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Garbage and the Bigger Picture

Feb. 19, 2023

Dr. David Fialk, Editor / Publisher

I resent change. I'm fine with leaving well enough alone. I long for the old ways.

Not long ago, I met a man who was visiting town, having just come from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, where he had lived for years. He was bright-eyed about all the usual features that impress people about our fair city. One odd thing he appreciated was our trash collection. He thought it wonderful that a truck comes around three times a week and takes away our garbage.

Lake Atitlan, it seems, has no such system for garbage collection, no system at all. There, at best, people collect their trash in an enormous bag, and then pay someone to take it away, out into the countryside where it is burned. At worst, people simply burn their trash somewhere in town.

Some ten years ago, while I was staying for a brief while in a house in Independencia, I noticed the ugly smell of plastic coming my way. Stepping out, I saw a small pile of garbage smoldering away in the empty lot next door. Retrieving a shovel, I extinguished the fire with a few well-placed shovelfuls of soil.

I assume that before San Miguel had its neighborhood garbage collection service, people regularly burnt their trash in empty lots, that this was the custom. What were they supposed to do with it?

Some resident on that street up there in Independencia, like me, resenting change and longing for the old ways, carried on the tradition of burning his trash. If it hadn't been for my being exposed to the toxic plume of that combustion, I could have sympathized.

My neighbor, M., grew up in the house across from me on our small alley. After renting out the place for decades, he recently started using it as a get-away from his main residence in Mexico City. We on the alley had always used the front third of our empty lot to park our cars, an often-chaotic arrangement. M., with his big city ways, had the rest of the lot cleared to accommodate more cars, thus eliminating the parking snarls, and also the need to use the alley between his house and mine as my parking space.

I deliberately parked my car in that space, right outside my drafty front door, to prevent someone else parking there. When that happens, and they leave their car running for ten minutes or warm up their car in the morning, my house fills with exhaust fumes.

Now that I am parking in our parking lot, to prevent anyone from parking in front of my door, my neighbor M., a real problem solver, had a barrier installed. The master plan is to refinish the space between our houses, to make it more attractive by adding concrete between the cobbles and a small patch of lawn.

When J., M.'s gardener and handyman, installed the barrier, one of the inground sockets had difficulty accommodating the barrier's metal post. To resolve this tight squeeze, J. tore out, piece by piece, the orange conduit, the sleeve that kept back the concrete when it was poured. Good enough.

The problem was that he left the pieces of that fractured sleeve just where they fell while he was tearing them out, just where he dropped them, scattered closely around the new barrier. No big deal. It only took me a minute and a little squatting down to clean up after him. I didn't mention it to J., who always says at least hello when he passes my door, when it is open to admit the heat of the day, as it frequently is this time of year.

The second phase of barrier construction was recently accomplished with the installation of a lock to prevent someone from walking away with the thing. After pouring concrete for the anchor, using my bicycle lock as his guide, J. went out and bought a duplicate bike lock ($149 at La Vulcan) to do the job. That in place, concrete already setting, the jocularity between J., his son and me came to a close for that day with their departure.

Some short while after they left, I noticed the cut plastic ties and the cardboard associated with the new bicycle lock unceremoniously discarded on the ground in front of M.'s door.

Last month, I wrote an article, attributing the inefficiency quite common in Mexico to the passive-aggressive attitude of a hacienda slave: "But when you told me to come back with these two documents, why didn't you tell me to bring the third?"

A reader responded, objecting to my characterizing a genre of Mexican workmanship as slow and shoddy. He wrote "'Slow and shoddy'? Where have you been?" Editing can be lonely, so I'm thrilled when any reader writes to me. (Email below) I wrote back thanking him and very politely asking in return, "Will you give me 'slow', that it takes longer to get things done here in Mexico?" Unwilling or unable to defend his objection, he didn't respond.

But here, with J.'s littering, we have an example of what I mean by 'shoddy'. As I explored in an article last week, there is a world of difference between AI (Artificial Intelligence) and AGI (Artificial General Intelligence). J. accomplished the task at hand, installing a barrier, but he didn't get the general concept, that our goal is to improve, to make that piece of ground prettier.

When he returned a day or two later to check his work, my door was open, and, as usual, he engaged me in conversation. First, I complimented him on a job well done. Then, pointing out the trash from the lock, still in place, where he left it, I tried explaining the general concept to him: rich people (M., not me) don't like garbage left in front of their door.

J. took offense. He pointed angrily to the desiccated cantaloupe vine and leaf litter in my garden, identifying it as "tu basura", your garbage. Straightening up from just having picked up his garbage, I apologized, coming as close as I could to imploring him not to be upset. I left it at that, resisting the urge to quite correctly point out that there is a world of difference between having my "garbage" in front of my house, and having his garbage in front of my house. I learned a long time ago that being right doesn't count for much.

When I first came to Mexico, 45 years ago, street food was served on banana leaves. After lunch, breakfast or dinner, customers just discarded their banana leaf on the ground, where it obligingly bio-degraded. Plastics and styrofoam are much less cooperative. But old habits die hard. I don't like change either, but as with burning trash within city limits, every litter-bit still hurts. Like my recent acquaintance from Guatemala, I deem this change, SMA's modern garbage collection method, progress.

Maybe J. will grasp the master plan. It would be to his advantage. General intelligence is a valuable commodity. But, as we see from his upset, we all resist change. And there's a good, evolutionary reason for that. In terms of survival, the status quo has a lot to recommend it. After all, it's worked so far. Change is dangerous. Innovation is not necessarily progress. Who knows what is going to happen when you open that door?

Taking things too much to heart, it all leaves me wondering. What emotional garbage am I unaware of spreading? What psychological trash am I guilty of leaving around? What bigger picture has yet to dawn on me?


Dr. David presents Lokkal, the social network, the prettiest, most-efficient way to see San Miguel online. Our Wall shows it all. Join and add your point of view.


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