On the garbage trail
Late one night, driving to one of our friend's houses during a
blackout, my partner and I temporarily lost track of our whereabouts.
Were we on the right road? Did we turn at the right junction? Suddenly
the headlights of our car caught two garbage bags hanging from a nail
near the front gate of a whitewashed, newly built house.
A few meters away we saw three more bags, brimming with garbage
hanging from yet another wall. Our anxiety vanished. I sighed with
relief. I knew we were on the right road. "Waste may not always be
wealth but waste can always be an invaluable landmark to the weary
traveller" I found myself writing an imaginary post on the wall of my
If Sherlock Holmes wanted to give Mr. Watson a proper training on the
ABC of conducting a proper investigation, he should tell his erstwhile
companion to take a walk down any by lane in and around the suburbs of
Colombo. The highly residential areas, consisting of beautiful,
architecturally designed houses and well kept gardens have one eye-sore;
bag upon bag brimming with garbage, hanging from nails or hooks on the
front walls of almost every house.
A cursory glance is enough to realize what the inhabitants had for
lunch two days ago, how many coconuts they consumed that week, how many
times they had eggs for breakfast. Does Mr. So and so, snack on bananas?
Elementary, Mr. Watson.
Bags filled with biscuit wrappers, empty tins of salmon and shampoo
bottles are free advertisements for the brands they represent. Are the
proprietors of the garbage bags paid a fee by the owners of these
companies for displaying their goods after being used, to the whole wide
universe? One wonders.
Pity the visitor who has to search for the bell on the wall through
the hanging bags of garbage. What a welcome! Or a warning! An indirect
sign to discourage visitors; a more subtle and modern way of saying keep
off, than the age old 'Beware of Dogs' sign. What kind of image do you
form of your host when you see his garbage before you see his face? Once
again, elementary Mr. Watson.
Now showing: Garbage
You are what you hang on your wall
"Things were not like this in the past" complains a resident who has
been living in my friend's neighbourhood for over 58 years, when I
return to this same town the next morning to find out more. "We buried
all our waste in our backyard in the past" she explains. "Shopping bags
were unheard of when we came to live here but even if they had been
there we would never have dreamt of filling them up with garbage and
hanging them on our front wall". No, she says, she does not want me to
reveal her name. "Just say a concerned resident said so" she suggests.
But, as always there is another side to the story. Those who collect
their garbage in shopping bags and hang them on their walls say they
have no other alternative.
"Most days when the garbage collectors come we are not at home. If we
don't leave our garbage outside we will never get a chance to give them
to the municipal council workers because they almost always come on
weekday mornings" contents a gentleman giving me the kind of look
Captain von Trapp gives Maria in the Sound of Music the first day she
spends in his house as the children's governess (i.e saying indirectly,
mind your own business). But explaining further he says he and his wife
tried to keep their garbage in plastic garbage bins by the side of the
road but dogs toppled the bins and scattered the contents all over the
He drives off when I ask him if I could quote him in my article. "He
did not answer me because he did not hear me" I tell the garbage bags on
the wall. A crow lands on one and tries to peck at the contents inside.
I shoo it off. At least for the time being Mr. X's garbage is safe.
Did we find our friend's house in the dark that night? We sure did.
So would you if you ever get lost trying to find if you are in the
suburbs of Colombo or not. Here is a landmark you will never miss. Keep
an eye out for the garbage bags on the walls. When you see them you know
you are there.
One man's waste is surely another's signpost.