Friday, February 14, 2014

The Kunu Kunu Police!

Someone keeps sitting on the log outside our gate, smokes and leaves their cigarette butts on the ground.

I hate trash. Especially non-biodegradable trash like cigarette filters. I just hate trash of any kind.

Back in the 1970s I was sitting our VW hatchback at a 7-Eleven store waiting for my husband to come out. Before he did, some beefy, bearded guy walked out, opened his pack of cigarettes and threw the wrapper on the ground – right next to the trashcan!

I couldn’t help myself – I yelled out the window, “Litter bug!’ He looked at me as if I were speaking Farsi and so I yelled again, this time louder, “Litter bug!” He ignored me, got into this car that was parked next to ours and reached down beneath his seat and raised his hand – pointing a gun right at me! A gun! Wouldn’t it have been easier to pick up the damn trash?

I, of course, ducked.

My husband came out just as the guy’s car disappeared around the corner of the store. I was shaken, but I didn’t tell my husband about it for fear he would go all macho on me and chase the idiot and get us both shot. I kept my tongue.

Kept it for three decades. Until I reached Sri Lanka and saw people, oldsters and youngsters, throw trash out bus windows, as they walked down the road. Everywhere. Never once using a trash bin. Oops, there were no public trash bins anywhere when I got here in 2002.

This trash obsession of mine began on a trip from Michigan to Florida, taking old, country-roads. It was along one route through the hills of Tennessee, which followed a deep river gorge, that I saw trash hanging off trees like laundry – caused when the river’s level had risen to peoples’ backyards, where they tossed their trash; their old iceboxes, old mattresses, bottles - you name it, they threw it. The river carried their trash downstream but left tell tail signs on the trees. The landscape was sumptuous; beautiful valleys, green moss-covered trees – totally marred by people and their trash.

What I came to realize is the people of Tennessee didn’t have a trash system to haul away their garbage. Neither did Sri Lanka. But that didn’t mean people couldn’t put their gum wrappers in their pockets to throw away later at home.

When I first came to Sri Lanka, I stayed for a year and a half at a hilltop hotel, doing photographs for them and PR work, in trade for room and board. It was in the process of being built. They, too, had a trash problem. Each department; reception, housekeeping, the Ayurveda health center, the kitchen, threw their daily trash down the hills bordering their offices. I couldn’t bear it. I told the hotel management that foreigners would never stay there with all the trash around. Never!

So, they made me in charge of the trash. I became the trash police – the kunu kunu police - and went around daily talking myself silly to get people to stop throwing out their trash. It dawned on me that they, too, needed trash bins, so I convince management to buy bins and place them around the hotel. That wasn’t enough. We needed a place to dump the bins. So, with a bit of bartering with the local Municipal Council, the hotel staff painted the town’s watchtower in turn for permission to dump the hotel’s waste at the city dump.

But with what?

More pleading and I got a tractor and 3 workers to make daily rounds of the hotel and haul the trash to the dump. The Kunu Kunu Police was now a department of four and much envied by other staffers, because I also got them uniform shorts and T-shirts and rubber boots! We were cool!

But not everything was cool. There were 200 workers at the hotel; construction and staff. Not one put their trash in their pockets. I took it on to inform them about helping their planet. Big task.

Each morning I’d walk the hotel to check what department was throwing out what. One fellow went with me who spoke enough English to translate, along with my hand gestures, that I was not happy that they were continuing to throw trash down the hill. They ignored my translator and laughed at my attempts to speak their Singhala language.

I visited them every morning for a year and a half. Somehow, the message got across and the bins filled daily. I wanted to thank the workers for their efforts so I organized for all 200 of them to go to the rooftop directly across from the water tower at 5PM sharp. Good light at 5PM. Good luck getting all of them there on time!

With a view of the ocean and the entire hotel, I was perched on the tippy top of the water tower watching the rooftop where they were to meet. Two by twos they came. Ten by tens. Even the hotel dogs climbed the stairways to the rooftop. And they gathered by 5:15PM!

It was grand!

I printed out 200 of the rooftop photos and personally gave each worker their own print, telling them that it was my gift to them in exchange for stop throwing down kunu kunu!

One can only hope they remember the crazy Kunu Kunu Policewoman that terrorized them. Perhaps they might even be pocketing their gum wrappers to keep their island clean.

There are now trash trucks in most major cities of all the island. My own neighborhood gets pick-up every other day. --If I could just get those smokers who sit on the log by my front gate to stop throwing down their cigarette butts!

The log outside my garage.

Me and the Kunu Kunu Police, with the lifeguard.

Our tractor being painted!

Lousy photo, but you can see the
dogs going to the rooftop!

The rooftop photo!

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