“Please put your seats back and your tray tables in their full upright position. We’re approaching our final descent into San Diego,” droned a monotonous voice from above. The landing gear slowly stretched itself out into the beautiful Southern California sky. With my eyes glued to the window, my mind began to wander as I thought about the dramatic days ahead.
The classic SoCal look of palm trees, gated developments, and green lawns appeared out of the window of our Ford F-150 rental. Billboards in Spanish and hints of Mexico jumped out at me, and, suddenly, scenes of San Diego were replaced with scenes of a different country—a different world. My mind filled with scary images of the imminent Border crossing. I pictured U.S. border agents with huge guns, a gigantic fence similar to a modern-day Great Wall, and shady characters lined up on the other side, ready to risk it all for a life of opportunity. Once I saw the border in real life, though, I was pretty disappointed—we just drove right through.
Tijuana was like nothing I’d ever seen before. All I could see was trash, graffiti, mangy dogs running around, and scraps mixed with plaster to create a jumbled mess of what people call homes. Tired, bitter eyes stared at the flashy truck I was in. The scene was oddly reminiscent of the Hoovervilles in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath.
I finally reached my work site after a seemingly endless series of bumpy dirt roads that took us deep into West Tijuana. My group’s agenda for the day was simple; all we had to do was lay the cement foundation. Instead of calling in a cement truck, I had to help hand mix the cement, which called for carrying almost twenty, 110-pound cement bags down a mud staircase.
My first attempt at hauling a cement bag brought me to my knees, both literally and figuratively. That was embarrassing, especially since I was trying to pull off the professional construction worker look, an attempt I soon gave up. Seeing my difficulty, a local boy about my age nonchalantly walked up in his bright orange Muppets T-shirt, grabbed my cement bag, and effortlessly carried it down on one shoulder. Shocked, I started trying to show off the little Spanish I knew and told him, “Tu es muy fuerte!” multiple times, which was probably more annoying than complimentary.
The next three days of working are a blur for me now. Scenes of me hauling cement bags, hammering endless amounts of wooden planks together, tarring the roof, and painting the house have morphed into a nostalgic montage of my grueling construction work. When it was done, I pinched myself—a completed, lime-green 12 ft. by 24 ft. house was resting in the spot where a simple blue tarp used to be.
The final day, after waiting in a cramped car playing Mad Libs for five hours, I finally made it back into the States. I blinked, and, poof, out my window I took in images of strip malls, fast food, and the bright city lights of San Diego. As I chomped on a delicious In-and-Out burger, I could not believe how an arbitrary line on a map could have such lasting implications. That line separates Hollywood from drug cartels, greed from grit, comfort from challenge. Today, I love musing about that contrast—so beautifully captured in the changing views from the window of my rented Ford F-150.
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