As a journalist, I'm often invited to "come and see." Rarely, do I take folks up on the offer because frankly, I can usually capture the story via phone interviews -- which allows me to skip the handwritten note stage and go directly to the keyboard.
But as an adventurer, I have a hard time saying "no."
Last Friday, I didn't. But I didn't say "yes" either. It was more like "si."
A pastor in Houston has done an amazing thing in the last couple of years. Not only is he growing his church and helping them see their servant roles with different eyes, he's also helped almost 10 churches start. And those churches have turned their attention to Mexico where the needs abound.
After connecting to a coastal community there, several churches decided they would help build a couple of much needed wells. The only water these folks have is sea water or contaminated. Hurricane Emily also hit them pretty hard so "in need" doesn't really touch on how bad the situation is there.
My friend/pastor wanted me to share the stories with other churches here in the city. So he invited me to "come and see" and he even made arrangements for us to get there -- by plane.
Now if at this point, you have an image of a puddlejumper type plane with 25 or so seats, scale that back just a bit, will you?
Seems this pastor has another pastor friend who shares ownership in a four seater. And that's how we were going to make what would have been a 16 hour round trip in half the time -- to Mexico and back in a day.
We left around 8 a.m. and though the plane lacked air conditioning and it was sometimes 92 degrees outside our windows we had a bit of a fan and the conversation was certainly stimulating. I learned all about the pastor/pilot and his family, his dreams, his plans for future ministries, etc.
We landed in Matamores around 11:30 a.m. to do the customs thing. We should have suspected some delays when (a) we had to find an open door to the airport and (b) they had to turn on the lights in immigration (guess they hadn't had that many visitors that morning). Since most of the conversation was in rapid Spanish, I only got bits and pieces of what was happening but I soon learned that someone wanted lots more money to allow us in than either of my pastor friends or our other traveling companion were willing to pay. The immigration guy sent us to another office . . . through several locked doors that had to be unlocked and several rooms where the lights once again had to be turned on. Those guys said, "no" we didn't have to pay that much. But we did have to pay, and go back to the first building but not the way we came. There were more locked doors and more papers and more returning to the office we'd just left and at one point the office worker couldn't quite figure out how his computer worked for the needed receipt and the customs worker made us touch a green/red light to determine if our bags would be individually checked even though we had no bags.
The non-pastor among us was from El Savador and he kept apologizing to me for the "inefficiency" of the country. I smiled and pointed out I hadn't worn a watch and I was in this for the adventure so a few delays weren't really bothering me.
Two hours after we landed we took off again for our true destination.
That was a short 45 minute trip and we landed on an airstrip. No building or tower in sight . . . just a strip of asphalt long enough to land a plane on and, oh yeah, buckets alongside the edge of the track that we assumed might be for a night landing . . . even though we now knew night flights were illegal in Mexico.
We were greeted by three more pastors and drove about 20 minutes to the village where the well was in process. There we were greeted by the women who had expected us two hours earlier and quickly issued to our seats so that we could eat the tubful of fried fish, tubful of fried crab, cerviche, and tortillas they had prepared. Unfortunately, we got to watch them prepare tamales we wouldn't get to sample given that they thought we were staying for the night service and flying out much later but, as I said, that's a no-no in Mexico.
The food was wonderful and literally finger-licking good. No napkins in sight and the pastor was quite adamant that we dig in. So we did. Soon, crab juice was running down my arm and salsa was stuck between my nails and I was in seafood heaven. Except I couldn't get to that . . . one . . . piece . . . of . . . crab meat in that . . . short little claw . . . so I tried breaking the shell . . . with my thumb . . . and . . . bingo, I cracked it. Then I noticed that I had more "salsa" than I thought because red was everywhere. And that's when I noticed I'd cracked more than the crab. My thumb was bleeding profusely.
Fortunatley, napkins had arrived just prior to my accident and I tried creating my own little bandage. But I was bleeding right through. So I gave up any thoughts of eating and just did the whole "elevate it" trick. Soon, I was fairly sure that I wouldn't need stitches or a transfusion. And then a man arrived with a single bandaid . . . with what looked like medication already on it. For this, I was soon to be very grateful.
The pilot/pastor suggested that for a post-meal activity we get the photos we'd come for. First we stopped by the tin roof, wood wall, dirt floor kitchen to say thanks to the cooks and take their photos. I noticed the "stove" was wood burning on the dirt floor. I sincerely thanked them for the "delicioso" meal.
Next we wandered over to the well. Not really a very exciting shot, I thought, given that it was essentially white pipe coming out of the ground. I determined a better angle was needed, so I looked around for a vantage point. Finding a small mound of dirt, I made my way up it to just the right spot and then . . .
Started to sink. Seems my "dirt" was actually a mound of crusted over mud and the shrieks of laughter from the children across the lawn were warnings -- in Spanish and in the far distance -- to stop. Instead, I proceeded and soon find myself on my ass, knee deep in sucking the soles off my feet mud.
Many thoughts ran through my mind. I realized in some places women were paying big bucks to be covered in mud not unlike this. I thought about how the children and the adults must really be wondering about the lone white lady who couldn't seem to avoid trouble since she'd arrived. And I laughed hysterically at the thought of what my pastor/pilot/friend? was doing when he said, "I promise to help, but first give me the camera. I HAVE to get this on film."
He did help. He said things like, "Get up." Great advice if the earth wasn't taking me into its womb! But eventually we figured out a way to remove me from the wet terra and get me to the firma. Of course, my sandals stayed.
The capri pants I wore that day are green. I tell you this because if you've ever seen the Incredible Hulk transform into the creature then you have some image of what my legs and feet looked like with globs of greenish ooze weighing down both my pants and my toes.
Again, proving to be the great thinker of the trip, I wondered where the water hose might be.
Water hose? They don't even HAVE water!!!!
So I found a stiff shirt . . . the kind a great Mexican working man might have discarded after a day of sweat in the . . . have I mentioned the heat? . . . and in time the shirt just stiffened into what would have made a great tile for the roof of the nearby church. I decided that might work to scrape the excess mud off my legs and began to wonder what folks in the airports were going to think when I made my way back through customs sans shoes and covered in filth.
But the children weren't going to allow that! They had immediately taken the opportunity to go one better than mud pies and were frantically digging to find my shoes. Ever the sensitive traveler, I tried to discourage them, and then, of course, mentally kicked myself for being so ready to throw away one of my multiple pairs of shoes in a place where a single pair was sometimes a commodity.
Not only did they find those shoes, they used some of that precious water to clean them up. That was all going on while the women brought me a bucket of, can you say it with me?, that precious, but yes, contaminated water for me to clean my feet . . . with the right hand that held the medicated bandaged thumb. Are you visualizing the parasites yet? 'Cause, come Sunday, I can tell you they came!
Having made my "impression" on the adults who didn't even try to hide their laughter (who could blame them, I was in tears myself), I decided more photos would be made with children. Soon the pastors were calling me back to get the final bits for the story and the last of the photos because daylight was waning.
We got stopped by the policia . . . for the second time that day and this time we were thoroughly checked out. The machine guns seemed like overkill but hey, this is a drug area and I'm sure our little band of merry men and one mud-caked, freckle-faced, currently blonde woman made for a curious lot.
We made it back through to the Mexico side of the border and were on our way in minutes this time. Then we had a few stumbles on the U.S. side of things but eventually we were 6,500 feet over ground and the stars were magnificent, the clouds seemed to part when we needed them to, and the conversations reflected the wonder of the experience.
At 11:05 p.m. I was back in my car. And a few minutes before midnight my day in Mexico was history.