Nostalgia at the Dump

I mentioned in my first post, that my fiancé and I were in the process of buying a home together.  Well, that happened and we’re now living in our new house.  I love it!  I was living in a city before but now I live in a more rural area and I have a longggg commute into work.  But for me, it’s so worth it.

When we went to buy our home, we looked mostly in small, rural towns.  This was for a couple of reasons: a) The homes there were (generally) more affordable and b) As I’m Vermont born and raised, I have been desperate to get back to the country life for awhile now…  Okay, desperate might sound dramatic but, well, it’s kinda the truth.  I moved to a city for the first time in my life almost 10 years ago.  I thought I’d love the city.  I mean, every time I’d gone to visit it, I’d had so much fun.  The restaurants, the bars, the bustle of it all… I figured once I moved to one, I’d probably want to live in a city for the rest of my life.

But even at the youthful age of 22, when living in the city should have been absolute perfection, I quickly learned that living in a city is quite different than visiting a city.  For one thing, I love people – on an individual level or in small groups.  But when you’ve got millions of them living on top of each other, it can get stressful and claustrophobic, for me, anyways.  I also yearned for open spaces and trees – especially in the summer.  When you grow up in Vermont, nature can feel as essential as air.  So, the transition to city-living was difficult and at times, it felt stifling.  Over time, it got easier and there were times when I truly enjoyed urban life.  But my dream of getting back to the small town life never died.  I just never felt relaxed or at home in the city.

So I’ve gone off on a tangent (so typical for me).  Where was I going with this?!  Oh yeah, despite my love affair with country life, I can understand why some of its “charm” is not appealing for many people.  For instance, take the “charm” that is the dump.  In my new town, there is no trash pickup.  So unless you want garbage littering up your yard (pun intended), which is probably a sanitation code violation, you must go the dump once a week or so to get rid of your trash.  We made our first trip to the dump on Saturday.  And man, did it bring me back… to two different times in my life…

The first memories it brought up for me were of my own childhood.  Growing up in Vermont, I would go to the dump with my dad nearly every Saturday morning.  On the drive over, we’d listen to the weekly top hits on the local radio stations.  I still remember almost all the words to “Dangerous” by Roxette because of this weekly errand.  When I think of those times, I remember the soft seats of my dad’s truck and the velvety smell of the truck’s interior.  I remember my dad steering the truck into the waiting line.  We’d sit as the ten or so cars in front of us would take their respective turns at tossing their weekly trash until finally, it was our turn.  I’d often see my friends and classmates.  I don’t know if you can understand it if you’re not from the country, but there’s a sense of community at the dump.

So I spent some time reflecting upon my childhood trips to the dump.  Then my thoughts shifted to another point in my life…  When I was in my early 20s, I spent three months living in Guatemala.  I was volunteering with Camino Seguro (Safe Passage), a program located in Zone 3 of Guatemala City, aka a part of the city is typically excluded from tourist books.  The Guatemala City Garbage Dump is in this part of the city.  Camino Seguro works with children whose families work in the dump and live in its immediate vicinity.  And I should explain that the work the families do involves scavenging through the dump, looking for items they can sell later on the street.  It sounds like a grueling schedule; working all day in a dump in the Guatemalan heat only to go to a second shift of selling items on the street.  And the Guatemalan City Garbage Dump collects any type of trash (household, medical, etc).  So if you’re working in the dump, you may come across any number of household items or amputated limbs and soiled hospital sheets.

Families actually used to live in the garbage dump.  That all came to an abrupt stop in 2005 when a fire tore threw the dump.  Since that point, there’s been  limited regulation of the dump.  For instance, no one is allowed to live in the dump anymore and no one under the age of 16 is allowed to work in the dump.

Yet these rules don’t change the fact that for some people, their “best” option is to scavenge in a gigantic, hazardous garbage dump.  Nor does it change the fact that to send their children to any school in Guatemala, families must pay fees.  Needless to say, the families who work in the dump don’t have the resources to send their children to school.  What’s more, many of the families need their kids to work in the dump, any extra income is crucial for families in this community.

So since 1999, Camino Seguro has been working with a dedicated Guatemalan and foreign staff as well as donors and volunteers to sponsor the children so they can attend school.  They also provide the children with healthcare, healthy meals and give food to families whose children miss no more than three days of school per month.

I went back to visit Camino Seguro two years ago.  During that trip, I learned about the many expansions Camino Seguro has made to provide services to parents as well.  I was told that the vast majority (80 or 90%, I can’t remember exactly) of families working in the dump were headed by single moms.  And so it’s no surprise that the vast majority of workers in the dump are women.  It was not lost on me that this fact is a concrete example of the shit end of the deal women so often get.  It is also an example of how women of color, on both a local and a global level, are subjected to even more poverty and injustice.  I don’t know this for fact, but it would be my guess that indigenous women in Guatemala are that much more at risk of poverty, violence and injustice – all of which are found in the Guatemala City Garbage Dump.

So this past Saturday, when I was at the local dump and a nice, soft breeze blew through the air, bringing with it a pretty noxious odor, I was brought right back to my volunteer experience in Guatemala.  I remembered the constant odor of trash and how, depending on the wind, this smell ranged from stale and moldy to pungently putrid.  I remembered the vultures that swarmed above.  And I remembered the women, many of whom carry immense trauma histories, have escaped extreme violence and now have to survive off other people’s trash.

Guatemala City's garbage dump

Guatemala City’s garbage dump (Photo credit: mattkoltermann)

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