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A Planet Gone Wrong MAG
Our pants snag on the barbed-wire fence as we come to a huddle before a ramshackle structure made from discarded metal. Two women face us, standing in the doorway. At a plastic table outside rest two boys, each leaning over several papers and clutching a pencil. Fussing about our red Gringo faces, one woman waves her arms, beckoning me across the yard. I obey, and stand next to her in the shade of their lone tree, which struggles to survive in the heat of a searing Nicaraguan summer.
The heat pulses in my ears and sweat slides down my body. With bright eyes against such a bleak background, 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 to the sandy road lined with homes pressed tightly together, so close that neighbors share a common fence separating 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 with scrap materials, boards, wire, and sheets of zinc metal. One is made entirely of pieces of old Coca-Cola billboards; the garish red and white letters mock us as we pass. 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 before us. Looking ahead, I take in the expanse of the largest dump in Central America.
Homes sprout from the waste. Both adults and young children are busy rooting through the piles for anything salvageable, something that could buy their family a meal or help them get through one more day. Behind these faces, valleys and mountains rise, colorful and grimy. Several fires feast on the trash, creating the gray clouds hovering above the scene. As I gaze toward the horizon, the hills blend into one vast landscape. Focusing on the piles, I pick out some details: broken toys, torn clothing, and old refrigerator parts lie 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 this sea of trash. I watch, fascinated, as they play, stretching their narrow bare feet from block to block. Their 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 grandmother back to her yard. A cart passes on the road, towering with sheets of plastic just pulled from the dump. A naked toddler, staring curiously at us, rides on top. In the small yard, we stand beneath the shade of the only tree next to a pig in the final stages of life. Its body lies motionless, conserving energy. I speculate that it would be barely worth eating. Several dogs, so emaciated 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.
My thin linen pants and purple plaid shirt feel infested with the stench of rubbish and burning trash. All I want to do is escape back to our hostel and scrub my body clean with a wasteful, sterilized wet-wipe (I had scorned my mother for buying me them).
Holding my bandanna to my mouth and nose, I imagine tiny particles drifting on the acrid air and invading my lungs. I feel like I’m underwater, with my emotions drifting above in the breeze, waiting to crash on my head as soon as I surface for air.
As panic churns 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. The earth is coated with a confusion of items, layered thickly, where earth once rested. Sinking in the midst of this scene is a pond, dead in the bright sun. Its water seems untouched by 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. She says it was a beef processing plant that had dumped waste and foul 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 life in the dump: little or no healthcare, never enough money, and overall dismal conditions. “I had twelve children,” she tells us unflinchingly. “Five died.” She observes us, watching our faces, seeming almost void of emotion. “The air is so polluted because of the burning rubbish that almost all our children suffer from respiratory problems.”
Words echo in my mind from the workshops I had led countless times with these students, thinking 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 industry in the world, including in agriculture and garbage dumps.” Yet here I stood in a dump, amidst the reality that we encouraged other U.S. students to help us combat, wonder despairingly, How 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. 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 grandmother, a worn woman volunteering her time to give us 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, then maybe one exists.
Tearing ourselves away, we walk back up the road and approach the other group. They appear worn and smaller than before. Their thin pants and cotton T-shirts hang limply from their bodies, victims of the heat and filth. Tears drip from their downcast eyes. Dazed, we load into our van, our minds filled with images and faces. The bus pulls away from this community in the heart of a dismal landscape. We bounce slowly down the path, peering 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. My mind conjures up an image of a war zone.
We ride in silence, our bubbly, superficial conversations stilled, temporarily, by this experience. We drive, A/C turned up, away from the squalor, back to reclaim our places among the richest of the rich.