puzzling it out

The blue and green plastic bottle tops had been compacted into the soil over time. They reminded me of an exhibition I saw last year in Centro Cultural Borges. Blue, green, white bottle tops scattered over the gallery walls, curving and swirling, and cut into flower shapes. Who knew rubbish could be so pretty?

But there was nothing beautiful about this place. The ash from the burning rubbish tasted sour and I was glad Arturo had told us to be quick. We were visiting an after-school project supported by MEDH in Villa Itatí, just outside the city of Buenos Aires. Since it was Saturday, there were no kids about, but a volunteer told us how the one-room building next to the sorting barn offered space for local children to do their homework and chat over milk and rolls.

Villa Itatí is a large villa (shanty town) of over 50,000 people (2001 figures). People began settling in the area when the autopista (motorway) was constructed several decades ago. The excavations for the motorway left an empty valley into which came the poor. At the bottom, Arturo tells us, are those who are the poorest of all. They live at a level that is at constant risk of flooding. Many cartoneros live and work there. They gather recyclable material from the city's bins and haul it back to be sorted. Their roughly constructed homes sit cheek-by-jowl with the rubbish. All the children, Arturo tells us, have respiratory problems, and their arms are often covered in sores.

If I leave my flat I will see cartoneros searching through the large bins on the street corner. They pull their carts themselves now; when I first arrived tatty ponies trotted along the capital's streets at night, the carts stacked higher and higher behind them. I usually try to catch the eye of those cartoneros I pass on the street, say a brief buenos or hola but I'm not sure it that makes them (or me) feel better or worse. How can I begin to imagine there is a connection between us? That we share enough in common for us to share greetings? They live off my waste.

The barn and after-school club are at the edge of Villa Itatí, just visible as we passed over the rim of the crater. A line of clothes gathered from the rubbish hung drying in the smoke. We weaved through bales of cardboard and flattened plastic, ready to be sold on. With the support of MEDH and other organizations, the cartoneros of this sector of the villa formed a cooperative Asociación de Cartoneros de Villa Itatí, about which a documentary was filmed in 2003. They get a better price selling 100 bales of cardboard than 10 bales individually.

Saturday lunch-time and a calm had settled over the villa. A child was showing off a new puppy, clasped tightly in his arms. In the sunshine outside the barn, six young men lent against plastic bales of sorted rubbish. I felt embarrassed to be there, walking past them, talking in English. We said hola, and it felt awkward. As we left we said goodbye chau, gracias, chau gente. For once I was standing on their ground. This was their barrio and I was the intruder, allowed in for a brief few minutes.

As we left, the young men resumed their conversations. A couple of them were leafing through magazines, salvaged from the day's findings. And one was relaxing in the Saturday afternoon sun with a word-search puzzle. Figure that out.

Image of cartoneros via this article but originally from here.

Image of bottle tops design by Fran Crowe - read more about her work on BBC.


Giorgio said…
Hola Rachel. Very nioce blog. I hope you are very well in Argentina. I use to go very often and maybe 1 day I'll stay even...."longer"! Greetings from Italy and Argentina
Rachel said…
Hi giorgio - thanks for stopping by!