Monday, March 24, 2008
Spring break in the desert
Last week was my spring break and off I went to the desert to get back to the things that I love doing the most. It's going on 4 years since I've been involved with No More Deaths. I remember the first time walking in the desert in Southern Arizona looking for people that needed help. It was so strange. Normally, I hike with my dog, have a picnic, take a nap under the trees, in the shade, and read a good book or do some journaling. It's been many years since I've done that sort of hiking.
My first time in the desert with No More Deaths was a transformation of sorts. I have never been the same since. It was the summer of 2004 and it was a hot day already, probably well over 100 degrees by early afternoon. I had just returned from spending a month in Peru, traveling and meeting amazing people, visiting ruins, temples and the old city of Cuzco and Machu Pichu. So, I came back ready to do some volunteering in the desert; looking for migrants that needed help during their journey into the US. At that time, the death toll for migrants was getting higher and higher and we were finding more and more people needing help, desperately.
So, we started our day bright and early, around 5am. It's cold in the desert in the early mornings and in the evenings. I woke up with dew around me; on my sleeping bag and on the tall, brown grasses surrounding our camp. It was beautiful and we were bundled up drinking our coffee, cereal and preparing for the morning ahead.
Now, 4 summers ago was very different than what we have now. No GPS's, no 4x4 trucks, no maps, no real idea of where we were going each day. We traveled familiar routes, ones that were known areas of high traffic, ones where we had seen people travel before, and ones where the local community told us to go. We drove into an area that I now know is called Las Guijas Mountains.
We were equipped with only a backpack containing migrant food packs, water, medical supplies, and a cell phone. We walked for hours, it seemed. We walked on well-worn paths, paths that the National Parks and Rec. could have made if I didn't know better. Instead, these paths were made by hundreds, thousands of pairs of feet walking North. I looked around me and saw a beautiful landscape; mesquite trees, flowering brittlebush. The smells of the desert: of creosote and the upcoming monsoon storm. It was an incredible hike. I could have easily forgotten what I was there for; I could have easily put out of my head the other reality that was evidenced all around me.
This apparent calm was routinely interrupted by our leader, or coordinator, who would call out in Spanish for the invisible migrants just out of our eyesight "tenemos agua!, tenemos comida! podemos ayudar!" "we have water! we have food! we can help you!"
To me, what was a beautiful hike was someone else's struggle for survival; their journey of hope, despair, and the unknown. That same day, at that same moment, people were walking for survival; leaving their homes to feed their families. Every year, thousands walk these trails with guides/coyotes and make it North for a promise of better wages, better living conditions, and opportunities for their children. Unfortunately, hundreds don't make it. I don't remember how many bodies were found at that point in the summer of 2004, but it was over 200 since October. In Arizona alone; and mostly in these same mountains that I was hiking; people who walked the same trails I was admiring.
We stopped along the trails to pick up trash. There were plenty of empty bottles along the way, along with other random things: a jacket on a tree branch, a shoe, food wrappers, aspirin containers. It was constant proof that we were on the migrant trail. We walked for what was probably 2 hours, resting to drink water, have a snack, get in the shade.
Finally, we continued until we came upon a "rest stop." A place where migrants would stay and rest or sleep before continuing on. These stops were nothing more than the shade under large mesquite trees. What I saw there left me speechless and drew me to tears. We walked upon a grove of Mesquite trees and underneath each and every tree were reminders of groups of people who had just left. I felt as though I had just walked into someone elses house and they had just left out of the back door as I entered through the front. I don't know how else to explain it except to say that the spirits of those who was there earlier was all around us. Literally.
Hundreds and hundreds of backpacks, sweaters, jackets, shoes, pants, shirts, socks, bras, underwear, hats, tampons, food, electrolytes, water, toothbrushes, playing cards, a school book, a Bible, a rosary, a prayer card, photos, photos of girlfriends and boyfriends, photos of husbands and wives, photos of entire families, photos of their children and written in the back "te amo, papa," ID from their home country, plane ticket stubs, foot powder, medicine, presents or recuerdos, a glass rose, love letters, baby shoes, baby socks, diapers, baby formula and Gerbers baby food containers.
I was devastated. All was left behind. And there were children, little babies. Somehow, I didn't realize that there were children. I know that children cross, but seeing all the little shoes and diapers was almost more than I could bear. I can't imagine doing their journey at all, let alone with a little one to care for. I can't imagine how bad it must have been for those families to finally have no choice but to move North.
Even though we didn't find anyone that day, the impact of what I saw has stayed with me since. So now, 4 years later, I sit as the coordinator, showing a group of new volunteers the desert surroundings. This time, we have maps, GPS's, 4x4's and a wealth of experience and stories to help us on our own journey.