Today was garbage dump day. THE day I equally feared and looked forward to most. Who would have known it would turn out to be one of the best experiences of my life. Hands down. Bar none.
We geared up in our long pants and boots (if we were lucky to have packed them). A sense of excitement and nervousness filled our morning briefing session and it wasn’t long before we arrived at the dump. It was located down an inconspicuous road we drove past every day and one, like the people, that was easy to pass without noticing if we didn’t look for it. The dump looked and smelled like a typical dump with the exception of a few key things: cows and dogs ran freely and children, teenagers, women and seniors were crawling and searching through the garbage, trying to earn a day’s pay.
The majority of the workers we would meet came in illegally from Haiti. This makes it so they have no access to health care, education or government aid. So they come to the dump to find bags of bottles, plastic bags and cardboard which they will sell for a few dollars a bag.
Upon arrival, we were paired with another WestJetter and a local worker for the day. Our partner was a lady in her late 40’s. She wore a skirt and running shoes along with a tank top, which was a far cry from the 25 of us who were covered from head to toe in gear. It rained quite heavily the last few days so those wearing boots were considered themselves relatively lucky. At one point, someone took a wrong step and ended up in sludge well past the knees.
When the dump trucks came in the workers ran to the pile, each staking their claim. They literally crawled on top of mounds of fresh garbage to find their items. Through rusty cans, fecal matter, foliage, food, hazardous waste, bottles, diapers, maggots, cockroaches and rats, people climbed and sorted. And so we began to climb and sort as well. The smell was beyond putrid at first. It burned our nose and eyes filling them with tears. There were several moments where my partner and I wondered if we could do this. And then it just became easier. We wanted to help ease the load of the local worker we had been paired with, so we became committed to sorting faster and better.
It wasn’t disgusting, it was humbling. It wasn’t dramatic, it was fruitful. It wasn’t repulsive, it was someone’s livelihood. Someone, who just like so many of us, is just doing their job, trying to get by.
Initially, my goal for the day was to try not to get dirty, but by the time I left the dump, my boots were covered in a mix of both cow and human feces. My arms dripped with sludge from who knows what and my heart felt heavy. I couldn’t ignore this, seeing it with my own two eyes and yet you need to experience it first hand to understand the humanity of it. These are people. These are people who are unfortunately forgotten about. They are lovely people doing what they need to do to feed their families and themselves.
Our debriefing session that night was very emotional and healing at the same time. Here WestJetters shared stories of the findings at the dump that excited the workers: a mirror that was cleaned off and used to make sure the fellow looked nice; a whole pineapple in a garbage bag that was offered to the WestJetters first and then shared between the workers. Our debriefing session made something else very clear: this experience will forever affect us all.