A few hours from now, Terry and I will be driving to Sac to catch a flight to San Diego and hop a ship to cruise around Mexico for a week. Some of my fondest memories from my teenage years and early adulthood are from trips to Mexico. No, I’m not talking about those crazy high school drinking excursions you see on Dateline. For eight or nine summers, I spent time in Mexico as a short-term missionary. Yeah, God was surprised, too.
My first time in Mexico, I was part of the construction team. We built a small church near Tijuana. We mixed cement with shovels, hammered up black rolls of pungent tar paper, and rolled out miles of chicken wire to stucco the walls. This was all very cool to my fourteen year old self. My task for the majority of the build was to measure out all of the boards to be nailed into place. I measured and marked all day long for my saw team. (It helped that my saw team happened to be two cute boys.)
On the last day of the build, as we were packing up, we spotted a fire on the hillside across the road. The hillside was brown with weeds and spotted with houses made from salvaged materials. One home was made primarily of wooden Coldwell Banker signs. As the fire devoured the weeds, a horde of us grabbed our shovels and ran up the hill. We dug trenches to hold the fire, threw piles of dirt to extinguish it and pounded out hot spots. After the fire was out, we put the shovel handles between our legs, sat on the mouths of the shovels and slid all the way back down the hill. It was a fantastic ride.
That evening we were joined by many neighbors from the hillside at a candlelight service in the newborn church. Whenever I hear the words “thinking globally” or “global community” or any of the other catchy phrases people throw around, I think of that candlelight services and the glowing faces in that little church near Tijuana.
The following summer I was on two teams. The build team worked on an orphanage during the early hours. Then in the afternoons and evenings I went out with the drama team to perform and give my testimony at church services and neighborhood gatherings. At a training before the trip we had to audition for parts in one of the dramas. The female part choices were a hypocrite and a glamorous girl. I tried out for the hypocrite, but my movements weren’t crisp enough. I auditioned for the glamorous girl, but as we were “walking gracefully”, I tripped and fell. On my face. I was embarrassed and turned a deep shade of red. Luckily for me, there was one more part that hadn’t been announced; a clown. When I tripped, the trainers handed me the clown mask immediately.
And so it was that on a sticky afternoon in Mexico, we were rehearsing for an evening performance. Dressed in black we held our masks in place and a handsome stranger started our music. As the drama unfolded, each character pulled a mask down to reveal their true self. I pulled my mask down and locked eyes with the handsome stranger. His eyes were limpid pools of chocolate. My body did the motions of my part, but my mind was swimming in those eyes, oh those eyes. I was a goner. The stranger was Terry, whose eyes still turn me to jell-o.
On my third trip to Mexico, I chose to return to both teams. I loved it all, but when the fire died down each night and it was time to retire to our tents, I laid awake until the sun announced it was time to get up and build again. After several nights of reaching for sleep just outside my grasp, I was desperate for rest. That night as I prayed, I pleaded with God to let me sleep.
I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I laid motionless in a deep, dreamless sleep unaware of the storm that rolled in. More accurately, the storm that rolled in and wreaked havoc. The pelting rain collapsed many tents, causing people to seek refuge in cars, the kitchen, and even in the bathrooms. Mud slides relocated some tents entirely. Thunder and lightning caused nearby cattle to break through a fence and tromp around in the chaos.
I awoke the next morning to a steady drip, drip, drip between my eyes. I looked up and saw that my tent had collected a large puddle of water directly above my head. Huh, must have rained last night, I thought. I unzipped my sleeping bag and it released water like I was squeezing a sponge. Must have rained A LOT last night. I glanced over to the other side of the tent. It had collapsed. I dressed, grabbed my toothbrush, and unzipped my tent. I looked out and saw the scars of the storm.
I wandered up to the kitchen and Terry filled me in on the events of the night, including the part when he came to rescue me, only to find me wrapped in the gentle arms of sleep. As the sun cut the clouds, I stood outside brushing my teeth. People hung their belongings out to dry, repaired tents, and herded cattle back to the neighboring ranch. Everything I owned was wet. My tent was plastered with red mud and only partially standing. But me, I’d never been better. I was rested and happy.
I returned to the same campsite year after year. In one corner of the campsite there was a cement water tower with ladder up one side. Each evening I would slip away from the group and sit on top of the water tower. As the wind licked my sunburned ears, I would pray, meditate, and write. On clear nights I gazed out over sleeping Mexico and in the distance I could see a faint triangle of ocean. It was serene. My experiences as a missionary and this humble campsite became home to me.
In a few hours, I’ll board a ship to visit some of the more polished cities of Mexico. My days will be spent lounging on beaches and devouring piles of books. Nights will be spent eating fancy cuisine with my favorite brown-eyed boy. I’ll treasure every second of it, but at night on the deck as the wind licks my sunburned ears, I’ll gaze out over the vast ocean longing for my second home. I miss the grit. I miss the work. I miss the glow. I miss the faces. But most of all I miss the serenity of the water tower and my tiny triangle of ocean. I’ll return to it someday, but for now let me just say, it’s good to see you again, Mexico.