The Right Van

I’ve spent parts of the last four summers in the desert of northern Mexico, working with students from Wisconsin Lutheran High School as they travel to a town called Altar to do mission work with Mission to the Children, a para-synodical organization based in Tucson, AZ.

There are a lot of interesting things down there, but one thing you can’t miss are the shuttle busses that run between Altar and a smaller village called Sasabe. They’re everywhere, beat-up vans and vintage school busses, waiting on street corners and in parking lots around Altar, collecting people. When they’re full they make the run, driving like madmen on a treacherous dirt road up to Sasabe on the border. Then they come back. Day after day, trip after trip.

The first time I was in Mexico wanted that job so bad: Altar-Sasabe shuttle bus driver. What a great way to earn some extra pesos over the summer, practice my Spanish, have some awesome conversations with some very interesting people, and probably have some really cool stories to tell in the fall. Last summer, too, I just fell in love with the driving, and decided that if I couldn’t buy a Jeep and drive to Guatemala that I definitely wanted to give taxi-driving a shot. Altar-Sasabe. Sasabe-Altar. Rice, beans, and tortillas. The good, simple life.

Then, this summer, driving down that long long road for the third time, I came to a horrifying realization, a paradigm-shifting moment that almost made me pull over right there in the desert and cry. There was always something weird about those shuttles, those overcrowded vans whizzing by at 50+ mph on roads that weren’t very safe even at half that speed. But finally, after three years of glorifying that life, of idealizing something that is really pretty far from ideal, I realized what was really really wrong with this picture. The vans headed north, from Altar to Sasabe, are always filled to capacity. Young guys, mostly, but an occasional older man, wearing jeans, boots, and a hat, some with button-up cowboy shirts and some a little dingier. The northbound shuttle is always full, taking those bumps on springs that are about to give and trying to pound out one more run on a set of bald tires. The kids are always amazed by how many people can fit in a van.

But here’s the thing: the southbound shuttle is always empty. Nobody ever makes the run from Sasabe to Altar. Just the driver, maybe one or two people, and maybe someone he brought along to keep him company and collect the fares. Nobody ever goes south. The vans make those runs in record time, riding high on the road and flying over the bumps.

It’s not like dozens of people a day, hundreds a week, are moving to Sasabe. Sasabe is something of a ghost town, at least in comparison to Altar. It’s more like an Old West town, springing up next to a gold mine before the tracks get laid and the iron horse brings wives and ministers and sheriffs and law and order. Except that there’s no gold in Sasabe. All those young men, all that potential, an entire generation of Mexico’s future aren’t hopping the next shuttle to get a job at the new factory.

They’re trying to cross the border. They’re putting their hopes and dreams, their families and their futures, their very lives on the line in a desperate effort at survival. Their most valuable possession is a jug full of water. They pray to whatever God is listening for the luck of a dark moon, a straight path, and a job on the other side that doesn’t ask too many questions. The only thing in their life that has any meaning is whether or not their legs have the strength to make it three days across the desert, so they can get an awful job for meager wages in an expensive foreign country where people don’t speak their language, understand their culture, or value their existence, so they can scrape together enough money to send something, anything, home to their family so they don’t have to watch their children die of malnutrition. “With God as my witness,” their silent eyes say with more determination than Scarlett O’Hara could ever dream of, “Let me go hungry so my children don’t have to.”

All of which realization dropped on my head like a ton of bricks as we got passed by about the fifteenth empty Sasabe-Altar bus on the first day of the trip. All those guys in all those vans. Of the twenty-plus men in the northbound van we were just meeting, in a week’s time most of them would probably be back where they started from, deported, even poorer than they had been a week ago (if that were possible). A few, maybe, would be dead, perhaps because they misread the map marking the water stations, perhaps because the water station had been discovered by the Border Patrol and closed down, or perhaps because the God they prayed to had simply run out of luck to give that night. One or two might have even made it, finding that job with their cousin’s wife’s friend in Tucson, sending back money and love and hope for dozens of others to get on tomorrow’s Altar-Sasabe shuttle and try to make the trip.

But instead of pulling over and weeping in despair, after a minute’s reflection I tightened my grip on the wheel and kicked it up another 5mph. We were doing the right thing. We were driving the right direction. The 1400 lbs. of donations in the back of my van were going to make life a little easier for someone in some village, maybe give them enough hope that they wouldn’t have to make the run, at least not this month. Let them stay home with their kids. Help them help themselves, so that life in Mexico is possible for them. The 12 kids in the van behind me were going to teach those people’s children about Jesus, who would give them Hope enough to know that their ultimate home wasn’t Altar, or Sonora, or Mexico, or even the USA, but heaven. The things we were bringing were needed, needed in a way that people like we, Americans, can’t even understand the word need. So I reined in my imagination and stopped wondering what it would be like to drive the Altar-Sasabe shuttle. I realized that today, I was driving the right van.


Dennis L Hitzeman said...

You were in the right van my friend, and there were many of us in that van in spirit if not in body.

I pray that the day will come when the vans will all be going to Altar because it is someplace that people can and want to be.


Scott said...

Sadly... we're going to need a lot more vans. But it's a nice start.

Vaya con Dios, mi amigo.


Anonymous said...

thanks for allowing me to take that drive and trip with you plugs, im glad to say i got to travel in that van - "one of the 12, kids"

Scott said...

I was listening to a report yesterday on NPR about Oaxaca and the unrest down there. It sounds like the teacher's strikes have gotten completely out of hand and now the entire capitol is in an uproar.

I hope your friends are okay.


lemiguess said...

I think your blog page has found a place in the bibliography of Roberto.

brian said...

it was an honor to be with you, plugs, in that van. thanks for everything, and thanks for this post. it summarizes the essence of the trip and the mission we share as Christians in life.