Each day, The Pile of rubbish in the middle of town grew and grew, as if it were alive or some kind of urban mushroom in the dead of night. For as long as the teenaged Mikal could recall the heap had been there, sticking out amidst the dilapidated buildings of the community he called home, while also assuming a natural position amongst them. It was infused with his life on the small African island he and his family lived on. His first memory was attached to it: struggling to climb over tumbling chunks of trash when his mother wasn’t looking, almost falling in. He thought one day it might grow so tall that he could touch the sky and climb to the stars.
No one was sure when The Pile started to grow, its beginning long ago consumed by the trash. Mikal didn’t know. His parents couldn’t remember. From time to time as a younger boy he would ask them “Mummy, Daddy, when did The Pile begin?” and they would brush away his question with the disinterest of exhaustion. After a while the beginning of The Pile became assumed, like the big bang or the cosmos.
“It’s always been there, Mikal. Don’t worry about it,” his father often said, distracted by the radio and the evening news bulletin he liked to listen to before getting ready for bed. In their small, single room house the radio played an outsized role, performing as if it were a megaphone.
Mikal’s parents grew up with The Pile too. The heap of trash was the basis of their earliest memories. They hated it and hated that their son had to grow up with it. If he could just learn to live with The Pile, his life would be better, they both thought. The Pile towered over generations, and the island.
So, Mikal didn’t spend much time thinking about The Pile, when it began, or if it would ever stop growing, just like those who grow up near mountains don’t spend much time contemplating their beauty. It was simply a fact of life for him and his friends. Like the beach near his family’s house, and the neighbourhood where he and his friends spent their days zigzagging between matchbox homes of various colours, chasing each other, The Pile continued to grow within the community like a coastline forged by continuous waves over millions of years. The Pile just grew faster.
Many, many years ago, when The Pile wasn’t The Pile, it was just trash spread out and scattered, the scope of its discarded ambition yet to be determined. Not yet The Pile, it instead was just waste, without a place to go. The ingredients of The Pile varied. Rumours claimed it began when people passing by tossed cups, plastic drinks, or food wrappers onto the ground. Others followed suit. There were diapers, shopping bags, bones of various figures and shapes. Abandoned trolleys. Car parts. Cars. Bricks. Wood. Glass bottles, broken bottles, and other glass fragments. Furniture. Aluminum. Metals. Nails. Mold. Dead animals. Some swore there were people in The Pile, buried beneath the rubbish, discarded, kept secret like modern mummies wrapped in trash and filth. Bit by bit, and piece by piece, it took on a dimension of its own and seemed to develop a magnetism.
Most of the materials in The Pile were local, but many of them were from elsewhere, from far away. So, trash was shipped to places like Mikal’s island, where the people had no voice or power to protect their communities. Mikal liked that there were so many things in the pile from foreign places. “Made in—” Mikal paused before continuing, “Bang-la-desh,”, sounding out each syllable to his friends.
“Where do you think that is?”
“Made in China,” read one of his friends.
“Made in the United States of America!” shouted another. “What do you think it’s like there?”
“Made in France.”
“Made in Russia.”
“How did it all get here?” Mikal asked.
He and his friends could only speculate, and speculate they did, again and again, tracing the routes the trash took in their imagination, trying to think up a world in which they would be able to travel as freely as trash.
The Pile was something one preferred to ignore, even though it was impossible to miss. Eventually, the crowds coming and going had to walk around it. Others swarmed around it, lived off it, like some perversion of so-called sustainable development. Like a hive, it maintained its own energy. Many decided to take long detours because of its smell. It was awful, intense, sending shivers down one’s spine. It wasn’t something you got used to.
“Learn to live with it, Mikal, because it isn’t going nowhere,” his mother said early one morning. Mikal couldn’t stay asleep, kept waking up, explaining that his dreams were infected with the smell of the Pile. The smell had transformed into a demonic figure that stalked Mikal, slowly, around the community as he and his friends moved about. As the dream progressed and Mikal thought he’d outrun the demonic figure, it would appear again and again and again, no matter how many tricks he used or shortcuts he took, like it wanted to swallow him. The demon was everywhere.
No one seemed to want to take responsibility for cleaning it up. “It’s mostly the foreigners, that rubbish heap!” someone exclaimed on the radio Mikal’s father was listening to one evening. “They must come and clean it up. We don’t even have that much stuff here, man. Can you imagine the people here wasting the things we find in The Pile?” The radio host expressed agreement through sighs.
The community could barely keep the lights on consistently, so, The Pile, neglected like a family secret, grew and grew until it was accepted as truth, as some alternative story that everyone managed to derive comfort, not anxiety, from. What was once incoherent took on a pointed form, became The Pile.
Communities were disorganised and the nation chaotic along the Indian Ocean coastline. Life on the outskirts of the world, developing amongst the peripheries, lacked resources. But not trash. Not waste. It was in abundance, like a precious metal or viable natural resource. And, indeed, many people interacted with The Pile after it had taken shape, as if it were a commodity, mining its contents with the precision and tact of gold miners long ago.
The rest of the world was enamored and confounded by it. “It might be a new wonder of the world,” speculated one voice Mikal heard on the radio during an international broadcast from the BBC. Academics tried to theorize its origins, its meaning, significance—careers were made, tenure bestowed.
Long removed from the sight of trash through the innovation of waste management, many people around the world didn’t often have to see trash other than when they threw something away or took out the trash for collection, an aspect of life routinely completed without thought. It was an automatic response to modernity, progress, or the future, like breathing or blinking. The Pile was an object of fascination like wild animals in other parts of Africa, or some strangely coloured river in the Amazon. What was a real problem to locals had become an attraction to foreigners.
At first, The Pile appeared in blog posts authored by the few travelers who visited the island. The island Mikal lived on wasn’t a sought-after destination because of poverty and anxieties over come, plus: there just wasn’t much to do. Most of the people who lived there had reason to leave—those who stayed did so because it was their only option. There were many other beaches around the world people preferred to visit.
Even though a few blog posts mentioned The Pile and included pictures of it, a big heap of trash didn’t rate very high on the global lists of must-see-places. Many of the blogs were written by students studying in nearby countries who wanted to visit a place that would give them both relaxation and an experience of inequality, as if visiting a poor country and seeing faces of poverty first-hand could be simplified to a bullet point on a CV.
Other travelers wrote fantastic diatribes against the excesses of the modern world, which no one wanted to hear. Why bother with such perspectives when they only confirmed that the peachiness of life was tied to rotten fruit? Despite its domineering presence, its unmistakable smell and exponential growth rate, The Pile would soon be discovered by the rest of the world.
Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months and months stretched into years. No longer a teenager, Mikal grew into a man and got a job working as a shopkeeper with aspirations of one day becoming a shop owner. He was tall, lanky, ambitious, and driven; he wanted to save as much money as he could, so he could leave the island once and for all.
Mikal’s parents had both passed away from exhaustion although the official cause was listed as heart attacks. Their hearts had run out of beats. One after the other. When his father found that his wife had suffered a heart attack, it triggered his own. His parents had been so close. Mikal hoped to find that kind of love.
Mikal wasn’t at home when it happened, he was working. The news traveled from person to person, voice to voice, through the community until it reached his ears.
“Mikal, your parents have died,” said a customer purchasing oranges and cigarettes.
“What did you say?” Mikal asked, not registering the news. He counted the man’s change, his hands busy.
“Your parents died this morning. You’re needed at home, man.”
Mikal walked home in a fog, through the community, past The Pile, hardly noticing it for the first time in his life.
Mikal moved on from that sad, sad day. One morning he pitched up at the shop first thing while the soft cries of birds hovered in the air above the dim of a community slowly waking. He unlocked the side-door of the shop and picked up the daily newspaper, looking at it with sleepy eyes.
“Small African Nation Included in Top Ten Places to Visit!” Mikal read, stumped. He recognised the beach where he and his friends had spent so much time as kids running around and around, throwing sand. As they’d gotten older, they tried to impress girls with their knowledge of the coast, their ability to spot whales along the distant horizon. Why would anyone want to visit a place that so many wanted to leave? he thought as he busily prepared the shop for the day’s customers.
Mikal asked his first customer what he thought of the news.
“Tourists? Ah! I will believe such when I see it,” the customer declared.
“No ways, Mikal, no ways. They won’t be visiting us here by the sea,” said another customer.
“Well, that sure is good news,” said the old man with one eye who always bought one cigarette, all he could afford, around nine in the morning. “You know, Mikal, this place has always just been this place. Eh? We’ve lived down here like we are really on the bottom. Tourists will bring us monies,” he speculated, lighting his cigarette in the middle of the shop.
“Do you think so?” asked Mikal, excitedly.
“Indeed, yes, yes. Tourists bring money and spend it greedily,” said the old man, surprised by the turn of phrase he’d said without thinking. He took a drag from his cigarette and blew the smoke out of his nostrils. They stood in silence, the smoke slowly hanging in the air of the shop. “Maybe you should move on from this shop, learn about tourism, how it works, that thing.”
Throughout the rest of the day Mikal thought about tourism and what might happen to the community when tourists came.
Sure enough, news spread from place to place, and more and more travelers started to visit. All kinds of people. Many of them wrote blogs and posted to social media about the community. It didn’t take long for people—the whole world, in fact—to take notice of The Pile, as more and more people visited. Mikal’s neighbourhood, far from the centre of the world, was thrust from the background to the foreground. One foreign journalist asked one of Mikal’s neighbours about it. The neighbour, a disheveled looking man with a raspy, excited voice said, “One day it wasn’t there. Then, poof! It just was.”
Thinking more and more about what the old man had told him, thinking there might be an opportunity for him to get into tourism, Mikal decided it was best to quit his job at the shop. When he closed up later that day, as the sun sank into the ocean creating a small green glimmer beneath the wavy horizon, he said to himself, “Maybe there’s an opportunity for me here after all.”
The potential of tourism brought with it many kinds of new jobs. Opportunity seemed to abound. Beaches that had once been empty were soon filled with people and all kinds of stands. One could find a drink. One could find fried fish. Even though no one had ever surfed in the community before, one could even find a surfboard.
“This tourism has been a good thing for us, man!” Mikal said to a friend while the two waited to cross the street to the beach. The sun was at its highest point, in the middle of the sky, blaring down on them and everyone else like a loudspeaker of heat.
“I’m not so sure, Mikal. This place, it’s changing,” his friend said, wagging his finger. They quickly crossed the street, zigzagging between traffic. In the distance The Pile poked above the uneven rooftops. “It’s changing too fast. Tooooo faaaast!” he said again, raising his voice into a falsetto and dragging his words out.
“Yah, it is. Very fast. But why should we wait? What else would we do? What else is there to do?”
“This place, no. We’re supposed to wait. No one knows about us. This island, it’s far away from everything. Including the finer things! Do you even have electricity?” They stopped at the beach’s edge. Waves crashed into the shore.
“No, not yet,” replied Mikal, sheepishly, embarrassed even though he knew his friend didn’t have electricity either. At night, Mikal used a candle to read the few magazines he had. The hotels that had sprung up from the ground like weeds had electricity and plumbing and even had Wi-Fi. They stood opposite Mikal and his friend like concrete trees.
“You see what I mean? What does tourism do for us? Few years ago, hey, we just had The Pile and no one cared, no one noticed. Bigger and bigger it got. Nothing else though.” They walked to the edge of the water. The waves crashed at their feet. Mikal had hoped to convince his friend to join his touring company. He wanted to provide walking tours through the community to visitors hoping to have an authentic experience.
“Do you think you would ever want to work with the tourists?” Mikal asked.
“No ways, man!” A brief silence hung between them as they started walking. “For what? To show off this place? To show off some rubbish heap? No ways!”
“I think we could make money. People want to see The Pile.”
“Mikal, this pile—it’s a just a big pile of shit! Before long someone’s going to get swallowed by that thing. Just you watch.”
As the two of them walked along the beach, he felt more alone than he had when his parents died. It seemed like only a portion of the community understood the opportunities that were now available. If people wanted to see The Pile, why would he stop them? He knew where it was. He knew its history.
The Pile was Mikal’s compass, his sense of gravity, his Southern Cross. It guided him home and it reminded him of where he was from, guiding him to somewhere else. He thought if he could harness its energy, its presence—its magnetism—he could wield it to his advantage and eventually leave the island.
A few days later, on an electrical pole that only served as a perch for seagulls, he saw a sign: Get Your Tourism License. There was an address listed, which was close to his house. Mikal had spent the day wandering around, pondering what would become of him on the damned island. He was twenty-three and slowly becoming exhausted by his life. It frightened him to feel so old when he was still so young.
On his way home, he made sure to stop by the address on the sign. It was a new building with a red door.
“Hello!” said the blonde-haired man behind the counter. He was a white man, short, with a crisp green shirt. Mikal hadn’t seen many white people on the island before. They usually arrived on ships and didn’t stay long.
“Hi,” Mikal said nervously. “I saw the sign on a light pole. Is this the right place?”
“Yes, it is!” replied the man. He walked around to greet Mikal. His enthusiasm made Mikal feel odd. They shook hands. “Are you interested in getting your tourism license?”
In just a few weeks Mikal had his tourism license. It granted him the privilege of conducting tours with visitors to the island. He was given an official number: 546. He wondered why the number was so high. Were there 545 tour guides before him? For many days he fretted about the number, asked friends what they thought it meant.
“Am I too late?” On the outskirts of the world proper timing was everything.
The licensing company assured him that he wasn’t just one of hundreds of tour guides. “That would be silly, Meekal!” said Steve, the blonde man he’d met the first time he’d walked into the building. Mikal hated how Steve pronounced his name, emphasising the first syllable like he was scared—eek!
He completed the course over five sessions. The first session taught him about tourism and the goals he, as a tour guide of the island, needed to have. There were only two others in the course. One older woman—a granny with a tired face but immaculate hands—who said she was learning about “this tourist busy-ness” to sell trinkets for her grandchildren. Her name was Mama Akinyi. She wore a bright red doek. The other person was a young man who explained to Mikal before class on the first day that he wanted to get involved with tourism because it was easy to lie to foreigners. His name was Adimu, and he looked hungry, desperate.
“They don’t give a shit about this place, hey. No one does!” he told Mikal and Mama Akinyi. Mikal thought his excitement seemed dubious because he was missing one of his front teeth. His tongue poked through the gap, like a small snake, every few words. Mama Akinyi just ignored him. Mikal didn’t respond, didn’t like him much.
The three of them often sat in silence, with the humdrum noise of children laughing, dogs barking, and women yelling in the background, hovering just beyond the door like a dry thunderstorm. The room was poorly lit save for a couple of windows that naturally brightened the room.
During the first session Mikal and the two others learned about what tourism is. They learned about tourists. They learned about passports and visas.
“People from America and Europe want to come and visit this island,” Steve explained. “They will bring money to this island. It will create jobs. Tourism creates lots of jobs!”
“How does one get to be a tourist?” asked Mama Akinyi. She kept her hand up even after she’d asked her question.
“That’s a great question!” Steve said, his enthusiasm overbearing. “To be a tourist one needs to have money to travel. It’s a bit of a process. You find a place to travel to that’s far away because you can’t be a tourist in the place that you’re from.” Mikal, Mama Akinyi and Adimu sat there. The three of them had never left the island and knew little about the rest of the world.
They learned that tourists brought money in different currencies, which was worth more than the money on the island. They learned that tourists liked to be comfortable. They learned that tourists didn’t like to be challenged, and that they liked to eat food that was mostly familiar to them. “They have to be happy!” Steven emphasized again and again.
Mikal returned for the second class the following week and saw Mama Akinyi and Adimu again. Adimu was missing another tooth. Mama Akinyi looked the same—was wearing the same clothes, the same bright red doek. The second class focused on who the tourists were. “They are mostly Americans,” Steve explained, pointing to the United States on the map. “But they also come from Europe,” he said as his finger moved across the Atlantic Ocean. “And they also come from Australia,” his finger continued to move around the world. There were so many other places Steve’s finger skipped over that Mikal wondered about. Where was their island?
“Eh, sir, sorry,” said Adimu. “Why do these tourists only come from these places? Why doesn’t everybody come here?”
“That’s a good question, Adeemu!” said Steve. “The tourists that will come to this island mostly come from these places because they have lots of money and like to fly to warm places like this island.” Adimu seemed satisfied with the answer, nodding enthusiastically once Steve was finished. “There may also be tourists from China,” added Steve.
As the second class continued Mikal and the others learned how life was stable and routine in these other countries. “Everything works. There’s always power. Taps don’t run dry. The police show up. Hospitals have everything they need. Grocery stores are always full. So,” Steve said, solemnly, as if he were guilty, “tourists want to visit places like this island because it’s exotic!”
“It’s what, sir?” asked Adimu, tilting his head. Mikal could see him trying to pronounce the word in his head, sounding out the syllables and consonants. He knew, because he was doing it too. Exes-ot-ic. Ex-ooh-tack. Egg-so-tic. What a strange word, thought Mikal.
“Exotic means foreign, unfamiliar, different, wild. Strange!” Mikal and the others noticed how easily Steve had pronounced the word.
“Excuse me, sir,” said Mama Akinyi, her question cutting through the confusion.
“Yes, Mama Akeenyee,” Steve said, turning his back to the students to relocate the map.
“Are you a tourist?”
Adimu chuckled. Mikal just sat there; he was also curious.
“How did you get here? You don’t look like anyone else here.” Mama Akinyi said. Steve got red in the face, his cheeks rosy like a radish.
“No, uh, I’m not a tourist. No. No. I live here now. I work at the embassy. For the Americans. The American Embassy.” He paced, stuttering his speech more than usual.
Mikal thought his voice sounded like a sputtering car that struggled to start. He remembered his uncle’s car, how, as a young boy, his father had taken him to see it, to go for a drive. Mikal had never seen a car before. But the car wouldn’t start, it only revved in place, the engine roaring like a lion discovering it had a big voice but didn’t quite know how to use it. Mikal was snapped out of his memory by Steve’s nasally voice. “I’m on a Fulbright. It’s a scholarsh—a bursary.”
Mikal went home that night wondering about the map and the United States, Europe, Australia, and everywhere else, thinking about what tourism might do for him; he thought about how he might be able to leave the island. He dreamed of being able to fly and visit exotic places.
The following week, they learned about where the tourists would be visiting
“In today’s class we’re going to learn about this island and why people want to visit,” Steve said at the beginning of the class.
Standing in front of the map of the world, Steve leaned over his desk, placing both of his hands on it. “Adeemu, why do you think people want to visit this place?” asked Steve.
“I’m not sure, sir. Is it the beach?”
“Mama Akeenyee, why do you think people want to visit this island?” Her hands were folded together on top of her desk. She was a large woman, which made her desk seem small, cartoonish. She shifted in her seat, kicking up some dust from the floor.
“Eh, Steve, is it the weather?” she guessed. “You said these tourists, they like the warm weather.” Mama Akinyi was the only one who called Steve by his name.
He walked back and forth in front of the class with both hands in his pockets.
“Meekal, what are your thoughts? Why do tourists want to come to this place?” Steve’s normally enthusiastic disposition was duller, quieted down like the wind tends to in the evenings.
“Are we far away?” Mikal asked. Adimu laughed. Mama Akinyi shook her head. Mikal didn’t know why. He knew that they also had no idea where the island was. Outside, a woman yelled at a child who was crying. The cries got louder as the kid ran past the classroom, then faded away. Steve continued pacing from side to side at the front of the classroom, finally stopped and faced the students.
“Each of you are close. Meekal, we are far away. Mama Akeenyee, the weather here is very nice which people like. Adeemu, yes, the beach is a big factor. Tourists like to sit on the beach. All of these things matter. They help make this place exotic. Warm weather is exotic. Oceans are exotic.” Mikal took notes, trying to write down each of the things Steve said next to big bullet points. He hoped the bigger the bullet point he drew would enhance his memory, imprinting the points forever in his brain.
Steve turned his gaze, momentarily fixating his attention on his desk, grabbing the big map once again. He tacked it up to the board. “Remember, guys,” he said, pointing to a small island not too far from Africa, surrounded by an immense ocean. “This island is small and far away. We’re here!”
Mikal tried to determine where, exactly ‘here’, was. He knew they lived in Africa, but he didn’t know what that meant because he’d never left the island. Adimu was writing furiously, grinning as he wrote. Mikal couldn’t understand why he had so much to write down. Mama Akinyi inspected her nails, and her impeccable hands.
“This place is complicated.” Steve continued to point at the small island on the map. “The history. A long time ago, when the European colonists made their way around the southern tip of Africa, at the Cape of Good Hope, the winds pushed them here. They stopped for rest. For water. These colonists didn’t know what they would find. So, they took their time. Eventually, they set up a fort and started to administer the place, as if they lived here. It became a trading post and the local people were put to work.” He paused to take a breath. Adimu was still writing. “The climate of this island, plus the soil, make it a friendly place for growing things—all sorts of things. Bananas. Potatoes. Tobacco. Peanuts. Coconuts. Plantations were set up. More people were put to work. The colonists wanted everyone to work, work, work. The island is small but was very profitable. The plantations grew and grew.”
Mikal wondered about each of the items Steve mentioned. Bananas. Peanuts. Potatoes. He repeated them in his head. He didn’t like bananas because he had eaten so many of them. He reckoned that he had eaten enough bananas in his life—so many that he thought in the next lifetime, if such a thing were true, that he wouldn’t need to eat any more bananas. The thought of bananas made his head hurt.
“When the tourists come to this place,” Steve continued, “they want to learn about the history of it. Tourists love history. They love to learn about the place they are visiting and to think about how the past relates to the present. They want to feel like they are living in the past in the present.”
“Eh, sir—question!” declared Adimu.
“Yes, Adeemu,” Steve said, taking the four corners of the map from the wall.
“What does it mean, living in the past in the present. Do these tourists not like the present? Do they wish they could live in another time?” He was confused. Mama Akinyi looked bored. Nearby, a single dog’s bark had started a chorus of barks, like fire chasing leaked petrol, until the group exploded into a concert of barking and howling.
“It’s a good question. When I say that tourists want to travel to this island and experience the past in the present, I mean they don’t just want to visit a new place. They want to feel like they are in a new time.” Adimu started writing again but broke the pencil he was using because he was pushing too hard against the paper.
The class carried on with a discussion of the history of the island and its plantations. Mikal was engrossed. He liked history but didn’t have much opportunity to learn about it.
After dreaming about drowning in bananas and peanuts Mikal walked through the centre of town on his way to class. As he passed The Pile, he noticed it was busier than usual with people picking through it.
He was the first to arrive at the classroom, so, he walked to the front of the room and stared at the map that was laid out on the desk. He looked from left to right, from top to bottom. Everything seemed so simple and neat. Clean. Crisp. Lines were drawn precisely. Mikal observed how small his island was compared to the U.S., how it was smaller than many of the individual states. His eyes darted to Australia. Then to China. Up to Russia. Across Brazil. He wondered about each of these places, what it would be like to live in them. He wondered about the people he would meet, inventing little scenarios as he traversed the globe like a satellite flying across the night sky. Mikal was certainly a dreamer. He liked to wonder, to let his mind wander. Having a moment alone with the map felt like ecstasy.
Eventually, the fifth and final class began. Mikal sat for the last time with Adimu and Mama Akinyi. He felt a closeness to them; he didn’t feel creeped out by Adimu’s missing teeth, no longer caught himself judging Mama Akinyi. The lesson for the final class was The Pile. Steve had hung up a number of pictures of The Pile on the board.
“It’s important to get a sense of its size and proportions, its dimensions,” he explained. “The main reason people want to visit this island,” said Steve, “is because of The Pile. It’s a pile of rubbish, yes, but it’s also like a gold mine. It’s a national treasure, really!”
Mama Akinyi chuckled to herself, sucking her teeth. “Mxm, mxm, mxm.” Mikal was reminded of his mother, how she used to make that sound to his father.
“The Pile,” Steve continued, excitedly, “should be thought of in special terms. It’s like a wonder of the world, like the pyramids or Machu Pichu. There are no piles of rubbish like this in the countries that tourists come from. They don’t exist. The Pile, Meekal, Adeemu, and Mama Akeenyee, is what will make the tourists feel like they are living in the past and the present.” Adimu, as usual, took notes furiously, as if he were running out of time. Mikal heard him mumbling “marchu peachu” to himself. Mama Akinyi raised her hand.
“Steve, why do people want to come and see something that none of us like? This thing, The Pile, has been around my whole life. I know it longer than I know any person. Do you know that? I no longer notice it. I don’t even smell it, really. It’s just there. Why would anyone want to come and visit? The people here, in this community, they don’t want it. There’s even groups that have tried to organize to have it removed.”
Steve shook his head. “I understand what you mean, Mama Akeenyee. I do. I really do. But The Pile is special because it’s a monument to recycling and sustainable consumption. Everything gets used!”
“But those people, they’re not recycling, Steve,” replied Mama Akinyi. “They are surviving.” Steve glanced up from the desk. A silence hung between the two, engulfing the classroom. Even Adimu stopped taking notes. Mikal was thinking about the state of Texas and wondering how many islands could fit in it. He was snapped out of his daydream by the lack of sound, like the way one wakes up from a nap when the volume of ambient noise is adjusted. He looked around to make sure no one was expecting him to say anything, to answer a question. “There’s a big difference between those two things, Steve.” Until that point Mama Akinyi had preferred to be quiet, didn’t take many notes and didn’t ask many questions. Most of the time she just nodded, raised her eyebrows. Mikal often wondered why she was there.
“People that recycle do so because they can afford to. It’s like that diet, vegetarianism. Choosing to not eat meat. Choosing!” Adimu and Mikal shared a laugh over shared memories they’d never discussed, about too many bananas and too little beef. She sucked her teeth again. “Mxm. People who go through that rubbish heap do so because they have nothing else. What dignity is there in that heap?” Steve nodded, his eyes moving this way and that. Mama Akinyi shifted in her chair, kicking up some dust that glinted in the single streak of sunlight that penetrated the musty room like a slow-moving disco-ball.
“I understand what you’re saying, Mama Akeenyee. I do. There are inequalities that make this world a difficult, sad place. Unfortunately, tourists don’t care and will pay lots of money to visit the island to see The Pile.”
A few months after the course, after Mikal had received his certificate of completion and his official tourist badge, he was a confidant tour guide, offering tours of the community and the beach. He took tourists from all over the world through many of the same crevices, nooks and crannies that he ran through as a kid. He took them to the beach to look for whales. He took them to the food stalls.
Mikal quickly became fond of being a tour guide. He liked explaining the community, reciting some of the things he’d learned from Steve’s course. It didn’t take Mikal long to know how and when to deploy little-known facts or point out a place to eat that the locals preferred. Even though few of them would actually eat at those places, tourists loved seeing where the locals liked to eat.
Just as he had done each morning over the past few weeks, he started his day preparing for another group of visiting tourists. This particular group was from France and Belgium. They had specifically requested Mikal through the agency, because friends of theirs who had visited the island recommended him. “We heard you’re such a fun host!” one of them said when Mikal met the group outside the agency building. It made him feel good to be recommended—it had never happened before.
Mikal took them on his typical route, and knowing that everyone wanted to see The Pile, like a popular musician with a big hit song, he ended with it. Mikal had learned how to build up the excitement of the tourists. They began walking through the area surrounding the tourism agency. Mikal explained the history of the area, throwing in the phrase he’d learned, “the past is also the present on this island. It’s like an island in time,” he said. A few people ooed and aahed.
Mikal took the group down dusty roads, sandy roads, and paved roads. They walked past a school and the children ran to the windows to see the visitors. People took photos. They walked to the beach. Since the tourists started to arrive a few people had erected wooden huts renting surfboards. A couple of people tried unsuccessfully to surf. The island didn’t have the best surfing, but the tourists didn’t care because it all felt so exotic.
As the tour continued, Mikal led the group past a working banana plantation on the outskirts of town. Everyone in the group started to wonder if the bananas from this plantation were bananas that they had purchased in supermarkets in Paris, Lille and Brussels. Time moved quickly and the tour was coming to an end. Some people in the group had been asking Mikal since it had started when they would see The Pile. Mikal knew anticipation was building.
Finally, they came to The Pile. As they approached the top was visible. Walking closer the rest of The Pile emerged, taking shape like a wide, giant urban Christmas Tree, decorated not with garlands, lights, or ornaments, but broken glass, wires, rusty tin cans, discarded food, and people. Lots of people combing up and down the naturally unnatural structure. The sound of The Pile was immense, humming like a drone or an alien transportation vehicle from the movies. The noise was constant.
Standing before The Pile, Mikal didn’t have to say much. He only acknowledged that yes, the tour was ending, and yes, they were standing at the infamous rubbish heap known around the world as The Pile. He let everyone walk around, taking photos.
The tourists walked around and around, pointing their fingers in all directions. They were amazed.
“It looks so much bigger than the pictures we’ve seen!” yelled one.
“I can’t believe how loud it is!” said another.
“Where does it all come from?” someone asked.
“How did it get so big?”
“How old is it?”
“Wow!” They were all amazed.
Mikal stood in the background smiling for having had another successful tour. He knew he’d be making lots of tips.
“Can you take a picture of us, Meekhale?” one of the tourists asked. “From atop The Pile?” Mikal turned to the small French lady standing next to him.
“Sorry, can you explain what you mean? Do you want to climb The Pile?”
“No,” she said, as more of the group sauntered over. “We’re wondering if you could climb up and take a picture of all of us. That way, people can see how big it is.”
It had been some years since Mikal had climbed The Pile. As a kid he hadn’t taken into account the risks. But the final thing Steve had told the class was to always try to find ways to satisfy the requests of the tourists. “They will tip you lots and lots!” he’d said.
“Sure. I will take a photo. Just let me climb up a bit. Can everybody get into position?” Mikal walked over to The Pile, past people coming and going, carrying all sorts of objects; some tossing things they thought might have been one thing and turned out to be something else. The group coalesced around one another, smiling, and laughing, fidgeting together to make sure everyone fit into a single frame.
Mikal started to climb, hopping over old televisions and wrecking bicycles. He stepped on top of the broken things. The Pile swallowed everything, as if it was some blackhole on the periphery of the world slowly sucking in anything and everything. Since Mikal had last climbed The Pile, the mass had grown and grown. He felt nervous, not realizing that he was afraid of heights. The higher he climbed the odder the objects. Record players. Plastic bottles of Tab. Tin cans of Campbell’s Soup. A dirty wedding dress. He kept climbing.
When he felt he’d climbed high enough, he turned to face the tourists and readied the camera. It was a great shot: the group smiling below him, looking tiny like ants. Mikal’s left foot slipped; down below one of the Belgian tourists shrieked and extended her right hand, as if to catch Mikal, but he deftly regained composure, assuring his balance. He steadied the camera once again, waiting for the group to come into focus. Mikal slipped again. This time both feet stumbled together, and the camera flew into the air, his hands held high like he was frustrated, giving up. Feeling like he was sinking, Mikal reached down to steady himself but only lost his footing even more.
“Ahh! He’s sinking!” shouted one of the tourists. Those who were climbing on The Pile didn’t notice.
“I’m sinking,” said Mikal, but no one heard him. There was too much noise around him. Mikal struggled, but there was nothing solid to stand on; he continued to sink until he could no longer be seen.
About the Author:
David Reiersgord works in international higher education, specifically on curriculum development and academic management for US study abroad learners in South Africa. He lectures part-time, is interested in literature, history and politics and occasionally writes about these topics.