Friday, January 4, 2008

"One Person's Trash is Another Person's Treasure"

A common saying that doesn’t always translate into reality, especially when the trash is quite literally, trash. This morning the family asked me to accompany them to help dispose of junk that commonly piles up in households. Well some, as I was soon to find out. A bit perturbed, I wondered why I was always doing chores for the family when I wasn’t obligated to, but we had long ago blurred the lines between “paying guest” and “visiting friend”, that I wouldn’t suddenly refocus that boundary when it was something not acting in my favor.

We drove for about ten minutes where the concrete road soon dissolved into a dirt path. Lost, we asked numerous gas station attendants and random road travelers for the location. None of them knew. Finally, after asking a Mayan road traveler, we were directed to a side trail roughly ten meters ahead and were told to follow the path to the dump. Not seeing any trace of garbage, we sought for reassurance, which she gave us with seeming eagerness. Given our already numerous failed attempts at finding the site, we gladly complied.

As we drove, a large group of children, aged probably from six to nine years old, began running towards, and then following our truck, as if we were throwing out free ice cream on an unforgivably hot summer day. They proceeded to climb into the back of the vehicle, yelping in excitement. I was wondering if it was from the bumpy ride in a truck bed like most people would enjoy, but no, it was from the discovery of a discarded ball.

We pulled to a stop and I soon realized that this was no dump at all. It was someone’s home. Immediately crowds of people began unloading the truck, closely inspecting what items were still usable. People were trying on worn-out shoes. Kids were fighting over sticks. The contents were emptied in about 2 minutes. I barely had to lift a finger, and to think, I was complaining earlier about me doing work that I shouldn’t have to.

The little work I did was between me and this scruffy-haired little girl wearing tattered clothes. And God. I actually hesitated; haunted by frequent complaints from members of my "human rights" study abroad group contracting scabies from a volunteer at a dump who was constantly referred to as “dumpster girl”. I wanted to strangle myself for thinking that.

As we left I hugged the girl who was helping me, shook hands with the owners of the home, thanking them for letting us dispose our junk, trying desperately to make an inadequate apology for an insult they had no idea I made. But nothing could make up for that. Nothing as simple as a handshake and a hug.

We drove away, fleeing through that door of “choice”, shamefully silent at our ability to briefly visit into someone else's reality. In a melancholy tone, Pablo explained that most Mayan communities live in similar poverty and expressed his incomprehension of why such things exist. Sergio began devising a plan to collect his sister’s old toys and coming back; maybe even buying some cheap gifts to hand out, but the short-lived proposition soon trailed off at the realization of his own family’s financial difficulties and in defeat he simply concluded by sighing, "Ah, I wish I was a millionaire". Then me, the foreign traveler, who two days ago was upset at everyone and himself for overspending on his frugal budget, sat wordless, disgusted with himself and where he comes from.

I come from a land of over consumption, a place where people throw away enough shit that an industry has been made out of it. A place where getting the newest and "hottest" release is justification enough for throwing away something perfectly functional. You come from that to seeing people scrounging for broken plywood to heat and feed their homes, to shoeless children rejoicing over any tangible item to play make-believe that maybe they had more, and suddenly your mundane concerns become nothing. Instead you hang your head in tears and confusion, struggling to comprehend why the world chose to model itself after unbalanced scales. It was like a scene out of a charity infomercial, only the solution wasn’t as simple as donating 25 cents a day. It wasn’t a problem that could be extinguished by money. It was a much needed inquiry into oneself, an urgent demand for reform, an ugly reflection of the society you come from.

It’s strange how much you can learn about yourself in the most unexpected places, sometimes in things as simple as taking out "the trash".


sticky said...

wow. that's just crazy to fathom.

Anonymous said...

well said, nick. i love the last line.


so sad...