There’s a pile of garbage I pass every day on the way to work. It stinks, and often I see folks hurling a bag of crap into the overflowing dumpster. Which usually rolls off and spills onto the walkway. It sucks! It’s one of the reasons we were wearing masks here long before Covit. Yet, I see this scene, and also see, the old women who make their rounds on bicycles throughout the day, going from dumpster to dumpster, separating and gathering the recyclables, re-usables, up-cyclables, and genuinely turning this trash into an income stream. To protect from the sun and elements, they wear coverings from head-to-toe: masks, gloves and those cone-shaped, bamboo/palm-leaf hats traditionally worn on farms.
Tucked in the corner about six meters away, I pass a woman who has a tea stand under a large umbrella, under a giant tree. Hanoi is full of such vibrant trees; at least three people can comfortably sit across the diameter. I am in awe each time I pass. Like the other ladies dotted around our lake, she sells snacks, cigarettes, and small glass cups of ice-cold green ice tea. You can see piles of used tea leaves on her end of the dumpster. I’ve noticed that mostly motorcycle taxi drivers take refuge there, monitoring the App for a nearby ping.
Later that night, I can hear and see a garbage truck come by and hoist the dumpster up and empty it into its bowels. Hanoi has many narrow streets and alleyways – narrower than these trucks – so luckily collection is often done at night. This certainly helps keep the traffic flow during busier times. Worse still, if not for these dumpsters folks would burn even more rubbish along the streets than is already customarily tolerated. In addition to these toxic fumes, consider the ritual imitation money that many local families burn twice monthly as an offering to their ancestors. Toxic fumes are another reason many ‘stay’ wearing a mask in Hanoi. I look at all the plastic dumped in the dumpster, and am relieved that it won’t be burned here. I see all this, too, as I walk by each day.
What’s more, I’ve been out late nights and seen plenty of these trucks totally teamed by women. This overflowing heap of hot, disgusting mess reminds me that I am in a society where women participate in everyday ways I hadn’t even ever dreamed. This heap will be gone soon, and replenished for all these women and their work. This makes me smile as I pass the heap. Using mindfulness, I can no longer smell the stench, it smells like flowers. Today, roses.
Late-night rubbish collection in Hanoi. All female team.