Tijuana - My Family Travels

There were sunflowers growing out of the cracks of the rubble, and the blue sky beat down hot on the pavement. The van jostled and tumbled. Shannon and Adrienne were singing.

Cinderella said to Snow White, how did love get so off course…”

I leaned my forehead against the glass-cool window, and watched a dog, panting with wide-sprung ribs, slip by.

It was my first time in Tijuana, Mexico, and I hadn’t been prepared to experience what I encountered. You can talk about “poverty” and “culture-shock” all you want, but until you see it, you don’t really know. It’s the difference between reading a movie review and watching the actual movie; you know what you’re going to see, but you don’t understand the depth of the emotion it can make you feel.

The van kept going, juddering over the broken bits of road where the dust gapped through.

&rdquo Here we go,” said Greg. Voices stopped. The front of the van nosed up the base of a hill.

I say a hill, but it was not merely a gentle roll in the land. This hill was steep, the stuff of dreams, the stuff of roller coasters and nightmares. You peered up through the windshield, and you saw a wide road, pale beige, ending in sky. The road, the hill, was the horizon. The van’s gears ground, and we were leaned flat back against our seats. It was a terrifying sensation. Greg pumped the gas, and the van howled.

I clenched my fists, forced myself to stay still in my seat.

Please, God, don’t make us die.

I turned my head, away from the hill, and looked at the strangely tilted view presented to my rear window. A house- the sides thin plywood hammered together, the doorway showing darkness, coolness, shadows. A woman’s face appeared there. She watched our van as it laboriously moved past. A steep staircase of stacked tires bordered the road.

Another house, and another. A sharp twist away from the hill. The van stopped, shuddering.

Automatic doors opened; sunglasses were pressed upon faces; bags were grabbed, sunscreen sprayed. The heat hit like a damp pillow. Chaperones moved towards the work site to figure out what we’d be doing that day as we volunteered for Esperanza International- we were down for two weeks, building houses- while the rest of us stood outside the cars, tying shoes and tightening ponytails, and took in the view.

Standing here, from our position part way up the hill, you could see the vista spread out before us. The color palette was beige and brown and deep azure; you could see the opposite hillside, with its scant vegetation, mixed into clapboard houses and winding tire tracks. Everywhere it seemed there was a house, clinging onto the hill, defying gravity. They were painted yellow, orange, bright purple: the site could not be more dissimilar to a traditional American suburb if it tried. Here and there, among the houses and old scooped out cars, children and dogs wandered.

Gloves were tugged on. We hauled the cylindrical water cooler from the back of one of the cars, and propped it up on a few bricks in the shade. Rigo, one of the technicians, swung out of his pickup truck.

His teeth flashed white as he grinned at us, as we trooped towards the as-yet-unfinished foundation.

I darted a last glance down the hill before grabbing a shovel and joining my peers.

There were sunflowers growing out of the cracks of the rubble, and the blue sky beat down hot on the pavement.

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