Saturday, March 28, 2009

Roadside Attractions on the Way to Huehuetenango, Guatemala

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, could have had wider sidewalks (more and more I am convinced that the two ingredients that make a city palatable are wide sidewalks and trees), but overall it satisfied our needs with pastries, a cool climate, internet connections, and a women workforce cleanup crew. (The tourist information office said that men drive the trucks and collect residential and business waste; women push the carts and sweep the streets.) We even ran into some friends from Oaxaca (small world). We rolled out of town through pine trees, thinking that four days off the bike would render us fresh and sporty. Our butts still hurt and our legs did not exactly gush with strength. But we kept pedaling.

Like I mentioned in my last post, traveling by bike lets us take in the local scenery pedal stroke by pedal stroke. There are so many subtle variations in the landscape. One valley housed woodworkers, with folks planing boards and making bedroom furniture and cabinets. In another valley, pottery and ornate ceramic birds lined the roadside (mmmm... fragile, heavy items... no purchases this trip). The consistent theme though, no matter where we roll, is trash.

The composition of the trash lining the roads is mostly plastic bottles (and their plastic cousins). Close to a town. In a town. Outside of a town. Far away from a town. We see plastic bottles all over. Anywhere there's a sign, "Don't put trash here (see photo right)," there's sure to be trash. The sources range from intentional -- from dumping bags of rubbish to chucking broken cd's out the window -- to careless -- blowing out the back of a truck -- to somewhere in between. One man's business cards littered the side of the road for at least three kilometers. Was this curious propaganda for his business? Or had he just packed up his office and accidentally left his trunk open? Or was his kid mischievously chucking the cards out the window? (One of his cards is now taped inside my journal).

Anywhere there is a pullout next to the road, there is a measure of trash. Sometimes it is combined with a putrid, acidic smell: mmm, burning waste. Some towns are very intentional about their dump. For example, we pulled off the road into the landfill for La Trinitaria, just south of Comitàn de Dominguez, Chiapas. As I flicked the kickstand down, a guard sauntered over from his hangout, I mean post, in the shade (an old minivan seat, a table, and a tarp strung between the trees). When I told him I work with trash in the States and would like to see his dump, he cheerfully said, "Well, come on over and take a look!" (in Spanish). So we moseyed over.

The dump was quite a dramatic scene. Billows of smoke wafted up from an abyss that created beautiful shadow-effects in the late afternoon sun. A man pulled up in his personal car and chucked bags of trash and yard debris off the cliff, as if to demonstrate how easy and carefree it is to get rid of crap in this town. The guard, Jorge, led us on a little trail to the side and proudly described the dump's features. It is 14 meters deep. It occasionally gets lit on fire, and pushed further back into the cave/hole by a machine. A pack of dogs lives and breeds down there, living off the garbage; you can sometimes hear them rattling around or yipping. People occasionally belay down into the rubbish to scavenge for metal. Sometimes, they die and have to be pulled back up (that's what we think he said). As Jorge spoke, the smoke cleared a bit and I was able to get a few clear shots through the haze: yup, piles of smoldering rubbish, sliding back into a deep cave. It was impressive, though I'm still mulling over in what sense it was impressive.

Jorge demonstrated a flexible interpretation for the concept of "rules". Here is my translation of what he said a few minutes into our tour: "You're not really allowed to take photos. I mean, you are allowed, 'cause we're now buddies [we had known each other for seven minutes at this point]. But if the Captain was here, you couldn't take pictures." Same thing when I asked about fees: "If it's a small load, no worries. If it's a bigger load of trash, like from a business, they're supposed to pay. ::pause:: But... if they bring me a soda, it's cool."

He knows his work well; Jorge has worked this position for 12 years. When I asked him how long the cave will remain the town's dump, he replied, "Siempre." (Always.) Just like Coca Cola.

The next day we crossed the border into Guatemala. (The landscape made us EARN that border crossing... after getting our passports stamped in Mexico, it was four kilometers of uphill chugging, past a dump (the vultures in the trees didn't start circling, so we figured we would make it) and finally into Guatemala, where they kindly stamped our passports (no bribes needed), checked our trailer of suitcases (yep, looks good), and waved us on our way.

Just like Mexico, Guatemala is beautiful. For a day-and-a-half, we pedaled (mostly) uphill through a river valley lined with chopped firewood, coffee beans spread to dry, women weaving red traditional cloth, construction (lots of sand and gravel collection) and little kids waving (I snapped this over-the-shoulder photo of kids pushing our trailer on the fly). On Thursday evening we rolled in to Huehuetenango.

Huehuetenango is not a polished town by any stretch of the imagination, but it has good pastries, yummy alote drinks in the morning market, and a really friendly bicycle shop, Mario's. The waste workers are male and use similar carts to the ones I saw in Mexico. We have spent two full days here: our clothes are clean and waterbottles full. Time to head west to Quezaltenango (Xela) and Lake Atitlan.

1 comment:

Drew Ross said...

Suena como que ustedes están teniendo un gran tiempo. Excelente blog, Meredith. Beth y me permite comenzar a quemar los montones de basura en nuestro patio trasero.