Thursday, August 18, 2005

Of Mexico and M-16's

"Wow, Mike, this is pretty heavy duty stuff."

We were bouncing down a rural dirt road in Mexico that was getting worse by the mile. I was sitting in the back of a VW van belonging to Mike, a friend of mine from college. Bored, I had picked up a pamphlet lying in the back and started flipping through it. It was about how to survive gas warfare, with lots of handy diagrams as to how to get your chemical protection suit on right and your mask sealed so as to avoid a very messy death. Mike was a Marine reservist, and the pamphlet was apparently part of his training.

"If you think that's heavy duty, then don't look in the cabinet." Mike said.


"Why, what's in the cabinet?"

"I checked out an M-16 for target practice at the base range yesterday, and forgot to check it back in."

I froze, or at least sat as still as you can while bouncing down a dirt road that didn't seem to have been graded since dirt was invented.

"Mike! You have an M-16 in the cabinet?"


"Mike, you know that if the Federales catch us with an M-16, we'll be in Mexican prison for the rest of our foreseeable lives?"

"Yeah," said Mike unconcernedly, not taking his eyes off the road.

We were in Mexico to do relief work. Every couple of weekends, a group of us would get together, put well-drilling equipment on top of the van, flip a boat over the equipment, and then smuggle it down to a remote barrio. In this little village, people had to walk half a mile to get water from a shallow well that was polluted. We had a little hand well-drilling rig that used eight-foot lengths of pipe to drill, so every eight feet you had to stop the rig and install a new piece. We had been working for a couple of months, and had succeeded in getting down almost a hundred feet, but hadn't found water yet. The local authorities knew about our little public works project, but they hadn’t tried to interfere, because they were taking credit for it in the local newspaper.

Mike and I were both students at a Christian college a little north of the border. Despite my annoyance with him at that moment, I had a lot of admiration for Mike. At the college, we did a lot of talking about Christianity, a lot of reading, a lot of writing. But his was a strong, muscular version of Christianity that involved long dirt roads and hard, dusty work. His was a Christ of the barrios. I badly wanted that kind of faith for myself.

Mike lived a couple doors down from me in the dormitory. He had done missionary work in Africa. This was the guy who used to yell "Clear!" just before using an African blowgun to shoot poison-tipped darts down the length of the hallway into plastic milk jugs he set up at the far end. He was cheerfully insane. So the whole M-16 incident wasn't really much of a surprise.

I have so many memories of that time. I remember drinking cold Mexican Cokes in bottles to wash down the dust. I also remember drinking the water once or twice, despite all the “don’t drink the water” stories. And yes, I did catch something from it that stayed with me for months. I remember children, lots of children, who didn’t have any toys but could entertain themselves for hours with a piece of rope. Of course, when we were there, the primary entertainment was us, the gueros. El Oso was what they called Mike: “the bear.” Their favorite game was to sneak up behind him and tackle him and try to throw him into the ten-foot deep pit that was next to the well-drilling rig, where the people of the town had started digging for water by hand. Eventually he would topple over the edge, laughing, with seven or eight kids clinging to him.

I remember eating menudo, intestine soup, for the first and last time, which may have had something to do with my eventually becoming a vegetarian. I also remember handmade tortillas and the best fried chicken I ever had, eaten in the home of one of the local families. Sitting in the dim, smoky lantern light around a guitar, singing an impromptu Spanish translation of “Wild Thing” (Loca Cosa) that had us all in tears of laughter. Sleeping in an abandoned house with unexplained bullet holes in it, kept company by a little dog we named “Taco.”

I remember shaking the hand of a leper, looking down at the gnarled, twisted fingers, thinking I’d expected leprosy to look different, more dramatic somehow. Seeing shacks made of cardboard and scrap and old tires, leaning crazily to one side, with four, five children peeking out through the gaps. People living in whatever they could find to make some semblance of shelter. Children picking through the dump, looking for food.

If you’ve seen it, you don’t need me to tell you. If you haven’t, no words can ever be enough.

I remember standing for an hour in a hot shower in the dormitory afterwards, never understanding how something could feel so good and burn like shame at the same time.

We never did find water.

Somehow, all of this strikes me as a kind of parable, or maybe as a question. The question is, “Is it worth trying to accomplish something, trying to help someone else, even if you never succeed, even if the effort is doomed from the start?” Was it worth all the work that we and the people of the barrio put into the project, only to reach that last length of pipe, and still no water?

I don’t know what the people would say; they were the ones who continued to walk half a mile to get water that developed a rainbow-colored film on the top if you let it sit for awhile. Their lives were no different afterwards. But my life was. Something was growing in me during those trips, something I couldn’t name yet: a vast, swelling outrage. This should not be. No one should live like this. I should not be standing for an hour in a hot shower while they can’t even get clean water. There should not be a line that divides me from them, the rich from the poor, a line I can just saunter past, while they cannot.

I would never look at the world the same again.

Mike taught me that the greatest revolution of all can happen while the M-16 stays put in the cabinet.

Mike made me a guerilla.

To learn more about how to get involved in projects to assist the Mexican people, visit the website of Project Mexico.

1 comment:

olympiada said...

Excellent post! You know what? That is how divorce feels, that intense. That's the real truth. That's how ending an abusive marriage feels, just like that.