Edwin Nombre: A guide to life on the other side of the tracks

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Editor's Note: True Manila founder Edwin Nombre has starred in independent films "Boundary," "Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Yelo," and "Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bato." He is currently working on a documentary which tackles the topic: "How To Survive in the U.S. for 110 days with a Budget of $1 a day."

(CNN Philippines) — There are times when Edwin Nombre Pamañan doesn't consider himself a tour guide. In his words, he's "a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend" who'll help you get around Manila.

But Nombre (his screen name is just Edwin Nombre) won't take you to the city's tourist spots. Instead, through an initiative dubbed True Manila, he brings people to the place he calls home — the slums.

An initiative, a community

"The main idea of True Manila is sharing culture, kindness, and friendship," said Nombre, an independent film and television commercial actor.

In 2010, Edwin started True Manila, a project that allows foreigners and Filipinos alike to see the daily grind in impoverished areas in Manila.

The initiative was inspired by a Swiss friend who was shocked when he saw the community where Edwin lived.

Nombre has nothing against tourists heading to pristine beaches and lush mountainsides the minute they arrive in the Philippines. In fact, when the 39-year-old does take on part-time tour guide duties, one of the packages he offers to customers is a trip to Taal Volcano.

But he wanted to give travelers the opportunity to look past breathtaking sites — he wanted them to see the side of the Philippines that isn't in travel guide books or fancy vacation websites.

While others offer tourists dream destinations and getaways, to his friends, Nombre gives a peek into the life that most people in the slums want to get away from. He allows travelers to see how some residents of Manila can only dream of better lives as they live in squalor.

Some have questioned him for bringing foreigners to squatters' areas in Manila: Some see this as poverty porn.

But Nombre only asks his critics one thing: "Can't I bring friends to where I live?"

True Manila itinerary

The True Manila tour, as called by others, is an exposure trip of sorts. There are no waivers or permits — just the sheer willingness and time of those interested in seeing the community where Edwin grew up in.

The True Manila experience usually begins at the Philippine National Railways (PNR) San Andres station, where Nombre asks participants to meet him.

It's not difficult to spot Nombre while on a True Manila tour. He's the guy surrounded by a bunch of foreigners in black shirts that say "True Manila."

While bringing True Manila friends around the city, Edwin Nombre encourages them to support smalltime businesses. In this photo, True Manila participants stop by a neighborhood stall that sells sweetened bananas, which are then given to children in a nearby community.

The shirts are required while going around with Nombre. They're a safety measure: They make it easier for him and the members of the True Manila community to identify True Manila participants.

If those joining the tour choose to buy a shirt, Edwin sells it at P300 a piece and all proceeds go to True Manila's "Education for Street Kids" program, which started in 2013.

From the PNR station, Edwin brings his friends to the Beata train tracks in Pandacan along Pasig River, where participants experience riding on rickety, hand-pushed trolleys — a daily mode of transportation for those who live along the tracks.

There, participants get to interact with an informal settler community mostly composed of displaced Badjaos from Mindanao.

Edwin then guides True Manila friends through what he refers to as the "under-the-bridge community" along Osmeña Highway, where people live under the ground, next to a body of water that often doubles as the residents' public toilet and laundry area.

"After I saw the living conditions of our fellow Filipinos residing under the bridge and beside the train station, I felt that members of our local government haven't done anything to improve their living conditions," said Mac Medrana, a True Manila participant who worked for the Department of Social Welfare and Development. "True Manila is really an eye-opener for me and I'm very blessed to have experienced it."

A True Manila participant gamely pushes a makeshift trolley along the Beata Pandacan train tracks.

The last stop is Nombre's childhood neighborhood in San Andres Bukid. One stop to the house that Nombre grew up in is enough to make participants see that he and his family have also led a difficult life throughout the years.

Missionaries in Manila

Nombre isn't ashamed of admitting that he grew up in a depressed area.

He even shared that True Manila is his way of giving back because years ago, he was a scrawny street kid benefiting from the good hearts of two American Christians who were carrying out missions in Manila.

For him, meeting those American missionaries — who he considers his foster parents — altered his life permanently.

"When I was a kid on the streets and those foreigners helped me, I only had one question: 'Why are they doing this?' It all boiled down to kindness," Nombre said. "Because of the kindness and care they showed me, I survived. Now I'm just paying it forward, I'm just continuing my experience."

After 26 years of not seeing his American foster parents, Nombre was reunited with them in 2012, when a sponsor was kind enough to help him attend a film festival abroad.

Soft spot for children

Nombre explained that his personal experience is what sparked his advocacy for street children. Aside from the "Education for Street Kids" program, True Manila also has another subproject that focuses on children's welfare: "Build a Home for Street Kids."

"When you guide children who've been exposed to poor living conditions, chances are they'll grow up and fix their lives because they'll see their value. They'll see their value because someone gave time to help them and make them feel important," Nombre explained.

Children from what Edwin Nombre calls his True Manila community in San Andres Bukid enjoy snacks prepared by True Manila participants.

Through the "Education for Street Kids" program, True Manila has helped 29 kids continue their schooling — most of them are currently in elementary. And thanks to the "Build a Home for Street Kids" project, some informal settler families now have roofs over their heads even if the living space that True Manila can provide is limited.

Both programs depend on donations, which come irregularly especially because True Manila isn't a registered organization. When asked if he would want to make True Manila an official body, he said that the responsibility might be too heavy to handle.

After all, the father of two has a growing family to look after.

"Sometimes, I take a break from True Manila because I need to work harder for my family. All my free time is spent on True Manila," said Nombre, who also moonlights as a salesman, a driver, and a small-time gym manager.

He recounted how his mother would sometimes point out the irony of him starting True Manila: "You help other people when you yourself need help. You help build houses for other people and yet you can't provide your own family with a home. You help put others' children through school, but you also have a hard time paying for your own kids' tuition."

Recently, Nombre has started considering moving back in with his mother in the San Andres slums because he has to choose between paying their current apartment's rent and providing his children with good education.

But Nombre would easily shrug this off and say that there are others who need more help than him — that compared to others, he and his family still have it good, with food on the table and a bed to sleep in.

"Will I feel better if I stop doing this? No," Edwin said. "My dream is to help others. I want to keep doing this until I grow old."