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One Man’s Garbage

Remember when a scurrilous journalist minutely examined Bob Dylan’s trash, hoping to gain insights into his hero’s life, or at least something juicy about which he could write?  You can learn a lot about people from their garbage; it was one of the prisms through which we looked at the world when we were cruising, because a boat is always accumulating garbage and always on the lookout for a chance to get rid of it.  At sea we would break bottles and rip apart cans so that they would sink, then compact our plastic and tie an old bolt to it.

With all the trans-Atlantic seafaring since 1492, we are probably depositing a layer of crud on the sea floor that future generations of archaeologists may use to date strata of sedimentary rock, the way they do now with fossils and iridium:  "Look, Samba! Note the marking on this fragment of glass? The big C is part of a ritual inscription…look for an ‘oke’…scholarly opinion is divided but it was either an orgiastic mushroom or a primitive paint remover!"

Disposing of garbage can be a hassle for a cruising boat even in US waters.   At Ft. Lauderdale, the supposed yachting capitol of the
country, they don’t make it easy for live-aboards.  We got used to having to search for a place to dump our garbage, where the garbage bins weren’t owned by businesses and guarded by some flunky. When we crossed the Atlantic to cruise the navigable rivers of West Africa, garbage was still an issue, but different altogether.

We had been in the Gambia about a week learning the ropes.  We anchored off the capitol, Banjul, at the mouth of the Gambia River, looking for a garbage can.  No one knew until we got to the main dock, where we met the captain of the country’s sole tug and the old, wizened chief pilot of the port.  We asked them whether there was a place up on the dock for garbage.  The old pilot nodded his head vigorously and reached out his hand to help us take the bag.  We let him have it, tied the dinghy to the tug, and clambered aboard just in time to see the pilot and the captain, the two foremost nautical officials in the Gambia, delving through the garbage in search of useful commodities.  Finding nothing, they upended the bag and dumped all its contents into the ebbing tide without a second thought.  The big plastic garbage bag, they could use.  We were aghast, but the old port pilot assured us that it would all go out to sea with the tide.  He gave us a pitying look.

I liked this old port captain.  He was the one who told me about the deadly flying dragon, as he steered our boat through the maze of mangrove islands, the channel twisting like a snake on a polished tile floor, mangroves thick and dense, choking the coastal estuary. Little creeks ran off the main channel and lost their way in the dark, malevolent swamp.  

He pointed down one of them and volunteered, nonchalantly, "A dragon used to live down that creek."

"A dragon?  A real one?"

"Yes, a real one."

"Not just a very big lizard?"

He sucked his teeth impatiently and said, "It could fly…and if you looked into its eyes you would turn to stone."

"So, is it there now?"  I asked.

"Oh no," he replied, "when the white man come it died.  White man was very clever.  Very clever!  What he did, he took a mirror and put it in the dragon’s lair, and when he came home and looked in the mirror he turned to stone."

We proceeded up the river and, contrary to what the shabbiness of Banjul would lead one to think, the river was clean as a whistle.  It might have been a national park in the USA for all the litter we saw.  In fact, the river was quite beautiful and we spent two days ascending to where it became fresh water. By the afternoon of the third day, we were anchored in a bend in the river where there was a small town. 

By now, with eight of us on board, we had generated quite a bit of garbage, western style.   We’d been careful to sink organic food, break bottles, and so on and consolidate our plastic.  We still had two hefty trash bags stuffed full of assorted tin cans and big plastic bottles. "Get ashore,” suggested my son, "there must be some place for it."

We got ashore with the trash, and immediately were attended by a group of "small boys" who perform an important function as emissaries, look-outs, messengers.  They’re always hanging around an adult’s happenings, hoping to be noticed.  We greeted each other and asked the lead boy if we could leave the trash on the street corner. "Oh no!" said the head boy and the others nodded their heads, "Very bad! Very bad!"

We looked around and saw a pile of rubble.  We couldn’t understand what was so special about it; maybe it had religious significance.  We moved inland away from the river and tried again. 

"Here?" we asked.

"Oh no!  Very bad! Very bad!"

"Well, where can we put it then?"

The lead boy looked blank.  "Not here!  Very bad boys will t’ief it!"

"Oh, is that all!" We stifled the laugh.  "Well, we don’t want these!  This is garbage, garbage.  "It’s OK — they can have it.  Do you want it?"  We proffered the bags. 

"Thank you sir!" and off they ran with their haul.  We walked around a bit and bought some delicious, tiny, tomatoes, freshly made peanut butter, and bread.  On the way home we watched vultures tearing flesh off a goatskin staked out to dry.

We spent a pleasant night anchored off the village.  The sky was dark but clear with only starlight to limn the dense forest on the bank, the path of the river, the huddled village with only one faint fire burning.  It was quiet; no dogs barking. In the distance, baboons either complained or warned about something for a moment and then lapsed back into silence.  Lulled by the African bush, safe in our castle midstream, we slept.

The next morning, we got a late start doing chores on the boat, painting part of the cockpit and then going ashore, leaving it to dry.

We pulled up on the bank and took a walk to the market.  What did we see but several boys running around, each holding a stick with two tuna cans nailed to the end!  These wheeled toys were giving them a lot of fun as they drove them over the bumps in the dirt road.  One boy had made a tractor body out of a beans can, with tuna cans as the four wheels.  We saw our large plastic Pepsi bottle half filled with shiny orange palm oil in the market place.  A girl walked by, holding our erstwhile garbage bag, washed out and now a laundry bag.

We were dumfounded and delighted at the creativity these people showed.  Having nothing, they could make do and even have a good time with next to nothing.  It showed resiliency of the human spirit and it made us think of the mountains of trash we generate and throw away every day.  If only there were some mechanism to share what we don’t want, and get it in the hands of those who do.  Now we realize why the river was so clean!

Sometimes one wonders amidst the concern about losing rare plants in the Amazon that may hold the cure for some disease, whether we aren’t losing vital characteristics of the human potential, the human heritage in the process of "development."  Maybe Third World peoples aren’t assimilating at the rate we’d like because they want to protect something of value that Capitalism and Communism alike ride roughshod over, unaware of what we’re losing, what we may someday need to save the human race and to save our souls.

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