Monday, March 7, 2011


The dusty and breathless air hit me like a pot of ripened stew. A small plume of smoke rises out of a gray corner, though it is no grayer than this or any other I corners I see here.  Faint fumes of plastic, battery acid and cleaning chemicals manage to travel through the apparent stagnant air into our lungs, making my nose wrinkle and itch but I hold on and persevere through my walk.  Garbage, gravel and dirt crunch under my feet, while my eyes take in the desolation.

A small bridge hovers just above the swirling stream below, pungent with the smell of rotten litter of unknown origins.  Two shallow banks, with slumbered shoulders and shifty slopes, try but fail to shed a colorless cover of everyday living carnages. The bridge seem to be made of flats of overlapping cardboard -- an impressive exhibit of mechanical ingenuity of its maker.  Yet somehow it fails to convey strength and stability, or encourage confidence in those of us  standing about.

Our translator steps on to show us it's safe, and we all cross gingerly but without the fanfare of danger or squeals.  We are carrying jugs of water to the neighborhood on the other side, one, two or three each -- as is the case of a few local teenagers buffing the shine off of their arm muscles.  

The neighborhood, so called yet it betrays those warm memories the word denotes.  No cookie cutter navajo and brick suburban developments surrounded by trimmed bushes and soaring palm waves.  No paved driveways and earth toned exteriors and trims. Not even over stuffed trash cans lining up at the curb. All I see is litters dumped off on the road, foaming at the bank, falling into the stream and burning off into plumes of smoke in the distance. A long line of more cardboard and some wooden pallets (a significant improvement since my last trip, perhaps in response to the stormy weeks we've been having here), erected on the narrow plane next to the stream to form rows of houses, or haciendas, as my friend "Sammy" calls it.

It took us not much longer than an hour to drive here, yet the scenery has changed so completely it might as well be another world.  The hills off to the far distance, against the sky it seems, has neat lines of housing along its ridges.  They seem more like the houses we see back home in San Diego.  But here, the cardboard contraptions we face have no roofs, disposals, or electrical supplies.  A few resourceful owners have pulled electric wires across their exteriors to provide rudimentary lights and they almost serve as a curious and intriguing form of decorations.

Linda, our group leader, knocked one flap of cardboard before us.  She must have been here before, as it opened the way a door would. A lady, small, weathered, but neatly dressed in a cotton t-shirt top, and long wrap skirt tucked at her waist, step out to greet us. Her smile blossomed throw the lines on her face. As we look down, a tiny little girl appeared behind her legs with a toothy smile. Her face is covered with grime, channels of sweat dripping down, and the eternal hopes of sunshine only a child could pull off.

"Buenos días! ¿Cómo estás?"

We tell her we are very well indeed, and hand her several jugs of water. She hold out a section of her bible, the only she has, and ask to pray with us.

"Her husband has just recently lost his job, and she has three children who are hungry all the time." Patrick, the translator, turned and told us the gist of her story.

We hand her several bags of rice and beans we've also brought, then we hold our hands, all sweaty palms and trembling hearts, to pray at the feet of tragedy, lyrical translations of each line we utter, and that glimmer of hope lit up by faith.

I sneak my eyes open to observe the girl who was writhing at her feet.  She has stopped fidgeting, and two pools of warm brown liquid are staring up at me in curiosity and wonderment.  My Spanish fails me, in telling her she is blessed, but our translator comes to the rescue.

"Dios te bendiga!"

Everything sounds so much better with the exotic twang, the ups and downs of the foreign tone.  The air is still hot, bearing into our skin, making me crave a sip of the burdensome load we are carrying. But we press on, after several more rounds of "bless you"s, and good days.  

Another makeshift door, another family, another story.  They are each unique in their struggles, just like us. Yet their dignities prevail, just like ours. Our steps become lighter with each door opened, as our walks approach that distant spark, a blink of fire light still burning.  It's almost afternoon when we finish, and return with empty hands and heavy hearts, laden with purpose. 

Postscript: This story occurred in Barrio Alama, a neighborhood in Mexico just outside of Tijuana. The families there are in desperate need of water, food and better housing.  Yet from every trip I am the one receiving more than I could ever give.  I wish I could do more justice in offering a glimpse of that here, but if I've failed this time, I will just try again.


  1. Thank you for sharing this with us. You made me feel what you were seeing with your eyes. Some may not give because they say, oh it is so little, it won't help. We need to remember that when someone is really poor, everything they need is something they can't have unless someone is willing to help.

  2. Thank you Barbra, for the encouragement and reading through the "feelings" and the "seeings". Believe me, I felt silly giving so little and receiving so much. Every trip :)

  3. Lovely post. I feel motivated to do something to help someone. I loved your voice in this!

  4. I respect those that bring what little they can into such a world of overbearing poverty, hunger, disease and corruption. The wonder and smiles you describe on the face of this child must be worth the pain and effort a hundred times over.

    I traveled through Mexico this last summer and was amazed by some of the poverty I was seeing, as in this case, barely kilometres from the American border, which was like stepping through a portal into another much more fortunate world.

    Thanks :)

  5. You have blessed us with your story and opened our eyes to things we are not accustomed to see.

  6. Hi Shopgirl -

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you'll stop by often.

    I like your blog and have become a Follower. :)


  7. Really awesome post. I felt like I was right there with you. You surely opened my eyes too. Thank you for sharing.

  8. The was a beautiful reminder of what it means to be human, to feel, to love, to have compassion.

  9. Thank you for this beautifully written post about the important things: a deep love and faith in God and compassionate action to help those in need who are not so different from ourselves.

  10. I love your writing style. I once visited Tiajanna and could see what you did. I'm glad you are the kind of person to reach out and help. It is also so nice to meet you!!

  11. You relayed so much in this post. The struggles, the need, the desolation ... but also, the hope, the love, the personal dignity and the beauty.

    I would definitely not consider that a failure.

  12. Tana - It's so great to hear that.

  13. Luke - Yes it was well worth it. The encouraging thing is that the group I went with did more than I described here over time. Glad to hear your side of the experience too.

  14. Leonora - Thank you, that is a high compliment to the story and the people in it. I appreciate it.

    Loree Huebner - I've struggled with "show" vs. "tell" so thank you for letting me know I've done OK this time.

    Angela Felsted - I was hoping to give some of that in this story, so it's great to hear your feedback on that.

    Jade - It's encouraging to hear that.

  15. Teri - thank you, it is great to meet you as well.

    Nari - Glad to hear it. I have to constantly remember there is only so much we (each) can do in a single day, and the important thing is to persist.

  16. Beautifully written and very emotive.
    I've read this just before starting work for the day - I think I'll approach things differently just for reading this. Thank you.

  17. Wow, thank you Sharon. That just made my morning a little different too. :)

  18. I think when you give hope to other people, the way you've done here, you're also reminding yourself to hope.


  19. You're a gem of a person for choosing such a worthy cause to volunteer for...makes the humane part of us all come alive....

  20. What a humbling and moving post,so beautifully written. ".. hit me like a pot of ripened stew." Your words made me feel as though I were standing right there beside you.

    You, dear lady, must have some wonderful Karma coming your way!

  21. "...empty hands and heavy hearts, laden with purpose." You conveyed that so beautifully in this post. And in light of what's going on in Japan, this is all the more powerful.

  22. Compassion. This post is full of compassion. Thank for your sharing your heart.




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