Saturday, May 8, 2010

Trash talk

In a developing country with a struggling economy, people are always looking for ways to make a buck. One of the most common ways a family will make a few cordobas to buy their daily beans and rice is by selling street food. You can find middle-aged, portly women selling snacks and beverages on every street corner, on buses, at businesses, and walking around town with carts or with the food stacked on their heads, calling out in a sad singsong voice “Rosquiiiiillllaaass!” or “Tamaaaallleesss!” (Two typical foods made from corn).

They sell soda, water, fruit juices, coffee, fried chicken with tortilla, tacos, enchiladas, corn on the cob, candies, marshmallows, cornbread crackers, fruit, potato chips… Most of these foods are served in plastic baggies, including the drinks. You might ask, as I did when I first arrived here, why all the plastic baggies? I recently read a book (“Blood of Brothers” by Stephen Kinzer) which chronicles the civil war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and during the early years of leftist Sandinista rule, when they were trying to implement socialism. During this time, imports were severely limited. People had to make do with what they had and whatever was cheap and/or local. Plastic bags fit the bill, and Plastinic, a Nicaraguan plastics company served the population, turning out plastic tables and chairs, dishes, buckets, and baggies. You will not find any Nicaraguan home without plastic lawn chairs being used as living room furniture. As for plastic baggies, they were one of the only things available to hold food when disposable plates and other containers were cut off. The habit still continues today despite the availability of other packaging methods. Drinking out of a plastic bag is an acquired skill. You have to bite a hole in the corner of the bag and suck out the contents. If you´re in a ¨fancy¨ place, they just might give you a straw, too! It actually proves to be quite a successful technique and is useful for “on the go” traveling. Food is also served in plastic baggies – everything from chicken and tortilla to potato chips or mango. Plastic is also the material of choice to start a fire on the firewood stove. Yes, I realize those fumes are horribly toxic, Nicaraguans insist that it just burns better than wood! I try and leave the kitchen when they start torching the plastic bottles and bags...

Another downside to all the plastic: thousands of empty plastic baggies litter the streets of every Nicaraguan town, since Nicaraguans are not only notorious street food eaters, they are also litterers. If you were to ask most people if it was “right” to toss their empty water bottle out the window of the bus, they would reply “no,” but that doesn’t stop them from doing it every day. Peace Corps environment volunteers are working every day on behavior change in this area, educating young children in schools and promoting the “I don’t throw trash” campaign with bumper stickers and t-shirts. As Peace Corps volunteers, we lead by example, throwing away our own trash and encouraging others to do so, and often work with youth groups to undergo local cleaning campaigns and increase awareness. Although, when I return to the States, I think I´ll take back the habit of storing food and drinks in plastic baggies – very convenient.
On a similar note, I snapped this photo the other day because it made me laugh. Spanish people frequently confuse "b" and "v" when they are writing since phonetically they sound the same. Someone wrote a handmade sign and they wanted to write, "Littering prohibited" ("Prohibido botar basura"), but instead they wrote, "Prohibido votar basura." Translation: Prohibited to vote for trash. Haha... Although they messed up, the double meaning is great. And something that Nicaraguans should keep in mind for the upcoming elections in November 2011...

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