Veredas - Trottoirs

Tag: Side thought

Highway 4

On the road from Sihanoukville, 21 September 2016

It is nearly 6pm as we drive northbound. Emerging from in-between Chuŏr Phnum Dâmrei, the Elephant Mountains, we enter the flood plains of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. In the distance, dark clouds are slowly creeping up from behind the mountains, taking the place of the setting sun. And as the traffic slows down, I notice more details on the roadside, the opaque green of dusted trees, the greyed whitewashed walls of abandoned, empty constructions, and piles of plastic and trash glistening in the evening light.

The road stretches 230 kilometres in imperfect north-south fashion, cutting through the provinces of Kandal, Kampong Speu, Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk. It is, for the most part, a narrow dual carriageway atop flood-eroded berms and scattered with potholes. The national Highway 4 is one of Cambodia’s main arteries, connecting the capital, Phnom Penh, to Sihanoukville, the country’s only international shipping port in the Gulf of Thailand. The road was paved with USAid money in the early 1980s after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and then privately managed as a toll road until earlier this year when the government decided to nationalise it in a populist move. There are fears this will lead to a worsening of the already poor condition of the road.

The road gets busier, its porous structure now bristling with motorbikes squeezing through cards, buses and trucks in all directions. “Look at the markets. So many markets!” says Juan peering out the windows of our minivan. As our pace continues to slow, I can see more clearly. There are markets, but only temporary ones. We are approaching a long strip of factories that I noticed a week ago when we were going the other way, but in the daytime they all seemed empty and bleak. Everything was hidden inside. Now it’s early evening and the end of a day’s work. People are pouring out onto the roadside. Stalls pop up at the factory gates, and from them, stretching all along the road, queues of people form, distant stories. A woman folds a newspaper and fits it inside her handbag, changes her posture, folds her arms over her chest, eyes fixated on the floor; a single man on a motorcycle rides slowly along the queue (offering a ride?); a group of three women sitting on a pale blue mat eat roasted meat from a bowl.

I sit in our comfortable air conditioned minibus watching this other world go by: now all is a tangle of buses, motorbikes, cars and trucks. Hundreds of trucks. Open-top, wooden-framed trucks. The trucks are full of people piled up like cattle. Those on the sides are barely able to stretch their hands out to hang onto the edges of the frame, as the wheeled machine embraces the heavily battered road.  Some wear masks to shield the dusty evening air, and all look out. Tired looks, their eyes lost in the distance of transit. A growing knot forms in my stomach. I start to feel intensely overwhelmed.

Human transport, Cambodia, September 2016

Human transport, Cambodia, September 2016

My attention goes back to the queues. Mostly women, with badges hanging tidily around their necks, walk out of the temporary market areas and line up to catch their ride home. There must be a system: how do people know which truck to get on? There are no signs, or stops, and each one surely goes to a specific neighbourhood, town or village, where everyone gets off at the same place. After people pile on, a rope or some other makeshift barrier is tied to hold the last ones in, to be sure they are at maximum capacity. As I watch I find myself thinking of the technicalities, the logistics. Maybe it’s easier that way. I feel powerless and guilty, here as tourists, just getting off a boat from a (polluted but precious) island, resting, diving, ‘disconnecting’ for a short while. I now understand why they call the seemingly simple minivan we’re riding in a ‘limousine bus’.

The denser it gets, the dustier it gets, vehicles drawing up puffs of black smoke and dust as they roar by. The air is beige and hazy, the heat of the day having long dried last night’s rain. Motorbike riders ride past with one hand covering their mouth. As in Vietnam, but less well-equipped, they ride in twos, threes or fours. The strip of factories is interspersed with repeated sets of international schools displaying signs in English and French, and shiny new banks, advertising microfinance opportunities. The markets are busy, selling tonight’s dinner and collections of clothes just off the production line. Further down the road, black hammocks fill in the yet empty cafés. Jobs, consumption, precarity, dreams, and lending…ingredients that sound all too familiar.

We see names of garment factories and industrial parks. The compounds here are in the hundreds. It is an area of the country that is less prone to flooding, and home to the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone which offers tax-reduced opportunities for businesses to set up shop. And lots of jobs. In 2014, workers protested against low wages, but as some labour conditions do improve, at least in terms of safety and working conditions, little attention is being paid to life just outside the factory gates.

After arriving at our destination the knots remain, still tight. So I decide to look into Highway 4 and its garment factories. It is a promising sector, with more and more factories being proposed and built, responding to a need for jobs in a rapidly urbanising country (and the ever insatiable fast fashion industry). I find very few references, however, to life on the other side of the fence, the danger of the factory workers’ daily commute. A few paragraphs buried in recent news of elections and political fallout: ‘Truck carrying garment workers crashes in Cambodia, 54 hurt’.

On the road, the sky now is dark and dust swells up from the busy ground. The dark suddenly becomes a canvas of shapes and textures as a thunderstorm in the distance illuminates the tormented sky.


Elona & Juan, October 2016

Dirty hands, clean streets: Shanghai’s qīngdàofū

Shanghai Qindaofu tricycle collector

Tricycle, Xuhui district, Shanghai

Lee la versión en español acá

I watch in silence as the caretaker piles up cardboard on his three-wheeled bicycle cart. Methodically, one after another, he rips the tape off the boxes and flattens them against his chest with his bare hands. Guō Tāo is 50 years old, but looks much older. Perhaps it’s the parsimonious wrinkles of his smile, or the unceremonious language of his hands. His are dry, scarred and sunburned hands; hands that tell the story of someone who has been doing the same thing for a long time. When the pile is about three metres high, he swings a couple of straps over the top and hooks them under the cart. It looks as if the whole thing is going to come down on one side. He goes around, pushing the structure here and there. Finally, he seems reassured and climbs on the saddle, ready to leave. Or not. At that very moment his wife, who until then had been watching him as attentively as I, shouts something at him, goes inside the house, and reappears with two bundles of old newspapers.

I am sitting on a stool in front of a bicycle parking lot at No 632 Baochang Road, which is both the address and name of a typical Chinese gated community in New Jingan district – formerly known as Zhabei district – north of Shanghai’s city centre. I came to help a friend carry out fieldwork for her PhD project on domestic food waste sorting behaviours in the Shanghai municipality.

“How much money does he get for the cardboard?” I ask. My friend turns to the wife, asks, and relays her message, “She says they give him ¥0.4 per kilo of cardboard.” “And for the newspapers?” “Newspapers are worth more, ¥1.2 per kilo. And ¥1.5 for the plastics,” she adds as I set my eyes on a linen bag full of crushed plastic bottles. “How much money does he think he will make on this round?” “That’s about ¥50,” says the wife. ¥50 today is about £5 or $7. I gauge the size of the pile on the cart. There are still more cardboard boxes inside the parking lot, next to the bag with plastics. Maybe he can make a good ¥100, perhaps even ¥150. But he will need to do more than one trip. No problem, Guō Tāo is used to it.

“His are dry, scarred and sunburned hands; hands that tell the story of someone who has been doing the same thing for a long time.”

“OK. But, surely that’s not their only income. How much they get for their work here, taking care of the bins, guarding the bikes, cleaning the common areas…?” My friend chats for while with the wife. The question is sensitive so I watch her gestures and tone as she searches for the right words. By now the caretaker has climbed off the saddle and come towards us, interested that we are interested. Or perhaps just puzzled by my many questions about something he sees as inconsequential, routinely ordinary. They speak with a thick accent, which makes my friend’s Mandarin somewhat intelligible to my untrained ears. “They get about ¥1500 per month.” His curiosity satisfied, Guō Tāo parts slowly, greeting us with his screeching three-wheeled bike. His wife goes back inside, sits on a chair and plugs her face to her mobile phone. I continue asking more questions to my friend.

“¥1500, that’s about £150 today. It doesn’t seem much to live on,” I comment. “No, it is very little. Sometimes the community committee leaders provide them with free accommodation, like the caretakers in this community, and they don’t have to pay the bills.” That free accommodation is, in Guō Tāo’s and his wife’s case, a small room of six square metres in the community’s bicycle parking lot, where they lived cramped with a bed, a wardrobe, a standing fan, and a big round table with a small radio and a flat 20’ TV set which makes impossible to open the small window facing the gate to the community.  Outside the room, next to the bikes, there is another table, on top of which cardboards and plastics gather dust. There is no kitchen, but a gas cooker on a foldable table by the entrance. There is no sink, shower or bathroom within the parking lot, so I guess they make use of the collective facilities.

£150 per month may not seem a lot – it’s not actually, but the caretakers at No 632 Baochang Road are of those who are better-off. Last month, as part of the same project, we visited another community in Putuo district. After finishing our round of waste sorting and analysis, my friend was on her way to the cleaner’s apartment to pay him for his help when I asked if it was OK for me to come along. “Yeah, OK…” she said, doubting, and then “but we must go quick, we don’t want the community committee to know. They don’t like we pay the cleaners directly”. So, I went to a store just across the street, and bought some juices and two package of Oreos, a small ‘thank you token’ for his help earlier, and we walk to the cleaner’s room.

We walked through a narrow corridor, its walls impregnating us with putrid smells, the floor covered with papers, plastics and cigarette butts, and crossed a small door into a dimly lighted space. As I enter their rent-free apartment, I’m greeted by Zhōu Háng (the smiley cleaner as I like to remember him) and the curious stares of his parents, also cleaners. They seem happy, and confused, to see a lăowài bringing them Oreos and drinks. Their home, an improvised apartment inside the community waste garage, leaves me confounded; to the left of the entrance, there is the mountain of domestic waste from households in the community, a compressing and loading machines, and some empty trash cans. To the right, a table, a blasting fan, and a loud TV tuned into the news channel. At the back of the space, lightened by two faint light-bulbs hanging from the ceiling, I glimpse a separate room with two beds; one double, one single. I can’t see any further, but imagine there is a latrine toilet at the back of one of the rooms. My friend pays the cleaner and we leave. Their curious and silent stares, their wide smiles, and the memory of the putrid smells, saturate my memory for a few days.

Shanghai Qindaofu, styrofoam

Shanghai, night collection of styrofoam

It is not uncommon in Shanghai, and in China for that matter, to see men and women, often at night, tumbling trash cans to the floor and sifting through the rubbish for recyclables. These are the same men and women one sees cycling past on rusted, electrically propelled three-wheeled carts, carrying all sorts of materials tied up in unprecedented, and hard-to-imagine equilibrium. They carry plastics, tins and metals, cardboard, newspapers and magazines, polystyrene containers, all sorts of glass, e-waste, construction debris and even green waste. One gets used to seeing them, a part of the urban landscape. I grew up seen cleaners, waste pickers and scavengers carrying cardboard on carts pulled by frail donkeys; “They are like the cartoneros back home,” I usually hear myself saying to my Chinese friends. Yet, I never took a step closer. I never actually stopped to listen to them. To learn about them.

In this part of the world, these men and women are known as qīngdàofū (清道夫), which are words for street cleaners, itinerary garbage collectors, tinkers, waste scavengers and fly-by-night waste pickers. Some work within communities, where they are provided with some sort of accommodation – as is the case of Guō Tāo, Zhōu Háng and their families – and others, many, work in the streets. They are also known as zabbaleen in Egypt, kabariwallas in India, cartoneros and cirujas in Argentina, cachureros in Chile, hurgadores in Uruguay, pepenadores and buscabotes in Mexico, basuriegos, traperos and chatarreros in Colombia, chamberos in Ecuador, and buzos in Costa Rica, hojalateros in Spain, basureros in The Philippines.

Regardless of what they are called or where they work, theirs is a labour-intensive, low-technology, low-paid, unrecorded and unregulated, job. In Shanghai, it is often carried out by older individuals, families who are for the major part illiterate, and immigrants from more rural areas. Unless they are specifically hired by a residential association to work in a community, they are self-employed and have little or no formal legal relationship with the municipal authorities or the recyclables traders. Occasionally, they may be hired for specific sports or cultural events, and that’s when they become the focus of media attention – as it happened during the Shanghai 2010 World Expo.

“They carry plastics, tins and metals, cardboard, newspapers and magazines, polystyrene containers, all sorts of glass, e-waste, construction debris and even green waste. One gets used to seeing them, a part of the urban landscape.”

In China, waste pickers remain largely outside the formal system and are at the lower echelon of the informal recycling sector, which comprises refuse and recycling collection and processing centres, waste collection cooperatives, middlemen such as craftsmen, brokers, traders and wholesalers, and industries buying the raw materials. Basically, the higher up in the ladder, the higher the value of the materials.

Being at the bottom, waste pickers are often exploited by recyclable traders, manufacturing industries and community leaders, the latter often charging fees to even access waste in residential areas. The qīngdàofū also face regular harassment and extortion from both the police and the municipal authorities, with much of the recent public policies and regulations relating to the sector being characteristically negative and repressive. The vulnerability of many waste pickers is further worsened by their status as immigrants, which means reduced access to social services. This is no small issue as the nature of the job is a guarantee for the development of occupation related health problems such as musculo-skeletal problems, respiratory and gastro-intestinal conditions (Wilson 2006).

Despite these unhygienic, unpleasant, humiliating, and hazardous working conditions, in a city like Shanghai, where the 26 million or so residents produce 7.36 million tonnes of domestic waste per day (IOSM 2014), the lack of an efficient and integrated formal waste management system have made the informal recycling sector a social issue, but also a necessity. Recent studies have estimated that 17 to 50% of domestic waste is recycled through this channel (Wilson 2009; Linzner and Salhofer 2014).

Nowadays, the informal recycling in China is driven by the existence of a resale market for the materials; while exact figures are not available, many major Chinese manufacturing industries still depend on the availability of cheap secondary raw materials. Although industries have been importing more and more recyclables from Europe and other regions, locally sourced plastics, metals and cardboard remain a significant resource. Furthermore, the informal sector also helps reduce costs of formal waste collection and transportation, and also provides an abundant supply of work with minimal expenditure per capita investments and infrastructure.

“… in a city like Shanghai, where the 26 million or so residents produce 7.36 million tonnes of domestic waste per day (IOSM 2014), the lack of an efficient and integrated formal waste management system have made the informal recycling sector a social issue, but also a necessity.”

It hasn’t always been like this. Between the 1950-80s, the collection and re-utilization of all usable ‘wastes’ as raw materials was efficiently managed owing to the scarcity of resources. Back then, the Ministry of Commerce was in charge of a massive recovery system for both industrial and municipal wastes with state-run material recovery companies (MRCs) in every city, and residents in urban areas would regularly take their reusable materials to these MRCs. Since the 1980s, the MCRs have been rapidly in decline, as has the habit of sorting waste materials; only a small part of residents still continue the practice of selling reusable and recyclable materials to itinerant waste collectors (Reference Here).

Thus, residents’ sorting behaviours have become a central factor for the development of sustainable municipal waste management systems with high recycling rates, a policy priority for national, regional and local governments (Wilson et al. 2009). Over the past 15 years, several legislations and pilot schemes have been developed to tackle waste sorting at the source. Examples of these are the Law on Circular Economy Promotion which includes a legal framework on waste reduction, reuse and recycling, or Shanghai’s policy on the promotion of domestic waste sorting and reduction at the source, that is at the communities’ households, effective since May 2014 (Li 2016). Local policies have also been accompanied by specific provisions within the country’s latest 5-year plans and government-led multi-city waste sorting pilot projects, such as the 2000 pilot project launched at the eight major cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Nanjing, Guilin, Xiamen, Hangzhou.

Many of these policies have not yet proven successful. However, most of them target the sorting of domestic food waste by individual residents, not the sorting, collection and recycling of other materials. This is precisely because the informal recycling sector ‘works’, and quite efficiently it seems; replacing it with an inadequate formal waste management system could threaten the livelihoods of millions of people. In Shanghai, there have been some tepid moves to regulate local garbage collection practices, such as the 2003 pilot project launched by the Shanghai Public Sanitation Bureau and which aimed to reduce fly-by-night waste scavengers by providing uniforms and a fixed salary to 650 immigrant workers across 30 communities in the Huangpu district. While this initiative has now extended to other districts, many are still waste picking and scavenging outside the system.

Guō Tāo’s and Zhōu Háng are qīngdàofū and their hands are dirty. That’s OK because the streets of Shanghai are clean.

 Further reading:

Shanghai Regulates Garbage Collecting, China Internet Information Center. 23 July, 2003. Available at:

Wilson, D.C., Velis, C., and Cheeseman, C. (2006). Role of informal sector recycling in waste management in developing countries, in Habitat International. Vol. 30: 797–808.

Wilson, D.C., Araba, A.O., Chinwah, K., and Cheeseman, C.R. (2009). Building recycling rates through the informal sector, in Waste Management. Vol. 29: 629-635.

Shanghai Issues Rules for Domestic Waste Separation and Reduction, Information Office of Shanghai Municipality (IOSM). 23 April, 2014. Press Conference. Available at:

Linzner, R. and Salhofer, S. (2014). Municipal solid waste recycling and the significance of informal sector in urban China, in Waste Management & Research. Vol. 32(9): 896–907.

Ways Forward from China’s Urban Waste Problem, The Nature of Cities, 1 February 2015 (by Judy Li) Available at:

Fei, F., Qua, L., Wena, Z., Xueb, Y., and Zhanga, H. (2016). How to integrate the informal recycling system into municipal solid waste management in developing countries: Based on a China’s case in Suzhou urban area, in Resources, Conservation and Recycling. Vol. 110: 74-86.


Bicycling and recycling in Shanghai: Riding with Shanghai’s ‘rubbish entrepreneurs’, Financial Times, 15 March 2010 (by Patti Waldmeir). Available at:

Government Policies:

MOC, 2006. Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic China, Suggestions onestablishing the complete and advanced recycling systems of discarded goods.(in Chinese).

MOC, 2007. Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic China, Measures for theadministration of recyclable resources recycling. (in Chinese).

600 metros y mil grullas de papel

Grullas de papel. Monumento a la Paz de los Niños, Hiroshima

Grullas de papel. Parque Memorial a la Paz. Hiroshima, 12 de mayo de 2016.

Kore wa bokura no sakebi desu,
koreha wa watashitachi no inoridesu
Sekai ni heiwa o kizuku tame no.

Este es nuestro llanto,
esta es nuestra plegaria:
Para construir paz en el mundo.

El primer grupo de chicos se pone de pie y camina hasta donde está la estatua. Son unos quince y, a pesar del calor, van todos de uniforme; las chicas con sus blusas blancas de cuello azul estilo marinero y faldas plisadas, los chicos con sus trajes negro carbón de corte mandarín abotonados hasta el cuello. Rigurosa sobriedad del uniforme que rematan con zapatos negros las chicas y zapatillas blancas los chicos, y me recuerdan a algún personaje de manga.

Tres estudiantes pasan al frente y comienzan a leer un mensaje escrito en un papel color azul que se van pasando de mano en mano. Cuando terminan, uno de los profes se acerca y les entrega lo que a primeras parece una guirnalda, pero que en realidad son centenares de pajaritos de origami con los colores del arco iris entrelazados entre sí y atados con un hilo poliéster. Uno de los estudiantes lo recibe y se va a colgarlo en las vidrieras detrás de la estatua, donde otros miles de pajaritos de distintos tamaños y colores son expuestos.

La estatua es un pedestal de cemento de tres pilares de unos nueve metros sobre la que restan tres figuras de bronce. Arriba, la de una chica levantando una grulla entre sus manos y a los costados un chico y una chica aparecen volando. Debajo del pedestal, una campana de la que cuelga otra grulla dorada de bronce. Se trata del Monumento a la Paz de los Niños construido para conmemorar a Sasaki Sadako, una de las más de 140.000 víctimas de la bomba atómica que cayó en Hiroshima el 8 de agosto de 1945, a las 8.15 AM.

Sadako, que sólo tenía dos años cuando fue expulsada por una ventana por la fuerza de la explosión, murió diez años después de leucemia. Un año antes de morir, una compañera del hospital le contó sobre la leyenda; ‘Si doblas mil grullas de papel, se te cumplirá cualquier deseo.’ Sadako no dobló mil, sino 1.400 grullas. Y hoy, siguiendo el ejemplo de sus compañeras de colegio que continuaron doblando grullas para Sadako, todos los días miles de grullas de todos los sitios del mundo llegan hasta este lugar para recordarla.

Grulla de bronce, Monumento a la Paz de los Niños. Hiroshima.

Grulla de bronce en el Monumento a la Paz de los Niños, Parque Memorial a la Paz. Hiroshima, 12 de mayo de 2016.

La grulla siempre ha sido símbolo de longevidad, y eso es lo que quería Sadako. Pero con el tiempo al pájaro de papel se le ha dado otro significado – la paz.

Ahora le toca a otra clase. Estos van sin uniforme y con gorras de color rojo. Se paran frente a la estatua y ahí se quedan, quietos y en silencio, contemplándola. De repente una de las chicas grita algo, después otro chico, y luego otros dos al mismo tiempo. Y así todo el grupo antes de ponerse a cantar. Detrás de ellos, otras clases de primaria y secundaria esperan su turno sentados en el suelo.

Llegamos a Hiroshima a la madrugada en un colectivo nocturno proveniente de Osaka. Mi primera imagen de la ciudad fue la luz dorada del sol levantándose por detrás de las montañas. Luego de dejar nuestras mochilas el hostal, caminamos hasta el parque del memorial. A primera vista, Hiroshima resulta una ciudad típica japonesa; edificios altos y de arquitectura moderna, calles estrechas y limpias, sin vereda, con máquinas dispensadoras de bebidas en las esquinas, y por las que pasan bicicletas holandesas, hombres y mujeres de traje impecable, y chicos de uniforme con sus mochilas rígidas y cargadas de libros.

Resulta embarazoso pensar que llegué a este lugar esperando ver más restos de destrucción, más catástrofe, más cicatrices de bomba. ¿Dónde están los edificios dilapidados y los puentes derrumbados? ¿Dónde están los escombros?

Si bien el resurgimiento de esta próspera ciudad se explica en parte por la gestión estadounidense y británica durante la ocupación a partir del  ’45 y la expansión económica de los ‘60 y ‘70, se debe también al esfuerzo y la solidaridad de los mismos residentes que empezó al día siguiente de la aniquilación. Fotos en blanco y negro en el museo de la bomba muestran como, a horas de la explosión, ya llegaban voluntarios a asistir a los sobrevivientes. En menos de 24 horas, al menos un 30% de hogares ya contaban con electricidad, dos días después el tranvía ya estaba de vuelta en funcionamiento, y para mediados de agosto de 1945 varias líneas telefónicas ya habían sido reparadas y otras nuevas puestas en funcionamiento.

A medida que nos acercamos al epicentro de la explosión, como si fueran migas de pan esparcidas por las veredas, nos vamos encontrando con indicios del traumático pasado de esta ciudad; un puente inmaculado que sobrevivió a la explosión, un edificio de grandes almacenes que hace 71 años fue volado a pedazos pero que cuya estructura milagrosamente no se cayó y que hoy tiene un cartel gigante de Luis Vuitton, y a una cuadra del parque del memorial, un cartelito chiquito sobre una vereda a la sombra que te revela que exactamente ahí, a unos 600 metros de altura, explotó Little Boy (El Niñito).

Un ciclista aparca su bicicleta frente al esqueleto de ladrillos y hierros del Domo de la Bomba-A, y apoya un cartel contra la rueda trasera; No more Hiroshimas (No más Hiroshimas). A unos metros, apoyado sobre un árbol, un hombre vestido con un polo verde y pantalón tipo pescador charla con un periodista y un cameraman en lo que parece ser un descanso durante la producción de un documental. Y más allá, al lado del canal que cruza el parque, una mujer exhibe varias carpetas en distintos idiomas. Agarramos una y hojeamos. Son relatos en primera persona, extractos de Wikipedia, diagramas del área de explosión, explicaciones técnicas de los efectos de radiación y fotos horrorosas de chicos nacidos con deformidades. Nos volvemos para ver el domo desde otro ángulo. Un andamiaje rodea gran parte de la estructura y un cartel nos informa que están montando soportes para prevenir su derrumbe ante un posible terremoto. Lo que la humanidad no pudo tirar abajo, no vaya ser que la naturaleza lo termine haciendo.

Sankichi Toge, poeta y pacifista sobreviviente de la bomba, ganó una competición en 1946 lanzada por un periódico local que llamaba a residentes a presentar proyectos para la futura reconstrucción de la ciudad. De su visión nació el parque del Memorial de la Paz de Hiroshima. Y el parque respira eso, paz. Lleno de árboles y espacios verdes, uno se sorprende, y agradece, por la falta de esos referentes turísticos hoy tan comunes; no hay cafés, no hay restaurantes, no hay quioscos, no hay negocios de suvenires y postales. Uno tiene que caminar unos 15 minutos afuera del parque para toparse con el primer supermercado. Es un lugar de contemplación, de viejos jugando al Go, de jardineros atentos a los arreglos florales, de limpiadores, de turístas que caminan en silencio sacando fotos, y de grupos de estudiantes que se dedican a entrevistar a los extranjeros para practicar su inglés.

Sin embargo, la siempre imponente presencia del Domo de la Bomba-A, que supo ser la sede de la promoción industrial de la prefectura de Hiroshima, y los estudiantes que se te acercan para entrevistarte, te recuerdan constantemente dónde estás y porqué viniste acá. Apenas llegamos al parque, una chica se me acercó y me entrevistó. Al pasarme el formulario para que escribiera mi nombre, pude leer las instrucciones del profesor en inglés: ‘Make eye contact,’ ‘Smile,’ ‘Speak loud and clear’ y ‘Remember to say Thank you and Goodbye’. Cuando le devolví el formulario me devolvió un ‘Thank you’ con una sonrisa y  se fue pegando saltitos con sus compañeras de clase. Más allá del ‘what is your name?’ o el ‘where are you from?’, algunos de los chicos te queman con preguntas más profundas. Hace un rato otra chica nos preguntó, ‘Hay gente que piensa que tirar la bomba atómica sobre Hiroshima y Nagasaki era necesario, ¿usted qué piensa?’, o ‘¿Qué emociones le ha producido visitar Hiroshima? ¿Es la primera vez que viene?’

Domo de la Bomba-A, Hiroshima.

Domo de la Bomba-A, Parque Memorial de la Paz. Hiroshima, 12 de mayo de 2016.

El gobierno de Estados Unidos no pide perdón por haber tirado la bomba. De hacerlo, se leería como si estuviesen perdonando los crímenes de guerra de Japón. El mayor argumento a favor de haber tirado la bomba se basa en una cuestión ‘práctica’ y va sobre que esa era la forma más humana y ‘efectiva’ de hacer capitular a Japón y terminar con la guerra del Pacífico con la menor cantidad de casualidades posibles. Otros, como China, van más lejos y dicen incluso que la catástrofe fue responsabilidad sola de Japón que provocó la bomba con sus crímenes de guerra a sus vecinos del sudeste asiático. Japón mismo reconoce su responsabilidad, aunque tampoco pide perdón, y condena el hecho como un crimen de guerra y holocausto. Corea del Sur, en cambio, pide que por favor no se sobre-victimice a Japón y que no se olviden de las víctimas coreanas de la bomba, muchas de ellas trabajadores forzados que en ese momento se encontraban en Hiroshima, y que Japón suele llamar ‘voluntarios’. Y así.

Mientras se discute lo absurdo, sobre si una bomba atómica era necesaria, mientras se echan la culpa unos a otros y se pasan las responsabilidades como postas en una carrera, al menos tres hechos continúan siendo una lamentable realidad. La  primera es que pedir perdón sigue siendo un juego político.

La segunda es que, a pesar de la ratificación de varios tratados estableciendo zonas libres de toda fabricación y prueba de armas nucleares y los llamados a la paz y al desarmamiento nuclear total, la proliferación de armas de destrucción masiva sigue siendo un hecho en crescendo. Rusia continua siendo una amenaza atómica, a Francia que las políticas verdes no se atrevan a tocar la energía nuclear, ¿cómo se van a atrever?, en Estados Unidos triplican su presupuesto en armamiento nuclear, Iran es un enigma, Corea del Norte que lanza cohetes al cielo con capacidad para albergar cabezas nucleares como si se tratase de cuetes en año nuevo, y China saca a pasear preventivamente submarinos al Pacífico.

Por último, y más allá de todo esto, muchos temen que la memoria y las experiencias de lo que realmente implica una bomba nuclear se diluyan y desaparezcan con el paso del tiempo. La media de edad de los 183.519 hibakusha, sobrevivientes de la bomba, es superior a los 80 años. Les queda poca arena en el reloj.

Mientras, el Museo del Memorial de la Paz de Hiroshima, con su horrífica y a la vez brutalmente honesta exhibición, se encarga de que esto no suceda haciéndonos sentir el pasado. Ya no solo con las fotos de la destrucción de edificios o las fotos en blanco y negro del hongo de la explosión, sino con la escandalosa crudeza de unos maniquíes de chicos caminando como zombis con los dedos de las manos derretidas y la ropa quemada, lo surrealista de unas cucharas de plata derretidas y pegadas por el calor, lo grotesco del triciclo de un nene calcinado, o incluso lo inverosímil e inconmensurable como la sombra humana de alguien que existió y se desvaneció en cuestión de segundos sobre unas escaleras de piedra.

Salimos del museo, mareados de pensamientos y atragantados de emociones. En el pasillo que da a la puerta de salida, hay varios libros para dejar comentarios y pilas de formularios para una petición a las Naciones Unidas de los Alcaldes por la Paz llamando a la abolición total de las armas nucleareas. Una estudiante se acerca a uno de los libros, saca un lápiz de su cartuchera y escribe en japonés e inglés:

なのに, 平和の道まだ遠い
And yet, 71 years on, we are still so far from peace

Y aún, 71 años después, seguimos estando lejos de la paz

Más sobre Hiroshima y Nagasaki:

Hybrid cards, coal trains and big bellies

A traveller’s insights into the challenges of urbanization in Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia’s political economy.

We are sat at Chuka’s desk while she adds up numbers on a large notebook: we are investigating options for a short tour during our second week in Mongolia, now that we have our visas for China. ‘It depends how far you want to go, the most expensive thing is the gas’ she says to us in French, but it will be difficult for her to plan a very good trip with only four days to spare, and we would spend much of it in a van. We think about the options while she turn to breastfeed her son; her apartment also serves as guest-house and office.

She has convinced us that her small family-run business is truly aiming to provide sustainable and responsible tourism options for the growing influx of travellers to Mongolia. Her agency is a member of the community-based tourism network, and is committed supporting local environmental initiatives. We learn that the government has announced that ‘tourism is now a strategic area for economic development’, yet another sign of increasing reliance upon foreign investment.

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