Since running the LA Marathon back on Mar 21st, I’ve run exactly 4 times. After taking about a week to recover, I took to the local trail at the Lime Ridge Open Space preserve. It felt great to get away from traffic and off the pavement, and follow the ups and downs of a hilly trail. Then Easter break hit, and I haven’t run since.
This year, for Easter, My daughter and I volunteered to travel to Mexico to build homes for those in need. The day before Easter, we joined about 65 other adults and teenagers, as we caravanned to Tijuana, Baja California. This was our first year traveling with this group, made up of volunteers from local catholic churches in Concord, CA. Last year, we had made similar preparations to travel to TJ, but the violence related to the drug cartel wars had frightened many families. The decision to not go left me feeling empty. Although the drug war continues, the violence has been contained within the warring drug families. No harm has come to Americans, particularly the hundreds who travel to Mexico during the year on these type of missions. So the trip was on for this year.
After an overnight stop at Loyola-Marymount university, we arrived at the border north of Tijuana on Easter Sunday. I was traveling in a van with 8 teenagers and one adult. Although there was much frivolity on the US side, the quiet was deafening once we crossed into Mexico. As I looked back on their faces, all I saw were astonished looks. Most of these kids had never traveled out of state, much less to a 3rd world country. Though they tried to hide it, one could sense their shock at the deep contrast in living conditions. Here they were in a place where buildings are crumbling from disrepair, basic sanitation is not a given, and some houses are made of cardboard. there are scattered new government subdivision, but the housing units very small and very expensive.
Finally we arrived at our campsite on the grounds of one of the local churches. Over the next 4 days, we would build one new 3 bedroom house from the ground up, plus custom additions at two other sites. Together we put up the frame, applied stucco and new roofs, and installed drywall.
The neighborhood of La Morita is a mix of dirt and decaying roads. There are open markets selling corn on the cob, grilled meats, and various clothes. There are thin, flea infested, stray dogs everywhere. In the midst of all this are an amazing people. The love and support we receive from the community was overwhelming. Most people don’t have running water, some no electricity. Some do not even have enough to eat. Yet they invited us into their homes. The heads of the three homes we are working on, were all women. It was not clear how large each family was. However, they all joined us, in whatever way they could, particularly in applying stucco. What was most heartening were the kids. Many of the US kids have taken Spanish in school, their Mexican counterparts know a few English words. Yet, all they need to do is smile and they connected easily.
The work was at time difficult (it rained on the first work day, and very hot on the 3rd). But we had many willing hands and we accomplished much. At the end of the last building day, we gathered together with the families and had a simple home blessing. We were uneasy as we gathered out tools to leave. Over the last few days, we had opened our hearts to each other and had somehow become ‘family’. Later, as we returned to our campsite and finally crashed out, I felt emotionally and physically spent, yet spiritually energized.
On our final day, there was excitement in the air as we packed up. Traditionally, our group has a crafts party for the neighborhood kids on our departure date. Sure enough, there was a long line of kids and parents at the camp entrance. Once we opened the gates, the kids rush in to partake of the various craft activities, play with the giant parachute, or join in a soccer game. One activity which they all looked forward to, in particular, was creating custom foto frames. We take a foto of each kid with a digital camera and print it out on an attached printer and computer. For some families, this is the only family picture they may have.
After a few hours, we finally left to return home. This was the most difficult time for me. I didn’t want to leave. Although I looked forward to seeing my family again, like with any vacation, I dreaded the thought of returning to work, commutes, bills, mortgages, and mowing the lawn. We left behind new friends. Friends likes Guadalupe, smiling ear to ear as we finished her new home; or Jesus, who provided camp security and showed me even an old guy can hang with the young soccer studs; or Benjamin, the fastest dry wall installer I’ve ever seen. We left them with wishes that they stay well and strong. Wishes that they overcome their struggles and realize what they want in life. Wishes that God will keep them close. Wishes that we see each other again soon.
We returned to Concord, CA on Sunday, and I went back to work on Monday. It took me 4 days to shake off the emotional and physical fatigue. It took me another week before I finally strapped on my trail shoes for a short run. My knees had taken a beating and had finally recovered. And the trails have never looked so inviting……