My parents took me to the International Airport in Houston to catch my flight to Monterrey, Mexico. Once at the airport, it hit me that I was not too sure about traveling alone. Mom and Dad had to reassure me that everything was going to be ok and to trust God to watch over me. Walking away from them to board my plane was very difficult.
That evening the church was packed and Miguel was in his element as a preacher. Since I did not know Spanish that well, I could not follow his sermon, but had an idea of what he was talking about. Lots of people responded at the end of the service.
The Train Ride
Once we arrived in Mexico City, we made our way to the train station. When we were checking in for our train, the man at the counter asked where I was from. I told him that I was from Houston, Texas, USA. At the train platform I noticed that another car was being added to the train which was an older Pullman car. As we were boarding the train the conductor said that our car was the one that was just added so we walked over to it. We gave the conductor our ticket and boarded the Pullman car. The car was very nice compared to the other cars in the train. It had green velvet seats facing each other. It also had pull down beds. Miguel and I were the only ones in the Pullman car when the train pulled out from the station. Miguel told me that they added this car since I was an American, apparently the only American on the train. We were on our way to Chiapas, Mexico.
One night I arrived at the small church and was going to stay at the back of the room. One young guy up front waved to me to sit on the front row. I shook my head to say I wanted to stay back here. Miguel saw this and told me that I need to go up there since they had saved the best seat for me. It would be insulting to them if I refused. I went up to the front to sit with them and saw the pride they had in saving me the seat. During the service this reminded my of the scripture where Jesus said it was better to take the lower seat at a table and be invited to sit in the better seat than the other way around.
The summer of 1974, I was invited to take a trip with a good friend who was a Mexican Missionary, Miguel Angel Diaz. Miguel lived with his family in Monterrey, Mexico. That summer I was 16 years old and had never taken a trip without my family before. I was to be the photographer for Miguel’s mission trip to Chiapas, Mexico near the Guatemalan border. I am writing this story 40 years later so I am going on only what I can remember. I am sure there are a lot of things I can not recall and others may be a little different than what really happened. I tried to stay true to my perception of everything that happened.
I landed in Mexico City where I made a connecting flight to Houston, Texas. This part of the flight, I was on a Pan Am 707. This was the only 707 I recall ever flying on. There were not a lot of people on this flight so I had a lot of room to get comfortable.
One day as a group of young guys were heading out to harvest mangos, I was invited to go with them. I had a great time working with these guys. Communicating with them was a challenge, but we were able to understand each other by hand language and the few words each of us knew of the other’s language. We had a donkey pulling a wagon as we walked along side. Once we arrived at the large trees, some of the guys starting climbing really high into the trees carrying machetes. I helped on the ground for a while picking up mangos and tossing them into the wagon. After a while, I climbed up into the lower branches to knock down some mangos that the others had overlooked. While I was in the tree, it started to shake. My first thought was why was someone below shaking the tree while we were up here. Then I realized that the trunk was way too big for someone to shake. Ended up being a small earthquake which shook almost all of the mangos out of the tree. As we picked up all of the mangos that had fallen out of the tree during the small earthquake, the wagon was so full it could barely carry the heavy load. Walking back to the village along with the full wagon, one of the guys smiled at me and said in a mix of Spanish and English, “…. It was as if God helped us by shaking the tree!” I agreed!
The Village Store
The family I stayed with had the only store in the village. One morning at breakfast I asked them if they had any coffee. They brewed some coffee and I found it to be the best coffee I had ever had. They saw how much I enjoyed the coffee so later that day they took me to their store to give me a bag of coffee to take home. I was really touched at the generosity these good people had to their visitor. This coffee was harvested not to far from where we were so it was very fresh.
The house where we stayed was sort of a compound in shape. The building formed the street corner with a large yard in back ringed with a fence. The store made up the corner of the buildings. One day a group of teenagers wanted to play ball. I mentioned playing baseball. They were not familiar with baseball, only what we know as soccer. I explained how baseball works. We found a thick tree limb that worked well as a bat and one guy showed up with what looked like a softball. We had a great time that afternoon playing baseball. As the game progressed, many people stopped by to sit on the walls around the courtyard to watch the game.
One day while walking with a group of guys just outside of the village, one man who had walked ahead of us came running back. He was shouting to us that there was some “Sandinistas” up ahead. I was not sure what was happening so I followed everybody into the tree line. We hid behind trees and bushes and watched a group of men walking by carrying military rifles. Several years later, there was a war close to this area between the Sandinistas and Contras. I have often wondered what happened to these good people I visited that summer.
The last few days we were in this part of the country, we visited a nearby village where Miguel invited people to attend church. We stayed a couple of nights in that neighboring village. I remember that I had a stomach virus and that I stayed in bed for one of those days. It was at that point that I started to get homesick.
The Bus Ride
At the bus station, Miguel said his goodbyes to his family and we boarded the bus to Mexico City. The bus ride was an adventure in itself. I learned quickly that for some reason, the brake pedal could not be pushed unless the horn was honked first. At least that was the way our driver drove through traffic. We drove through the night and before entering Mexico City, we were in the mountains. As I looked out of the window, the mountain side looked really steep, but that did not slow our bus down very much as he took the road curves. The next morning, I smelled something funny and noticed that it smell like grass burning. I looked around to see what was causing the smell and noticed our driver was smoking a marijuana cigarette. Like Mom and Dad said, God was watching over us!
My flight was scheduled to leave before Miguel’s flight so we said our good-byes at the airport. I think that was the last time I ever saw or heard from Miguel.
I walked out to the area where passenger would wait for their flight which was just a sidewalk. When I got out there, I noticed the runway and tarmac was dirt. After seeing that, I wondered what kind of aircraft was going to show up. After waiting for about 30 minutes, I saw a couple of water trucks head out to the runway to start spraying the runway with water. I really was curious as to why they were doing that until I saw the Mexicana 727 line up for approach for landing. When the airplane landed, there was dust everywhere so the water on the runway kept a lot of the dust down. The 727 stopped right in front of us. We waited until passengers left the jet before we walked out to climb the stairs at the rear to enter the aircraft. There was no luggage check in; I left my suitcases on the sidewalk with everybody else’s luggage. While I was getting situated on the airplane, I could see workers carrying the passenger suitcases to the cargo door of the plane and throw them inside. As I sat in my window seat, I could see the water trucks going up and down the runway spraying more water. When the doors closed, the jet engines started up, we then moved out to the runway. We took off and as we got airborne and the jet started to turn, I could look back and see the dust cloud where the runway was. Leaving that airport was truly an adventure. .
I remember walking through the village the next day with Miguel and along with some members of the family where we stayed. As people saw us, they would get out of way and step back into doorways as we walked past. Miguel told me in English, so the others would not understand what he said, that I was the first light hair, light skinned person most of these local people had seen. In fact he overheard someone ask if I were an angel. I thought that was very interesting. Miguel mentioned to me that I would need to make a point to greet most everyone since that would mean a lot to them.
My flight landed in Monterrey, Mexico and I was met at the airport by Miguel. As we drove to his house, we stopped at a store to buy food that I would like. I was and still am a picky eater, so finding something to eat has always been a challenge. We arrived at the Diaz house and met Miguel’s wife, Eva and their young daughter. The next morning as we were driving to the bus station, Miguel asked me if I wanted to learn Spanish. I said I did and he responded, “…. From this point on, we will only speak in Spanish”. I was not so sure about that, so I had to learn pretty fast if I wanted to communicate with anyone. For the rest of the trip, Miguel spoke very few words in English and only then it was for something I really needed to know.
I will never forget this train ride! It took us 32 hours to reach our destination and only towards the end of the trip did it start to seem really long. We went through the jungles of southern Mexico which was nothing like I had ever seen before. The train stopped many times during the trip which allowed us to get off to buy something to eat at the local station. One time I boarded the train from the back steps just in time for the train to pull out of the station. The door to the car was locked and a much as I knocked on it, Miguel did not hear me. Fortunately there was a chair on the porch outside the door so I just sat there watching the jungle go past while I ate my lunch I bought at the station. I guess I was out there for over an hour before Miguel opened the door looking for me. Sitting in the chair on the back of the train was the most memorable time I had of the train ride.
One morning, Miguel said we were moving to a nearby ranch. I asked if it were in another village and he said it was not. The ranch owner had offered for us to stay there for our remaining time. The ranch was really nice compared to where we stay in the village. I had no complaints about staying in the village, but moving “up” was a nice change. The ranch was somewhat isolated and when we went to the village each day, it was about a 30 minute walk. The countryside was beautiful and mountainous so the walk to the village was challenging in some places and very scenic in others. I did not know this at the time, but looking back, the people were protecting us from the threat of the Sandinistas who were seen in the area. I guess an American would have been a prize for them. God always watches over us even when we have no idea of danger. When I figured this out, I was humbled that God had used the good people of that area to take care of us.
We traveled back to the ranch to pack our things in preparation of heading back home. The next morning, one of the rancher’s sons drove us to the airport to catch our flight back home. I remember the car was a late model Audi, which was uncommon to have such a nice car in this area of the country. The drive to the airport took about an hour and half.
During the train ride, Miguel would walk through the cars ahead of us and usually someone would follow him back to our car. What Miguel was doing was looking for people to witness to about Jesus. I am not sure how many people he talked to or led to the Lord on that train, but Miguel was always faithful to his calling.
The Swimming Hole
One afternoon a group of young people invited me to join them to go to a swimming hole. I wore a cut off blue jean shorts and a t shirt. After about a 20 minute walk we arrived at a waterfall that had a beautiful pool at the bottom. The area was rocky so walking the last steps to the water was rough and hot on our feet. The crystal clear water was cold at first but was really enjoyable. A few of the guys made their way to the water fall and climbed out to go up to the top of the fall which was about 15 feet above the pool. Before I knew it, they were in the water riding the waterfall down to the pool. When I saw that, I had to try it out. We had a lot of fun that afternoon and it was sort of sad to leave such a beautiful place.
Mom and Dad met me at the Houston International Airport. I was so glad to see them. Miguel and his family would travel to the States and would stop by my parent’s house from time to time, but I don’t recall seeing them after this trip.
Even though I don’t recall any of the names of the people I met on this trip, I will never forget them. I often think about them and pray for them and wonder if they are still alive and if so, what they are doing today.
We arrived at our destination during the night and a car and driver was there to pick us up. We had a short drive through the mountains to get to the village where Miguel had been invited to speak throughout the week at the local church. This small village was made up of farmers and ranchers. The streets were all dirt, but had a few concrete sidewalks along with wood sidewalks. When it rained, the streets became small rivers so the sidewalks were the only way to get through the village. There were no cars or motorcycles here, just an occasional truck picking up and delivering goods. People either walked or rode horses and donkeys. We stayed with a family that owned the only general store in the village. Miguel stayed with the family in the main house and I stayed in the guest house.