In the developing world, rubbish dumps (or garbage tips, if you will) can be fascinating places - if you hold your nose. In February of last year, I posted about Vik Muniz's film, Waste Land - shot at the municipal landfill in Rio de Janeiro. Today, we're honored with a guest post from author Lisa Brackmann, in which she tells us about her experience at the one in Puerto Vallarta.
Lisa made a splash last year with the launch of her first book, Rock Paper Tiger, a work that earned a star from Publisher's Weekly.
She's back again, this month, with Getaway, a book set in Mexico and, in which, the dump she's going to tell you about plays an important role.
Several years ago, while in Mexico in part to research my novel in progress, I had the opportunity to visit the old Puerto Vallarta dump. I jumped at it. I thought it might be a good location for the book. I thought it might be interesting. Maybe I was just one of those privileged Westerners engaging in poverty tourism. It's entirely possible.
I was able to go there thanks to an acquaintance, Valeria, who had done work at the dump, both as a volunteer for an organization aiding the workers and as a performance artist (Would that I could have witnessed that piece!). She graciously agreed to take me. But she couldn't get the necessary permit, even trying a few days in advance. At the time, the situation at the dump was complicated. For years it had continued to operate in spite of being over 100% of capacity, but delays in completing the new dump meant that the old one would remain open. No one knew for how long.
The dump was almost thirty years old. It was built at a time when there were no real environmental regulations in Mexico, in a valley some distance from the town. Trash piled up in the valley until the valley filled; then the mountain rose above it. Gradually the town came as well. There are new apartments close to the dump, and a new university too.
We took a taxi out to the colónia that had grown up around the dump, stopping at a fruteria to buy a half a crate of oranges for the workers: the dump's employers and the recyclers who paid for the privilege of sorting through the garbage to scavenge things to sell. There was a hierarchy at the dump, with "bosses" controlling who gets what and for how much. "There was an old lady who used to be here," Valeria told me, "and she would wear a nice dress and gloves and look for perfume bottles." The recyclers lived on or around the dump, taking their finds to their scavenged shacks to sort and sell.
Since we didn't have official permission to visit, it would all be a matter of luck, Valeria explained. Or Valeria's charm, more accurately. The oranges didn't hurt either. I took some up to the workers spraying brown leachate out of green hoses into a pit. This is part of a system to filter the leachate and prevent it from leaking into places it shouldn't (I wish I could describe the process more accurately, but my Spanish only goes so far).
About five minutes after we arrived at the dusty gate, the manager arrived.
At first the manager didn't want to let us up there. He wanted to be assured that I wouldn't say anything bad about the dump. I promised I wouldn't, and that if he didn't want me to take photos, I would not.
He took us up in his pickup, on paths blocked at times with baby carriages and cracked tires, up to the top. The lower levels of the mountain have been covered with grass planted on top of a rubber membrane, again designed to seal off any contaminates from the dump. Once the manager determined that I was actually interested in how the dump worked, he explained it all to me. I understood most, but not all of what he had to say. What I did understand was his real passion and conscientiousness about his job, which was basically trying to retrofit a mountain of garbage so that the environment would be protected and the land eventually used for something else. But how? For years, the garbage had been sorted by hand; they have no real way of knowing what is buried there, how dangerous it might be. Methane gas accumulates; organic materials decompose into a viscous liquid that seeps wherever it can find a path.
The views from the top of the dump are pretty amazing. You can see the town, the marina, the new developments, the ocean. But the dump itself is what's really compelling.
Valeria had told me the dump was a home for thousands of birds. She wasn't exaggerating. Flocks of buzzards, which I would expect, and white herons, which seem somewhat incongruous, came to the dump to feast on what was there. Things like: random cow parts: Lips. Skulls. Hooves. Ears.
What there seemed to be more of than anything were plastic bags. Plastic bags, faded by the sun, make up the slopes and summit of this mountain. The earth will not end in fire or ice or water. I am convinced we will all smother in plastic.
The surface of the mountain was spongy; it trembled when the bulldozers came close. I wish I could describe the smell. Rancid, sweet, rotting fruit, spoiled baby food, shit — none of that quite captures it.
The new dump will have all sorts of modern technology, the manager explained, and they were doing their best to cope with the problems that this one presents, but essentially, it is a matter of how do we bury our mistakes, when they are mistakes of this magnitude?
Meanwhile, the gleaners, the jóvenes — all of the workers are “jóvenes”, whether they are young, old, male or female, continued their labors: sorting through trash, through garbage, looking for things that they could sell. Cardboard. Bottles. Cans. Refrigerator parts. Copper wire. It’s not much of a living; the price of recyclables collapsed along with everything else in the economic crisis.
The dump officially closed on May 31, 2009. The mitigation work, however, continues, and will continue for years. But someday, the dump will be sealed in rubber, covered over with grass. I'm not sure what will happen to what's underneath. And I don't know if the birds will still come.