A Planet Gone Wrong

October 22, 2007
By
Our pants snag on the low barbed-wire fence as we come to a huddle before a ramshackle structure assembled from pieces of discarded metal. Two women face us, standing in the home’s door. At a plastic table outside the house rests two boys, each leaning over several papers and clutching a pencil. Fussing about our red Gringo faces, she waves her arms, beckoning me across the yard. I obey, and move to stand next to her in the shade of their lone, scraggly tree, which struggles to survive in the heat of a searing Nicaraguan summer.
The heat pulses in my ears and sweat slides across my body. With bright eyes against a background so bleak, the mother beams at her son. Her beautiful wavy hair is clipped loosely behind her head. “He’s malnourished,” she jokes with us through the interpreter. Round and shy he sits in the weak plastic chair. “He is going to high school.” she brags with high hopes. His Grandma also smiles softly at her grandson; “the chubby one,” she calls him. We follow her out into the sandy road, lined on either side with homes pressed tightly together, so close that neighbors share a common fence separating their yards. Barely four feet on either side of each home, most of the yards are sandy dirt surfaces, packed down and swept clean.
These homes are constructed from scrap materials, boards and wire and sheets of zinc metal. One is made entirely of old Coca-Cola billboard pieces; the garish red and white letters mock us as we walk by. Stepping between two of these homes, which are balanced haphazardly on the edge of a rocky overhang, we stand on a ledge. The ground drops down before us. Stretching my eyes ahead, I take in the expanse of the largest dump in Central America.
Homes sprout out of the waste. Both adults and young children are busy rooting through the piles for something salvageable, something that could buy their family a meal or help them get through one more day. Behind these faces, hills and valleys and mountains rise up, colorful and grimy. Several fires feast on the trash, creating the gray clouds that hover over the scene. As I gaze towards the horizon the hills blend into one vast landscape. Focusing my eyes on the specific piles, I pick out some of the details that make up the view. Broken toys, dirty and torn clothing and old refrigerator parts, lay among multitudes of other items; so many that they are almost indistinguishable from each other.
Directly below us, almost in the shadow of the cliff, three children stand on large concrete blocks, floating like icebergs in the sea of trash. I watch them, fascinated, as they play, stretching their narrow bare feet from block to block. Their soiled and colorful clothes hang loosely on their thin frames. The tallest girl looks up, and seeing us, stretches out her long, graceful arm to wave.
Back on the road, our group shuffles solemnly behind the grandma and into her yard. A cart passes us on the road, towering with sheets of plastics pulled freshly from the dump. A naked toddler, still and staring curiously at us, rides on top of the sheets. In her small yard, we stand beneath the shade of the sole tree. Tied to the tree lays a pig in his final stages. His ribs seem to be the structure to which his skin is glued. His motionless body lay, conserving energy. I speculate to myself that he would be barely worth eating. Several emaciated dogs, so thin they make my insides churn, grovel at the outskirts of our group. I wonder if they are puppies or merely on the verge of death.
I stand in her yard, my sneakered feet, specially fitted for the occasion, thin linen pants and purple plaid shirt that all feel infested with the stench of rubbish and burning trash. All I want to do is escape back to our hostel and wipe my entire body clean with a wasteful, sterilized wet-wipe; the ones I had scorned my mother for buying me back in America.
Holding my tangerine-colored bandana to my mouth and nose, I imagine the tiny particles drifting from the acrid, smoky air and into my lungs. I feel like I’m underwater, as if my emotions are above me, drifting in the breeze, waiting to crash down on my head as soon as I surface for air.

As this state of panic begins in my mind, I cannot help looking around in continued horror. The grandmother’s home is on the edge of the community. Behind her yard, the ground drops down and stretches out. The earth is coated with a confusion of items, layered thickly, where rich dark earth once rested. Sinking in the midst of this scene sits a pond, dead in the bright sun. Its dark, filthy waters seem untouched by any of nature’s luster. “It’s polluted. It’s drying up,” she tells us. “It used to be much larger. Several years ago we organized and cleaned it, but it’s only getting worse.” Only getting worse? I rage in my mind, this IS the worst. This is hell. No one could save that in a million years. Confusion scatters my brain. How could such a miraculous planet go so horribly wrong?
Pointing up the hill above this murky puddle, she directs our attention to a large concrete building. Formerly a beef processing plant that used to dump its waste: foul, fresh innards, into the lake. “Every year a festival is held on that hill,” she explains, pointing out the irony. “The richest of the rich look down on our misery.”
As we stand in our group, facing her and the interpreter, we listen to her recite the facts of a life in the dump: little or no health care, never enough money and overall dismal conditions. “I had twelve children,” she tells us unflinching, “five of them died.” She observes us honestly, watching our faces, seeming almost void of emotion. She continues, “Dead dogs and aborted fetuses are not uncommon to find while searching in the dump for recyclables. The air is so polluted because of the burning rubbish that almost all of our children suffer from respiratory problems.”
Words echo in my mind from the workshops I had lead countless times with these other students, thinking the whole time that we were helping the world, combating child labor, and challenging the global economy. “Not only do children work in sweatshops, child labor also exists in almost every other industry in the world, such as in agriculture and garbage dumps”. But here I stood, in a dump, the reality which we encouraged other US students to help us combat, but how I wonder despairingly, could I ever help change this?
“Everything people do has a purpose, people don’t just go places for no reason. Why are you here?” she asks us. Why am I here? I wonder. What can I do to help these people? What right do I have barging in to interrupt their lives like I’m on some poverty tour? This is selfish.
I look into the wise face of the grandma, a worn old woman volunteering her time to give us a private insight into her life. She wouldn’t be doing this if she thought we shouldn’t be here. I sigh. If she sees a reason for our presence here, then maybe one does exist.

Tearing ourselves away from her gentle questioning, we walk back up the road, and approach the other group. They appear worn down and smaller than before. Their thin linen pants and cotton t-shirts, specially purchased for the trip, hang limp off their bodies, victims of the heat and filth. Tears drip from their squinty, downcast eyes. Dazed, we load into our van, our minds filled with images and faces. The bus turns around, leaving the community, built compactly, in the very heart of this dismal landscape. We bounce slowly down the path, peering down from our vantage point. On the side of the road, a burning tire catches my attention. My eyes are drawn to the flames, dark and low, and the billowing gray smoke that wafts down the road, joining the smog that hangs in the air. Unconsciously my mind conjures up an image of a war zone.
We ride in silence; the bubbly, superficial conversations of my peers have been stilled, temporarily, by the experience. We drive, AC turned up, away from the squalor, back to reclaim our places among the richest of the rich.





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