On Saturday we went to the city dump. Why would we do that? In the States, dumps are festering and far away places that allow materialistic citizens to forget about the consequences of their actions. In Managua, La Chureca is part of the city, between Lake Xolotlán, which has been polluted to the point of ecological death, and Barrio Acahualinca. There´s a bus route that goes right to the barrio, and as soon as you get off, though you´re still surrounded by homes and stores and faded parks, you also surrounded by the fumes of the dump.
Another detail. La Chureca is the home and workplace of Managua´s poorest. Two hundred families live on the side of the dump and search through garbage heaps for food scraps and things to sell to recycling posts. And five hundred workers arrive at five in the morning to spend all day there, heading home with a little money to buy a meal for their family. So the dump in Managua is also a neighbourhood, a work camp, a business. It´s also an infierno (hell), according to a newspaper article I found about it before going, and according to me.
Here is part of a reflection I wrote in my journal when we got home.
Some of us (not me) stuck on rain boots, and we headed toward the lake and dump on our guide Yamila´s paved road, eventually turning left onto a trash-lined alley. Through the rainy mist and trash fumes I could see heaping gray-brown piles rising out of the mud, as high as hills, but made of everything—tires, diapers, cookie wrappers, discarded needles, banana peels, and scraps that were so degraded and mixed that they had become one with the mud.
We trekked up a sopping hill of compacted trash. The utter separation but proximity of that world surprised me. We had left a poor but peaceful barrio of tin houses a moment before, and were now entering a trash tundra. Children—much too skinny and young—running, jumping, smiling, or wide-eyed with trauma and maturity, swept by us to plunge into piles.
Dump trucks, ironically labelled ¨Managua Limpia,¨ passed on their way up the hill. The vested workers hanging onto their beds whistled at us. My sneakers sunk into seedy mud and I felt the toxic ooze between my toes. I took a labored breath and told myself, ¨This is what you asked for. Here we go.¨
There were a hundred workers that day, which was a lower than usual, due to the rain. I cannot grapple with the fact that the workers there looked completely used to everything. They poked and hauled and smiled at each other´s jokes. The smiles mystified me. I couldn´t smile. This experience is hereby added to the list of times I have seen Nicaraguans smile and wondered if that´s what they´re really feeling. So much can hide behind a smile.
I am surprised I wasn´t even more emotionally moved. I think it was the rain. No matter where you are and how dirty you get, water heals. I felt separated from the workers by a mist shield. And from the fumes. They say the fumes of La Chureca are the hardest to bare—they make your eyes water and throat close up. But the rain kept them tamed so that they burned less.
I did feel one thing, strongly. Mistfit. Tourist. Ickily privileged. I watched while everyone else dug and pushed and scurried over the best trash, sometimes clawing at each other, sometimes getting pushed full-bodied into a pile of mush by a fellow hungry worker. I watched, with my hands in my pockets, my fingers fiddling with guilt, incredulity, helplessness, and powerlessness, instead of trash.