July 28, 2014 1:25 pm

BLOG: Building in the Baja brings privilege into perspective

I recently took part in an eye-opening trip to the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.

The non-denominational mission trip brought 46 people together with a common goal, to build an elementary school for children near Vicente Guerrero, Mexico.

We left from Medicine Hat, Alta., and headed approximately 3,000 kilometres south. The three-day bus trip took us through the rugged beauty of Montana, the canyons of Utah and the Mojave desert, where temperatures soared to 45 C.

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Midway through the third day, we crossed the border into Mexico and entered Tijuana. We pulled into a Costco parking lot to meet the last member of our group, a young Mexican man named Cristobal. It’s not common for mission trips from Canada to pick people up along the way, but Cristobal had a special reason for being on this trip. Last year while working at a home for troubled teens in Mexico, he met a Canadian woman who was volunteering at the home. They hit it off and struck a long-distance relationship. Cristobal and Andrea are both in their 20s. He is unable to get a Visa into the United States, so Andrea heads to Mexico as often as possible and signed up for this trip.

With flowers in hand for his Canadian girlfriend, Cristobal impressed everyone on the bus, including (most importantly perhaps) Andrea’s parents, whom he was meeting for the first time.

Once you leave the urban centre of Tijuana and get into the Mexican countryside, the roads become narrow with lots of twists and turns. Looking down from my seat, I could see the edge of the road and 60-metre drop-offs — no barriers to keep cars on the road, no shoulders to offer a little room for error. It was a nerve-wracking four-hour drive to our home for the next four days and five nights.

The mission “base” is quite nice — several rows of bunk houses with eight bunks per house, a common dining area and a little store that was open each night. The two-minute limit on showers and restriction on flushing toilet paper takes a little getting used to though.

After three 12-hour days on the bus everyone was eager to get to the worksite. When we arrived there was a pile of lumber, a cement pad and about a dozen children waving frantically at the bus. In the distance we could see the homes of the people we were there to help. Most of the homes are nothing more than cardboard and pallets, with torn bits of plastic sheeting blowing in the never-ending wind. The dust and the wind just never stop. A fine red dust covers the entire area. It must be near impossible to grow anything without huge amounts of irrigation. Most of the people we spoke to told us they worked on farms nearby. Earning about US$8 a day, they work 10- to 12-hour days, six days a week.

Once we got to work on the school, Cristobal quickly earned the respect of our group. He is a hard worker, quick with a smile and quick to lend a hand. During breaks he played soccer with the local children and got to know people in our group. I couldn’t tell if he was shy or if his English wasn’t very good. He was quiet but always smiling and laughing. Without saying much he was able to communicate well. With a wave, a smile, or a pat on the back, he let you know he appreciated what you were doing and enjoyed being a part of the group.

It was obvious he has a big heart. You can see it in the way he plays with the children. You can also see it in the way he approaches his work. I was holding a panel of sheeting for him late on the last day, when everyone was tired and hot. I saw him miss the nail and smack his fingers with the hammer. He tucked his arm into his stomach and grimaced but then started laughing, no doubt a little embarrassed and a little hurting.

After four days the school was built and everyone started looking forward to getting home. We spent a day shopping and sightseeing in Ensenada, about 2.5 hours north of where we built the school. Up early the next morning, we headed to the border.

At the Mexico-U.S. border, I looked at the huge metal fence built to control who and what enters the United States. It stretches as far as the eye can see, with big advertisements painted on the Mexican side. Along the roadway locals walk in and out of the line of cars, selling a little bit of everything. Sombreros, churros, tamales — it’s all for sale while you wait to enter the U.S.  From the bus I could see over the fence into the United States and several people commented on the border patrol vehicles watching for individuals trying to sneak in.

As our bus sat idle just a few hundred metres from the border, Cristobal stood up and, with tears streaming down his face, he made his way to the front of the bus, stopping to shake hands and share hugs with his newfound friends and colleagues.

I’ve heard astronauts talk about seeing the earth without international borders for the first time, how it’s a reminder that we are all in this together. When you view earth unhindered by fences and armed guards it is easier to see everyone as equal.

I know borders are important to protect our way of life but at that moment, I wish I had an astronaut’s view of the U.S.-Mexico border, with no barriers or guards to keep people out.

As we crossed the border and continued our journey home, I thought a lot about Cristobal. I wondered if he was crying because he was going to miss his girlfriend or maybe he felt singled out just because of where he was born. The bus was pretty quiet for a while after he got off; I think a lot of people were thinking the same thing.

© Shaw Media, 2014

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