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Trash Talk

On one of our first beautiful evenings in San Juan La Laguna, I sat with three fellow dragons at the port. We were staring out in front of us at the lake in front of us, vast and deep, flanked by grand mountains covered in lush green, and dotted with fishermen in wooden canoes. After more than 3 weeks spent in various places around Lake Atitlan, this view is equally breathtaking every day, I doubt I will ever get used to it. However, if you let your eyes drift towards the shore, you will see the water shift from a clean blue to a dark, polluted greenish brown.

In the larger towns around the lake, the waste disposal system is often the dumping of sewage directly into the water. The result is a sticky sludge that sits so thick on the surface that discarded beer cans sit on top, and from far away oblivious birds seem to walk on water.

One morning I went on a walk with my host mom, and she told me about how it did not used to be like that. That before, the water was as blue as the middle of the lake all the way to the shore. “Esta triste” I said. “Sí”, she replied. It wasn’t always like that.

In the streets of San Juan and the other lakeside towns trash lines sidewalk edges. Scattered atop cobblestone streets and among brightly colored houses and tiendas you can find countless candy wrappers and chip bags. If you hike to a beautiful forest or waterfall nearby you will probably find a similar sight on the trail. To someone like me from Portland Oregon these blatant signs of pollution are always shocking. At home I was taught to turn off lights to conserve energy, and to separate my trash from recycling from compost. I was raised in a “green city” where plastic bags are banned and bioswales collect rain water at curbs and corners.

While my initial reaction to the pollution in Guatemala was “how could people let this happen?”, I have since thought back to a lesson I learned in my anthropology class about a year ago. In our observations on the extreme and rapid gentrification in Portland, a city which takes pride in its environmental consciousness, we saw a huge correlation between “green-ness” and wealth. Bioswales exist only in affluent neighborhoods, which are also home to the cleanest streets. Here you may also see solar panels on roofs, and garden beds with home grown veggies and flowers. Chances are inhabitants of these homes buy reusable bags to bring to New Seasons or Whole Foods (grocery stores known for being organic, healthy and EXPENSIVE). Basically, in some ways the ability to be environmentally friendly is often connected to privilege.

This privilege is comprised of different factors. The privilege of time to garden, to sort garbage, to drive out of your way to that specific organic foods store), which connects to the privilege of being able to prioritize the long-term over the present. Additionally there is the privilege of education about environmental issues. Then there is the privilege of money. The ability to pay for reusable bags, solar panels, and to worry about putting the best sustainable food on the table versus food at all.

This is not to say that one way is right or wrong. It comes down to priority, which has a whole other list of factors attached to it. My personal takeaway from this has not been to feel guilty, or to question my stance on the protection of our earth. It has been to remind myself to see all realties from multiple perspectives, not to automatically see one way of life as superior to another, and also to be grateful for the time, wealth and education which has given me my privileges and point of view.