“You have a number of items with a hollow cavity that look to be stuffed with another material.”
I wondered what I had that fit that description. Whatever it was sounded sinister. I felt guilty right away.“I know I have a tube of Blistex in there. Maybe some lens cleaning solution. But I think it’s under the amount of fluid allowed.”
The TSA guy opened the straps to my carry on, a small black Duluth pack.“It’s these,” he said, holding up a big zip lock bag stuffed with plastic heads on stand up plastic shafts. I’d packed about 50 to give to kids in the eye clinic.
“They’re Pez,” I said.He unzipped the bag and pulled out a yellow Minion with one eye, turning it over as if it were some kind of radioactive substance.
“It’s Pez. A toy. ”Who doesn’t know Pez?
“What’s inside it?”“May I?”
I reached for the Pez. He hesitated but handed it to me. I slid open the interlocking plastic deal, revealing a row of a dozen lemon flavored sugar tablets.“Candy. They’re filled with candy, because they’re Pez.”
Another TSA staffer, looser, more candid, walked over and picked up the bag.“Wow man, you got them all. You got the Disney characters, Star Wars, Power Rangers. Nice job.”
His co-worker, the unsmiling Pez illiterate, looked at him blankly, then back at me. The hip TSA agent reassured his fellow staff member.“They’re Pez man. It’s cool. He’s good.”
I handed him back the one eyed Minion. He put it carefully into the zip lock, closed it, placed the bag into my back pack, looked at me with more than a tinge of doubt, and waved me on without words.“Just get me out of here,” I thought.
The “here” I was referring to in “get me out of here” was my country. I was ready to leave. The political news was driving me out. Over the past year I had had it with the rancor, the accusations, the lying, and rude discourse let alone the damage being done to my county’s image around the world. I needed a break.The plane landed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in the early afternoon and by evening we, 20 some volunteers paying their own way to staff an eye clinic and dispense used eye glasses, arrived in a town of 16,000 towards the middle of the Mexican state of Nayarit. Compostela, up in the hills and away from the coast , has little or no tourism, is not widely known, and because of that is unlike the country most who visit Mexico experience. They are not intent on selling you espresso coffee, jewelry, vegetarian food, tattoos, or trinkets like they do on Mexico’s beaches. In Compostela they’re busy growing sorghum and mangos, tobacco and corn, beans, and raising horses and cows, along with children.
We checked into an old hotel on the square and were taken to our clinic site, a building normally used as a community health center for diabetics on the edge of town. It was small but clean. We had to quickly figure out how to set up. We decided registration needed to be done outside. Not ideal, but necessary. Even with that space would be tight. There would still be little room for patients waiting at different points in the clinic once they entered. The next day our hosts would move a canopy near the entrance to provide shade to those forced to wait outside.We set up our stations: registration, nurse, visual acuity, auto refractor, eye doctors (4), and finally dispensing where people receive glasses if needed. We unpacked and spread out our catalogue of 7,000 pairs of used eye glasses from Lion’s Club warehouses in California and Illinois, and kind people we know who save them for us. By 8:00 p.m. we were more or less ready for Sunday, the first day of a four day clinic. Super Bowl Sunday by the way.
That first day of travel and set up is always a long one.My wife and I were on the third floor of the small hotel. Our room was directly across from the town’s central plaza and bell tower of its largest Catholic Church, San Santiago Apostal, known locally as the Temple of the Lord of Mercy. Church bells went off in a big way at 5:30 a.m. the next morning. It was still dark. I jumped out of bed thinking something was about to happen. It was. Sunday in Mexico had begun.
I looked out the window and dimly saw the source of the calamity, it was that old church. To say its old is understatement. It was designed by the Spanish in 1540 and built by the hands of local Mexicans. It remains a vital working parish 478 years later. People of all ages cross themselves when they pass by.
They had been with us every step of the way. They were at their airport ready to run interference to get our glasses and equipment through customs, at the coach bus which they hired offering beer, soda and homemade tacos on the ride up into the mountains, at the hotel helping us register and get to our rooms, at the clinic with sandwiches helping us set up that evening.When I asked how many volunteers would be available to help us the first day of clinic my rotary contact rattled off names, counting on his fingers, and said “Eleven.” More showed up. They nearly equaled us I Care volunteers from the states. It was impressive.
Clinic always starts slowly. We find out where the slow spots are, where we need more help, where those we’re helping get out of sequence. But soon the people of Compostela, who had signed up for the free eye clinic weeks ago, made it to the final step and we were giving them glasses. The planning and preparation, the travel, the set up, all come down to that. People who lack eye care get a good exam and glasses if they need them. Volunteers pick a pair of glasses for them, sometimes more, from the stock we assembled, wrap them in their intake form, and pass them to the fitters, of which I am one, to call their name.I make sure to do a few things first each time a new patient sits down in front of me. I repeat their first name, look them in the eye, say Buenos dias (good day), Buenos tardes (good afternoon), or sometime Buenos noches (good evening) if we run late. I shake their hand. I say como esta (how are you) again using their first name. They usually smile and ask me how I’m doing back. Then we go.
People who hear me speak Spanish in the clinic think I know the language well. I don’t. Truth is I’ve been speaking Spanish about eyes and glasses for four days at least in 25 of the last 30 years. I’ve lost count. My first mission was in 1988. I missed some years when the kids were little, but not many.As a result, I have a pretty polished rap about bifocals. I show them the line, explain that under the line is the portion of the lens for viewing things close up, and over the line for distance. I put their glasses on them and ask them first to look away in the distance. I give them a newspaper to look at close up. If they don’t work we try something else.
If they can see adequately, and you can almost tell by the look on their face, I ask them if the glasses are comfortable, loose or tight, then adjust them to fit. I caution them about the vulnerability of plastic lenses and tell them to clean them with soap and water and dry them with a soft cloth so as to prevent scratches. If they have an eye injury or one eye that doesn’t function I tell them“Esta es la razon por la cual Dios le dio a la gente dos ojos. (This is why God gave people two eyes.)”
I joke around, try to make the experience pleasant for them, and in the end shake their hand again, telling them “Listo!” (we’re done or you’re ready) and wishing them good luck with the glasses. Get me away from an eye clinic, and the vocabulary contained in that short exchange, and my Spanish goes downhill quickly. I learned Spanish in the streets while traveling, hitchhiking mostly, through Mexico, Central America, and part of South America in the 70’s. They say you learn what you need to get by that way. And that amount of Spanish allows me to get by in the eye clinic fairly well.The real story of these clinics is the people we serve and the local people who help us provide that service. Let’s start with the latter. They were Rotary Club members, business owners, Mexicans with means. Who else has the capacity to fund and carry out a community project like this? One of the main organizers was a local family practice doctor, a dynamic young woman who took charge of the front door, got us whatever we needed, and stayed from the time the first patient came through the door till the last one left.
Another was a local businessman who owned gas stations and several other businesses. His whole family worked with us, including his daughter who spoke excellent English and interpreted for those who needed language help. So much help from the citizens of Compostela. They worked with us Sunday and Monday, which was a holiday, and turned us over to the local staff of DIF, the Mexican national social service agency, when they had to go back to their jobs Tuesday and Wednesday. I’ve found it rare for two such different organizations to cooperate so well. Despite the Rotary club members saying they would not be able to help the last two days many were there much of the time. All the organizers were especially kind to the people served by the clinic. It appeared to be a real labor of love for them.As it was for us from the US. That’s why we do this, our motivation for going in the first place. For me it’s the joy of meeting those people. I probably called the name, shook the hand, and said “good luck with your glasses” to 500+ people. Here’s a few of them.
An 80 year old painter who came straight from work. He was tanned and wrinkled but his forearms and his handshake were just as strong as mine. He had paint on his hands. He was wiry and fit and had bright eyes. Not bad vision. Just a little deficit seeing far away but seriously hindered for near vision. I asked him one of the standards questions.“Tiene lentes antes?” (Had glasses before?)
“Nunca.” (Never.)I gave him a pair of sturdy bifocals. When I asked him to look far away, he looked out the window and nodded. When I put a newspaper in front of him he broke into a big smile.
“Muy claro.” (Very clear.)He gave me the three part handshake that is so popular with Mexicans and hipsters alike. The standard handshake, the thumb grab, followed again by the standard handshake. I gave him some sunglasses that went over the bifocals to keep “both the sun and the paint out of his eyes.” He laughed.
I quietly gave a 50 year old deaf woman her first pair of glasses, silently translating my glasses rap to crude hand signals. She needed a lot of correction for distance. Her mouth silently formed an O and she smiled as she looked out the window, then smiled at me. She asked for her daughter to come over and speak to me, signing to her. The daughter told me that her mother wished me blessings from God and safe travels home.I fitted a saddle maker, an electrician, lots of taxi drivers and truck drivers (thank god), farmers, cooks, housewives, lots of kids (the Pez only lasted two days), in short a small slice of the entire community. One woman who had a taco cart in the square, when I told her how much I liked Compostela, told me “Compostela es el capital del mundo. “ (Compostela is the capital of the world.)
A night later while walking through the square I heard that same sentence yelled across the way. Here came that same woman, proudly wearing her glasses, smiling and thanking me again. So genuine.I gave a nine year old girl her first pair of glasses, (along with a Pez) for serious myopia or near sightedness, and an almost equal prescription to her mother. I explained to them that they would both most likely need to wear glasses the rest of their lives, and to have regular eye exams if possible. And then I gave them one of my good lines.
“Para ti, con lentes el mundo es mas grande.” (For you, the world is much bigger with glasses.)Old people, some confused, were always it seemed accompanied by caring family members and treated kindly. Families waited for each other, children were well behaved, and parents were tolerant. The U.S. volunteers were probably more stressed than the Mexicans, although some of them spent over two hours in the clinic and travelled hours to get there from their villages.
They gave out 500 tickets a day, each of the four days. We haven’t served 2,000 people in an I Care clinic since the old days. We didn’t even know we could anymore. And yes our feet hurt, and our backs, and our brains were worn out from thinking of prescriptions and translating English to Spanish in our heads, but when it was over we felt good. We accomplished something. We got close as a group, and the group was international.The doctor’s sister cooked us a huge pot of posole for dinner Tuesday night. They brought it to the clinic after the last patient was served. Posole is hominy soup. Hominy is corn kernels with the shell removed and boiled till it puffs up. This posole had vegetables, mushrooms, and just a little bit of chicken. They served it with thick handmade tortillas and two homemade hot sauces, a mild green one and a red one they made a point of warning us about, a thick oily paste made with chile de arbol. I had two teaspoons of the red in both bowls of soup. Best hot sauce I’ve had in a long time. We all ate together on plastic banquet tables, Mexican and American volunteers elbow to elbow, dog tired, and talked about how we could do better in the clinic the next day.
This being Mexico, they threw us a big party at the end of the last day, a dress up deal with certificates of appreciation, bottles of tequila, multiple speeches, more tequila, much talk of hearts and love and home, and hugs. Lots of hugs and tearful goodbyes. It was heartfelt.As my wife and I were getting ready for the party I had a whiskey and thought of a speech I would give if the opportunity arose. All of us were careful to avoid talking politics. I imagined it as the elephant in the room, and searched for a way to broach the subject tactfully. At the party I decided not to talk, because the evening went long and everyone was tired. Besides that I write better than I talk. This is what I wanted to say.
“In the United States we have problems. Political problems. We don’t know where we are headed as a country. Many of us are alarmed, even ashamed. As a country we are as divided as we have ever been. The future is uncertain. Many of us are working hard to keep our country on the side of justice and fairness. But we are struggling.Whatever the outcome of that political struggle, in our upcoming elections, in our path going forward, I want to assure you of something. No politician, no political party, no policy, no law, and certainly no wall will ever separate the people of the United States from its neighbors. Both you and I are more than our governments. The people of the United States of America and Mexico share values and ideals that cannot be taken away. You are in our hearts, and nothing can take you from us.”
Mexicans love the stuff about hearts. When you hear the word “corazon” look for tears to follow. That speech might have resonated. We’ll never know. I think it would have had punch because it is true. The people of the United States and Mexico share so much as people: a sense of community, a belief in family, and helping others. You can’t make that make that stuff up, and you certainly can’t take it away.