travelog 24


They have time. They sit patiently on top of the cardones (Pachycereus pringlei); they gaze over the landscape and spread their wings. With the help of the morning sun they shake off the cold of the previous night. It's the turkey vulture, the redheaded and black-and-brown feathered health police of the desert. Wherever in the middle of the landscape you see vultures flying up or circling around overhead, you can count on finding a perished cow, goat or donkey. Nature doesn't waste anything organic, and that's the good part about it. But where do these scavengers most like to hang around? Naturally, it is very close to human settlements, where garbage accumulates.

Few Mexican settlements (big cities excluded) enjoy a municipally-organized garbage collection system. Most people must rely on their own resources. The result is absolutely worth seeing and that's why we want to tell you about it!

There are people on nice ranchos - in the midst of a breath-taking landscape, of course! - who dump their garbage cans over the next fence (following to the maxim: "Out of sight, out of mind!"). It smells and attracts flies and more, but it doesn't rot very well because there is not enough humidity for the decaying process. Desert preserves.

And there are others who dispose of their waste (including scraped gas cookers, broken beds, toilets or whatever accumulates) in the nearest arroyo (= little canyon). The next storm will wash it away.

But there are also the inhabitants of settlements like Bahía Tortugas, Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos or Puerto Magdalena who simply throw their garbage on the ground near their town. Often the dumping site is a barren, desert-like landscape where strong winds blow day in and day out and transform trees into garbage bushes. Here you drive for miles through carefully distributed garbage. On every cactus, shrub and small tree flutters the obligatory plastic bag. Tins, cans, plastic containers and other non-flammable packing are scattered everywhere. Particularly popular because it's from the Mexicans favorite toy (the car) are the masses of empty motor oil containers. The beach of Puerto Magdalena is covered with all these remnants of civilization. What is worse are badly smelling fish "leftovers" and filled (to put it mildly) Pampers. In this island settlement, whose inhabitants are living from fishing, tuna out of cans is particularly popular food. You can easily find that out with all the rusting cans on the beach. The signs "No Tire Basura" (= don't dump your garbage here) are no help and no one cares about the threat of punishment for disregarding the warning. They don't have anybody police them. They even dump their garbage unscrupulously just under the prohibitive sign.

How true is the maxim: "What you don't learn as a child, you never learn as adult!". Someonewho didn't learn it in his youth doesn't know that a careful dealing with the environment also means an important increase in his personal quality of life. Uneducated people think "Everybody does it this way, so why should I do it differently!?".

However, there are also first signs of a process of rethinking. Suddenly we see a sign on the road saying "Demuestre su cultura, no tire basura" (= show your culture, don't dump your garbage here!). On our last visit to Agua Verde we were "plagued" on our quiet beach campsite by two Mexican mothers with a horde of children. The kids wanted to have "candy!" and so we emptied our last candy resources. The mothers urgently requested their horde of children not to throw away the candy wrappings but to take the rubbish with them instead. We were impressed by that unexpectedly civilized approach, although we found most of the wrapping paper and plastic scattered along the path afterwards. But what can you expect from those children? They grow up in shacks that are surrounded with bushes, and behind every bush is a small rubbish heap...

After all it's not only the Mexicans! Also the tourists contribute their share. Without any doubt these are mostly Americans and Canadians, because of the vicinity of their countries. So let's tell you some (sad) stories about it!

Playa el Coyote: A picture-book beach with white sand, a picturesque group of palms and crystal clear blue-green water. For camping you have to pay something but you get garbage bins and a shower. The garbage is emptied regularly and dumped out right around the nearest bend in the road. Behind the first row of trees a huge pile of rusty cans and tins spoils the look of the beach. No travel guide writes about that...

Punta San José: We found some nice cliffs on the Pacific and a once-used campsite with a campfire. Around us were wonderful century plants (Agave shawii) and stonecrops (Dudleya sp.). Once we got out of the truck we caught sight of the terrible ruination of the place. First of all we had to fill three big 40-gallon garbage bags with all the garbage scattered around. It sounds probably funny that we found 29 different tennis shoes of American origin in all stages of decay. There were masses of plastic bags, broken glass, cans, containers, a huge pack of American dog food (a Mexican would never be able to afford real dog food, Mexican dogs feed from whatever they can find), music cassettes, yoghurt containers, old oilcans, auto parts and pieces of carpet. Oh no, this was certainly not pleasant! Most of all we get angry about the campfires where some clever-clever types tried to burn glass, aluminum cans, plastic containers or stinky cigarette butts (bon appetit, enjoy your steaks!?).

Ensenada San Basilio: We stayed there for two nights shortly before the millennium. There was also an older American with beard, a "child of nature" type. Upon our arrival he told us vociferously how much he loves nature and how horrified he is about all the Mexican garbage. The next morning we saw him in his canoe with a big bucket full of empty, partly broken bottles. He was paddling out into the bay. As a response to our question, he said succinctly: "This is refuse disposal!". The fish and the reef of the Sea of Cortez owe him something...

Cabo Pulmo: It was a beautiful small sand beach. We camped there practically for a week. Between the sand cliffs was an old drum. We'll give you three guesses... it was filled with garbage! What Mexican buys a ready-to-eat "Tofu Paté with Jalapeños"? Not a single one! It seems that travelling tourists sometimes leave their brains at home. They think that there is a garbage collection service everywhere they go. They are just simply too lazy to pack out their (normally not very heavy) trash. It's so easy... and the Mexicans do it the same way too.

Sierra de la Laguna: In these mountains, which are declared by UNESCO as a unique biosphere, there is a famous hiking trail that leads out of the barren desert vegetation into lush oak and piñon pine forests. Of course there are the familiar signs, here only in Spanish, with all the rules of conduct (no dumping, no extracting of plants etc.) in this protected area. On the trail we met two Mexicans with their mules who work here as guardians. A basket was filled with special roots for treatment of kidney disease. A plastic bag was stuffed full with leaves that are used as a tea in case one catches a cold. The trail is littered with water bottles and cola cans. At the first water hole, which serves as a popular first campsite on the way up, we were flabbergasted. Nature loving hikers (why else would they take all the stress of this hike!?), most of them tourists, deposited their garbage, sometimes neatly packed in plastic bags, behind some rocks. Behind every bush you can study the feeding habits of all these nature enthusiasts (tuna and crackers are very popular).

The insanity of wrapping everything has its origin on the consumer paradise of America - and México copies everything! Practically every toilet paper roll is packed in its own plastic bag. While shopping in a supermercado one receives an armload of these rustling carriers. It's one of the saddest inventions mankind ever made. While Americans build "landfills" where later even whole settlements are built, the Mexicans throw their trash still more or less uncontrolled into the landscape.

From Maestro Isidro at the school at La Soledad (see our travelogue "School day in La Soledad") we know that there are more and more efforts to teach the local people how to be good citizens of nature. They want to give the people information about environmental protection and they try to give the people a feeling for their role in respecting the environment. As we know from our own experience in Europe, this is an undertaking that doesn't happen suddenly from today to tomorrow.

March 2000

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen