Chisel Chips

Waiting on a shaky premise for the garbage man to come

Morning in Oaxaca, while some residents wait for the garbage truck.
Morning in Oaxaca, while some residents wait for the garbage truck.

Streaks of apricot light dance above the eastern horizon, a band plays somewhere down below, and fireworks pock the Oaxaca dawn as I haul the garbage can down free-form concrete pavement one block to the corner, and grab a seat on the curb.

It’s 6:30 a.m., 13 days before Christmas, and I’m waiting for the garbage truck. In pidgin conversations with our lovely neighbor, Celia, I’ve learned (I think) that the troca de basura will arrive at 6:30 this Saturday morning.

I think this is correct, but figuring out how things function in these parts is a work in progress. Our landlord’s mother-in-law, Isabel, speaks no English, but is lovely and charming and tolerant of my limited Spanish. When she was here four days earlier, to greet the truck that delivers water to the cistern that feeds the water tank on the roof of our rental casa, Isabel told me (I think) that the garbage truck would be here in the morning.

Cuando (when)?”

“7:30 … or later.” (I think).

She said she would return, all the way from her village near the airport, to help me figure it out. No, not necessary, I told her.

So, in anticipation of this marvelous first coming, I set my alarm for 6:15.
I keep reminding myself that the reason my wife and I have come to Mexico again is that I love how it blows my comfort level to pieces. Everything looks somewhat familiar, but nothing is the same.

The biggest hurdle is language. In the tourist zones along the coast, residents working in resort hotels and restaurants often speak English. If you choose to stay in these places, you merely extend your comfort zone to include a swim-up bar and umbrella drinks.

Step a bit off the beaten path, however, and you touch the hot wire. You can wander around all day, sightseeing, and feel somewhat at ease. But when you need to interact with people to achieve some basic need — food, water, directions — you can expect the shock of the unfamiliar.

“What did he say?” I ask my wife.

She laughs. She knows even less Spanish than I, and appreciates the absurdity of my turning to her for translation help.

Understanding is the biggest part of my language challenge, when the language comes at you like a handful of jacks tossed casually by someone who says “Catch!”

That’s why I’m sitting on a curb at 6:30 in the morning, next to my garbage can. That, and the fact that it was full when we arrived at our new, architecturally sweet rental house ($700 a month, kitchen-bed-bath-viewing patio on top floor) 10 days ago.

I’ve got to get rid of this stuff, because I’m not sure I can wait until the next alleged pickup day, on Tuesday.

Spanish is easy when all you have to do is toss out inane observations — “Bueno” — or ask questions, such as “Donde esta el bano?” when you have to go, really, really bad. Figuring out the spew of verbiage is mui dificil.

The fireworks continue, heralding the arrival of the day on which Mexicans celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe. Fireworks and virgins? Now that you mention it, makes a lot of sense.

My watch advances toward 7. No garbage truck. Doors open and dogs emerge. A few cars pass. Voices up the hill, down the street. A honk a block over. The truck? I recall that Celia said I would hear a honk. But stare as I do down the block, no truck appears.

About 7:15, feeling the jilted lover, I leave the garbage can where the truck is alleged to appear, and begin the steep trudge back to my house. My wife greets me with a cup of coffee.

Celia and the dogs are out in the street, with some friends. We exchange greetings. I share my exasperation with my wife, and we climb to the top-floor patio. I can see my garbage can, down at the corner, waiting … for what?

“Nobody’s going to steal it,” I tell my wife. “Not with it full of garbage.”

“They’d just dump the trash in the street.”

We sit down, and I compose an e-mail to my landlord expressing mild befuddlement about this garbage situation. Well, mild may not be what I really feel, but I’m trying to go with the flow here.

Then, just before I can click “send,” Celia’s voice across the street, “Basura!”

My wife and I both hear it. I jump up, run downstairs, into the street and downhill toward my garbage. Another woman is dragging a bag of her own. I offer “ayuda (help)” to get it there.

She smiles. Well, loco gringo, if you insist.

Doors open, and other people emerge with their collected refuse. It’s as if they all sensed it at the same time. It’s a block party.

I reach the corner, just as the truck pulls to a stop near someone else’s pile. Inside the bin on the back, the garbage man takes what we hand him, sorting out recyclables, stashing the garbage in back.

And, if the garbage came to him in something more stout than a plastic bag, he hands it back.

Allelujah. To us this day is born a savior.

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