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.