I can’t even think about going to sleep. It’s midnight and I am sitting on Main Street, Ignacio Allende, Chihuahua, Mexico. Peter Westcott’s sixth-grade class, exhausted from the 30 hours of bus riding, is asleep on the floor of an antiquated church behind me. I’m worried that the rest of our group won’t find this isolated place in the dark. They were forced to go back to the border at a checkpoint several hours into Mexico when it was pointed out, by men with uniforms and guns, that proper documentation for the U.S. vehicles had not been obtained. In our eagerness to take advantage of a shortcut we got lost in bureaucracy. It crosses my mind that, if desperadoes are interested in hijacking our $75,000 motor home, it will probably happen at night. I beat myself up mentally all over again for agreeing to rent the damn thing to bring down here for the paradoxical comfort of a hot shower in an artificially cooled abode.Before I am too ideologically bloodied, three sets of headlights appear amidst a dust cloud. It’s them! As weary travelers do, we greet silently and hastily accede to discuss details over coffee in the morning. I head to the RV, falling fast and landing hard asleep in the relative luxury I have denounced in earnest since crossing the border at five miles per gallon of gasoline.The next morning a world-challenging expectation greets me. The hills surrounding us are overgrazed and under-irrigated, ravaged by a 10-year drought. The dirt streets are roughly etched with runnels forged from rain that fell most recently last August. The adobe brick houses show signs of erosion, mostly from hot winds. Trees are withered, resisting only by habit the breeze that pledges to blow them anywhere else. It is a place where optimism is kept alive by extraordinary measures.But first impressions are equivocal. A greeting ceremony at the school softens the setting. Friendly faces welcome us in words we don’t know, but perfectly comprehend. It is a beautiful town, after all. We came to deliver goods and repair schools. Dr. Fahey will speak to a packed house about children’s health. Andy Godfrey and Heidi Houston will council the business community. Our children will paint murals as lasting signs of new friendship. Before we begin, we are touched to know how our efforts are already received. Less predictable is what I learn.These people are not destitute, the way I picture Indians in Calcutta. They have food. They have clothing. They have roofs over their heads. About half the people have cars, although mostly run down, and lacking the pressing reasons we have for putting them to use. What they have an abundance of is a sense of family and community. The fiestas they put on for us are not on strict schedules, hinting at a relaxed familiarity in gathering, or a paucity of event planners. Endings are loosely defined, more like intermissions, blending comfortably into day-to-day life. Laughter and merriment are not distinct activities set aside for prescribed blocks of time, Hot-Sync’d into a Blackberry.Despite their needs, these people know happiness or, maybe more accurately, they appreciate it. There is pain, too. While repairing the roof at La Escuela Primeria Cinco de Mayo, I learn that many of the Mexican fathers I am working with head to the United States for the construction season. I had thoughtlessly assumed this was an easy choice for those who had nothing to lose. I detect the sadness in the voice of one man, Edgar, who explains that he might have to leave any day for Colorado. I am sad the next morning when he isn’t at the school to help, yet I see his two children playing with the others in the playground below. A thousand miles from my own home by choice, I know how much he left behind. He had to go, knowing he would be poorer in the end from spending months of his life away from his family.These people are grateful for all we did during the week. They need so much. But, when the time comes to leave, I have a sense that what these people need more than anything else is to know that somebody on this massive planet, for it only seems small to those who move freely about it, cares about them. What this middle school class project did for them, and us, cannot be replaced with a check.I am getting clarity; there will never be closure on this experience. The officials at the checkpoint weren’t out for us. They did us a favor. If we had slipped past without proper proof of vehicle ownership, a routine traffic stop could have landed us in a third-world jail. My own preconceived notions about their inaptitude, corruption and insolence toward ugly Americans caused me to miss this before. In my arrogance, I was incensed that they were too stupid to be dishonest enough to accept our bribery.The $75,000 RV was nothing more than a novelty to the kind and gracious people of Ignacio Allende. They were my friends before I recognized it. People are not spiteful over material wealth where riches are measured by a different standard. It is not ingrained in their lives that superior people have superior possessions. They are too busy taking care of each other. It was arrogance that led me to believe that all 32 feet of the secular home on wheels made me the greater person, the benevolent savior. I constructed a pedestal to stand on from my worldly possessions. I bound it together with all that I’ve seen and done. My education, I used as the cornerstone. In truth, the mechanical beast that I loathed, when it was convenient, meant more to me than anybody else in that small, impoverished town. The first night there I had the nerve to pray for them, not asking for what they needed, but by acknowledging, item by item, all the comforts that I have been blessed with.During the week, I discovered that ‘blessings’ is a term I oftentimes use to safely acknowledge distractions. I came to give. I’m coming home a richer man. Roger Marolt writes more about Ignacio Allende as part of a feature story in the next issue of Aspen Philanthropist magazine, due out on June 15. Reserve your copy at aspenphilanthropist.com
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Aspen City Council’s recent actions are proof that you get what you pay for, argues Elizabeth Milias in her Red Ant column this week.