The plight of the playa **

Today, after two months of being here we finally had our first clean up the beach day. I’ve been wanting to clean this beach since the day I landed. In fact, I had the idea on about the second day to gather up some kids and have them help me pick up trash. And how valiant the new girl would have looked, returning to town with arms full of litter. But based on what I saw today, I don’t know how I would have been received- maybe as the medieval mom by a family of bikers on an episode of Trading Spouses. Evidently, environmental consciousness is not a value that has been instilled in this community, particularly with the children. Nor an intrinsic sense of beauty for the natural aesthetic. I said before that these kids love anything they can buy with money- and that means artificial things, because everything artificial is produced outside of Playa Muerto, and therefore sold for bills and coins at the little store. But I think the love for such things has to do with their novelty. This community is in an adolescent stage of technological evolution. And it takes full immersion into any innovation to realize its pitfalls. And I think that’s where we of the modern world are now. And we plead for the cultural preservation of communities such as this, we discourage the construction of cross-continental highways through the Amazon and imagine that the indigenous want to retain their primitive way of life. But the truth may be that they are just encroaching upon the lips of modernity, been seduced by the first taste of it and are basquing in it like the first rush of ecstasy, and under the illusion that it will sustain itself forever. As Raul said when I told him about how the gente here ransack the endangered turtles’ nests for eggs, “they live in a paradise… they think these things are never going to run out.” And perhaps this plane, the one where the bounties stop giving, hasn’t yet entered their depth of field. But that being said, they still have a right to develop and learn for themselves just as we did. We can’t hold them back just to cleanse our own consciences; to compensate for the fields of wild flowers we’ve paved over to build parking lots or the fresh water marshes we’ve converted into toxic waste dumps. It’s like raising a child. And we intervened before and look at the mess we made. We may not know well what we’re doing now. The parent who is still just a kid himself. Perhaps its best to just live and let live.

But back to the beach… the power of conditioning is incredible. And “old habits die hard” reigns loud and true. The morning of the clean the beach day came on a Sunday as we had decided in the last town meeting, and I awoke exhilarated, excited to be part of this town-wide group effort to restore the natural beauty of this paradise, and to do the right thing. At 8am the conch shell sounded, calling the troops to duty. And I waited. There in the “casa grande,” the meeting place, I waited for thirty minutes. And in that time, only ten people showed up (all old people, mind you). Fearing and beginning to realize that no more would, I decided to delay the righteous duty no longer and get to work, even if I didn’t have the compatriots I had expected to have. Potato sacks in hand I headed out to the beach and picked up article after article: juice boxes, cookie wrappers, shards of rubber, gasoline gallons, water-logged sneakers, beer cans, doll house pieces…Instantly I felt better. Hour upon hour passed in a trance. I recalled this meditation technique I learned in my eighth grade Study for Success class- of imagining taking your brain out of your skull and scrubbing it squeaky clean with a toothbrush- a power washer through your arteries blasting away chunks of cholesterol; drano down a pipe clogged with slimy hairballs- Joey Diaz’s words ringing in my ears, “That’s how I knew I was going to bust my addiction, when I started doing the little things. Pick up that wrapper on the floor! Use your fucking blinker! Build up your character!” As I worked my way up to the mid-section of town, picking up trash in the front lawn of the school I started to witness a distressful trend. Not only were the people who were not cleaning up the beach doing nothing better, but as I was hunched over collecting trash they were asking me why I was doing so. And then they would throw the wrappers from their candy bars on the ground even as they saw me picking such things up. And I don’t think it was a malicious middle finger kind of gesture. I think it was such a force of habit they didn’t realize the wrong in it. The fall of litter upon the ground in this moment struck such a chord in me… like a cat landing on a chunk of keys spaced too close together so they make an appallingly clashing tone. Or like the “URH!” tone your computer makes when your try to click on another browser to avoid the error notice that has popped up on your current one… but your computer won’t permit you to do anything else until you address the problem. Meanwhile, if there had been a needle measuring the heart rate of these kids, it wouldn’t have skipped at all. And I thought about all the people on Hoarders who, when the host of the show enters their house and a look of horror washes over their face, the subject always says, “I don’t know how I let it get this bad,” and how it had become so commonplace for them to shit in a diaper, and toss it over the armrest of the Lazyboy along with the pizza boxes and dead cats. And that’s what must be happening here. And I admit that I am too becoming immune… the canopied pathway snaking through the platano grove, eclipsed by a strewn Dorito bag doesn’t smack me in the face with the same appall as it did when I first got here. Like with any situation, when you’re immersed in a context it’s almost impossible to see it with perspective. No wonder the adults don’t rear their children in throwing away their trash. Habit . But I want so badly to give the Al Pachino kind of motivational speech… if my mother, Lilla the Nordic Nazi, had been here and I had been one of those kids, my eight year old butt would have been out on that beach with a garbage pick in my hand so fast! I see Papa packing Mama’s suitcase in her youth, stuffing rolled socks into shoe soles and cutting bacon with a knife. “Discipline your children!” I want to say. Give them direction! They are in their impressionable formative years and they are bored out of their minds… They are unimaginative because you don’t stress the beauty of this place. You give them no template …Unless you instill in them the vocabulary and the mental tools to recognize the wonder around them, they aren’t going to see it. I am here feeling like Charlie in Willy Wonka’s factory. But your kids are fresh out of ideas about how to entertain themselves. Take pride in your home. Have respect for nature… you have one home and one shot at it. It is like your baby you have to nourish it and take care of it if you want this to be a reciprocal relationship where it gives back to you. But most of all have self-respect. You don’t shit where you eat. You but if you let them throw trash on the ground they aren’t going to be able to distinguish paradise from a toxic waste dump! … your children are the inheritors of this paradise, of this place that you call home and that I know you love dearly. But look at whose hands your leaving it in… in the hands of people that don’t attend town meetings. That don’t see the importance in keeping the beach clean or at least don’t want to make the effort to do so. This is not a sustainable system. And another thing… give your children direction. Instill in them a sense of purpose. They are like horses. Those without direction are wayward and miserable… bored and depressed, and resort to exploitative behavior.All of these things I want to say, but how can I change a state of mind, 200 isolated people- strong?

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