Tuesday, September 05, 2006

2. The Social Work Tour

The Social Work Tour

Monday morning in our second week in Guatemala, we are driven to the neighborhood in Guatemala City where Camino Seguro works by Oscar and Fredy. Accompanied by the Camino Seguro social worker, we walk down a street of small, squalid cinderblock houses, where people look at us incuriously. They are undoubtedly accustomed to seeing the foreigners who come to Camino Seguro pick their way gingerly down their smelly, garbage-strewn street. This place looks pretty bad. A youngish man, probably drunk, lies on the curb. His face is dotted with buzzing flies that he doesn’t seem to have the energy to brush away. He has a lot in common with the miserable-looking, mangy, scarred dogs that lie in the meager shade next to the houses.

But suddenly we come to the end of the cinderblock row, and the real shantytown lies before us. The cinderblock row we just left looks immeasurably better in comparison. Strings of huts made entirely from pieces of salvaged tin roofing wind up and down alleys among small rises and dips, the alleys little more than narrow concrete gutters, maybe three feet wide. Since it is the rainy season, the alleys are washed by occasional downpours, so it doesn’t smell as bad as it probably does in the dry season. There are no windows, and the doors are hung with a ragged piece of cloth. The tin roofs bake in the sun. There is no apparent running water, although there are electrical hookups. They steal the electricity, says Fredy. There seems to be no plumbing at all. What they do with human waste one can only imagine. Every now and then we’ll pass an outcropping of dirt. The dirt is layered with the shredded ghosts of plastic bags, and you realize that all of this is built on top of the dump. The toxins and methane that exude from the ground they live on account for the high rate of asthma, upper respiratory infection, and cancer among the dump workers and their families.

We stop to greet an affable grey-haired couple, who say hola and want to shake hands. Doing so with a smile is a major act of will. Even I, who am not a clean freak by any means, have to fight the urge to whip out a Wet Wipe immediately afterwards. As they talk with the social worker, Fredy tells us in an undertone that they are habitual drunks, who several years ago took their son to the hospital in an emergency and forgot to go back for him. By the time they showed up, a couple of months later, the hospital had placed him in an orphanage. It took them quite a while to get him back.

Each shack, maybe 6 feet by 12 feet at most, houses families of 5 or more. Usually, everyone sleeps on one rancid mattress. There is no way to keep clean here. The smell of rotting garbage and cooking fires is pervasive. Sick-looking dogs are everywhere.

None of the people we visit today give us permission to enter their home. That’s okay. I can imagine.
How can people maintain any dignity and self-respect living in a place like this? How can a mother care for her children? How can they hope to be integrated into the rest of Guatemalan society? I understand what drove Hanley Denning to create Camino Seguro. I marvel at the resilience of the people who find the strength to take advantage of the hope for a better life that it offers.

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