December 18: Now I only have two days left in Puerto Vallarta. Enough with the tourist stuff. I want to do something meaningful during these final days. "Why don't you go out and visit the city dump?" suggested my ex-pat friend Sarah. "There are people living out there who survive by picking through the trash and they live in houses that they've made out of objects they've found in the dump. And the dump itself is the size of a small mountain that's surrounded by a moat of black toxic sludge. It's an interesting place and is definitely a side of Puerto Vallarta that not many tourists get to see." Great idea! I'm on it! Er, where IS the dump? And how do I get there? "Try the bus?"
I Map-Quested "Puerto Vallarta city dump". No luck. But Google came up with an organization called "Children of the Dump" with a Washington DC phone number and in a flash the guy in DC connected me with Bishop Saul who runs the program. "Can I go out there today?" I asked the bishop's coordinator, an American named Art.
"Sure." Just like that, it was all arranged. "Meet me at 3 pm in front of the Wal-Mart and I'll drive you out." Great.
Remember that old joke from when we were kids? "Where does the Lone Ranger take his garbage?"
"To the dump to the dump to the dump dump dump."
The bus service in Vallarta is amazing. A bus comes along every five minutes and only costs five pesos. Fifty cents. We were at the Wal-Mart in no time. And I talked my friend Sarah into coming along too. Good. She takes amazing photographs. She can document the trip.
"My wife is Mexican," said Art, a tall gray-haired former resident of Los Angeles. "One day we went out to the dump and saw all these children working there, sorting through garbage. So my wife started yelling at their mothers in Spanish. 'Why aren't your children in school! Mothers should be sending their children to school, not making them work in a dump!' But the mothers yelled back, 'We have no clothes for the children, no showers, no food. How can we possibly send them to school like that? Dirty and hungry? We can't!'"
So Art and his wife and Bishop Saul started a feeding program in 1998, run mostly by volunteers out of the bishop's church. And now, less than ten years later, "Children of the Dump" http://www.childrenofthedumpvallarta.org/ offers showers, breakfasts, pre-school childcare and an after-school program for the older kids in a new air-conditioned building that actually has computers.
"Presently we have an after-school facility that serves 81 children and are looking for funds to build another one." They also operate nine daycare centers. "UNICEF had money earmarked for daycare and it trickled down to us. Each center has 25 kids. 85% of the mothers we serve are single parents. We charge them $15-50 per month and the program enables them to go look for work."
"Children of the Dump" has three major programs -- food, after-school care and daycare, all designed to give children who used to have to go to work at an early age other alternatives and an education. "But in 2000, the city built a wall around the dump and kicked out all the families who lived there."
"Did they have any place else to go?"
Then we went to one of the pre-school daycare centers. It was great! I'd have sent any of my kids here. Heck, don't I wish! When my daughter Ashley was young I left her with the only babysitter I could afford and somebody later told me that baby Ashley had been happily spending her days in a crack house.
"The Navy League helps us with volunteers," continued Art, "and various restaurants in town donate food. Vallarta Adventures has been donating food and supplies for ten years. On any given day, we impact the lives of approximately 2,300 kids all told." And their work DOES make an impact.
"Education is our emphasis. You can keep offering food to children for years and years and years but eight generations later, they'll still be needing food. But education is forever. There is tremendous pressure on the parents of this community to take their children out of school and put them to work at an early age. We really have to fight to keep the kids in school." In Afghanistan, the parents will do everything they can to help their kids get an education. But apparently it's not like that here.
Then we drove out toward the Mojoneres dump, about eight miles away from downtown PV. The area used to be way out of town but Puerto Vallarta is growing fast and is rapidly growing out in the dump's direction as well as expanding along the 16 miles to the north, along what used to be pristine beaches but which are now high-rise condos and tourist hotels. But the new housing out near the dump is mostly geared toward the Mexican middle class.
"There are two Vallartas -- the one that stretches along the beach and approximately one mile inland and is geared toward the tourists. And then there's the rest of Vallarta. And the Mexican Vallarta is further divided into the middle class and the poor." This sounds like the Bush-Cheney goal for America -- only they seem to be trying to have us all safely divided into just the rich and the poor. I can't believe those crooks are still not in jail. But I digress.
Before we arrived at the dump, our four-wheel-drive vehicle passed through the barrio neighborhoods next to it. The roads were unpaved and the housing was very down-scale but the neighborhoods were clean. And then we visited one of the daycare centers. Very sweet. And then we turned off onto another dirt road.
"If any American tourists visiting Vallarta want to volunteer on this project, they can help make sandwiches in Bishop Saul's church or, if they want to get more involved, they can come out to the site. We'd be glad to have them." So. If you are planning a Mexican vacation this winter, get in touch with Art and he will hook you up. Then we suddenly began to smell something awful, rounded a bend in the road and there was the dump. It was a mountain of trash, seagulls and buzzards. Vultures.
We drove up the side of the approximately 2,000-foot-high mountain of garbage and on top were acres and acres of the detritus and waste and no-longer-wanted refuge of the tourists of Puerto Vallarta. And at the very top of the pile, a child, two women and a man stood sorting various plastic bottles into various piles. "May I take your photo?" I asked in my newly-acquired Spanish.
"Si, como no." Yes, of course. The Mexicans of Puerto Vallarta are really nice. Even the dump workers are nice. If I had to do what they did all day, day in and day out, I'd be chewing nails. But they simply smiled. How courageous is that!
Then we went to the School of Champions -- so-named because the students there weren't too keen on going to a school called "Children of the Dump". And if anyone reading this wants to volunteer at the school, that might be a possibility if you can pay your own way and want to teach in a school. Even being able to teach English would be a help. "But we don't get all that many volunteers. Most volunteers want to save starving orphans. However, these kids aren't starving." And why aren't they starving? Because the program feeds them! Catch 22.
"We also have a portable dental trailer but it's broken right now." Then we saw the school's new computer classroom. "If these kids can learn to speak a little English and operate a computer, they can get jobs with the tourist industry when they grow up." And that means that they can graduate into the Mexican middle class. For the children of parents who have worked and lived in the city dump all their lives, this is huge.
If anyone wants to volunteer or donate to "Children of the Dump," go to http://www.childrenofthedumpvallarta.org/. It's an excellent program, with actual visible tangible results. And then Art dropped us back off at the Wal-Mart and we took the bus back to Colonia Buenos Aires where I am staying with Sarah and Rick, living next door to the River Cuale and the world's best taco stands. "What is birria?" I asked, as I bought a birria taco from a stand down the street.
"Goat meat." Hey, I'm down with that. I've eaten a lot of it in India and the Middle East. Only there they call it mutton.
December 19: "You know," said Sarah, "when Rick and I used to be snow birds and only came down here for the winter each year, we always made it a ritual to have dinner on the beach and watch the sunset on our last night in town." Rick and Sarah are now officially ex-pats and have lived down here year round for the last several years. And they love it. But this is my last night in Puerto Vallarta. What kind of fool would turn their nose up the suggestion of having a sunset dinner on the beach? Not me!
The night before, Sarah and Rick had treated me to dinner at the Cuale Paradise (http://www.antiguovallarta.com/restaurant.html), a restaurant right next to the River Cuale -- five feet away from our shrimp. So tonight I offered in turn to treat them to dinner at their friend Isobel's new restaurant on the beach aka "Mad South". (Here's a map from JR on how to get there: http://vallartainfo.com/south.html). So we hopped on the number 4 bus.
For most of the year, Isobel runs a famous pub in Toronto called The Madison. But in the winter she moves down here and runs a boutique hotel instead http://www.casaisabelpv.com/. And now she is in the process of opening Mad South. "Give Jane anything she wants," Isobel graciously told her head waiter. That's a no-brainer. I want shrimp! And do they got any pie?
The sun went down over the ocean and we strolled in the warm evening air along the beach, stopping by on the way home to meet Jenny McGill, who has written a book called "Drama and Diplomacy in a Sultry Mexican Beach Town" (http://www.mjmcgill.com/Welcome.html), a must-read for Puerto Vallarta hot gossip. As one friend just told me, "Jenny used to be the US consular agent here and, trust me, she knows everything that's gone on in this town for the last 35 years. Our Jenny knows where all the bodies are buried -- and sometimes actually literally." Good grief! So I read her book and Ms. McGill truly does know how to dish. She's almost even better than me.
December 20: On my last day in PV, I bought another slice of pie, said goodbye to JR, hugged Sarah and Rick, got to the airport early, checked in my duffel and went across the street to a little Mexican hole-in-the-wall restaurant for shrimp burritos -- one to eat now and one to go. With a half-pound of shrimp each. But I still had time left over before my flight so I decided to check my e-mail.
"Mom!" wrote my daughter Ashley. "Laura's gone into labor! She's at the hospital. Baby New Year is due in eight hours! Call me!"
OMG! Eight hours to get back to Berkeley! I can make it! Layover in Phoenix, get off the plane in San Francisco, jump on BART. I can do this! I'm racing the stork. Hang in there, Baby New Year! I'm coming!
Will I beat the stork to Alta Bates Hospital? Will I get back in time? Will I actually get back from Mexico in time to be there when my son's first child is born? Good Lord Almighty!
Baby New Year was supposed to come on New Years Day. And now she's not even going to get to be Baby Christmas! What's up with that? Plus who is actually going to win this Amazing Race? Me or the stork? Please stay tuned.