Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Heaps

We thought we had stumbled upon two anomalies while hiking: an ancient Greek pillar and refuse from a refugee boat wreck.

I take a photo of the pillar and send it to an antiquity-expert colleague to verify the likelihood it is indeed antiquity. He writes back, "Everything there is ancient!"

As we look closer, Greek pillars are almost everywhere. Stacked, displayed, discarded, like typewriters until someone falls in love with them again. All of these artifacts, in varying degrees of perfection, can be a burden--especially to builders. While creating or renovating, if ancient walls, foundations, or dwellings are found, construction stops until the experts deem what is to be preserved or protected.

As we venture down different paths, peek over different bluffs, we start finding more and more piles of shredded boats, life jackets and all the paraphernalia needed to cross the water. The piles are becoming as common a Greek pillars.

They may be common, they may ruin the landscape, but they tell an important story. The life jackets are a testament of struggle, evidence of hardship, a question of ethics. Should I take one? Not as a souvenir, but as an artifact for when I teach about the refugee crisis or immigration. Would it have meaning to anyone but me? Would it adequately represent the struggle for freedom and safety? I finally take a jacket knowing the Lesvians would appreciate if I'd taken them all. They litter the island like plastic Wal-mart bags or bottles caps.

I rinse it with water and scrub at the dirt. I hang it to dry. I take it when we move on to Molyvos. I consider tossing it into the dumpster. On the day we are to fly out, I stuff it in my suitcase. Its fragility, its exposure to sun and salt water start to show-- it easily rips.

On our last day in Molyvos, we finally drive to the life jacket graveyard we've heard about. I expect to find a reverent memorial, a conscious collection of life jackets stacked in order to remember. We've heard the pile/graveyard is difficult to find. We search and realize it is on an unmarked and long, bumpy, dirt road. Past two donkey farms. The terrain changes; litter is everywhere. We aren't headed for a memorial. We are on the outskirts of the garbage dump.

What else do you do with 600,000 life jackets?

When the first rubber dinghies arrived in Molyvos, there were buyers. A few months later, supply had exceeded demand and the rubber was shredded and hauled to the dump.

As we pull up, the sadness of the situation hits.  To the right is the regular garbage covered by birds scavenging for bits of survival. A section for old boats too. But the big heaps are filled with the expected life jackets.

We walk around with the same kind of solitude and sadness as if walking through a soldier filled cemetery. Not sure what to say or do.

When we come upon four people standing on top of a heap rifling through it, I'm confused but stay quiet.

When we've circled the graveyard we can see the four are salvaging life jacket belts.

"It's nice to see someone recycling," I call out.

An older woman responds, "We're with Lighthouse Rescue and we use the material to make and sell bags." A young man tosses life jackets and she cuts the belts with a knife. "We use the rubber from the dinghies too. It's a way to help refugees support themselves."

Perhaps slowly, the rescuers, the souvenir seekers, will chip away at the garbage heap, the historical artifact that has yet to be appreciated enough to be preserved. This is what happened to the ancient, destroyed agora after the barbarians invaded, burned, and toppled. It became a worthless heap of stone and when rebuilding, the Greeks hauled away the marble, the statues, to use it elsewhere. A thousand years later, we wish they'd had the foresight to put it back together, or at least to leave it alone.

Someday, someone will come along and say, "Hey! This needs to be preserved!" But not yet; it's too soon, too fresh. Before that happens, it will be lost. Plastic doesn't last like stone and marble, and people sewing bags to earn a living are more important than preservation.

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