I remember scions ago, well some decades past anyway, when I was a sophomore in college and heard a guest lecturer who started talking about… of all things… garbage. I don’t know why I went and I don’t remember what he said. Except this. He leaned over the podium, bending toward us, friendly, smiling. He said something about societal norms of throwing garbage away. Then he stepped back, lifted his fist in the air and slammed it onto the podium. Staring us down, he yelled: “THERE IS NO AWAY!!!”
Had Jesus come floating down on a pink cloud I doubt my surprise would have been greater. His yell was indelible. The memory and its ramifications have stayed with me always.
I’m fast forwarding now to Puerto Vallarta, January 2013. If you don’t know this tropical northwestern Mexican city , it’s a beautiful town snuggled between the Sierra Madres and the Pacific ocean’s Banderas Bay. A destination spot for the well-heeled, a second home to northern ‘snow birds,’ and year-round home to many. It’s also some people’s idea of a tropical paradise, but it’s not perfect.
One problem is that mayors have a tendency to pocket funds that should have gone to city projects. Another is that recycle is still a foreign word. Put the two together and it seems we have come up with the crazy scenario that one garbage dump is full and a new one is not yet ready. The solution? No garbage pick-up in Vallarta. Now if you don’t live here, I’d better explain a little.
Garbage in my neighborhood is collected three times a week. No one uses garbage cans here, just plastic bags filled with unseparated trash. You add your garbage to the pile on the street corner and it gets picked up. Too early and it gets spread by cats, dogs, and other animalitos looking for a free lunch. Too late and it will sit there until the next pickup.
In more densely populated neighborhoods, the pile is often in the middle of an intersection. A great way to slow traffic, a roundabout in real time. So when there’s no garbage collection here for a week, the city is a time bomb littered with plastic bags, styrofoam tossed to the winds by afternoon breezes, plastic bottles rolling down curbs, and flies feasting on organics.
The crisis is over. One day before the State of Jalisco was to declare Vallarta an eco-contaminated city, the mayor allowed a new dump site. Just before midnight, they collected the garbage on my street. There’s no trace this morning. They took it ‘away.’ Away?
We use the same word for the thing itself and its receptacle — equally true in Spanish, by the way — we put the garbage in the garbage, walk away, and we think we’re done. What garbage!
Lessons? Corruption sucks, but we already knew that. Collection? I was as happy as anyone to hear the annoyingly loud rumble of the garbage truck last night. Equally glad a serious bout with rats and infection was avoided this time. The garbage left, but the imprint from so many years ago stayed on my corner and lingers in my mind. One dump too full. A new one opening. Land fill. Floating cities of garbage on the ocean. We need to get it. Garbage collection takes our stuff to a different location. Depending on what it is, our great, great, great grandchildren may get to smell it.
Like pushing old, sick, and poor people behind closed doors. They may be out of sight, but they’re not gone. It’s bait and switch — look here, don’t look there. Nothing more than a self-deceiving deadly game of musical chairs. We can turn our back on the truth, but it won’t go away.
THERE IS NO AWAY!