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Mary breastfed her baby even at work. She never ceased to amaze me with her stories that transcended race, creed and continents. And this is the ‘safest’ representation of breasts I can show in this post.

I first met Mary in England. Back then, she was on the last few months of her PhD in Nutrition while I was sent by an international NGO or a not for profit group for Aging for a conference on account of my volunteer work and the Older Persons’ program I enhanced in Payatas, which at the time was a world renowned garbage site. It was the time  when segregation was unheard of and cranes and dump trucks would unload trash every day that made for hills and mountains of garbage. People around Payatas (most especially Payatas B) would wait and scamper about and scavenge in these mountains of trash for recyclables to sell at junk shops.

We were introduced by the unit director Suraiya and when she, Mary learned that I was from Southeast Asia, specifically, the Philippines, Mary talked to me at length over tea and biscuits for a project she wanted me to collaborate with.

Mary, as I fixed my gaze on her face was the usual white woman I would see, often with freckles on her face, pinkish skin only hers with a lot of brownish spots which she got from staying too long in the sun in Nepal. She married a Nepalese who owned a hotel in Kathmandu and she would shuttle her way from the UK to the Himalayas

What she wanted me to help her with, was to become the field testing coordinator for Southeast Asia for her book, the assessment of nutritional status of older persons using anthropometric measurements.

‘If you could do this for me please. I’ve no one from Southeast Asia. I’ve got a lot from Africa and other former territories of the UK. There’s Dottie from Malawi, Sandra from Antigua, Dominique from Montenegro, Nelia from Angola, the Carribean. We got them covered except Asia.’

Now, I am an easy person to talk with when it comes to projects for older persons so I said yes right away.

And this was how I found my way in the university in central London in a room full of people working for older persons’ nutrition – Oxfam, PhD students, doctors working with the ministry of health from their home countries, UN representatives for refugees etc.

Mary presided the workshops. Every two hours or so, I was wondering why she would excuse herself and disappear. Apparently, she would go out to breastfeed her baby, who at the time was about eight months old. And after that, she would proceed where she had left off.

After a flurry of e-mail exchanges and after sending to me anthropometric measurements like calipers, stadio-meters from Camden, she arrived in my country.

Payatas dumpsite is a mountain of trash. Often people scavenge and get lost, falling into pits and traps and may no longer be recovered.

I took her to the dump site where she was warmly welcomed by everyone. For someone from the UK, she did not show any tinge of condescension, snootiness nor did she complain about the heat, the stench that clings to you like second skin. I toured her around the area – from the dump site itself, to Area 1 up to Empire. You see, even in the slums, there is a semblance of hierarchy. Those from Area 1 are better off than the succeeding areas. People lived by the roadside, near the water source, near the dump site while those farthest, in this case Empire, were the poorest of them all.

To many families, scavenging in Payatas is a matter of survival . This woman is wearing the typical scavenging gear – wide brimmed hat, layered, long sleeved clothing and boots, sometimes a mini-crowbar to extricate what could be a gem of garbage.

(Payatas dumpsite photos by Nana Buxani)

She stayed in a very modest hotel where I would pick her up and ride the bus and get off  corner of  the street leading to Payatas. To get there, we have to squeeze ourselves in a jeepney from Litex, which the driver almost always would have overloaded by placing a plank of wood in between the jeepney entrance to accommodate one more passenger.

In the many trips we took together, riding public transport from her very spartan hotel to Payatas, Mary shared many stories about being an  English woman married to a rich Nepalese and many things in between that showed much of her heart for the poor and uplifting their situation, her conversion to Buddhism and her vocation as a mother.

(To be continued)