The smell of the dump still penetrates my nose when I think about it. Imagine the most rancid meat combined with rotting durian or cabbage. The stench of the dump is so powerful, I can still smell it from my sterile office in New York.
There is a garbage dump, not far from town, where four hundred economic refugees call home. It isn’t a rare place. Dump site communities are found all over the world, on the periphery of cities like Calcutta and Rio, the garbage disposed, as easy to forget as the people who live in it.
Shacks constructed of old bamboo and banners emerge among three kilometers of trash—not the bagged cans lined neatly along the sidewalk, but vast mountains of acrid loose waste. The banal and the dull one throws away becomes someone else’s home, someone else’s problem. Atop the mounds of garbage sits a village consisting of about fifty shacks. Thatched roofing provides shelter while walls are resourcefully composed of leftover banners, tennis rackets, and bottles.
Flies over rotting vegetables buzz in the ears relentlessly. With every step, the foot sinks down into the garbage like quicksand. Most residents cannot afford shoes so they must go barefoot, exposing their skin to needles, broken glass, feces and every the unknown muck that lurks beneath.
Eating a meal at the dump means filling your body with old rice or picking through the garbage for food. Children thumb through shallot peels in order to get flavor from what little was left behind. Rotting cabbage and oranges are often discovered and served. Food that is too old, too stale, or simply too much on someone else’s plate. But, a rich person’s waste is the poor person’s luck. Occasionally, dump residents can find a whole cabbage that is still in good shape. Other days, there might be fish bones and old meat to cook for flavor.
There are no lights at the dump. As night falls, it is impossible to see what you are stepping on. The snakes and rats come out, carrying diseases, liprospriosis,( caused by rat urine) that will damage your central nervous system. The occasional cooking fires provide the only light. They also pose the greatest danger. There are instances where children are badly burned after stepping on a leftover fire. Other times, they disappear into the night, literally falling into a sinkhole of garbage and suffocating, only to be found dead the next morning.
Despite such dangers, the dump is surprisingly organized. There is a Head Man, who serves as the mayor of the dump. The Headman keeps impeccable notes, and is well aware of all people who moved in and out of the dump. His notebook not only reveals the small tax people pay, but keeps notes of births, deaths and ceremonies in the dump. Other records reveal his tax to local authorities, which enables the community to continue living there.
This tax is a security precaution. Residents will not leave the dump. If they do, they are afraid they will be deported back to Burma, or put in jail in Thailand away from their family and friends. Some of the residents say living in the garbage was actually better then living in Burma where the junta will force them to be slave labor, or take their land and put them out on the street. Dump life offers more freedom than Burma.
Residents work at the dump and pick up plastic bottles in the sludge. For one kilo of plastic they earn about 40 baht (over a dollar and ten cents). Dump trucks drive in, and the residents wait in an orderly line, letting the truck deliver more discard to the infinite mountain. As all of the garbage and rotting fruit drops out, people take their pick axes and begin rooting through it to see what plastic they will find.
On Sundays, under a small tarp, and a seventies style TV linked to a DVD player, the people at the dump would pay two baht a piece to watch a movie. The whole community gathered in the viewing room, on top of a pile of old and crushed coke advertisements. The movie would be an action flick from China, or an old Burmese film. All residents would squeeze under the tarp for a spot. For two hours, every week, residents escape their reality.
Teenagers, no matter where they live, are always the same. I watch a group of girls find pieces of broken lipstick and charcoal, than applying into to one another’s eyes and lips. Picking up a piece of torn magazine of their favorite Burmese movie star, they pucker and blow air kisses and fall down giggling amongst a pile of old potato chip bags. When they catch me watching them, they quickly scurry away laughing.
Marriages and celebrations take place. Baptisms too. Children are dunked into the dirty water and then blessed by a Minister coming from town. During marriage ceremonies, the community pooled their money. The girl would be able to by a new patong, or traditional Burmese wedding skirt, and her future husband would get a new lungi. For such celebration, a village residents will risk being deported to get into the town and by rice and meat and juice to share with the community. On the highest mound of garbage, the two will be wed. In typical wedding celebration, there will be a party lasting into the night and a new house constructed for the newlyweds.
Babies are born in the dump . The Headman’s wife will assist in all deliveries of the children. Having a child at the dump becomes a great hardship as most people cannot eat nutritious food. Without proper nutrition the child has a small chance of surviving. Children who do survive, will grow up viewing the smells and the sights of the dump as normal. It will feel like home to them, and garbage will be the only thing they know.
It takes innovation to survive at a dump. It also takes resilience.
Thanks to Fred S. and Venerable Ashin for enabling me to cover this story. Please note the location has been changed to protect the residents.