Photographers' Blog

The hunt for treasure

March 8, 2012

By Mariana Bazo

On my numerous trips around the outskirts of Lima I’ve long been struck by the sight of elderly women combing garbage dumps and lugging huge bags filled with recyclable items. I’ve photographed several of them and while talking to them I always get the same story – they pick up bottles, paper and cans they can sell later, and that little money allows them to survive. Some of the women are abandoned and have no relatives, but others prefer to live on their own means rather than depending on handouts. It’s common to hear them say that this is the only job they can get at their age. I often notice a certain glimpse of happiness when they talk about their hard-earned independence.

Peru’s national statistics bureau has published figures that older adults who don’t have retirement plans are forced to develop strategies for survival, to avoid being economically dependent and socially vulnerable, and these garbage pickers fit exactly that description. Many poor elderly women are excluded from social services and have never been in the formal workplace. Many are Andean migrants without the same education opportunities as men, to the extent where many are illiterate.

This describes my most recent subject, Victoria Ochante, 65. Victoria left her home in the highland town of Ayacucho 30 years ago to escape the violence of the Shining Path guerrilla movement. Illiterate herself, she’s been living in Lima slums since then, and with six children has managed to maintain her family in the humble shanty she built of recycled material.

Victoria’s neighborhood, Ticlio Chico, is part of the poverty belt that surrounds Lima. Here, in one of the world’s driest regions, it rains enough in winter to flood many of the precarious homes. She lives with her two grown, unemployed daughters and a husband who doesn’t earn enough to help their economy.

I accompanied Victoria on her hunting trips for recyclable garbage in the nearby streets. We left at four o’clock in the morning, an hour when we could see the lights of the entire city from her hillside slum.

She rushed out and sped through the piles of garbage, before anyone else could beat her to it. She followed her regular route passing the corners where residents normally dump their refuse, scaring off stray dogs and tearing open bags where she found cans and bottles, flies and horrible smells. Every so often she would exclaim, “Too late. They’ve already been here.”

Victoria says her hunt is an adventure. She never knows what she’ll find.

If she finds discarded wood or sticks, she uses those as cooking fuel. Discarded lettuce goes to feed the ducks she raises. One day she came across a homeless person trying on discarded clothing. He said to her, “Be careful, those clothes have fleas, but I don’t care. I’m cold.” Laughing, the man looked at me and my camera, and asked, “Wow, did you find that here?”

These women don’t recycle garbage to help the environment. It’s an economic activity. Victoria considers herself a treasure hunter.

As we walked I wanted to ask her so many things, but the communication was difficult as she constantly mixes her native Quechua with Spanish. On my last day visiting her I took along a Quechua-speaking friend of mine, also from Ayacucho.

Victoria is a simple person with obvious emotions. She never stops working. Even after finishing her daily hunt she continues with home chores, washes dishes, cleans the kitchen, loads firewood. Her daughters stand around watching. Her husband appears and disappears, but says nothing. She boils water with the recycled wood, fixes up the home and feeds the ducks. She is a survivor.

Victoria wishes that her parents had gotten a better education for her, because only her brothers were given the chance. She never learned to read or write. She told me in Quechua, “I suffered and cried so much for my Mom and Dad to put me in school. If only I knew how to read and write, how far could I have gone?”

Victoria has a husband, but he’s often drunk and claims he has another family. Her daughters are unemployed and uninterested in working. They live from what their mother earns picking garbage.

“The mornings I find a lot to recycle I’m happy, but many times I search and don’t find anything, and go home with an empty bag.”

The best thing she ever found was 50 dollars in the garbage, and although she competes with dogs, drug addicts and gang members, she never had a serious problem in the early morning. She dreams of returning someday to Ayacucho, but thinks that she’ll never save enough for the trip.

We went together to sell all the items she accumulated over a month – several kilos of plastic bottles, scrap iron, cans and paper. All that brought in 78 soles (30 dollars). I asked her what she would do with that money and she explained that she was saving for an operation for a detached uterus she likely got from giving birth to all of her children alone, with no doctor, no nurse, no help from anyone. She cut the umbilical cords herself. The money is to pay for donated blood. She’s on a waiting list at a public hospital.

Sighing, she said, “I want to be healthy to live happy.” She hopes that after the operation she won’t have to pick garbage anymore, and can find another job. Her daughters say they will work, but I see serious doubt on her face.

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