The Least of These

Yesterday, I had planned to visit the city dump site with the founders of my NGO, so I was poised to sit down this morning and write a poetic account of the place for you.  The dump features in the literature of the NGO; the children are referred to as “scavenger children,” and photographs of the children working on the dump are posted on the website and in the literature.  Until a few years ago, an old trash pick was bolted to the classroom wall.

I have never visited the dump.  In fact, there are two dump sites.  The old city dump used to stand on the outskirts of Stung Mean Chey.  It was open to locals and tourists.  Families who made their living as “scavengers,” or people who picked discarded plastic and cardboard off the dump to sell, along with whatever else might fetch money, lived near the dump or at its edges.  They tended to be extremely poor, and lived in small makeshift homes.

Children began to work on the dump when they were still very small, some nearly toddlers.  They searched for plastic and paper in the mountains of trash, and run down to the garbage trucks so that they could search through the newest piles of trash.  Some children followed the trucks as they went along, close behind the back wheels, or reach into the trash compactors to grab at scraps.  The dump itself was pestilential: smoke, flies, and rats; sharp metal, filthy dirt.

This dump, the public site that became a tourist attraction, was closed down in 2010.  The dump site was shifted out of town, fenced off and closed to foreigners.  (Foreigners could visit the old site, but had to pay a fee of two dollars.)  The scavenger families still live on and around the dump, but their homes are much more remote from the town.  There is another tourist dump outside of Siem Reap.

The old dump site has been filled in.  Many families still live there, and some have moved closer to Stung Mean Chey.

I had been under the impression that we were visiting the dump, that is, a hellhole.  I was very excited to get a chance to see this hellhole for myself.  I didn’t think about the contradiction in terms that presents: foreigners can only visit a dump that doesn’t exist any longer.  We were on our way to visit a poor neighborhood in Stung Mean Chey, the hometown of many of my students.  I think that visiting the dump site is important to my research, since it’s charity tourism at its most transactional and dehumanizing, but I was looking forward to the trip like a charity voyeur.

And in the end, I didn’t get the chance to go, because you cannot approach the site by tuk-tuk and I couldn’t take a motodup.

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