It was our second day on the island. We left the temple on the lake and continued up and over the mountain. I had expected to see charming houses built in the traditional style, from wood and bamboo with thatched roofs and beautiful carvings. Instead we drove past town after town constructed entirely of cement boxes. Unfortunately cement is cheaper, easier and quicker to build with, an ideal material for a densely populated island in the throes of a major transition from agriculture to tourism.
We reached the highest point of the mountain and stopped at an overlook with an incredible view of two freshwater lakes at the base of a series of old volcanoes. A man stood to the side of the pullout, offering tourists the opportunity to have their photo taken with a snake for a small fee. We looked out over the misty mountain jungle and then got back in the car for the descent. By this point it was apparent that the island had an undeniable refuse problem. Wrappers, cans, bags, and other plastic trash littered every inch of roadside.
One of our local drivers explained, heartbreakingly, that 20 years ago the rivers were the source of life on the island. People bathed, swam, played and drank from the river. In the blink of an eye the island's sacred source of life has become toxic. Rivers and streams are choked with plastic bags and styrofoam containers. Some of the more densely populated areas of the island feel like they have been constructed in the middle of a landfill. Shopkeepers sweep trash away from their doorstep and when they go inside the neighboring shopkeeper sweeps it right back. It is a futile, endless cycle.
People used to have compost piles behind their houses because the hot humid weather was capable of degrading their organic waste quickly and efficiently. Now people pile trash behind their houses because they have nothing else to do with it. Plastic came to the tiny island before it was ready. How can a culture that has been self sufficient with organic materials for hundreds of years possibly even grasp the concept of a material that simply doesn't break down. Ever.
Now for the conundrum...
What do you do with millions of pounds of trash on a tiny island without the infrastructure to deal with it? What do you do when, even if there were a place to bring your trash on the far side of the island, you only have a scooter and no way to get it there?
Answer: you throw it on the ground and go on about your business. The responsible folks on the island burn their trash, creating sticky, melted piles and leaving the air heavy and noxious.
It was halfway through day two on the island that I began to realize this was going to be a very different trip than I had planned. I was angry and frustrated but sympathetic. I wanted to do something but there was nothing to be done. I couldn't even curb my own plastic consumption because the only drinkable water on the island comes from plastic bottles. Even the islanders don't drink the water, it's that unsafe. For the next week and a half, plastic would be my savior, the only barrier between dehydration and crippling intestinal illness. Let the moral wrestling match begin.