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Volunteering at El Limonal landfill community

Our two-month trip to Nicaragua fulfilled its purpose as a cathartic respite from all the crazy, but Trevor and I weren’t prepared for the heavier psychological aspects of living in a third world country. Outside the beautiful colonial cities, far away from pristine beaches and off the resorts, you’ll find intense inequality and poverty in most Central American countries.

The landfill community of El Limonal is on a whole other level.

We visited the community in late June, as part of a small group from Hotel Brisas Del Mar Nicaragua and Monty’s Beach Lodge, sponsored by Canadian businessman Brian Shular.

St. Mary's High School students at El Limonal

Students from St. Mary’s High School in Owen Sound, Canada, are shown the El Limonal landfill by local children on a school trip in March, 2017. Owen Sound and the Grey-Bruce area has close ties with Chinandega and Jiquilillo; many Canadians visit the area to “voluntour” with Canadian-owned hotels Monty’s Beach Lodge and Brisas Del Mar Nicaragua.

The residents of El Limonal live and work in an area known locally as the ‘circle of death.’ It’s a strip of land that was intended for use as a temporary refugee camp for those left homeless by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The second deadliest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, Mitch destroyed an entire neighbourhood in the north Pacific Nicaraguan city of Chinandega. El Limonal was, at the time, the only city property large enough for the government to use for temporary housing.

Tucked between the city’s landfill, a large cemetery and a sewage facility, El Limonal is now a permanent community of about 3,000 residents. The political and socioeconomic factors that resulted in its being made a permanent settlement vary depending on who you ask, but the fact is that each day, many residents–adults and children alike–sift through the city’s trash in search of recyclables.

A good eight-hour day will net one of the residents a single US dollar, the reward for filling a massive garbage bag with pop cans and other metals scrounged out of a toxic sludge of spoiled food, biological waste, discarded chemicals and God only knows what else.

It’s a way of life captured on film in the recent documentary Gringos in the Garbage, in which two white men went to live and work with the locals. Even after volunteering at El Limonal, Warren Fitzgerald and Jess Rothenburger were stunned by what they experienced existing side-by-side with community members: people “just like us, really, but their situation is a lot more precarious,” the film’s creators say in the trailer.

“They’re people who work hard every day to make ends meet… people who make the choice every day to keep going on.”

 

Volunteers and not-for-profit organizations are working to fund housing, sanitation, education and access to medical services in El Limonal. One empty shipping container at the community centre has been converted into a medical clinic where children can get vaccines, and moms receive prenatal care. A second container, painted a hot pink and purple, stands ready to be converted into an educational centre. Progress is coming to El Limonal thanks to the works of groups like Speroway, Global Solidarity Group, and the Robert L. Conconi Foundation, but conditions are challenging, and more funding is always needed.

Our visit in June began at the community centre, a fenced-in area on a residential street away from the landfill, where children and mostly female residents gather for soup kitchen lunches provided by volunteers. The outdoor kitchen was a bit of culture shock to us, especially after having Ontario health code drilled into our heads for decades.

Cooking a volunteer lunch in the community centre kitchen at El Limonal in Nicaragua

Brisas Del Mar Nicaragua volunteer Kaitlyn Shular squeezes sour oranges for the traditional soup prepared for the residents of El Limonal.

The entire construct is cement, from the cheery purple walls, to the single sink that drains into the dirt courtyard, to the slab counters used as cutting boards. A six-foot folding table serves as prep area; an outdoor wood grill smokes away at the back of the kitchen. The community kitchen leader, an older woman who organizes the volunteers and is responsible for cooking the soup, hacks chicken butts to pieces, spraying juice and bits of flesh on us with each swipe of her machete. Dogs and children roam freely, hoping to catch an errant scrap.

Community members line their “soup bowls” up behind the shipping container. These could be juice pitchers, empty mop buckets, or detergent jugs. Dishes are a luxury the people of El Limonal cannot afford.

Brisas Del Mar at El Limonal soup kitchen in Nicaragua

Brisas Del Mar Nicaragua owner Megan Evans with volunteers Kaitlyn Shular and Trevor Schwandt, preparing to serve lunch in the El Limonal soup kitchen.

We’d grocery shopped with our group that morning and brought our own hand sanitizer. The only water on site is unfiltered well water, unfit for drinking or even washing (but used in the soup). Trevor and I eat brought a sweat rag, which proved completely useless; we were soaked through in minutes. It’s easily 45 degrees celsius in the prep area once the open fire gets roaring.

Grocery shopping for El Limonal soup kitchen

It takes several hundreds of dollars in bulk chicken, fresh vegetables and rice to fill the El Limonal kitchen’s three massive cauldrons. 

Covered in chicken juice and feeling on the verge of heat stroke, I took a break and sat down on the cement pad outside the prep area. In the chaos, I put my head between my knees and wondered, how on earth do the people here work all day in this heat, with open fires burning the garbage around them?

A little girl plunked down beside me and promptly laid her head on my shoulder. Startled, I sat up and introduced myself in Spanish. Delighted, she hugged my arm tightly, told me her name was Jennifer, and asked if we could be friends. My heart splintered into a million tiny pieces, and that was before we even talked about our families.

In our brief time together, Jennifer earnestly shared with me her thoughts on her favourite school teacher, how badly she wanted to speak good English, and how much she missed her parents. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for one or even both parents in Nicaragua to live and work far away from their children, only visiting occasionally and sending money back home to the extended family raising their kids as often as they can.

Jennifer, El Limonal community

It’s not much and, as I learned from another young mother, there’s no way to be certain the children are benefitting from the money, or that their hard work might someday result in a more stable, safer lifestyle for them.

As the soup simmered away and service time grew near, Trevor, Kaitlyn and I walked to the edge of the landfill. En route, we passed row after row of two-room, cement houses, each with a stenciled number on the front, the only differences between them the paint colours and fence constructs out front.

Residents came into the street to greet us. Children yelled “Gringos!” and giggled as their parents tried to shoo them back into the houses. A frail woman with a baby on her hip pointed at my camera. She smiled primly, trying to hide her broken and decaying teeth from my lens. I turned the display screen to her and told her she was beautiful. She threw her head back and roared with laughter, before remembering to slap a hand to cover her mouth.

These homes, built through government funding and charitable donations, provide protection from the elements, but also give the settlement a disheartening permanence.

There will be no moving on from El Limonal.

 

Any hopes that living in the circle of death, surrounded by so much waste and devastation, was a temporary solution have been dashed. Medical care, education and housing are coming to El Limonal, slowly but surely. There’s no reason to leave, is there? For many of the kids we met, that leaving is an option won’t even cross their minds.

Children at El Limonal soup kitchen await their lunch.

Children at El Limonal soup kitchen await their lunch.

I think that’s what I struggled with most at El Limonal. It’s such a privilege to be able to pack up and seek out a new way of life–we know this. Never was the unfairness of that more clear than when we spent the day at El Limonal. Literally the only difference between those kids and 5-years-old me or you is where and to whom we were born. As a white Canadian, I grew up knowing it was at least an option for me to be what I wanted to be, go where I wanted to go and do what I wanted to do.

That freedom is a completely alien concept to the kids at El Limonal. Even if they somehow acquired the desire and means to get out and make a new life, Nicaraguan citizens can’t just hop on a plane and head to Canada or the US.

There are injustices so great it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking there’s nothing we can do. I know that same hopeless feeling has permeated our political and social landscapes for a lot of people; I’ve personally never experienced conditions as polarizing and divisive as we’ve seen in Canadian and US politics these past few years. It was part of what motivated us to “get away from it all” in the first place.

A woman and the extended family she cares for await lunch at the El Limonal soup kitchen.

A woman and the extended family she cares for await lunch at the El Limonal soup kitchen.

But we’ve learned these past few months that you can’t escape hopelessness. You have to fight it by getting behind how hopeful the beautiful, kind people of El Limonal are about their own futures. We don’t need to walk in and fix it for them; they aren’t asking for that, and it’s arrogant to think I could have power, anyway! What’s truly useful is showing El Limonal residents in whatever we can that we care–that the world hasn’t forgotten about them.

How you can get involved and make a difference in El Limonal

The best way to do so is to get behind one of the groups effecting positive change in the community of El Limonal:

 

Miranda M

Miranda M

Canadian writer and photographer Miranda Miller is currently chasing sunshine and happiness in Central America. The owner of MEDIAau content marketing agency, she writes for travel brands and destination marketing campaigns.

You can connect with her on LinkedIn or Instagram.

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