Central America | Guatemala | Central | Guatemala City – In the Dumps
Glitter and glue drying in the window. It wasn´t exactly an ideal place for a birthday… The Guatemala City garbage dumps.
They were trying to keep it a secret, but the loud whispers gave them away, plus the fact that they kept casually inquiring how to spell ‘Amy,’ though they still got it wrong. I was reluctant to attend work that day, but when I strolled home with an armload of construction paper cards (‘Senor Eimy’ printed in crayon at the top), a sticker in the center of my forehead, and a blue kleenex rose in my lapel, I knew it had been a good day.
I work in the most dangerous section of one of the most dangerous cities in the world, where its forbidden to walk alone at any hour, and where murders and rapes happen nightly. In fact, playtime was cancelled a few months ago due to a dead and beheaded body of a man in the corner of the childrens playground. It really is amazing that no volunteers have been yet harmed in the existence of the project. It might be due to the fact that most gang members have younger brothers or sisters in our school.
The project in which I volunteer is literally ten feet from the wall of the dump. Camino Seguro (meaning ‘safe passage’), beginning only 2 years ago by a thirty year old college grad from Maine with a dream and a motivation to help but only 15 dump kids, but which now provides love, educational support, and a hot meal (which for most kids is their only meal) for over 300 active children.
Many of these children have never been in school before and are usually the first in their families to attend. It is no surprise then that most of their parents are illiterate. Education is a sacrifice for these families where children are needed to dig in the dumps, scavenging for things to sell on the street, or items to sell for recycling, and older girls are needed to stay home to be the caretaker for their younger siblings while the parents work. An estimated 95 percent of the kids are physically and emotionally abused in their homes. In these conditions, it really is amazing that any learning takes place at all.
In one week, I read with a twelve year old girl whose mother is a heroine addict, received countless hugs, chased after a little girl who got quite a kick out of running off with my shoes, taught a third-grader simple math, had a dead vulture thrown on me, contracted ringworm, and combed lice from masses of thick hair. Head lice is a part of life in the dump and, as they poked curiously at the circles on my arm and hugged me anyway, I was determined to not be grossed out with them either.
I´ve been spending the weekends with friends of friends (which here makes you a friend) a group of very genuine and warm Guatemalan guys, whose parents happen to be among the very richest in the country. Relaxing in a pool heated naturally by volcanoes, skim boarding in the Pacific, horse riding (practicing cow-girling on none-too-pleased cows)on an enormous finca (plantation), drinking coconuts cut by the farm workers. And on Monday I am hit again with the pungent dump fumes, walking through clouds of flies, stepping over men and boys surrounded by small bottles of glue and rubbing alcohol, and passed dogs strangled in ditches. From a place of wealth and production to a place of destruction and hopelessness in a matter of days. The gap between the rich and poor is even greater here and easily witnessed. I spoke with a guy with a rolex whose father owned half of Guatemala and who built Tikal Futura, a huge mall/hotel complex where I brought some girls from the dump for an outing. The girls were more excited with the bathroom than the movie, spending minutes letting water run over their hands and drying with paper towels AND the hot dryer. It makes sense if you figure that they have no plumbing or sewage in their shacks.
Many people will argue, from the comfort of their homes and ignorance, that improverished people deserve their lot in life and are simply lazy. I implore people who make these presumptions without ever having witnessed real poverty, to take a stroll through the dumps. It would be hard to ignore the men and women wheelbarrowing, dragging, and carrying on their heads, bags of discarded bottles, cans, and plastic…sorting, cleaning, delabling. Women scraping together a bit of maize for selling tortillas on the street corner to earn a bit of dinero for the minimal sustainment of their families. I think if I were in their position, it would be hard to get out of bed each morning.
When I tell curious people what I do, they often express wonderment at how one could do this without being permanently depressed. I guess the best way to not let something hit you is either to ignore it, or to make it a part of your life. Often like hanging a picture on your wall makes it permanately invisible to you from then on. It is easy to forget their situations. I had to be reminded once, when reading a childrens book about rats, a little girl told me of the time she had been bitten. Very simply, they are just kids. My job is to play with them. And what amazing kids to wake up everyday in a dirt floor shack made of bits of cardboard and tin scavenged from the dumps and come to school and remain smiling and laughing and genuinely good kids.
While singing the itsy bitsy spider, spinning laughing children by the arms, and breaking up hair pulling fights, I try to remember what I have learned here. I have learned alot about strength from the kids. And that fun can be had, and hope can be found anywhere in the world…even in the dumps.
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