Between the silence, the cold air, and the chiaroscuros of dawn, Omar Menchaca rows over the channels of Xochimilco, one of the last vestiges of pre-Hispanic Mexico, protecting it with his own hands from the contamination left by thousands of visitors.
As his single-seater kayak passes, herons and pelicans take flight through the morning mist, suspended over the waters. To the south, the 5,000-meter-high Popocatepetl volcano, located between Mexico City and Puebla, crowns the scene.
Menchaca, 66, seems to row a long way from the highway network that surrounds the Mexican capital and its nine million inhabitants.
“The peripheral is only 600 meters away,” smiles this skinny retiree, who left his car in the pier parking lot after leaving his home in Coyoacán, a Mexico City neighborhood, before dawn.
Regularly, Omar leaves his oars to pick up the garbage with his hands; waste, bottles, and packaging that floats on the surface of the water in the middle of aquatic flowers.
“I came to this place because I did my training for my competitions here,” recalls this veteran athletics champion. “Over time, unfortunately, I began to notice that the canals were covered with garbage.”
The canoe continues on its way along the banks of the chinampas, a kind of floating orchards.
Xochimilco, its canals, and chinampas are the last trace of pre-Hispanic Mexico-Tenochtitlan, a network of islands and islets on Lake Texcoco, which has dried up over the centuries. In 1987, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Omar knows history like the back of his hand and shares it with tourists when he organizes canoe tours. He loves to see the children imitate him in the collection of waste.
Xochimilco is also famous for its trajineras, a kind of brightly colored gondolas, which couples, families, or groups of friends take on board every weekend, drink beer and eat tacos to the sound of the emblematic mariachis.
“Xochimilco is visited by approximately 6,000 people on weekends. Unfortunately, they are not careful to protect the area”, regrets Omar.
Oar in hand, the retiree curses when he comes across motorized boats.
“The channels are low, half a meter deep. A motorboat that can carry up to 40 people brings noise, oil, and gasoline contamination in the wetlands, decreases oxygenation,” he explains.
At noon, Omar returns to the pier through a vast canal with an impressive view of Ajusco, a hill that rises some 3,900 meters within the limits of the federal capital.
His canoe arrives overflowing with waste and garbage. Omar greets a man who collects mud, a natural fertilizer, he explains.
“Those at the pier should pick up all the garbage and not Don Omar,” says farmer Noé Coquis Salcedo, 69.
On dry land, Omar dumps the waste he’s collected into an adjoining dumpster next to the pier’s parking lot where, that day, police officers behind the wheel of a training vehicle practice controlled drifts.
Local authorities assure that they also take care of the canals and chinampas of Xochimilco.
“The maintenance of canals and apantles is constant, which strengthens the ecosystem and allows free navigation for the benefit of producers in the region and the tourism sector,” says the mayor of Xochimilco, José Carlos Acosta, who says that there are 160 kilometers of canals that they maintain.
“Canals are paths”, reflects Omar, sitting at a restaurant table on the edge of the pier, when it is time to taste an enchilada after hours of physical exertion.
“That’s why when I see this garbage I try to recover it so that whoever comes can enjoy a clean trail,” he says.
Under the warm January sun, young people dive from the top of a trajinera moored at the pier.
“If we don’t do something for our planet, the time will come when…” Omar stands for a moment with his hands outstretched in a gesture of helplessness. “There will be very little left to enjoy.”