Where are the rulers of nations,
and those who lorded it over the animals on earth;
those who made sport of the birds of the air,
and who hoarded up silver and gold
in which people trust,
and there is no end to their getting…
They have vanished and gone down to Hades,
and others have arisen in their place.
– Baruch 3: 15-19
One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.
– Aldo Leopold, Round River
In Season 7: Episode 3 of No Reservations, about eight years before he kills himself, Anthony Bourdain travels to Nicaragua. He looks the same as always: gray-haired and handsome, a little tired around the eyes. In one scene, he addresses Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s president-dictator, for ignoring the poverty and suffering of his people while he remains comfortably ensconced in his mansion in Managua. Dear Danny, he says, I hope I can call you that. I hope that’s not too familiar. What happened? I mean, this is a beautiful country. Filled with really nice, enormously proud people…This is a poor country, a really poor country. And how much money you got? The answer, we learn, is 400 million in personal wealth.
It is not very long, at least in the timeline of the episode, before Tony asks his Nicaraguan guide to show him La Chureca, the enormous open-air landfill smeared over 2.7 square miles of Managua. As the scene shifts to show the landfill, bleakness invades the screen so abruptly that it’s almost awkward, the drama of the landscape as instantaneous and tragic as a commercial for international aid. Gone, for a moment, is the show’s typical cheekiness. Sarcasm and snark disappear under their own piles of rubble. There are no more shots of cigarettes or grilled octopus or local beer. No more ribbing of cameramen over the little rise of steam from a bowl of perfect noodles. There is only the heft of trash and human waste, raked and sorted through by hundreds of human beings.
For years, I’ve had dreams that I’m floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Sometimes, I spear each piece of waste as expertly as my sponge-diving ancestors, gliding through the water on a single breath, my body weighted down by a stone. Other times, I tread water as I gather building materials: remnants of tires and thin sheets of metal, disposable coffee cups and the wraithlike bodies of plastic bags. I hold them close together in my arms like children, then attempt to construct something useful from their shapes.
My technique in this dream is careless and unsystematic, an amalgam of odd strategies that I can’t understand in the daytime. I maintain a chaotic energy while I move, as if I am building one of those towers out of marshmallows and toothpicks in the GATE events I competed in as a kid. Ultimately, the water makes the objects too slippery to adhere, and I give up the task entirely. I lay my body down flat on something broad and buoyant, a strangely dry mattress or a refrigerator door. For the rest of the dream I remain lying there, spent and floating uselessly in the tepid little waves..
When I wake, I’m never surprised that I abandoned my labors at sea. The vanities of my dreams are as familiar to me as my own.
One summer, I took E. to Sinaloa. We were in graduate school at the time, teaching first-year composition for free tuition and a monthly stipend. After buying our plane tickets, we didn’t have much left in our bank accounts. As we drove the fourteen hours to my brother’s house in Koreatown, where we would stay for a night before departing LAX, we ate dried wasabi peas and mixed nuts from the bulk bins at Winco. All the while I ran numbers in my head (Enough for contacts? Enough for rent? Enough for gas? Enough for Effexor?). Somewhere around Salinas, we spent the night in the blindingly fluorescent parking lot of a Kmart and I felt uncharacteristically bitter, dreaming of my friends in their poolside AirBnBs.
And yet still, from the very moment we arrived in Mazatlán, it was clear that those remnants of our bank accounts would buy us everything we needed. More than that, even. We ordered so much food: plate after plate of chilaquiles verdes, scalding molcajetes topped over with meat. Endless and sweating Dos Equis and Pacíficos, pink conchas and coffee, ceviche and fruit.
Once, I’ll admit, we ordered a seafood special so massive in weight and variety that it arrived in a serving vessel shaped like a boat. On the menu, the special was called “La Pachanga,” which often means a rowdy party. The word that is probably closest to “pachanga” in English is “extravaganza,” but there is something about the latter that always makes me cringe. I think it’s something about its gaudiness, its utterly self-aware sense of excess.
One of those nights in Mazatlán, while we ate at a restaurant on the beach and watched the sun meet a sandbar strewn with dead jellyfish, a man walked up to the patio carrying a rack of hats on his shoulders. Growing up, we traveled to Mexico often, and even as a child I felt ashamed when declining to purchase something from vendors. Perhaps in part as a response to those feelings, I’d spent much of my life becoming fluent in Spanish with the hope that I could imbue my second-language interactions with more complexity and care. I wanted to avoid appearing like a two-dimensional consumer in someone else’s country, or to exist, as David Foster Wallace once wrote, as the shallow prime mover of a series of transactions, economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing. Over the years, I had come to feel that no matter what words I ended up using, no matter how much warmth and kindness I built into my voice as I declined them, I would always maintain the subject position of white lady on a superfluous vacation, picking and choosing how to spend her extra cash. And that’s just what I was.
This time on the beach, when I declined to purchase a hat, the vendor nodded his head in understanding and approached the table next to us. The table was surrounded by women drinking massive, electric blue cocktails and possessed by the alarmingly frequent need to scream. The vendor looked at each of them in turn, gesturing toward the hats. One of the women rolled her eyes. Another turned to her and whispered I’ll take care of this in a manner both authoritative and conspiratorial. She turned back to the man, straightening her neck and clearing her throat as if she was about to give a speech. NO GRACIAS, she said to him slowly, as if he were a toddler, frying the last syllable as if it pained her vocal chords to manufacture the sound. The man didn’t react much. He just dipped his head again, smiling this time, and then turned to walk away.
After the vendor left, E. didn’t say anything for a long time. We ordered more beer and stared out at the dead jellyfish and the barefoot couples and the vendors dotting every mile of the shoreline. When I finally turned my head back to the table, there were fat, silent tears sliding down their cheeks. What’s wrong? I asked, but I thought I knew.
I don’t know, they said. I don’t know. I have stuffed myself for the past three days. I have eaten enough shrimp and rum and pastries to make me sick. And that man…and I feel like a piece of shit.
When we got back to the hotel, E. vomited onto the stump of a palm tree. Better, right? I said tentatively, and we both laughed weakly as we headed into the lobby.
Back in our room, we listened to the shouts of happy kids in the pool from the railing of our third-floor balcony and danced to Leon Bridges on the cool hotel tile. But things didn’t feel quite the same after that. And what’s more is that the sheer familiarity– the very predictability– of this particular kind of white guilt rose from my stomach like bile.
Sometimes, I read the news on my phone before I go to sleep. Because I am an idiot. Last week, I read an article about the current state of Moria, the sprawling refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. You know, the one that Human Rights Watch calls “an open air prison”? In the article, the Director of Migrant and Refugee Rights at Human Rights Watch, Bill Frelick, recounts the story of a refugee he has just met: He tried to board a boat for mainland Greece but wasn’t able to. As he walked back to the camp, he encountered vigilante mobs. He sought shelter in a café, but the café owner started hitting him with a chair, so he went outside, and there the mob beat him with sticks and metal bars. He said the only thing that saved him was that the mob saw another refugee and decided to chase him instead.
At the end of the article, the reporter who interviewed Frelick remarks that the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, recently congratulated Greece on its efforts to control migrants. She called it the aspida, or “shield,” of Europe.
After reading those words, I stared at the blank wall of my bedroom and thought for a very long time. I remembered another episode of No Reservations, this one in Zakynthos, when Bourdain’s interviewee proudly affirms that the Greeks are “a freedom-mongering people.” And I suppose that there is a part of me that agrees with this description, given the country’s relationship to the obstacle and the odyssey, the seemingly interminable labors of Herakles, the short but scrappy fight against Hitler, the pilgrim’s bloody knees as she drags her legs across Tinos just to see a blessed icon of the Theotokos in the sun. But then I found myself wondering really, what could be more freedom-mongering than this? A woman soaked in seawater, clutching an infant to her breast. Both half-sinking in a flimsy plastic boat.
When I was a kid, my dad went to Nicaragua for work. On the days he was able to call home, he explained that the distribution of wealth there bordered on the surreal. Though he was a middle-income businessman in the agriculture industry working with Nicaraguan vegetable growers, he was provided with a bodyguard to escort him to the compounds of wealthy distributors. There, he was served more food and alcohol than he could eat by dozens of domestic laborers who worked on the distributors’ estates. Meanwhile, he said, children played with garbage in the street, forming “soccer balls” by sticking pieces of trash together in shapes that approximated spheres. I went out and bought those boys a soccer ball, he said, but it was clear that he still felt sick. Nauseous, I think, was the word he used.
For months after my dad returned from Nicaragua, our house smelled like the coffee he brought back as a gift. It was the best coffee I had tasted in my life, rich and complicated and strong. Now, the smell of good, strong coffee makes me think of those soccer balls in Managua, mostly incapable of soaring across fields and barely held together with pieces of thin tape.
I have a friend that I only talk to once in a while, a friend I love so much that I think it might repulse her. For years, we have referred to the sources of shame and regret in our lives as “trash island.” This phrase does not refer to one communal place. We each possess our own tracts of litter-made land.
Though I could fill a book of essays with a number of metaphors for the sources of my shame and regret, there’s a specific place on trash island reserved for less figurative and more material sources of pain, where the coffee and the soccer balls float with like objects.
An Object on Trash Island for Each Year of My Life:
1. I ask my father why farmworkers wear sweatshirts in the heat, implying–in my child’s way, that it’s a silly thing to do. He says, The sweatshirts make them sweat, which keeps them cool enough to avoid heat stroke. It’s really not silly at all.
2. Due especially to my hometown’s proximity to the Channel Islands, my fourth-grade class reads Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell’s fictionalized account of the last living member of the Luiseño people. When I read that the protagonist of O’Dell’s story, Karana, was ultimately rescued by Spanish colonists, I am suffused with joy. I imagine her sleeping soundly in a room with a hearth, surrounded by adobe walls the color of cream. Later that year, our class takes a field trip to Mission Santa Barbara, where we learn that the real Karana died from dysentery upon arriving at the mission. She was posthumously named Juana Maria and buried in an unmarked grave.
In fourth grade, I don’t fully understand colonization. I certainly don’t know words like indigenous or genocide. But I do stare across the church graveyard and think a lot about Karana who was not Karana, and who, at that time, felt like my friend. Though I find it a little perplexing that someone hungry and alone could die once fed and found, I am even more confused by the fact that the colonists brought a woman separated from her people across the Pacific Ocean and installed her in such an unfamiliar place without ever learning her name. How could they not know her name?
3. My grandmother recalls the exact moment when a neighborhood kid opened his door and she saw that his house had a dirt floor. We always thought we were poor, she says, until that.
4. My computer screen glows white behind the slightly-faded letters of an old Salinas Californian article about my dad’s father, who I know almost nothing about aside from that he was a violent drunk who didn’t know how to love. The article says that he was fined by a police officer for dumping mounds of trash into the Salinas River.
5. My friend’s father erupts into laughter as he tells us that back in Korea, his village gave a bag of rice every year to the poorest family in the community. We always won the rice! he said through peals of laughter, tears pricking his eyes.
6. The biggest fight I ever get into with my brother, excluding the time he broke open my Password Journal 3 to peek at its contents, begins when we are riding our bikes downtown and he throws a soda bottle he has just finished into an empty lot. We are literally a minute from home! I scream at him. There is no reason for you to have done that! I am pretty sure that I also say I don’t even know who you are anymore. I got that line from a movie, but I don’t know how else to convey the lingering sense of betrayal.
7. In the uncomfortable environment of middle school, I am embarrassed by most everything. I wish that my family could be like every other family– that we could plant our rosemary in terra cotta flower pots instead of halved Pepsi bottles and keep our leftovers in real, branded Tupperware instead of yogurt containers that are constantly surprising me with their various non-yogurt contents.
8. Years later, we all laugh about the rising popularity of terms like “reclaimed” and “upcycled,” the newly greenwashed glamor of repurposing trash. See! my Dad says when he comes across another article about refashioning household items for the good of the Earth. I was just ahead of my time!
9. Ironically, my Dad’s dad, the river polluter, generally refused to throw anything away. He kept every can and jar, left empty toothpaste tubes in the medicine cabinet. He didn’t really reuse them, though. They just lingered there, obsolete.
10. My high school AP English teacher, Ms. Fulton, is supportive and brilliant. She is also harsh and unwavering at all the right times. At some point, it becomes clear that she has made it her mission to complicate our coziest, most romantic ideals. One day she teaches us about coltan, the mineral used to make most phone and laptop batteries. She says that in places like the Congo, coltan mining operations are the locus of human rights abuses and violent political conflict. In some regions, the arrival of mining companies led to the destruction of whole communities. You all want to work for Google and Microsoft and Apple, she said fiercely, but I’m not sure you even comprehend, at least not completely, what it is that they do.
11. In 2013, I move to Spain for a study abroad program. One day, in Ronda, I see a gitana sitting on a cobblestone street with a baby wrapped in cloth in her arms. She coos and bounces the bundle softly on her knee. Suddenly, a sound like a car backfiring rings out in the air to her left.
The moment she turns her head, the baby falls to the ground. The sound it makes is a clack because it’s not a baby but a plastic doll.
12. I have never been to New York City, but it seems to me that the señoras in Granada, where I live with a host family, wave Moroccan vendors away from their café tables with the exact irritated choreography of New Yorkers shooing pigeons.
13. My host mother shakes her head as she watches the nightly news from Málaga, a routine report of the number of thin bodies scaling barbed-wire fences and scrambling to shore. I can’t tell if the look in her eyes is pitying, disdainful, or both.
14. I’m scrolling through memes one morning when I see one about Batman, my favorite superhero. It goes like this:
Batman: I must save the city.
Alfred: Well you’re a billionaire so maybe just redistr–
Batman: The bat suit is the only way.
I laugh and laugh. Then I stare at it.
15. Singing in the car is for me a sacred ceremony. I place a great deal of stock in it. Sometimes, E. sings the Ezra Furman song “Little Piece of Trash” in the car. It goes, I’m a little piece of trash/ somebody dropped in the street./ I’m a little cigarette/ I’m a wrapper that used to hold something sweet.
16. Why is it that the most selfless people I know are the same ones who consider themselves disposable?
17. It’s 2016 and the president’s patronizing, open-lipped grimace is the only real shithole country.
18. It’s 2017 and the president talks about immigrants being “released” into the population, as if they are rats or biological weapons. Of the 15,000 visa-holding Haitians now living in the United States, Trump says that they all have AIDS. Of the Nigerians who obtained visas the same year, he says that they won’t go back to their huts, especially after they’ve acclimated to the myriad luxuries of our glorious nation.
19. My family and I walk breezily down the Plaka of Athens, which is also called “the neighborhood of the gods” for its proximity to the Parthenon and other ancient ruins. It is only after we pass him that we realize that we have just seen a man with only a head and arms. He is crawling over the stones of the street, so slowly that it’s as if he isn’t moving at all. As I remember it, we all freeze in tandem after passing him, blinking as if to shake off a hallucination.
20. The image of the man in the Plaka has stayed with me for years. It burns and irritates the fragile skin of my nightmares like a freshly-applied brand. Sometimes, though, it keeps me awake instead. I find myself picking my phone up again and again to type things like can you live with only an upper torso? and how can you survive to adulthood without a heart?
21. In March, right around the time COVID-19 arrives in America, I watch the 2018 documentary Lifeboat. The documentary provides a brief look into the daily activities of the nonprofit organization Sea Watch. From the documentary, I learn that 1 in every 18 refugees attempting to cross the central Mediterranean in 2017 drowned.
22. Do you want to know something else about Sea Watch? After rescuing groups of refugees stranded in lifeboats at sea, volunteers have to slash and burn the boats so that sex traffickers won’t use them.
23. According to Border Angels, approximately 10,000 migrants have died crossing the desert to get to the United States since 1994, many from dehydration. Online, you can look at GIS projects that track the locations where human remains have been recovered; these resources are called “Death Maps.” Due to the number of deaths attributed to dehydration, one of Border Angels’ simplest and most necessary activities is leaving caches of water jugs throughout the desert’s arid terrain. Though the jugs of water are clearly not trash, there is something about the act of hiding them in the brush that makes them appear like remnants of something. As if returning the material that makes up 60% percent of a tired body back to its cells is something to be ashamed of.
24. In college, I take an Environmental Science course with a professor who is also a priest, a man who has no doubts about the duty of the Christian soul to the physical Earth. During one lecture, he tells us the story of Genesis. He says that the name “Adam” comes from the Hebrew ha adamah, meaning “dirt” or “earth.” He says that as caretaker of the garden of Eden, Adam’s first duty was as steward of this planet. In this way, he explains, Adam indeed sinned against God– but also, given that they are same– against the soil and the trees.
25. Don Justo Gallego Martinez, a former Trappist Monk, uses thousands of pounds of trash to build a replica of St. Peter’s Basilica. In a documentary about the trash cathedral, a priest from Justo’s former convent calls the project a cathartic result of the “trauma” Justo experienced when he did not fit in with the other monks and ultimately left the convent to return to Madrid. Justo shakes his head when he hears this. I do more penance here than I ever did there, he says, Much more! And I do it freely.
26. The mountains of food cartons, junk mail, and rat droppings that engulf the cast of Hoarders are spectacles, of course. We let our jaws fall like gossiping teenagers as we watch the show’s participants clutch urine-soaked books to their breasts.
But the messes of Hoarders only give us a frisson of self-satisfaction, a burst of not me that lasts until it doesn’t. Usually, that end of pleasure is the moment we learn that nearly every one of the hoarders is a victim of childhood rape and neglect, or when the psychologist on screen tells us how hoarders form nests from discarded objects so as to live in something capable of cradling their bodies.
27. In his book Close to the Knives, American artist and activist David Wojnarowicz wonders what it would be like if the ashes of every person who died of AIDS were dumped on the White House lawn. He writes about dark cities and heavy, sleepless nights and the medical frauds who injected excrement into AIDS patients, peddling human feces as an antidote to disease. I carry his book with me everywhere, even after I’m done reading it. I’m not sure why.
28. When I was in elementary school, one of my favorite songs was Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue.” I loved singing the chorus, “We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue!” and imagining myself part of a big parade going down the street in the summer, throwing flowers and candy to people sitting on porches and hanging, arms outstretched, out of balcony windows. I loved the song for years before I really heard the lyrics. Workin’ so hard like a soldier, can’t afford a thing on TV. Deep in my heart I’m a warrior, can’t get food for them kid, good God!
And isn’t that just how ignorance works? You become familiar with your perception of something for so long, especially as it delights you, that you never see it for what it was in the first place?
In the comments of the YouTube clip of Anthony Bourdain’s trip to La Chureca, posters speculate wildly about how that trip to Nicaragua, and in fact, the minute Tony saw the landfill, marked the precise moment in which he began his descent into the darkness that killed him. But that all feels far too neat to me.
You look at this and you see people eating out of here…he says, grimacing. The very notion of food television…what I do. It seems somehow obscene.
It is possible that La Chureca was the start of some steep downward trajectory for Anthony Bourdain. He does huff out Well, now I’m depressed before leaving the dump, a hint of snark resurfacing in the midst of earnest sadness. But, as most depressives know, the long spine of melancholy spends years growing networks of fibrous roots. For people like Tony, one protracted moment of guilt can’t fairly be responsible for that final, unyielding night down the line. But it can, of course, still cast its shadow, especially in hotel rooms already lacking in light.
Here’s the thing I can’t get over: La Chureca was eventually dismantled in 2004, the result of the combined efforts of international aid groups and human rights organizations. But the decision was not uniformly embraced. Some of the Nicaraguans who depended on the trash for a living were devastated. Around the time Anthony Bourdain filmed his Managua episode, approximately 300 families lived at La Chureca. Some workers, he reminds us, were third-generation churequeros working the very same land as their great-grandparents. And indeed, for some workers, the reality of it all, of raking through the 2,600,000 pounds of trash dumped near their homes each day, was rather simple. The dump was how they made their money. They didn’t want anyone to get rid of it.
Note: This essay has been updated for my 28th year.