Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The dump

Greetings, all! I like many of our murderous crew am heading to Bouchercon in Long Beach shortly. This is a post I wrote in 2008, about a visit to the old Puerto Vallarta dump. I was researching the novel that would become "Getaway" at the time, and though I didn't know how or why I might feature a dump, I had an idea that it would make a great setting for a noir thriller. The dump ended up being prominently featured, and I like to think I did right by its potential. Now I'm working on the sequel to that book and thought it would be a good time to revisit Mexico, as opposed to China. Even though the "Getaway" sequel is set in the exotic USA...

(as always, click to embiggen)

For some reason, I wanted to visit the dump. I thought it might be a good location for my new novel in progress. I thought it might be interesting. Maybe I'm just one of those privileged Westerners engaging in poverty tourism. It's entirely possible. 

Valeria has done some work at the dump, both as a volunteer and a performance artist. She graciously agreed to take me. But she couldn't get the necessary permit, even trying a few days in advance. The situation at the dump is complicated. It's scheduled to close, but delays in completing the new dump mean that the old one will remain open a little longer.

The dump is 28 years old. It began 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 colonia that has 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 pay for the privilege of sorting through the garbage to scavenge things to sell. There is 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." Some people live more or less on the dump, others around it, and they take their things 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 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, which I believe is 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 told me that it had become a home for thousands of birds. She wasn't exaggerating. Flocks of buzzards, which I would expect, and white herons, which seem somewhat incongruous, come to the dump to feast on what's there. Things like: random cow parts: lips. Skulls. Hooves. Ears. 

What there seems to be more of than anything are 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 is spongy; it trembles when the bulldozers come 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 are 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 jovenes — all of the workers are jovenes, whether they are young, old, male or female, continue their labors: sorting through trash, through garbage, looking for things that they can sell. Cardboard. Bottles. Cans. Refrigerator parts. Copper wire. It's not much of a living; the price of recyclables has collapsed along with everything else in the current economic crisis. 

Some day the dump will close, probably within the next few months. Maybe it will take longer. But the dump will be closed, sealed in rubber, covered over with grass. I'm not sure what happens to what's underneath. And I don't know if the birds will still come.

Lisaevery other Wednesday...

No comments:

Post a Comment