5:30 a.m. I sat in the lobby of our hotel in Tegus, waiting to ride to the city garbage dump. Last time I went to this dump it was about 5 years ago, and men doped up on sniffing glue chased us out. They dumped on the car and pounded on it, screaming at us in Spanish.
Today's visit was different.
I met Angela, 57, and her daughter Reyna, 9. Angela was kicked out of her house years ago when her husband died. His parents threw her and the four young children out on the street to fend for themselves. Angela had no where to go, slept at her cousin's home at night and needed to find work for her children.
She began picking on the garbage dump. For years, this is how she has lived. She sorts through the garbage, looking for items to recycle. Plastic, cardboard.
It's dangerous work. Tears began streaming down Angela's face as she told me how she was nearly raped two days ago. Two men approached her and her friend (the women work in pairs for safety) and one had a butcher knife. Angela barely escaped.
She shakes in fear as she relays the story and glances at her daughter. Yesterday, Reyna, who goes to the dump to help her mom after school, pricked her hand on a syringe filled with blood. She didn't see it sticking out of the trash.
Angela is desparate to get Reyna out of this lifestyle. She even tried giving her away to an orphanage so Reyna could receive a good education. But since Reyna is not an orphan, they turned her away.
We took Angela and Reyna to the dump so they could show us how they work. As we stood watching, the priest we are working with explained there are 70 to 200 children at a given time working in this dump. "Newborns to teens," he said. "The women take the babies to the top of the hill so there is less danger from the trucks and one woman watches over them while the others work. They take turns."
I glance at the top of the hill and see a row of black vultures surveying the scene below. A group of men pick through the garbage, some distance away from Angela.
Four children approach us and begin to talk. They mug for my camera and then Besy Yolanda, who is only 9, tells me how she wants to go to school. But her mother is too poor this year to afford the registration fee. So Besy works in the dump starting at 7 a.m. and goes home at 5 p.m.
They work among the men who get high on glue. The children sniff glue as well, some of them. The hungry ones sniff it because it eases the pain of an empty stomach.
Reyna climbed into the back of the pick-up truck as we prepared to leave. I took this photo of her, a solemn portrait with the hard granite rock wall behind her. Little girl between a rock, and the hard place of the garbage dump.
The children climbed into the bed of the pick-up as well. As we drove off, the two younger boys dipped dirty black rags into a small bottle and began inhaling the rags.
They were sniffing glue. Just like the men today, and the men who chased us years ago.
I bite my lip to keep my emotions from showing.