We are all scavengers shifting through the garbage dump, waiting for the trucks to empty the leftovers of the world, hunting for some forgotten treasure we can call our own. Our garbage dumps are disguised, but in the municipal dump of Kuala Lumpur - Malaysia it is all out in the open. Accumulating in the 105 degrees humid heat are hills and hills of trash. This mass of recjects ferments and strange gases bubble up, mixing with the juices of discarded meat and rotten tropical fruit. These gently shaped hills, covering perhaps 10 square miles, are inhabited their home. Furnished on the spot - a sofa with the springs popping up, a radio which doesn't work, a bent parasol, a folding chair, some kid's leftover - stuffed pink elphant. Sunday they go fishing on a huge chunk of styrofoam in a lake, filled constantly by the sewers of Kuala Lumpur. Sometimes they wash themselves and their clothes in the sewer lake as well. On a bad day the police come and they flee their shelters deep into the highest hills of garbage where the stench is overwhelming, the flies thick and ooze up to their thighs.
Day after day I come back sliding around in this sea of debris with my camera. I am greeted with smiles, asked to sit down on a folding chair and shown the finds of the day. A small ring with no stone left, an imitation Chanel bag, shoes, even a watch, newspapers, wrapping paper, piles of paper of all sorts, piously washed sheet by sheet to be 'recycled' elsewhere. Meanwhile the skyscrapers under construction grow taller. Under these growing shadows they explain: "We are the saviors of the world. We are the finders of what is precious before all is buried. We are the ultimate archivists."
On my last evening there the lights were already on in the city, everything else was white and grey in the evening mist. The exitement of finding treasures had died down as the garbage trucks headed slowly down the hill. The foreman came up to me. "Thank you. For you have given these people importance. No one has ever come here before to photograph them. Now they are proud. "Shortly afterwards the police came. The scavengers fled silently into the grey mist; I also fled.
The dump is no longer there I have heard, the hills are now flattenend by expensive apartment builidings and grass covered courtyards. Mercedes drive up the asphalt roads.
The scavengers have been replaced.
Photos and text, ©Julia Calfee, 2000
Thank you Julia!