The Humanitarian Experience: Friendship Bracelets

I have failed to post about my most recent trip to Baja for one reason. It was overwhelming. There were many small experiences, each having so much depth making it hard to express even verbally. So I have decided to start with one of the many experiences and work my way from there. FRIENDSHIP BRACELETS…

Razz 2012

My friendship started in 2009 with a girl named Lucero. When I first met Lucero I was on my first house build and my Spanish knowledge was restrained by 3 years of high school courses and 4 years of neglecting the language. Upon moments of our arrival to the neighborhood where we will build for the week, various Mexican curios and trinkets appear, lining the streets surrounding the lots we work on. The vendors sit and wait a short distance from where we work, they wait for the Americans to take a stroll through the dusty neighborhood over to their tables of colorful goods. They wait in the strong winds with their families and bake in the sun. They are diligent vendors. The people selling these tourist curios in the area where we are working are not price gouging. They do not hike up a price to a ridiculous amount of Pesos and in return we do not try to haggle them down to a lower price. It is as if there is a common agreement of respect between the visitors and vendors.

Back to Lucero. I remember the first time I saw Lucero. She and her sisters were setting up tables and precisely arranging their merchandise in an organized manner. They were preparing for the day, just as we were organizing our work site. After we finished organizing and had worked several hours on the home we were building, my husband and I walked over to the tables and began to browse. Lucero and her sister patiently waited for us look (no pressure sales). I chose a simple woven bracelet paid 1 dollar and went back to the house build.

During lunch time I noticed that there was a group of women standing in a circle around the Van that Lucero’s family had transported their merchandise in. There was cooing and awing along with soft whispers. With my PB&J and Oreo cookies in hand, like a true outsider, I walked up to the van to see what was going on. There lay in the arms of one of my female team members was a 1 week old infant. My mother who was also on this trip was asking how old the child was and when our trip leader asked what the child’s name was they said she (the infant) had not been named. The family started to ask us what our names were in an effort to find a name for the baby. They laughed as they tried to pronounce some of the names we gave, and we laughed with them. As I looked around at that moment in time I saw women at their best. Women nurturing a child. The baby was Lucero’s youngest sister.

I spent many of my breaks throughout the rest of the week near the stand. Occasionally my time was spent looking at the baby and other times speaking broken Spanish with Lucero. I asked her how old she was – 15. I asked her if she went to school – Yes she did. I asked her where she lived – Triki and I asked her how much the bracelets cost – $1.

After the last nail in houses we build is driven, we give our teams a day off and the opportunity to explore the little town we work in. There is a small flea market in the park where paletas and churros are sold. It was there that I noticed a familiar face. It was Lucero. She and her family were selling their merchandise there. We timidly wave hello to one another and I bought one last bracelet to bring the trip to an end.

The following year in summer 2010, I helped to build a second home. As usual we began with organizing our work site and like clock-work the vendors showed up, only this time I saw her and recognized her. Lucero smiled at me and waved. I began to remember the baby and the van and the bracelets from the year before and walked straight to her. I went through the basic greeting and smiled, and soon I ran out things that I was able to communicate to her, leading to awkward nodding and hand gestures that make very little sense. The ability to communicate is very important in any relationship, but it is not always necessary.

Bundles of yarn which signify of Baja for me.~ Razz 2012 ~

I returned one last time that same year in Autumn (2010) and of course Lucero and her family were there, waiting for us and the team we would bring. At the end of the Autumn trip I told her I would return the next summer but I did not. Life took hold in the form of a new job and I could not make the trip in 2011. My husband would go on 3 trips without me from 2011 to this summer 2012. Every time he saw Lucero she would ask for me, and when he would try to buy me a bracelet she would refuse his money and give the small bracelets to him for free. It broke my heart that I could not be there to see her and thank her. It broke my heart that I was not able to see this friend that was asking for me and it broke my heart that I could not be a part of something as big as this. It made me realize that although, we are there for only a week at a time, and although it is like a sprint the entire time we are working and helping, we truly are making an impact. Many times we are making an impact in ways that we may find to be unlikely.

Even more than all good things we try to do, the trip has left a lasting impression on me personally. It has created a friendship that would have not been possible. I am not the only one who has a friendship evolve despite language barriers on this trip. I see it happen every time we return, team members will tell us how they are looking forward to visiting or finding a person that they met on the trip the previous year.

This summer when I journeyed back to Baja she was there, waiting for us all to return. Waiting for the opportunity to sell and maybe even to meet up with me again. When I saw her I could almost say for certain that time stopped that moment. Up and down our feet left the ground and finally we embraced with laughter. Had she thought as much about me as I had about her? Maybe. But what mattered the most at that moment was that I was back with a very important person. I tried to give her as much of my time possible this past trip, and she did the same for me. She attempted to teach me how to weave the bracelets that she sells and laughed happily at my feeble attempts. I grinned the entire time. As I began to leave she asked my favorite color, she grasped my forearm and tied the purple and black bracelet to my wrist. There it sits today.

When I left this time we both cried. I cried because I cannot promise I will be back anytime soon. I cried because she fills my heart with joy, as it is her who passes through my mind in my memories of these trips. She is 18 now and from the cell phone in her hand (we have her number now) and the smile on her face an in her heart, she is doing better than most who live there. I hope to return one day to my friend Lucero.

This friendship will be greater than the miles between us and whether we live to see one another again, I will remember to the end her friendship bracelet.


The Humanitarian Experience: Crappy Jobs are Good Jobs

Sometimes you get stuck with the crappy jobs in life, and it is completely fair.
One of my most memorable trips that I have taken was to Tijuana, Mexico, in the summer of 2006. We saw the beach, ate tacos and got to spend a week in a trash dump. The dumps of Tijuana are not only a place where some earn a livelihood but it is also a place called home by many of Tijuana’s residents.
It is in the giant landfill that people work, live, strive for something better and even die. Within the dumps there are communities full of life and drama; there are churches and there is crime. It is here that there are extraordinary aspects of life that you will most likely not find in the contemporary cities of this earth.
Residing in this unlikely place was a church that was in dire need of a good scrub down. This meant painting, building an add-on for storage and cleaning an entire church that served the community. Everyday the church serves hot meals to hundreds of children, many of whom will not eat the rest of day. They provide support and child services to the women, children and families of the community and because of all they do the church was dirty.
The church leaders worked very hard to keep the facilities as clean as possible in the dumps, but due to the filthiness of the area it is inevitable that the grime will slowly creep in. Cleaning the church from top to bottom is an overwhelming task that required multiple people and days to complete. The dinning area where the children ate their hearty breakfasts, had white floor tile that was on the verge of becoming brown and the walls of the classrooms looked as if they were painted in the style of ombre brown, not necessarily the healthiest look.
The first morning that I arrived with my fellow do-gooders, we were each given specific responsibilities. There was painting to be done, building to be accomplished and a children’s fair to be put on by the end of the week. I would have loved to organize a children’s fair. Going around and inviting the community to our fair, while designing games and shows for the kids. It would have been extremely exciting and fun. But I along with 2 other lucky candidates, were presented with the task of scrubbing the kitchen floor.
Those brownish tiles soon became a memorable view of Mexico for me. The kitchen and dining area where we cleaned was much smaller than actually needed as it was packed to the brim every morning with hungry tummies. Because of the lack of space, we had to wait until breakfast was served and completely cleaned up to begin our project. After sweeping every last crumble and scooting out the kiddos we were finally able to start. We were handed buckets, bleach and brushes. With our heads down and on hands and knees we scrubbed and scrubbed. tile by tile we made the floor shine against the dark brown grout. 2 days in and we had finally hand scrubbed to perfection the tile of the kitchen floor.
Bringing in a church coordinator we impressively showed off our hard work and eagerly hoped to be able to join in on the planning of the children’s fair. Her response was,  “Looks good so far, but the grout needs to be done as well.” After taking a closer look we began to notice that the dark brown grout was actually white grout. The spaces between the tiles were dirtier than the tile themselves. With a strained smile, we looked at one another and began to find a brush that would scrub out the grime.
By the end of the week my knees were sore, my back was killing me and the children had a clean place to eat and play. The fair went amazing and the painted walls and storage building were all completed in time. The church and all the members were extremely grateful. For the church members having a clean place to gather in refuge is important, but because of the meager wages they earn gathering recyclables, there is not much time to do anything else but work.
Before we left the church, I asked the pastor, when the last time the floor looked so great. His response was, “4 months ago.”
Every 4 months, that floor is scrubbed to a gleaming white, and everyday it is mopped and swept. Every 4 months a team is brought in and some lucky soul like myself is tasked to scrub. It can seem unfair when your given the job, that looks like it is the lowest on the totem pole of things to do, and that is exactly how I felt the entire week. But it would have been unfair to the church for me to say, “Yes I will help, but not with that!”
When I came home I began to realize how petty my “fairness of the world” doctrine was. Looking back I realized that the floor that we cleaned was so integral to the work that was being done there everyday. The children that the church feeds, need a clean and healthy place to crawl, to eat and to play while they come for what may be their only meal of the day. It was not in my authority to determine the need for cleanliness based my desires.
So as I said before, sometimes you get stuck with the crappy jobs in life, and it is completely fair.