Perhaps my best years are gone...
but I wouldn't want them back.
Not with the fire in me now.
Last weekend Jonathan and I went to the southern outskirts of Cochabamba to visit a neighborhood called Kara Kara. The previous week a man named Ariel had come to the front door of the office looking for me. We had never met but he knew my name and was looking for a few minutes of my time. As we sat and talked he told me about how the solid waste disposal system worked in Cochabamba. He explained how trash was taken to this place called Kara Kara, and how small illegal housing communities were popping up in and around the vast landfills, all teeming with poor families scraping a meager living off of scavenging recyclable materials from the trash heaps. Ariel explained how he was making a documentary about the landfills, and how he wanted to share the stories of these families who were raising their children in a city of garbage.
Thus, several short days later, Jonathan and I agreed to take a short field trip out to Kara Kara, which literally means, "a place where nothing grows" in Quechua, to see for ourselves. Although our curiosities were piqued, I must admit I was skeptical of our film-making friend who was to be our guide. Why was Ariel so eager to help? Aside from promoting his cause what ELSE did he want from us? We crammed our over-sized Western bodies into an under-sized Bolivian taxi and off we went. To say I wasn't prepared for what followed would not but true. I was prepared. But being prepared did nothing to help assuage the gut wrenching feeling that comes from seeing people living in the runoff of a broken world. Walking through it while they take their kids to school. Hopping over it to get from one path to another. We were dressed as inauspiciously as possible, without cameras, without goggling eyes, but I couldn't help but feel like we stuck out like football players at a baby shower.
As we walked up the dusty hill to gain a better view of the area Jonathan pointed upwards at a plastic bag that had been caught by the wind and lifted high into the sky. I smiled at the novelty of it, until my gaze continued past the bag and I could see dozens more, even higher, all floating hundreds of meters in the air, as if they were a flock of vultures circling death. I suppose in many ways, that's precisely what they were. At the crest of the hill we stopped and took in the surrounding area. Hundreds of mud and tin houses dotted the hills, all precariously balanced on the hills in and around the titanic-esque landfills. Dogs were everywhere, children were everywhere. So much life in the midst of so much dirt and disease. Hanging from the pole next to where we stood was the stuffed effigy of a man, complete with worn out sneakers and a baseball cap. Around his neck hung a sign that read, "Steal from us and this will happen to you." Jonathan asked about it and Ariel replied that mob justice was the law around here. There were no police, unless you counted the ones that occasionally came by to destroy illegal housing and remove squatters from their homes they never legally owned. The community made its own rules, as much as it could, and spared no pity for thieves.
Walking back down the dirt road, with the faceless dummy staring me in the back, I couldn't help but feel as though I had done something wrong. As though at any moment men would emerge from their broken down houses and grab me. There would be a short struggle, and then they would string me up by the neck as a warning for everyone to see. I admitted to Ariel and Jonathan, with the dust rising up from under our shoes and seeping into our skin, that I felt ashamed to be there. That I felt remorse for being a walking symbol of wealth and affluence in a community that had, quite literally, been shoved to the last place anyone else would want to be. Before my feelings had a chance to take hold, however, Ariel chimed in and said that he too often felt ashamed whenever he came here. He said that provided much of the motivation for the documentaries that he made, because he had lived a privileged life in comparison, and who he was neccesitated his need to share these stories with others.
I realized then that I did not have exclusive rights to the kind of lifestyle I have chosen for myself. Although, like Ariel, who I am dictates how I respond to people in need, that does not mean other people, from other walks of life, are not allowed to feel likewise. I was then doubly shamed, once for taking for granted so many of the things that make my life easy, and a second time for assuming that because I am white and American I am allowed to feel responsible for much of the world's hurt, while someone like Ariel, a Bolivian with his own family, his own problems, isn't allowed to also want to help. I was then sorry I had doubted him.
This week I am trying to be more mindful of the mark I make in this life. I am trying to remember that I have been given so much, not all of which is actually mine. And I am trying to remember that we all find ourselves thrown together, whether we like it or not, and that we all have something to give, regardless of who we are or where we are from.
Hopefully in the years ahead I can return to Kara Kara,
carrying with me something more than just my shame.