Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Hola from the real Mexico, where many lives were changed

Turning off the rugged, pothole-filled paved road, a caravan of vehicles made its way along a dirt road through the barrio of a coastal Mexican town.
For several of us, it was the first time we had ever been to Mexico, let alone deep into a neighbourhood of shacks, small rundown travel trailers and peace-meal homes built from whatever material could be found.
The homes sit atop an old landfill and pieces of plastic, glass and other materials poke through the light-brown dessert sand.
By North American standards, it looks like a slum, but for the people living in the barrio of Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point) it is home and not an uncommon neighbourhood. With a wage of mere $40 a week, it can be a challenge to provide even that.
While only a few kilometers from a pristine collection of resorts, condos and towering luxury buildings, the barrio might as well have been on a different planet, the contrast is so stunning.
As we pulled up to one particular shack, we were warmly greeted my Meetay, Jasmine and Charlie. Charlie is not his given name, but because of the difficulty our Canadian tongues would have in pronouncing his real name, he told everyone to just call him Charlie. So we did.
I thought our mission was to change the life of this Mexican family, but when it was over it would be my life and the outlook I have that would be changed.
Charlie and his family were typical of so many in the area. Honest, caring people who were doing their best to scratch out a living in an economy where wages were dollars a day and a litre of gas cost the same as Canada. Alcohol is cheap, milk is not.
We piled out of rented cars into the hot Mexican sun and immediately got to work building a ‘house’ for this warm and genuine family.
The house, by North American standards, was really not much to look at. A rectangle box with two doors, two windows and a tiny bathroom area, it measured 220 square feet – roughly the same size and the garage of my Okanagan home.
Dozens of wheelbarrows of concrete were mixed by hand to make the floor and foundation. The family was hooked up to electricity only a few months ago. Water was from a small pipe sticking out of the ground with a garden hose attached to it. There were no cement mixers, just wheelbarrows, shovels and large hoes with holes in them to mix the cement.
Prior to our arrival, the building material was dropped off at Charlie’s home. Someone had to stay at the home at all times to watch over the pressboard, bags of cement and two-by-fours. Charlie assured they would be safe.
“It’s OK, I have my 45,” he said not referring to a handgun caliber, but to his dog, whose name was 45.
First the forms were made to contain the cement mixture before everyone grabbed a shovel or hoe and began the laborious task of mixing the concrete.
Gravel and cement were first mixed dry before water was added and the whole thing was mixed yet again. When the last wheelbarrow was dumped, we turned our attention to framing the walls that would be put up the next day.
As the work progressed, neighbourhood children came over, shy at first, but by the end of the build they were running up to some of the foreigners they had bonded with, wanting piggyback rides or to sit in the sand with them and stack small pieces of cut wood in a game they had just made up. The children were a delight and irresistible to hang out with. Besides, it was also a good excuse to take a break from mixing cement, or later, swinging a hammer for a few minutes. Who could deny someone a chance to interact with a small child with huge brown eyes and an even bigger smile. These beautiful children would remember the people who played games with them and gave them their time long after the memory of the builders had faded.
A few venders showed up as well to ply their wares, but they were not aggressive like the ones in the Old Port market who do whatever they could to entice you into their shop.
“Amigo, you buy. You come look. We make deal.” were oft heard phrases in the market crammed with vendors, restaurants, taxis and more vendors all clambering to get the attention of the gringos. If you were white, you were assumed to have money.
Because we were there during the off season, there were not too many white folk to be found so the ones who were there were besieged by vendors. After a short while, I must admit it became very irritating to be constantly declining offers to purchase something, as you would no sooner decline an offer from one when another would attempt to get your attention. The sidewalks salesmen were relentless and almost overwhelming with their omnipresent sales pitch. Nothing had a price tag and everything was negotiable.
In contrast, the sellers at the build site sat patiently near the side of the road and waited for us to come to them - which we did at the end of each working day. Bartering is a given in Mexico, but most of us could not bring ourselves to haggle too much knowing these people were barely surviving and the few greenbacks we gave them would feed their family while our wallets would barely notice the absence of a few pieces of paper.
The first day’s work done, it was time to head back to base camp for a meal and time together before going to bed. We would be up before the sun to get as much work done as we could before the afternoon heat bore down on our winterized Canadian bodies.
Day two saw the walls go up, a roof put on and the first layer of stucco (a mixture of sifted sand and cement) as the swarm of pasty-white Canucks labored shoulder to shoulder with Charlie, his family and neighbours. When the first walls went up and the shape of a building began to form the volunteer work crew was re-energized, as real progress could be seen. Once the walls were secured, the roof was added and sheets of Tolko pressboard covered the entire structure.
Tar paper and chicken wire was then added to the exterior before it was back to the wheelbarrows and more hand-mixing cement and sifted sand for the first layer of stucco.
Day three had ther final coat of stucco added, windows and doors installed and finishing touches to the structure that would more than double their living area.
Through it all, Meetay could not stop smiling, a joy that infected the 20 people who travelled from the Great White North to help 1 Mission build yet another home for a deserving family. The heat of the day was barely noticed as we closed in on completion of the home and the excitement of making such a huge difference. The look of pride carried by Charlie was not lost on any of us.
A faith-based organization, 1 Mission builds 75 homes a year for the people of the barrio – for free. All that is required from those receiving the home is to put in 200 volunteer hours helping their neighbours. 1 Mission has been operating in Rocky Point for several years and have built some 300 homes; a feat that has not gone unnoticed among the barrio community who treat 1 Mission and its workers with respect.
As the last nail was driven into the door frame, you could not help but feel a sense of accomplishment, an inner joy for helping out such a deserving family and a humbling feeling of just how blessed we in Canada are to live in such a rich and luxurious nation.
For the first time in her life, 12-year-old Jasmine would have her own bedroom. Charlie and Meetay would take the other room and their former house would be their kitchen and common area. As a brief ceremony was held at the end of the build, Meetay and Jasmine could not hold back their tears and several of the builders also found themselves filled with emotion.
It was wonderful and fulfilling to spend time with ‘real’ Mexicans. To see the ‘real’ Mexico and not just some sanitized Americanized version of the nation that so many people visit, but few really experience.
These were just regular, everyday people, and we were blessed to be able to share a short portion of their lives. The unpaved roads, roaming dogs, blowing dust and sheer poverty in which so many Mexicans live was so far from anything I have ever seen in Canada, it takes a few days to process.
In this Mexico, there are no swimming pools, no waiters catering to your every whim, no maids cleaning your room while you lounge at the beach with a tequila, and I loved every minute of it.
We spent five days in Mexico, three building the home and two at a resort only a few kilometers away. By far, spending time with Charlie and his family was the more enjoyable of the two. It does the soul good to help others, there is a joy that cannot be found poolside as you sweat in the midday sun and rinse dust from your teeth or nurse a finger that got in the way of a swinging hammer.
I would highly recommend it. There is reward in giving of yourself to help others. The time at the resort is reduced to a few photographs and souvenirs, but the house built memories that will last a lifetime. The resort offers a few days of luxury, the home offers a family a life-changing blessing – both Charlie’s family and my own.
While my family and I chose to support a Christian-based group, there are many agencies working in communities throughout Mexico that could use some free labour. So perhaps the next time you go south, considering skipping a couple days of a king-size bed, big screen TV and room service to experience the real Mexico and to get more than just a tan. By helping out you will get a sense of satisfaction, lifelong memories and the knowledge that you made a difference in the life of someone not as blessed as you. You will not regret it.

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