First, I am hit by the smell. Methane, sulfur, rotting garbage and decomposition assault my senses, a putrid smell that is so strong I can taste it in my mouth. Yet, I am surrounded by a clear blue sky, and I can’t place where the horrid smell is coming from. We then reach the edge of a canyon, and beneath us, filling the vast space between two cliffs is the Guatemala City Garbage Dump. I realize that the black birds, methodically flying in circles above us, are not crows, but vultures. They fill the sky, large black wings carrying them through the air, as they swarm the garbage trucks and cast dark shadows across the multicoloured pile of waste. Some fly closer to us, and perch themselves on a branch, silently observing. Their presence is unsettling.
They are unnatural creatures, appearing only when something has died in order feed off its decay; these birds survive not off the living, but off death. With their bulky black bodies, curved necks, and unnaturally large claws, they fly in endless circles above our heads, silently watching, as we stand on the edge of the world. And where I am standing is truly the edge of the world, as there is nothing below me but a pit of death, a pandemonium of rot and decay. Our professor, Sylvia, tells our class that sometimes there are explosions in the pit, when the unstable chemicals react. There are vermin, rats, vultures, garbage, food and even people in this pit, whose outlines we can barely make out from our safe place on the edge.
The people, working and foraging in the dump, wear garbage bags to protect them from the contamination, but those bags offer little protection from the surrounding death. It is not just the garbage in the canyon that is decaying and rotting away, but the poor whose homes surround the canyon. The pit is home to people who can only survive by scavenging through the contaminated waste. This whole class of people is decaying, dying, from the horrible conditions of the dump and of the larger world. The vultures swarm around a garbage truck, and the people continue to pick their way through the mess. This inequality is shocking; what I am looking at is an outrage. How can places like this exist?
I think about, then, where I am. This edge is a divide, separating the pit of death below from the cemetery behind me. I am standing on the edge of a canyon, the edge of a cemetery, the edge of the living world. But here, in the cemetery, death is only a rented space. If the poor can’t pay for their little cupboards, their bodies are tossed over the edge, like garbage, to join the waste in the pit below. Sylvia tells us that sometimes you can see the skeletons of people who were either murdered, or tossed out of their resting places. The Guatemala City Cemetery was not meant for the poor. I can tell by the elaborate family mausoleums that make up the majority of the cemetery. The mausoleums are expressions of art, each family resting, in death, in beautiful architectural masterpieces. They are adorned with gold detailing, stained glass windows, and elaborate stonework crosses and statues; but only a fortune could build such a monumental home for death.
I think about, then, where I am. Faintly, I can hear the mechanical sounds of the garbage trucks and tractors scraping through the waste. But the loudest sound I can hear, until it becomes the only sound, is the soft rustle of the vultures’ wings above me, flying slowly and methodically, in circles. I think about the impermanence of life. Flesh to decay, bones to dust. And the vultures keep circling.
Caleigh McEachern is currently in her 3rd year of studying English Literature and Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. Caleigh has backpacked across Europe, volunteered in the Dominican Republic, and participated in the UBC Go Global Arts Term Abroad program, where she learned about Power and Oppression and Global Citizenship in Guatemala. Upon graduation, Caleigh hopes to continue travelling, and teach English abroad.