In 1997, I took a "cultural immersion" trip to Mexico after finishing my sophomore year of college, traveling from Dayton to El Paso with a few other students in a fifteen-passenger van. Though I was among the youngest, I was one of the only ones who could stay awake to drive at night, so I wound up doing a good bit of driving as we crossed the U.S. There were hiccups along the way--one rather ditzy girl got a speeding ticket; a dead bird was stuck in the grille for a while. I don't remember much about this journey--there must have been stops along the way, and meals, and stories, but these have disappeared from my memory.
Our destination was a convent in El Paso, our leader there a nun devoted to working with Mexico's poor. Again, the details are fuzzy; what I remember most about this convent are the dead cockroaches in the shower. We slept here for one night before traveling on, with one or two nuns in another car, to Juarez.
I have no clear memory of how this trip was described in the pamphlet from the academic office that ran these "cultural immersions." Though we did work for an hour or so in a food pantry one afternoon, this was not a service-based trip; the trip's purpose seemed to be to simply show us around, perhaps open our eyes to things we were unlikely to see in Dayton or our privileged home lives. So the nuns took us to see the fence that divides Mexico and the United States and spoke about the dramatically different lives being lived on either side of the wire. We were taken to meet some Juarez prostitutes. And then, that evening, we were paired with host families and sent off to spend two nights in the shantytown.
I was lucky: the home where I stayed had four walls and a roof and an inside bathroom. I was also with one other girl from the group, a graduate student much worldlier than I (or so it seemed at the time: she may have simply been older). I remember liking the food we were served, eggs fried with tortillas. I also remember the flying cockroaches zipping around the kitchen.
The first night, when the other student and I settled into bed and turned off the light, I heard a strange sound. Scritch; scritch; skitter. Skitter skitter. Scritch. Unsure what was making the noise, we turned on the light--and found the walls of the room covered with cockroaches, the size of which I'm pretty sure was actually enormous, not just enormous in memory. Huge black cockroaches, skittering over the artwork and posters hanging on the walls. Scritch; scritch; skitter. They were--everywhere. And since they were everywhere, it was clear they would also be on us when we turned out the light. Had I been alone, I would have kept that light on all night--but I didn't speak up, and the light went off. This was early summer, and very hot, but I zipped myself completely into my sleeping bag and blocked the top with my pillow. I couldn't breathe, or sleep, and I've never been so relieved to meet a morning.
The next day we were involved with our host families in preparing for a celebration of mothers that would take place that night--perhaps a Mexican version of Mother's Day; I don't know. That night, we piled with our hosts into the back of a pickup truck and bounced around what passed for roads in that neighborhood, stopping now and then to serenade a woman in the doorway of her home. Of course we didn't know the songs, or really what was going on, or where on earth we were; it seemed our role was simply to go along. One girl from our group--the ditzy one who got a speeding ticket--went off with someone at some point and we had no idea where she was. It was pouring rain, and since I'd brought only summer clothes I'd had to borrow a pair of jeans from a girl in my host family--blue jeans with sewn-on red leather chaps that were about two sizes two small for me. There is a picture from this event, of me in these pants, soaking wet, in Juarez, but I've tried to find it at my parents' house and it seems to have disappeared.
And then, back in our hosts' home, another night of roaches.
The nuns returned to Juarez the next day to take us back to El Paso. After a meal, we sat with the nuns in a room and discussed our experiences of our "cultural immersion." There was a lot of confusion, a lot of tears; one girl sobbed inconsolably because her father worked for a major multinational and there was something about this that made her feel culpable for, or complicit in, the poverty we'd seen. Disturbed as I was by my first glimpse of true destitution and--sadly--my first realization that there was a larger world beyond college that was much different than anything I could imagine, even then I was thinking there was something not quite right in her reaction, that the guilt she was feeling (and that the nuns, it must be said, were not quick to dismiss for her or any of us in the group) was not quite fair. We were just a bunch of kids who'd driven to Texas after classes ended. We'd been immersed. What we'd seen was eye-opening. But I don't think a burden of guilt was what we were meant to take away from the trip.
I drove much of the way home, and we stopped in Roswell and White Sands, New Mexico, along the way. We returned the van; I slept on someone's couch that night; and in the morning I took a taxi to the Dayton Greyhound station and rode by bus back home.
Over fifteen years later, I still think about this trip now and then, and not just because it left me with a cockroach phobia. I appreciate the idea behind the trip, I guess. But, then and now, something about it strikes me as unseemly--there we were, coddled, wide-eyed kids from Ohio, brought to this troubled place to do little more than look around. We weren't going into it with questions of politics or policy; I, at least, had no prior knowledge of Juarez, or the issues it or other border towns were facing. Maybe the intention is that this trip would spark those kinds of questions or investigations. Still, in 1997, the rest of the summer was ahead; most of us still had years of school ahead of us. After thanking the nuns, we just got back in our van and drove away.