Classical Waste Disposal Operatives
The strains of the Minuetto Alegretto drift through the barrio, strengthening as we make our way to the outer reaches of town. In time we catch up with the source. An amplified bin lorry. The looped tape that’s going to be today’s ‘ear verm’, the calling card of the scaff wagon, the call to bring out your rubbish.
The first time that we encountered this, was in Potosí. A man decked from head to toe in black oilskins with a gas mask, sou’wester and a hand held maroon, walked up the middle of the street. I was perplexed. Was it a street act? The quack-man doctor, or a Darth Vader look alike? Unlikely in Bolivia, more like a re-enactment of the Black Death, the night time tolling bell, the call to bring out your dead. Some have anticipated the collection; mainly the feral dogs. Shredded bags are re-cycled and then left to drift into the road, there to be rendered down by the passing tyre.
Basura, residuos, rubbish, litter. It becomes very immediate to a slow moving traveller and an amateur anthropologist. Those iced lolly sticks that held my attention for the better part of a day, that were Santa Clause's distributions; the styrofoam swan that blew off yesterday's bridal car, the empty bottled water and food cartons as you enter the spheres of gringo trail. Inconsequential discards that tell a story. The shell middens of modern man. Each portion of our differing trips seem to acquire an emblematic piece of trash. For the southern confederate states, it was a light blue beer tin, that flowed from gulf to coast. In Australia it was the brown glazed shards of stubbies, a colour contrast to a Scottish west coast canal towpath’s green glass splinters of Bucky. On the altiplano it’s not the detritus of alcohol, but dud batteries that once played the transistor, and the black plastic compact disc box, with it’s silvered content.
Every market, irrespective of size, will have at least one stall with a vast array of recorded music on offer. To judge by what we hear from the transistor radios carried by the mattocking squads on the terraced hillsides, it’s not the expected panpipes of Rose Street busker theme. It’s a thin, whiny songstress, which on first encounter suggested we had tapped into a Hong Kong radio station. I assume that the lyrics vary, but the note rhythms I hear are consistently reiterated, a recurring alliteration. Subsequent encounters haven’t corrected that perception. There’s two assumptions to be made. First, that they’re popular, to judge by their quantity, and that the quality of production, and subsequent repetitive reproduction, is impoverished, as judged by the discards Frisbee’d from car windows, that roll into the roadside verges. Profligacy is not an Andean trait, whereas dumping is.
Cross any bridge and glance down, the bed will be strewn with shattered plastic bags, disgorging a residue of rubbish, awaiting the next deluge to flush away, out of sight and mind. Rotting mangoes, withering corn husks, gravid dirty diapers. The last, the conclusion of yet another rubbish mystery. This riddle started with concrete ditches chocked by a grey slush of assumed snow and our congratulations that we had missed another violent storm. Continued, with roadside heaps that we presumed had fallen from wheel arches, and concluded when those piles wouldn’t thaw, down in the jungle. Enlightenment comes with a shop window advert for ‘super sec Huggies’. Our slush gorged storm drains, turn out to be the entrails of dumped nappies, our snow, to be swollen moisture retaining granules.
The storm has broken loose on the high ground, the dry river beds are flushed south. The Rio Urubamba, the sacred river of the Inca’s nation, is a chowder of Styrofoam. Tin cans are held captive by bouldered eddies, plastic bottles dance in the standing waves, poly bags snag on the low slung branches. The effluvial flow sweeps down to the ocean, there to continually feed the construction of that floating pop bottle continent. We meticulously collect all our wrappings, I even, on occasions Womble around a camp ground, litter-picking. Consigning them to a bin: Out of sight, out of mind. Not my problem any more. Proper little ‘Holy Willies’, our consciences are now lightly burnished.
What happens to that oats wrapper next? We should care, for I suspect I could have cut out the middleman, the waste retrieval operative, with his repetitive classical ditty, and couped it straight into that ditch.