Monday, April 14, 2014

El Basurero de El Manchén

In much of Guatemala, a daily fact that bums out many visiting Americans (and many local Guatemalans as well) is the large amount of litter that covers roadsides, empty lots, front yards and rivers. In the United States we are taught from a very early age that littering is bad - most states even criminalize throwing trash on the ground. A lot of Guatemalans are not inculcated with the same abhorrence of littering. In addition, the infrastructure we take for granted - public trashcans, regular trash service, government-run trash pickup programs for public spaces - are often scarce or non-existent here.

Photo: Mike Castillo, Prensa Libre

A microcosm of this nationwide problem exists in El Manchén, the beautiful ruins of a colonial era church across the street from my house. A dirt pathway runs right past the ruins, connecting the city of Antigua to a humble community of corrugated metal, cinder block and scrap wood homes hugging the back of a hill called Cerro de la Cruz. (A similar type of community, also on a hill called Cerro de la Cruz exploded into flames in Chile this weekend, destroying all the earthly possessions of 2,000 families). On their daily commute, students, taxi drivers, waiters, store owners, car washers, shoe shiners and Spanish teachers alike walk down the path past the ruins, snacking on foil wrapped candies and bags of chips. And then they throw them on the ground.

This seems like a little thing. It's not a big deal to drop one soda can in a world that still confronts poverty, war, disease and famine. But those soda cans and gum wrappers and chip bags add up over the decades to cover something beautiful with ugliness. In addition, this particular something beautiful also happens to be part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Without these big thoughts in mind, but rather with the simple idea that it would be nice to pick up some of the trash in the ruins where I play my ukulele in the evenings, I bough a box of trash bags and borrowed some gloves and spent a weekend picking up trash.

During those (overly) sunny hours picking up wrappers and shoes and glass and such, I got to chat with a lot of neighbors passing by, all of whom were thankful for the bit of work I was doing. I also got to meet and was helped by the head of a neighborhood committee that sponsored a Holy Week velación in the ruins the same weekend I was picking up trash.

Two afternoons and nine 30-gallon trash bags later, I had cleared a pleasant green spot on the south side of the ruins, but realized that even this little littered lot was too big of a challenge for me. Decades of litter were buried underneath the the more current litter. Old plastic grocery bags and copper wire were hopelessly intertwined in the roots of plants. I experienced first hand what plastic does when it decomposes. It doesn't break down into dirt or nothingness - just very small pieces of plastic that are impossible to pick up. Apparently this is the kind of stuff that you'll find in the Great Pacific Trash Vortex.

The most disappointing thing occurred the Monday after my boy scout-y trash pickup campaign. On my way to class, I watched as two teenage girls walked down the hill and dropped a candy wrapper right at the doors of the ruin. By the time I had returned from class that evening, the wind had blown seven or eight additional pieces of litter onto the plot I had cleared.

I felt a tiny bit better when Don Carlos, the father of my family got my nine bags into the community's trash pickup last week, but I'm afraid unless greater forces get involved, the ghostly basurero of the ruins of El Manchén will be forever cursed with the Sisyphean task of picking up never-ending windblown drifts of litter.