manila Hotel at around 7AM and together we went to Ulingan in Tondo, Manila.

In my 35 years of existence, I have heard so much poverty in my country commonly personified by people of Smokey Mountain who thrive in rubbish. But it was only last Sunday when I saw and experienced the gospel truth behind issues I’ve read and heard. The sight was terribly haunting.

Sidney : “Doc, I’m sorry I failed to ask you to wear proper footwear. Your shoes will get muddy and dirty.”

Me : “Don’t worry, it’s already muddy even before we got here.” 

I should’ve been prepared to wear rubber boots (the ones worn by fishermen, wet market vendors, and the like) however, I had no hesitation to soak my shoes just to reach (out to) Ulingan.

Unbelievably, a community exists in this part of Manila.

ULINGAN is a small slum community in Tondo, Manila that sits on a dumpsite and surrounded by charcoal factories that emit toxic smoke; there is no electricity, no access to toilets or sanitation. Children and families have no choice but to live with soot, garbage, mosquitoes, flies all day and all night.  The common meal is “pagpag” (leftover food from fast-food restaurants scavenged from garbage sites). “Pagpag” means to shake away the dirt and maggots in the food.”  -sourced from the website of PROJECT PEARLS.

These are their homes– the abodes where they face life’s challenges, the houses where they build their dreams…

Sidney noticed the potted greens -proof that people of Ulingan still find time to make their surrounding a little pleasant despite and inspite of their condition.

This is their usual food, “pagpag” which is sold at PhP 15 per pack…

This is their common past time…

And this is how they make a living…

Sidney told me that children who work for their families in Ulingan remove the nails from the pieces of wood they collect from else where, then other workers would burn them under an "earth" where smoke is emitted day and night. It takes 2 days before charcoal is ready.

Before a sack of charcoal can be sold to about PhP 320 each….

the end consumer might be clueless that young and small hands were behind those uling...

Imagine breathing the smoke and living with the tons of rubbish day and night. Think of babies born by mothers within Ulingan with only midwife to assist and manage them. Life is unbearable but people here are probably the most resilient to tolerate such difficulties.

The main purpose of my trip to Ulingan began immediately after I was brought to the Project Pearls Learning Center.

Despite my heart was breaking at the sight of everything and everyone in Ulingan, inspite of the fact that my respiratory tract wasn’t getting along well with the polluted atmosphere in that community (I have not puffed a cigarette stick in my entire life but believe me, the feeling was probably worse than chronic smoking. I only spent half day in Ulingan but it also took me another six hours to breathe with less discomfort), I was silently jumping for joy upon seeing these…

Thank you to those who donated medicines for us to prescribe and dispense that day. May God bless us all!

*photo courtesy of ace photojournalist, Sidney Snoeck. Thank you, Sid! Mabuhay ka!
Assessing his frontal mass, apparently an infected wound with a complaint of pain and swelling in his mouth. Because we didn't have sterile instruments, I gave a referral note for surgical consult and management at a nearest hospital.

Do you remember the song, Paraiso sung and recorded by the group, Smokey Mountain and if I’m not mistaken, composed by Ryan Cayabyab?  The lyrics came to my mind when I was in Ulingan…

“Return to a land called paraiso,
A place where a dying river ends.
No birds there fly over paraiso,
No space allows them to endure.
The smoke that screens the air,
The grass that’s never there.And if i could see a single bird, what a joy.
I try to write some words and create
A simple song to be heard
By the rest of the world.

Their eagerness and enthusiasm to read and learn despite and inspite of everything are inspiring! Hope is alive in their hearts!

His eyes tell so much tales…

but his hands and feet certainly melted my heart…

As a father to our 7-year-old son, I feel so much for these kids. They’ve been exposed to unimaginable severities in life and were robbed of their childhood. Look at their eyes and peek into their souls…

It was a day that I will not forget for as long as I live.  Sidney was repeatedly thanking me before we left Ulingan but I told him the pleasure’s mine. Had it not for him and the organization he’s in, I will not be reminded to make the most of what we have, and MUST THINK BEFORE WE COMPLAIN because we are more blessed than people of Ulingan who certainly know how to SMILE AMIDST ADVERSITIES.

Thank you to all my fellow volunteers…

Thank you, Project Pearls, Ms. Melissa Villa and Mr. Sidney Snoeck for giving me a chance to experience this worthwhile endeavor.

Find me in a sea of unsung heroes. It's an honor to be with them! *photo courtesy of the awe-inspiring photojournalist and award-winning blogger, Sidney Snoeck.

Another wonderful shot by Sidney–this time with Lola Felissa, a 99 year old woman from Ulingan. It’s just amazing she’s still up and about, can still walk and stand straight as if she’s not in her late geriatric years!

One more year and Lola Felissa from Ulingan will be a centenarian! I have not even lived half of the years she enjoyed in life! Mabuhay ka, Lola Felissa! *photo by Sidney Snoeck.

Thank you for these priceless smiles that bid us goodbye…

You can make these children’s lives a little better through your donations and/or by supporting the activities of PROJECT PEARLS; contact the organization via their website at ProjectPearls.Org


*This is the first of the series of our Christmas vacation in the Philippines; DAY 1 to follow soon.   May our CHRISTmas and holiday celerbations be happy and meaningful.  Let us always count our blessings!  God bless us! 🙂

51 thoughts on “CHRISTMAS BREAK 2011 DAY 2 : ULINGAN, TONDO

  1. ooohhh…so nice! isn’t it heartwarming to be able to do something for those who need it the most? nakakataba ng puso!

    nakaka-awa nga sila. i cringe at your pics, especially of the dumpsites. we are indeed lucky that we grew up the waywe did. the kids… haay. i

    1. we can only do so much but in my opinion, what the people of ulingan particularly the kids, strongly need is a total rehabilitation and generous souls like friends and volunteers from project pearls cannot do it alone.

      the government -local and national officials should be haunted by the scenario in ulingan.
      the parents, not only the kids should be well educated about basic responsibilities in life.

  2. I am very lucky indeed that I grew up poor, but thru hard work, I was blessed to uplift our standard of living.

    Prayers for all people living in Ulingan; may they be happy and healthy all year round despite their environment and limited source of living.

  3. Although you only have a short Christmas vacation here in the Philippines you did not hesitate to volunteer as a doctor in Project Pearls’ medical mission. Thank you Doc Gelo ! We need more doctors like you. Mabuhay and salamat po !

    1. maraming salamat, sidney! i won’t forget that remarkable experience.
      i learned a lot by giving little of my time. it was really an eye-opener for me.
      thank you so much for that opportunity.

  4. .. it saddens me seeing the truth and reality of how these people strive to live each day. we never grew up the way those kids are living right now, how lucky we are and should be thankful of the blessings we have.

    .. congrats doc, you did a good job on volunteering with sidney. i hope to join one charity work like this soon. 🙂

    1. reality bites, rob. but these ugly scenes are gospel truth about poverty in our country.
      i myself was blown away by the entire experience.
      i had to control my lacrimal ducts not to well out last sunday.
      it’s difficult to bear; i even thought i’d bring the images in my sleep but fortunately not.

      thanks, rob. 🙂

  5. Thank you for this excellent report in photos and narrative of a remarkable day in your life as a doctor. You’ve captured in a moving way both the resilience and the dire needs of the people of Ulingan. I will share this post on my Facebook and perhaps blog, if you don’t mind. May the true joy of this season be yours.

    1. hello miss francisca, welcome and thank you for visiting my blog.
      it’ll be my pleasure if you get to share my post on your sites.
      let us spread the word about the children of ulingan so that a lot of generous souls will reach out to them.
      thanks again and happy holidays! 🙂

  6. Your photos were so heart-gripping. Thanks for reminding us all of the poor (though poor is an understatement!) plight of some of our kababayan. I salute you for giving your time and effort to this cause. I’ll check Project Pearl website.

    1. thank you so much, doc!
      and i hope and pray you and the people from iowa could reach out, in one way or the other to our countrymen in ulingan. maraming salamat po!

      incidentally, ms. melissa villa of project pearls is based in california. if in any case you’ll be interested in project pearls, it’d be easy for you to be in touch with her. thanks again, doc and merry christmas and may you have a peaceful new year!

      1. Thank you for the added information. As you have witnessed it personally, I know it’s not just mud in your shoes that stuck on you. I for one, cannot shake the images of the photos you’ve taken from my mind. Merry Christmas to you too.

        1. walang anuman, doc.
          i think the images of ulingan are etched in my memory forever.
          i remember the kids when i saw packs of uling in talipapa and small stores near where we’re staying.
          i hope i have the means to help them more…

  7. i love your blog site, gelo. its fantastic! Your pictures (and sidney’s) captured the heart and soul of the people in ulingan… made me realize how blessed I am, and here I am thinking I’ve seen the worst of manila after working (training) for 6 years in a government hospital which largely caters to the poorest of the poor. Last sunday was my first time to immerse myself fully among “tondo people” that media has branded as thieves or plainly unscrupulous, and I have to say that honestly i had my misgivings about them at first. So forgive me please for thinking that way. Working with the indigents for the last 6 years of my life has probably made me a little bit jaded. A part of me still thinks that some of my qualms might be true. On the other hand, this experience has made me realize that CHARITY is giving your heart wholeheartedly. And whatever the receiver does with the gifts bestowed upon him, it shouldn’t even matter to the giver. At the end of the day, what’s most important is we let our less fortunate countrymen feel that we care for them, and then hope that someday these people (or even just ONE of them!) will look back and remember the goodness some concerned citizens have shown them, and use these memories to rise above their dire state and in turn help improve their own community.

    1. doc ina! welcome to my humble blog and thank you for those kind words.
      i’m proud to have shared those unselfish moments with you and our co-volunteers. 🙂

  8. The pictures alone already speaks of the situation they have. You’ve captured everything no words are needed to explain what is happening to them. It is sad since there are people who are living like this while some just spend all their money to things not worthy.

    Good Job to you, Sid and the rest of the volunteers 🙂

  9. It breaks my heart to see those kids in such living conditions. You are right about think before complaining. Thanks for putting all this in perspective for me.

    I will check out the website. Thank you.

  10. when we see these photos, we just then realized how fortunate and blessed we are. we have so much and still are not satisfied, while others in places like this have nothing at all.

    you have done a great service to the people doc. your reward is the thanks from the bottom of their hearts.


  11. Thank you so much from the bottom of our hearts for sharing your gift of knowledge and blessing our kids with your heart! Mabuhay po kayo! 🙂

  12. Oh my! I have no words… the way they live and survive is unfathomable. God bless you and the team for giving a portion of your time and care to the people who need it most.

    1. thank you for taking time reading my blog post about the people of ulingan.
      they are God’s children too and deserve a far better life than what they’re living now.

      if my blog post would reach more readers who could help, contribute, donate, volunteer and most specially, PRAY for the people of Ulingan, then i’ll be one of the most grateful men alive. 🙂

  13. great job 🙂 as i read the title i thought of sidney and his work for ulingan. as i went further in the post, yun nga si sidney din pala ang nagconnect sayo. the photos are really telling. buti na lang may project pearls. and welcome back sa pinas!

  14. It is amazing how that old woman can live to almost a century in such a wretched environment! Some old people in ‘tate could not even survive a change in the weather without a working heater or airconditioner!

    I admire you for sharing a part of your short Pinas vacation to help out our unfortunate, poor kababayan and for letting the world know of their sad flight through your blog.

    1. amazing, indeed! i myself cannot live nor survive in such environment unlike the almost centenarian, lola felissa.

      salamat, bert at maligayang pasko at manigong bagong taon po! 🙂

  15. You are really a hero, doc!! I really admire you for helping those people in Ulingan. It’s really a heartbreaking to see the plight of our kababayans in Tondo. I’ve never been there but nakakaiyak to see those kids working at their early age. Napanganga rin ako sa picture mo dun ah, hehehe. Thanks for bringing us to Ulingan and share your blessings to them, isa kang bayani! idol!

    Nakakadurog ng puso ang marinig mo na kumakain sila ng “pagpag” na pagkain, nakapandidiri man mapakinggan, wala naman tayong maitutulong sa pang araw-araw nila na pamatid gutom ang mahalaga hindi sila nagnanakaw (sana lang)……doc kahit na pagod ka pa sa byahe nandyan ka kaagad sa pangalawang araw ng iyong bakasyon 😉

    1. totoo po, despite malaysia is only 4 hour-flight away from pinas, the waiting time at the airports (penang and lcct in kl) and the bus and cab rides enroute home made our trip so tiring; it made us sleep-deprived. will blog our arrival and day 1 soon. however, despite all this, hero and idol are two big words for me, sards; they’re certainly NOT for me. it’s the people of project pearls (volunteers, donors, supporters, melissa villa and sidney snoeck with their friends in the organization) who deserve to be applauded. had it not for them, i wouldn’t have an opportunity to reach out to the poorest community in ulingan. may their tribe increase!

    1. thank you, dennis. i know you understand being in the healthcare sector too that this is the least that we can do for others. actually, it’s nothing compared to those volunteers of project pearls who really spend their precious time beyond medical mission, caring for these kids in ulingan.

    1. you’re amazing MOM, gay for doing that to Luna.
      luna’s blessed with her great parents!

      i wish i could meet you and your family one day, gay.
      di ba kayo pupunta ng george town, penang in one of your stops trotting the globe?

  16. Matthew 6:1-4

    1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

    2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

  17. It’s heart breaking to see that there are people in the country who have to live like this everyday.. 😦 I hope I’ll be able to do my part too in helping my fellowmen. Great job for the people in Project Pearls, and you too doc! Spending your vacation time to help the people in ulignan is truly a noble deed.. 🙂

  18. Very inspiring work, Doc! Your account and pictures make for an award winning blog entry! But that is not important. What’s important is that you gave your heart to these unfortunate people.

    Merry Christmas to you, to Tina, and to Gabby!!! May God bless you now, always, and forever!

  19. I haven’t been able to drop by your blog for some time now (sorry!!) but today when I was looking over your entries, I stumbled upon your posts about the tours and places you’ve been to over the Christmas break — what can I say but WOW. All the pictures were outstanding, breathtaking, awesome!! My favorite was the post on La Cocina de Tita Moning. The photos were really amazing, I was totally engrossed in them. You are not just a blogger but a really talented photographer. I hope you will continue doing this for a long, long time.

    But I must say that my absolute favorite post from your Christmas series was this one on Tondo. Talo pa mga news features sa TV on poverty. I can’t describe the impact the photos had on me. I just felt so speechless after seeing all the garbage and the pagpag… Oh my. I hope some media organization will recognize your work and your photos because these kinds of realities really deserve to be known by people out there. Thank you for this post and for your efforts… I will be carrying those images in my head for a long time to come. Good work.

    1. what can i say, but thank you for your kind words.
      such generous comments keep my spirit inspired and motivated to continue this passion.
      maraming salamat! 😀

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