Tuesday, September 05, 2006

3. El Mirador

El Mirador

Back in the car, we are driven to El Mirador. This is a cemetery of white mausoleums. As we drive by rows of conventional rectangular structures, we suddenly come upon a pyramid, probably 20 or 30 feet high, easily four times the size of the tin shanties that shelter families of 6 or 7 in the neighborhoods outside. A uniformed security guard armed with a shotgun stands at attention in front. This magnificent structure—and the man with a shotgun—guard the remains of the Gallo family. Until recently, the Gallo beer company had held a nationwide monopoly on beer production, and as a result the family is immensely wealthy. Is it too obvious to point out that even in death the Gallo family is housed and cared for better than the living poor?

As we reach the edge of the cemetery, the reason for our visit becomes clear. .
We get out of the van and walk to the edge of a bluff. We overlook an immense ravine—a valley, really. The vista is immense. This is the source of the pervasive sweetish stink of rotting garbage that fills the air, and mixes with the characteristic Guatemalan stench of diesel fumes and burning into a polluted soup that is the air we breathe in Guatemala City. Later, I will find that when I hold one of the children on my lap this smell, often mixed with stale urine, fills my nostrils. This is the Guatemala City garbage dump Far below, tiny figures chase toy trucks as they drive in, striving to get the first crack at burrowing through the load of refuse in search of treasure: a glass or plastic bottle, a sheet of tin roofing without too many holes, a not-too-badly broken chair or table, or perhaps even some not-too-rotten food. Sometimes they find money or jewelry. Sometimes they find dead bodies. A tiny toy earth mover lumbers up and down, pushing the garbage further out and down, slowly but surely filling the valley with garbage.

In the newspaper one day, there is an article about how the effluvia that washes out of the dump is polluting other neighborhoods in the city. This seems to be an issue of increasing concern. There is no mention of the shantytowns that are actually built on top of the dump, or of the people who make their living there.

Suddenly I realize that the trees edging the bluff upon which we stand are filled with hundreds of vultures. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, more flap and stalk about down in the dump, competing with the humans for garbage.

I have never seen a vulture before. The sight of the enormous, black, hooded birds perched among the mausoleums is unimaginably Gothic. It’s a scene straight out of an Edmund Gorey illustration, except that here there is no humorous ironic distance. This is real. Almost anywhere you go in that part of the city, you can see a circling column of black dots, vultures wheeling in the sky over the dump. You orient yourself by it. Here we are. There is the dump.

As we return to the van, we pass a place where the cemetery is eroding down into the valley, and the slope is strewn with bits of anonymous junk. Here, we learn, is where they dispose of funerary deadbeats. Elsewhere in the cemetery there are public burial walls with slots for coffins for those who cannot afford a private mausolem. If your relatives fail to pay the fee of 350Q every other year, the cemetery owner will remove your coffin from its slot and shove it down this slope toward the dump. Like the cats, dogs, and occasional murder victim, your body will be eternally joined with the decomposing remains of Guatemala City.
Is there some reason why people aren’t cremated instead, I ask? The gas for cremation costs 10,000 Q, Fredy answers. It’s a matter of economics and dignity, he says. Almost everything is.

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