Saturday, December 4, 2010

…Last summer my family and I went on a mission trip to Puerto Vallarta. On the outskirts of this tourist destination lay vast areas of rugged terrain and severe poverty. On a plateau overlooking the valley and ocean sits an entire ramshackle community who live feet from a sprawling garabage dump. These makeshift homes are literally shanty huts, twelve-by-twelve, with tin roofs and no front doors. Children play naked in the dusty and garbage-strewn roads. Bone-thin dogs saunter in the smoldering heat.
We spent three days feeding kids at a school and made a visit to the garbage dump one evening. For years, the dump was an open area where whole families lived, toddlers and babies, too, with no access to clean water, literally mired in disease and filth. In the last few years improvements have been made: no one is allowed to actually live in the dump, a shower has been installed, and walls have been erected around the dump.
If one is lucky and works hard, he or she might be able to make up to $3.00 U.S. The workers are intensly serious and when a new garbage truck trundles up the hill, everyone sprints to it, hoping to be the first to rifle through the discarded contents in search of recycable materials.
All big cities have their unsightly areas, yet it seemed a perverse irony that the dump town exists just a few miles from where cruise ships bigger than mountains sit docked while rich tourists troll shops, looking for ways to spend money.
Like many poor people, those we met in the far hills seemed as happy as anybody. They were immensely well-mannered, humble and gracious, and also quite lively.
I wrote this account, "Canto Del Sol" ("Edge of the Sun") about our trip.

Canto Del Sol

The days are made of dust here.
To keep it from blinding us, we learn to squint and shield our eyes. To keep from choking to death, we learn to breathe in shallow swallows.
Overhead, the sun seethes like a yellow scab. All around, ochre rubble simmers in the smoldering heat. Rails of trash line the roads, following us as far as we go, even up these remote hills. Our driver watches my eyes, then shakes his head and says in Spanglish, “This whole place has made of filth.”
We suck down dust. Dust stings our eyes. Dust crystals move in our hair, across our scalps like spiders. Dust drips muddy down our skins and shirts.
“Is that it?” a girl asks as our vehicle approaches the final incline.
I nod.
The dump is a domed volcano, walled in with dirt.
“What are those?” someone asks, pointing.
Vultures rim the mouth of the mountain. A hundred of them stand side by side, black hodlums, bigger than toddlers. They eye us accusatorily, as if contemplating an ambush. Their plumage bleeds oil and they cock their crooked necks the closer we get.
“Look,” someone says. In the sky, hundreds more soar.
The guide tells us how last week a little boy beat one of the birds off with a stick, fighting it for half a sandwich he’d found in the dump. The guide laughs, as if he’s told us a joke.
He tells us it’s too hot to work the garbage. “At night we go,” he says.
The school is minutes away. We unload supplies and watch the kids stride out single-file, in uniform. Their hands are tiny mitts, but clean, taking the bread and rolls, the pale rice water in plastic cups.
“Thank you, mister.” “Thank you, lady,” each one says.
To them, my son is an American Godzilla, a perfect freak of nature: long-limbed, blonde, six three but just having turned fourteen. After they’ve eaten, the children attack him, hoards of gangly boys and giggling girls.
At another station my daughter translates while their group strings beaded bracelets and rings. Next door my wife leads jump rope and swirls a hula hoop around her waist, up over her neck, through both arms, down around one ankle.
We sweat and laugh, and for several hours this is life.
At dusk, we drive downwind of the dump where the reek of ripe rot boils the night air. Our lungs fill and burn.
Inside the gate, patrons move about the waste and ruin in haste. They scavenge for sheets of metal, cardboard, plastic, glass, anything that can be recycled. A triumphant ten hours might, on rare occasion, bring as much as $3.00 U.S.
They wear miner helmets with flashlight beams that cut arcs across the heaps where beaver-sized rats scurry back and forth. They sort through puddings of moist, black muck and shake maggot off their gloves and move onto the next mound.
A few stray dogs lay around, curled into themselves like the arms of a bathrobe. When I whistle at one, it is too weak to raise anything but its eyes, the mongrel just a coat, ribs and skull.
As the van door opens, a line forms and I hate myself for thinking “prisoners.”
We hand out sandwiches and rolls and rice milk. Their faces are coffee bean-brown, the whites of their eyes glowing radioactive. They smile and nod and shuffle away to let the next one in. It goes all night, as long as the food lasts.
“Si, gracias.”
“De nada.”
“Si? Este?”
“No importa.”
But the truth is everything is important—tin or glass, the discarded and ruined.
A sour milk jug has meaning.
We shake hands and lock up. We take flash photos.
On the ride back down the hill my son works it over in his head, how we will leave tomorrow but the vultures will stay, how the children and the workers and the dump will all still be here.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “It doesn’t seem fair.”
“I know.”
“What good did we do coming here?” he asks. “We didn’t make a difference.”
I remember the way those kids swarmed him, pulling at his waist. I remember the songs and giggling.
“Yes, we did.”
I want to say, It was something. I want to say, Maybe the difference will take root in you.
But I don’t. I don’t say anything. Instead, I put my arm around him and squeeze.


  1. Hey, Len. Thank for for this post. I visit Puerto Vallarta almost every year. What kind of mission trip was it that you did?

  2. . . . as this takes root within us.

    nice to meet up with you via the language carnival. poetry runs through your lines.