I can smell it. Corina cannot. She’s grown accustomed to its odor. The sour sweet olfactory punch that inundates her home and every home in this 110 family community. She smiles. When I first saw her I guessed she was in her early thirties – standing on the dirt floor of her one room shack, arms crossed atop her bulging stomach, two of her three children scampering on and around her. She is seven months pregnant. Barefoot. Belly just barely covered by a strained, red, floral-print shirt. I fail to hide my surprise when she tells us she’s 23. Michael pulls out a digital sound recorder and begins to interview her. I sit on a broken stool and listen. This is life on the dump in Santa Lucia, Cotzumalguapa.
The dump is outside of the city, down a cracked-pavement and dirt road that winds past an ageing rum distillery and over two creeks, one brown and foaming, the other mercifully clear and alive with minnows. We pass a sugar cane field on the left and another fenced-in factory on the right. Crammed into a silver Volkswagen Beetle the road feels bumpier than it looks. I’m in the front seat. Our driver is saying something. Christ. He’s been talking since we left Antigua. He’s still talking. After an hour and a half of driving, first past coffee fields and patchwork hills, then sugarcane and rolling countryside, he’s still talking. Ninety minutes of inane chatter from the driver’s seat.
“So you are writing a story for a magazine?”
“Yeah…I think so.”
“It’s called La Cuadra. Based out of Antigua. It’s pretty small.”
“I’ve never heard of it. What is the focus of the magazine?” He’s looking at me, not at the road. Short hair, orange sweatshirt, just over five feet tall. He has little hands with fingers like those tiny hot dogs they sell from the carts on the Calzada. Hot Dog-Fingers. Does he have to say ‘magazine’ in every freaking sentence? He’s still looking at me. Still not watching the road, the oncoming traffic, waiting for an answer. I hesitate, looking at his hands.
“Uhm….There’s a lot of political stuff. And art….all kinds of things.” I want to tune him out. I glance back at Michael and Katie stuffed into the back seat. I wish he had a stereo instead of a hole in the dashboard. He looks in the rear view, talking to Michael now.
“So if you want to hear about the economic situation in Guatemala I can tell you quickly. First there are three classes….” He expounds.
I am way too hung over for this.
Michael listens and nods and responds as Hot Dog-Fingers attempts to educate us on Guatemala’s class system. Nobody learns anything, but I keep hearing responses from the back seat.
Hot Dog-Fingers continues, “You have an upper class. That’s all the rich people. Business people and things like that. They are mostly in the city.” He’s watching the back seat in the rear view, perhaps trying to discern whether the proper attention is being paid to his vast knowledge.
“Oh yeah? Wow.”
“Yes. And then you have a middle class. Those are the people in the middle.” Another glance in the mirror.
“Right. Uh huh.”
“And then there’s the lower class. The people who live on the dump. They are in the lower class.”
I stop listening. I don’t know how Michael can deal with this. Perhaps because he’s still in school and more accustomed to being lectured. More used to being talked at rather than to. Though I’m not really sure how much lecturing goes on in a college photo-journalism program in San Francisco.
Santa Lucia sits in the lowlands near the Pacific coast. The usual tangle of dirty streets lined with tiendas and comedores. For lunch we are offered a choice between McDonald’s and Pollo Campero. Outside of town it’s all sugarcane and heat. Pockets of vine-clad jungle scattered between fields where men in orange suits spray God only knows what chemicals onto endless waving cane. Palm trees linger here and there, clustered around the white silos of refineries that process all this greenery into clear, crystalline sugar. It’s hot here. Thick, muggy, sweaty hot. Too hot. Everything broils.
We meet our contact in Santa Lucia on the side of a road near a gas station. His name is Nestor, a large bearded man on a motor bike in a tight red shirt with sunglasses perched on his nose. The head of an NGO in the area, Fraternidad de Cotzumalguapa, he advocates computer literacy for adults and children and is currently funding and facilitating the completion of a school for the children of Santa Lucia’s dump. As we follow Nestor’s round, red form down the road towards our destination I wonder what lies ahead. Images flash through my mind of half-naked children picking over endless tracts of trash, their faces frozen in perpetual frowns. Crippled old men, sick women, open sewers and clapboard houses. As we approach and enter the slum the ugly pictures in my head become grim realities.
One room shacks of plastic, metal, and rotting plywood compete for space between shallow ditches of sluggish grey waste water. Feather-less chickens and skinny puppies scramble out of the way as our VW creeps by. I can smell it through the open windows. The stench of rot, of festering death. The smell of the slum is distinct, almost rich and organic, but tainted by a bitterness that sticks in the back of the throat and inundates the sinuses. It is almost the rich, fertile odor of a rural agricultural community, but with a top note of exhaust and industrial waste. The car stops and we struggle out on sore legs. Fifteen or twenty people stand around a tiny shop, watching us. They are smiling.
Juan Carlos wants a new roof. And he needs it. He sits on his bed, one of two, that combined, almost completely fill the room, and points to the rust-edged holes where the rain comes through. Fist-sized balls of light on a roof otherwise completely blackened by soot from an indoor cooking fire. He has a job in town and no longer works on the dump, though all three of his sons spend every afternoon there. They often suffer from stomach illnesses. He blames contaminants from the trash.
His is the smallest house I’ve seen yet. About the size of my bedroom growing up. He is afraid. Afraid for the health of his children, afraid for their future. Afraid they will continue to suffer from poor-health. “No hay ningunos medicos aquí,” he says. He has no money to pay them anyway. Looking out at the patch of dirt that is his yard, a dog that might be dead already, a woman washing dishes in filthy water, a bedraggled rooster tied by the leg to a post, I am afraid for his children, too.
Nestor ambles towards us, grinning. He wants to show us his school and leads us down a narrow foot path between sagging hovels. We can hear the cacophony of young voices before we can see the school which sits on the edge of the village, almost abutting the fields of refuse. One large room with a concrete floor and rows of children in rickety desks. It is divided into three classroom spaces by walls of cinder block that don’t reach the ceiling. The whole thing is painted sky blue except for the thundercloud gray corrugated metal roof. Anything resembling study dissolves with our appearance. Kids lean towards each other whispering and giggling, pointing our direction. Outsiders are a novelty here. There are three full class rooms but only two teachers. 110 students altogether Nestor tells us. Four teachers work here, all volunteers. I wonder where the other two are.
It’s almost noon, quitting time at the school, and the two teachers dismiss their students. Our arrival has killed any hope of continued education this morning. Kids swarm us, shaking our hands, asking our names, smiling and laughing and repeatedly pointing out that I am very tall. Michael pulls out his camera and snaps off a few pictures, more to appease them than from any kind of journalistic instinct. A small boy with dirt smeared on his cheek approaches me.
“Como se llama?” he asks, eyes crinkled by a smile.
“Soy Kevin,” I reply.
“Kebín!? Si!? Yo también!” He runs to a group of boys in a corner to relate this incredible information. Watching them talk, pointing at me and laughing, I can’t help but smile.
The school, like the rest of the village, has no running water and the pit toilets behind it are only partially finished. Students have to run home or to a neighbor if they need to use a bathroom. They’ve been holding classes here for over three years. Hot Dog-Fingers asks if we would like to see the dump. We shuffle our feet, smile, and give only the slightest indication of nods. This suddenly feels like a very uncomfortable package tour.
A train of children follow as we walk the 300 feet or so to the dump’s ‘entrance’. There is no fence, nor officials monitoring the site. Only a rickety wooden bridge patched with an old mattress crossing what must once have been a very pretty stream. And then you’re on it. Garbage of all descriptions in every direction. Torn fabric, fast food wrappers, chunks of cars and bicycles, piles of clipped leaves and orange peels, discarded toys, sections of sheet-rock, cans, bottles and bones and on and on and on. Vultures hover above in thick clouds. Harbingers of death that have been reduced to surveyors of refuse. Men, women and children work in clusters here and there, sorting through endless piles in search of recyclables, mostly plastic bottles, to turn in for cash.
Forty pounds of plastic earns a working family 70 Quetzales.
The group of children on our heels fan out, ignoring the scattering flocks of scavenging birds, and start picking over the waste. They’re smiling, laughing, talking as they wander over jagged metal and broken glass. One group of boys throws endless glass bottles at a lizard lazing on the edge of the stream. A girl in front of me picks up a plastic sunscreen bottle and seems delighted when she discovers a little left in the bottom. She pockets it. I see an old woman propped on a decaying mattress as she watches her kids work a few feet away. A torn umbrella attached to what appears to be a ski pole shades her as she calls instructions to them, laughing.
“No no! La otra, la otra.”
I can’t tell what she’s pointing at and neither can the little girl she’s hollering to. They both laugh, all smiles. I wander deeper into the dump and light a cigarette, trying to make sense of the landscape. For a split second I wonder what to do with the butt then laugh out loud as I flick it over my shoulder. What does it matter?
Maria has never been interviewed before and doesn’t understand what’s wanted of her. Perched on the edge of the bed she listens as Michael tries to explain the process through Hot Dog-Fingers.
“It’s gonna be like a multi-media piece. So maybe you’ll see a picture of her and hear a clip of her talking about her life here. But my voice can’t be on it. So if I ask her her name she has to say ‘My name is Maria’ instead of just ‘Maria’, she has to say the question in her answer. Got it?”
He translates the instructions. She doesn’t really get it, and coming from Hot Dog-Fingers everything sounds more like a command. She keeps answering the questions as if in conversation and everything has to be recorded two or three times. It’s painful to watch, this repetition. Eventually she reverts to simply parroting everything Hot Dog-Fingers tells her to say, a look of bewilderment on her face. She sounds like a small child delivering a well rehearsed lie.
The door is closed to keep background noise to a minimum and the temperature beneath Maria’s naked tin roof rises quickly. Sweat drips off my nose and splatters my notebook, making the ink run. I’m trying to listen, but even after 9 months in Guatemala my Spanish comprehension is inexcusably bad and I don’t catch everything. She tells us her children suffer often from headache and diarrhea. They don’t have enough to eat. Like most kids here they go to school in the mornings and work on the dump in the afternoons. She has family in the states but they are still paying off the ‘coyotes’ who smuggled them across the border and cannot send money back. She’s not sure where they are.
“La vida aquí es muy duro.” She clasps her hands tight on her lap and watches her daughter, two or three years old, as she rolls around on the bed beside her. The sentence is verbatim repetition of Hot Dog-Fingers. I look around her apartment: a couple of pans and one pot, two beds on the verge of collapse, a small dresser on top of which sits a television. Everyone has T.V.
If you walk to the edge of the Santa Lucia dump and plug your nose it’s easy to forget what’s behind you. Looking out you will see a vast expanse of rolling green punctuated by great leafy trees. Cattle graze in tall green grass, fat and contented. The silhouettes of massive volcanoes dominate the far horizon, peaceful, tranquil, and grand. You stand at the edge of a field of waste and gaze out at endless fields of promise. It is a stark line between filth and fecundity.
When I told my friend Luisa I was going to Santa Lucia she was surprised.
“Why?” She asked, and laughed. “There’s nothing there. I know. I grew up there.”
“Really? Do you ever go back?”
“Not very often. It’s different now. When I was a little girl the river was clean and beautiful. You could swim in it. Now all the run-off from the farms flows into it. There aren’t even fish anymore. And in the rainy season you could poke the ground with a stick and water would come gushing out!” She’s smiling at the memory. “Not anymore. It all goes to the sugarcane now.”
But standing on the edge looking out I can almost see the world she was remembering, lush and green and beautiful. And then I turn around, and behind me the tossed off shit of an entire city stretches out toward the bank of the river. It is the middle of the rainy season and thunderheads tower over every horizon but the river fills less than a quarter of it’s bed. A sickly brown trickle clogged with piles of thick chemical foam. No one is swimming.
I watch Michael below me in a low section of the dump. His camera is pressed to his face as he snaps shot after shot of a group of children unloading a recently arrived truck. I don’t know how he does it, standing feet or even inches in front of a his subject and looking at them only through a lens. It seems like such an overt form of journalistic voyeurism. I prefer hiding behind pen and paper and using memory and observation to fill out a story if my notes fail. Photographers can’t do that. As I clamber through the inspissated rot towards where he is standing I watch the children working. At first they pose, smile, put their arms around each other and mug for the camera and he takes an occasional picture. But after a few minutes they grow bored of him and get back to the business at hand. He’s so close to them. He’s so indiscreet. But after only ten or 15 minutes he has become little more than a piece of scenery in their eyes. And now he begins to work in earnest.
Michael’s primary goal is to document the impact of environmental problems on local populations. So far he has focused on Latin America but he hopes to travel to Asia, Africa, and Europe. He is in search of pathos, misery, and unbearable hardship. This dump – the people working on it, the poverty – is all a bit too chipper for him. He’s after something more heart wrenching and he wants Hot Dog-Fingers to help him find it. A conversation about diseases in Guatemala leads him to ask, “Is there like a clinic somewhere where they put all the people who are really sick? Maybe from AIDS? Like about to die?” Hot Dog-Fingers doesn’t think so. And a conversation about crime in Guatemala City inspires, “What’s the worst zone for crime in the city? Do you think you could organize a ride-along for me with the police or an ambulance?” I sit and listen. To dedicate ones life to the documentation of horror mystifies me. I guess someone should. And Michael seems to be very good at it. Hot Dog-Fingers doesn’t understand what he is attempting to do.
“I showed him some of the stuff on my web site. He liked some of it, but a lot of it he didn’t really seem to get. He doesn’t really get, like, aesthetics. Or art. Or style.” I almost double over laughing.
Marlise has followed us around for the better part of an hour. She wants to be interviewed. She wants to tell her story. “Tengo una situación muy crítica!” Eventually Michael submits. She invites us into her house and takes a seat on her bed. It’s a bigger place than most, yet feels more cluttered. An obviously broken radio, a pile of badly torn and stained clothing. She has a cement floor, the first I’ve seen in the village. As soon as the recorder is presented she begins to speak. No questions are asked. Marlise is a talker.
Her 11 year old son began having seizures just over a year ago, she says. There is a medication to control his affliction but she can’t afford to keep him on it. His legs spasm, his arms jerk, his eyes roll back into his head. The boy trembles and moans. A few months ago he had a bad one. Everyone in the village came to her house to help carry the shaking boy to the church. She sat with him, cried over him, “Mi hijo, mi hijo!” She said her good-byes. Everyone did. He survived. As she speaks she grows more and more frantic. She begins to rock back and forth, to gesture more and more with her arms, and eventually to cry. Tears roll down her cheeks and dapple the front of her shirt, glowing opalescent beside the fake mother of pearl buttons.
Michael hands the recorder to Hot Dog-Fingers and takes out his camera. He stands before her and I hear the familiar double click of the shutter again and again. She doesn’t seem to notice him and continues speaking, locked in a memory of dread, she seems inaccessible. And the tears continue to flow over her face, twin streams running from a spring of mourning. She is almost shouting now, her face twisted into a wailing grimace. All I can think of is the heat. I want a breeze, an open door, a fan, an ice cube. I’m sweating profusely again. And then I look at her. This heavy-set 37 year old, owner of the what may be the nicest house in the poorest area of Santa Lucia, blubbering and hysterical. Incapacitated by a memory she does not wish to relive.
When she calms down she produces her son’s medical records, begging us for help. Katie works for a public health NGO and Hot Dog-Fingers is a contact she has used before. He labors under the delusion that he too is an employee, and talks endlessly with Marlise about the possibility of assistance. Katie stands to the side, blonde, sweating, my girlfriend. She arranged this trip.
“We don’t work with cases like this. It’s not an operable problem. He’s just giving her false hope.” She picks up the bottle of pills the boy takes. “They don’t even use this for dogs anymore.”
Our second day on the dump begins badly. Michael wanted to arrive on site shortly after sunrise, and our pickup in Antigua was arranged for 5:45 am. Standing by the side of the road, searching for the silver pin-head blob of Hot Dog-Finger’s car, all I can think about is finishing the books and locking the bar the previous night. I had clicked shut the last pad-lock just after 3:30 am. After an hour’s wait, Hot Dog-Fingers picks us up at 6:45. His girlfriend is in the back seat. I have no idea why.
“She’s going to come along,” he says. Any hope of catching another hour of sleep on the drive is crushed by those words. Great. Five people in a Beetle.
Its a long, hot ride down from the mountains. Michael barely speaks. But neither does Hot Dog-Fingers. This is my sole consolation.
By the time we get to Santa Lucia the sun is high and the light harsh. We walk out to the dump, but very few people are working. The kids are already at school. Michael takes a few half hearted snaps. “Sorry guys,” he says. He’s already sweating from beneath his mop of curly brown hair. “No problem.” We all turn and look at Hot Dog-Fingers.
The dump will have to wait and we are led instead to a clear running fork of the river, apparently for lack of a better option. Two middle-aged women and a teenage girl stand in water up to their calves doing laundry. A couple of very small children dangle their toes in the water and watch the myriad tiny minnows dart about. Huge vine-clad trees drip honey-splattered shadows over everything and a wall of sugar cane in the background partially obscures the distant triangles of the great volcanoes Fuego and Acatenango. It is idyllic. Michael seems disappointed at the lack of destruction, mayhem and pathos but the scene is pretty enough and he spends 10 or 15 minutes snapping off photos of the smiling women, laughing children and dripping laundry laid over the strands of a barbed-wire fence. Katie and I stand around and talk about nothing, hold hands and try to count the fish.
Back on the dump in the afternoon I am struck by the number of dead cattle. It seems that everywhere I look there are bones, clumps of fur, horns sticking out of the trash, curiously ignored by the vultures and wandering dogs. Everywhere today the dump is on fire. I ask Hot Dog-Fingers why. He asks Nestor, Nestor asks a garbage truck driver who asks the woman who was standing right in front of us. “It’s full. They have to get rid of the garbage.” Children work all around us, apparently unaware of the choking miasma of burning plastic that surrounds them.
We leave just after sunset, groups of people in front of and behind us walking home after their day’s work. To their cook fires, their beds, their wells and their pit toilets. Some of the kids hold treasures discovered during the day: a plastic guitar with no strings, a doll with only one leg. The dump provides all life’s necessities, from wheel barrows to pots and pans. Baby clothes to furniture. Everything can be found there. They talk as they walk. One can always hear people talking on the Santa Lucia dump. Socializing is constant. Tears are outnumbered by laughter, frowns outpaced by smiles. It is a life, not of ease or luxury, but of honesty. People here work together, live together and die together. They are not satisfied, but nor are they defeated. Always there is friendship and family, and from this they build a kind of happiness.
Kevin Petrie lives in Antigua and works at Café No Sé. He fondly remembers a time when he could enjoy a hot-dog.
Michael Mullady is a photographer and journalist whose work can be seen at www.michaelmullady.com