garbage


Too much going on to write about today, but here’s a prose piece I wrote last year that tells the whole story . . .

Liftoff

There is dog shit in the gravel yard. I am surprised that I even have a dog to leave me these small gifts, a spunky, throw-away pawned off on my husband by an old friend.

Tomorrow, Miguel will tear off pieces of plastic bag and collect the digestive offerings with hospital care. They go into a small, lidded trash bin, also plastic-lined, which will later be neatly tied and, to prevent punctures, placed gingerly into the 32 gallon garbage can we brought from The North.

When the boy walks down the street ringing a bell, Miguel will roll the can out and pay 10 pesos to the brown man walking behind the unmarked, open box waste truck who will hand it up and in to the king of that unthinkable hill, then return it to my husband, empty as a plundered vault.

But for now I watch the flies settling, probing, taking a short walking tour, practicing liftoff and landing on this canine wasteland.

Across the street our neighbor precisely fills a folding metal table with chicken, flayed, filleted, and whole, proud of the convenience and variety he provides the neighborhood cooks. He moves in ritual, white alb, bloody vestment, swipes the knife, wipes his fingers, pulls the next yellow corpse from the boxes stacked precisely on the sidewalk.

The amateur butcher’s wife calls him inside. He untucks the greasy towel from his apron front, smoothes it across the processed parts, centers the knife just so on the chopping block, turns to answer matrimony’s call. The pilots in my yard liftoff.

Achaessa at YaxchilanWe had a great time in Chiapas last month, traveling with a group of young, professional Catholics that Miguel’s youngest sister is associated with. It was a lively, international group of about 40 people that included a psychologist, a corporate attorney, a doctor in economics, a Spanish priest based in Mexico City, an Italian seminarist from Rome and regular folks like us. They were all very warm and welcoming and Miguel and I really enjoyed being part of the group.

Miguel, his sister and I flew in to the capital city Tuxtla-Gutierrez and stayed the first night at the Crown Plaza. It wasn’t a luxury – it was preparation for the 6+ hour drive the next day. Plus I haven’t sat in a bathtub since March, so I blissed out in the giant bathroom. (Note to travelers: The Crown Plaza Tuxtla is beautiful – nicer than it’s American counterparts and much less expensive. The only glitch – to get to the Crown’s private entry, you have to traverse the Holiday Inn lobby, pass through the shopping and restaurant plaza, and cross the pool and patio area, all on foot. Then the Crown valet will take your keys and park your car in their secure lot. Very strange, but worth the walk.)

The drive to Palenque took us over the mountains where we were actually above the clouds. When the clouds opened up, the view of the jungle below was vast and densely green. I had imagined a suffocating mass of tropical plants, but it was just the opposite – and impossible to judge how far away the eye could see. I had run a map on Microsoft Streets & Trips, but it was no help. The roads were so poorly marked that we never knew where we were. In some places, there were signs right next to each other for two different highways – Mexico 99, Palenque 84 km – Mexico 98, Palenque 91km – but there was only one road. We were in a rented Tsuru – economy 4-door – not really that low, but the road bumps were often so high they scraped our underside.

Palenque was a beautiful torture. Trees, vines and plants of enormous proportions. Flowers and birds of unexplainable colors. But the humidity and the heat were at times unbearable. Thank goodness we opted for the expensive room – it not only had a private bathroom, but had air conditioning as well. It wasn’t a sealed room, in fact, the windows on one side didn’t even close, but the air conditioning box mounted high on the wall was quiet and kept the room fresh enough to sleep.

In Mexico most houses don’t have doorbells and the front door is not on the street, so the customary manner to raise the house is to knock on the front metal gate or the front window with a coin. It is an unmistakable sound. The first night at La Aldea I spent waiting for whoever was knocking on all the windows to get to our door to see what he wanted. Every 15 minutes he would knock on another window, then quiet. In the exhausted morning, I discovered that there is a small transparent lizard that makes the coin-tapping sound.

We found a knowledgeable and humorous guide the first day at the ruins in Palenque and persuaded him to be our guide the next day, too. A 30-something shaven-head Mayan – do not think small here, he was almost as tall as Miguel and more sturdily built – named Salvador. His bright green eyes were shocking in his tan face. He carried a back pack full of reference materials about the area – National Geographic articles, Mexican archaeology magazines, photos and maps. I didn’t like Salvador at first sight because of his eyes. They scared me. But after a short while his humor and professional manner won me over. By the end of the second day I even hugged him when we all said goodbye.

So the first day we went to Palenque, where the well-kept grounds and signage gave it the feel of a museum. We ended the day swimming at a waterfall called Misol-Ha. The second day we took a boat ride on the Usumacinta River, with Mexico on the eastern shore and Guatemala on the western shore, to tour the island ruins of Yaxchilan. The ruins here were wilder than those at Palenque and the air was full of jaguar screams, monkey howls and bird screeches. Then we raced to get to Bonampak before the site closed. Bonampak is the only site with well-preserved paintings (as opposed to carvings). According to Salvador, about 10 years ago the Mexican government had agreed to flood this river valley, covering these spectacular ruins, to create a hydroelectric power plant for Guatemala. Fortunately, the global community supporting the indigenous populations stepped in and persuaded them to abandon the project.

The climbing and hiking were strenuous at points. The photos you’ve seen of ruins with stairs that appear to go straight up depict the truth. In all of the sites we visited, though, there were only a few roped off ruins, and never any “do not walk” signs, so the tourists spread out and walked anywhere they wanted. From the look of the undergrowth I think the open areas rely on human traffic to keep the jungle growth from taking over again.

The last day we drove back to Tuxtla-Gutierrez. Everyone in our group had been appalled that we’d driven so many hours – most had flown into Villahermosa in Tabasco, just two hours from Palenque. They assured us there was a better driving route back to Tuxtla – still six hours, but real highway with no road bumps. Well, we got to Villahermosa just fine, and had the most marvelous lunch. A local river lobster called a Pigua, roasted with crunchy pieces of garlic. My mouth is watering at the memory of it. After Villahermosa, we immediatelly got lost. Or at least I think we did. There were no roadbumps, but it was definitely not highway and it took us seven more hours without even stopping to eat. We got to the outskirts of Tuxtla, on the other side of the city from the airport, about 10 minutes before our plane was set to take off. So we decided to stay another night.

After 9 hours of driving I was ready for another night at the Crown Plaza. Bathtub from heaven. Bed of clouds. Real air conditioning. But driving down the main avenue, we saw a fancy-looking steakhouse on a corner and Miguel decided we should stay in the hotel above it. It was an older hotel with a large modern lobby in marble. The rooms, however, were sad and dark. What the heck, we left our bags and went downstairs for steak.

Balam Steak House Restaurante turned out to be exceptional and more than made up for Miguel’s bad hotel choice.  Mexican steaks are generally paper thin, unaged beef. We were surprised by the American style thick cuts and even more surprised that the chefs knew how to cook them properly. Best rib eye I’ve had in ages. Equally stunning was the presence of salads on the menu and we were pleased to receive a variety of fresh greens and not one leaf of iceberg lettuce. After dinner we walked down to the local plaza, Jardin de la Marinba, which was still overflowing with people and vendors and mariachis at 10 o’clock.

The next day we took a boat tour up the Sumidero Canyon. A famous mountain pass flooded to build a hydroelectric dam that opened in 1981. We saw crocodiles and monkeys and white cranes. And garbage. Fortunately, the garbage was just in one football field size area and there was a work crew trying to scoop it up, but it was just another reminder of how this society truly fails to connect their personal actions with the ultimate environmental impact.

I’ve posted our photos on Box.Net at http://www.box.net/shared/0v9tfzn7jr. (Don’t worry, it’s a straight link with nothing to sign up for.) There are three subfolders – Chiapas-Ruins, Chiapas-Sumidero, and Chiapas-Vacaciones. Open the first photo in each folder and then just select Next Picture so you can scroll them all full-size. Unfortunately, my camera died half-way through the Sumidero boat tour, so that folder is sparse. The last folder, Vacaciones, is miscellaneous shots that closes with a 4-photo summary of the only form of mass transit we saw while in Chiapas (outside of the capital city).

The end of April already and I’ve been delinquent in posting news. Apologies if you’ve come back more than once to nothing new.

I was in Seattle and San Francisco the first week of March with a really bad attitude. Mexico was ugly. Dirty. Dangerous. Did I mention Ugly? I was quite distressed. Most of my friends were also distressed after hearing my travails – all true enough, but perhaps taking on an importance in the telling that they did not merit.

Either that or, as my sister will confirm, I am fully capable of now convincing myself that all is well in fantasyland.

In any event, I stayed away long enough (three weeks) to miss Miguel and when I returned, Mexico had also changed. The new municipal president of Villa Nicolas Romero had implemented a clean up program and the streets had been swept clean of garbage. The clogged riverbanks had been scoured by cleanup crews. Cavernous potholes on main avenues were filled and traffic lanes were defined with bright white lines.

Spring thunderstorms now freshen the afternoon air and in the mornings the tall eucalyptus along the river are filled with white cranes spreading their feathers in amazing postures. From the hill above the neighborhood, the trees look to be in full bloom. My patio is edged with bright ceramic pots of blooming gardenias and fuschia. In the evening the streets are brushed with aromas of honeysuckle and the distinctive sharp mint of the eucalyptus. All the smells of my childhood in Northern California.

Unfortunately, the riverbanks have returned to their former disgusting state. We were walking home one afternoon through our shortcut that crosses the river. The people on the street were all busy sweeping and prettying up the neighborhood for Semana Santa – the traditional spring cleaning during the weeks preceding Passover/Easter. At the end of the street, the family that lives next to the river had swept its garbage into a neat pile and the young son was dutifully picking it up, walking to the edge of the property, tossing it over and watching it float away. Adios garbage. His dad was doing the same.

This time last year we went to visit the Virgin of Juquila in the state of Oaxaca. Another one of my mother-in-law’s annual pilgrimages. The Virgin of Juquila is very powerful and has granted many prayerful requests. People come from all across Mexico to ask for miracles. Health. Wealth. Happiness. The usual.

When the miracles have been granted, the petitioners have to come back to leave an offering of thanks. The grounds are covered with crosses and banners and clay figurines and flowers thanking the Virgin from The Family SoAndSo for the new business, for the father’s recovery, for the healthy new baby.

They leave their garbage, too. For miles surrounding the sanctuary, El Pedimento, and within the chapel grounds, too, there are mountains of garbage. In fact, by the time we got to Juquila last year, I had seen so much garbage along the roadway that I was ready to explode. When we walked into the chapel I had no idea what I wanted to ask for, I was just so angry at the getting there, and when I saw an empty candy wrapper left on a windowsill I was immediately brought to tears of rage. All I could do was sit in the back of the chapel and cry with frustration.

At this point I have to say, for those who don’t know me, that I am not a religious person and I have never been a Catholic. Nor am I the type of person that angers easily. But I was so struck by the hypocrisy of the people coming here to ask for their miracles and then trashing the place that my anger just came of its own and I could feel the heat rising from my feet to my hips to my chest, up my throat and into my face, burning my cheeks and my eyes and the tips of my ears. The hairs were stiff on my head and my arms, and my tears wet the entire front of my shirt.

Fortunately, Miguel was the only one who noticed. He tried to console me, but I couldn’t talk. I just sat there, gratefully unnoticed, raining quietly into my lap.

Miguel went up to the altar with his mother and then came back for me. People were crowded four and five deep in the small apse. Everybody was taking pictures of the Virgin; a black stone, maybe the size of an open hand, maybe larger, so completely adorned that the only part of the stone exposed is what appears to be a fist-sized face, topped by a crown and dressed in a shimmering robe covered in small gold and brass amulets representing the asked-for miracles. They’re called Milagros – hands, feet, babies, dollar signs, hearts, houses, symbols of the desired.

“I don’t know why everyone takes pictures,” his mother said, “the face never comes out.” She and I stood at the back of the crowd, watching the flashbulbs. Miguel worked his way to the front and took some pictures, too. “They say that only the pure at heart will have the face show up in their photos. I’ve never known anyone whose pictures turned out.” I squeezed the abandoned candy wrapper in my pocket and knew why.

My mother-in-law looked at me; I must have been a sight. Her forehead wrinkled, “Don’t be sad,” she said, “Ask the Virgin for what you want. She’ll give it to you.”

I had been thinking about this all the way there. I would be living in Mexico and my own people say that the gods and the power belong to the land no matter what religion adopts them. Would I be a hypocrite to ask a Catholic saint to help with my transition to her land?

On my first visit to meet Miguel’s family on the first day of Y2K, we’d gone to La Villa – where the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared to the Mexican Indian Juan Diego. We’d all thrown a coin into the fountain on the stairs to the old chapel. Mine had landed right in the center of one of the small volcanic stone bowls in the fountain. Miguel’s sister had exclaimed that I must have great luck because the coins rarely land in the bowls – “Quick, ask for what you want!”

Everything I asked for that day has come true and I have felt a certain affection for La Virgincita since that time.

So, during the trip to Juquila, I was wondering – with La Guadalupana, it was an accident, like luck, a response to a thrown coin, maybe by throwing the coin I had taken the action and the Universe had responded. In any event, I wondered, would it be wrong for me to specifically ask for something . . . okay, for a safe move from Seattle to Mexico, for the financial ability to live in Mexico . . . would it be hypocritical for me to intentionally ask, even if I was not a “believer” like the rest of these people?

But, by the time I was standing in front of the Virgin of Juquila, those questions were moot. My mind’s eye was full of garbage and anger. “Just make the garbage go away. Just make the people clean up their f***ing act!”

When Miguel’s mother found out later why I was so angry, her response was not comforting. “It’s like that at the places of all the saints. It’s like that all over Mexico where the foreign tourists don’t go.” And I knew it was true. I had traveled like a Mexican and seen the Mexico tourists don’t see.

A campaign formed in my mind in that moment. Santos en Huelga . . . Saints on Strike. I’d send a petition to the national newspaper, signed by all the Saints in Mexico, saying they’d be granting no more miracles until the Mexican people stopped with the garbage.

“What hypocrites you are, asking us for miracles,” it would say, “and trashing our sacred lands.” It would promise complete and sacred silence until the mountains of garbage were no more.

It would be followed up with a television ad campaign. Images of cherished Mexican icons – the pyramids, the memorials, the works of great art with a caption and voiceover “El orgullo de Mexico,” the pride of Mexico – followed by images of the mountains of garbage and the spoiled sacred places with a caption and voiceover “La verguenza de Mexico,” the shame of Mexico – closed with a cartoon of a little pig running across the bottom of the screen trailing garbage in its wake and the words “Que Cochinito,” what a pig!

Miguel thought my idea might be a little extreme for a foreigner. It could work, but it could also piss people off. He was right, of course, but I’ve thought of Santos en Huelga every day since then. I collected articles on people who’ve made a difference in modern Mexico, like Juan Carlos Cantu who has been the moving force behind multiple successful national campaigns to protect Mexico’s whales, dolphins, sea turtles and mangrove forests (Defenders of Wildlife, Feb. 2007 newsletter). In March I met a writer in Seattle who promised to introduce me to Leslie Iwerks, who had just received an Academy Award nomination for her film “Recycled Life,” a documentary on the inhabitants of the Guatemala City garbage dump (Recycled Life – a Documentary). I wanted to know how they’ve done it. How does one person tackle a problem bigger than a mountain? Bigger than a country? As big as humankind?

This week, Miguel’s mother got back from the annual pilgrimage to Juquila. The garbage is gone. The Mexican government has apparently, finally, taken an interest in public health and natural resources and the people are responding.

They’ve also cleaned up Acapulco – the Mexican tourist side of Acapulco. Last year it was repulsive – streets and beaches covered in plastic cups, Styrofoam plates, disposable forks, beer cans, soda bottles, food waste. The state government has invested $35 million pesos in the cleanup of Acapulco and ordered all of the street vendors to clean up after themselves – and wear black pants and white shirts for a clean appearance.

So, it looks like Miguel and I will go back Juquila to give thanks. Next time I’ll ask for clean rivers. And that the cleanups last. And that the people take personal responsibility for where they drop their trash and don’t depend on government campaigns.

Did I tell you that the pictures Miguel took of the Virgin show her face? Yes, my pure-of-heart husband.