The man’s door is ajar, and he calls to me as I approach his landing, climbing the hotel’s rickety stairs to the room I’m sharing for a few more days with three of my friends. Our Mexico City to sightsee a bit before heading home. I’ve never been so tired.has just ended, and now we’re in
“Come in, come in, they’re right here,” the man beckons, his lined face open and grinning, his Spanish smooth and warm. In his fifties, he’s wearing baggy trousers and a guayabera frayed at the hem; the only reason I know what he’s asking — if I want to pet the kittens — is because of the tremulous baby animal sounds coming from the back of his room, mingling with the city’s ongoing traffic hum, its smell of dust and burnt toast. I hesitate. Do I owe this stranger politeness? What’s the nicest thing to do? At 20, I don’t know yet how to inhabit myself, how to trust my own instincts. It’s easier to look to other people for guidance.
This has been made abundantly clear these past six weeks, as I and my fellow mission team members from college have been teaching vacation Bible schools in Campeche, one of the states on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Although it’s been touted as a leadership opportunity and a chance to have a cross-cultural experience, the trip has sapped me of my emotional resources, and more than once these past weeks I’ve remembered my deep doubts about going, the tearful prayer times with my leader, how she exhorted me to take a risk for God. The dense coal of fear I discovered burning in my chest the moment we boarded the plane at San Francisco International has been a touchstone, the whole trip made heavy with its heat.
We start in Mérida, gathering with comrades from other Bay Area schools for a few days of orientation before being sent into Campeche, where small teams of us will stay with host families. To ground the project we study the New Testament book of James. In the first few mornings we gather in the living area of our headquarters, rubbing our red eyes after another night in hammocks strung across the main room, its windows facing the street. Everything feels strange to me, and sinister. I’m not sure I can handle this, not sure I can perform as charged. James’ words don’t reassure me. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Instead of encouraging me, the words make me feel inadequate, lost.
We fan out, distributed to various towns via open flat-bed trucks, toting our luggage and plastic crates full of art supplies, song books, toilet paper. My teammates and I stay with a wealthy family whose staid living room furniture is covered in plastic to protect it from use; later we’re hosted by a rural family that puts us up in an open air concrete pavilion that we share with pigs and chickens. No matter how comfortable the accommodations, cockroaches are everywhere, the size of hockey pucks and crunchy when flattened with a shoe. We’re fed Coke and pan dulce for breakfast, tuna sandwiches made with tepid mayonnaise for lunch, and tortillas and beans and horchata — the milky rice drink so beloved here — for dinner.
I spend much time in the bathroom, weeping in ongoing gastrointestinal distress but also in relief, as it’s a break from the task of teaching Bible stories in my broken Spanish, wrangling the kids from activity to activity, singing songs, smiling, feeding snacks, answering questions. One evening in Champotón, a tiny beachside town, we’re invited to socialize with a church youth group. They spend the time handily beating us in a game of quoting Scripture from memory, their glee undisguised.
By the time the mission is over and we’ve decamped to Cozumel for a “debriefing” with the project’s leaders, my nerves are bedraggled and my mind in a state of overwhelm. I sleep for 12 hours straight, then sit numbly on the beach, wincing as the very people I’ve supposed to have been “serving” the whole summer now serve me at the resort. My questions are so tangled, almost unconscious, that I can’t begin to sort them. Why did I come here? Am I a leader now? Did I do it right? Is God happy with me? I long to go home.
But there’s still Mexico City. The four of us girls and four of our male teammates stop there, staying originally at a hotel in the Colonial Centro recommended by the Mexican pastor who has been our project contact. It’s just fine: a high rise with cool dusky rooms and clean sheets. For a few days, I sleep some more. I start to relax as we troop to the Museo de Arte Moderno, eat enchiladas suizas in tiny cafes, buy souvenirs and sit, langorous, on the sunny steps of churches.
It’s one of the other girls’ idea to change hotels. Who knows who finds this one, Hotel Danky, a dark pension that costs five dollars per room rather than the $10 we’ve been paying. In the lobby the concierge sits in a cage. When she’s taken our money she escorts us to two rooms, one for us and one for the guys, and as we follow her up the stairs we pass a few women going down, their eyes dark with makeup, breasts round under tight-fitting blouses.
The dense ember of fear that I’d begun to extinguish in the last few days ignites again, and as we enter our new room my breathing tightens. I’m going along again, as I’ve done from the beginning, when my Bible study leader started her campaign to persuade me to take the trip: The fear of not belonging, not being cool and calm and worldly, is greater than the electric warnings flashing in my chest.
Once we’ve settled and my friends are napping, I take my purse with my ticket and passport and go out alone into the city. I’m dessicated by the heat, jangled by its constant frenetic energy. As I walk the glaring streets I suddenly want my mother, want to call her and have her get me out of Mexico and back to the blind familiar streets of our suburban California neighborhood. But I can’t: Part of how I got her blessing for the trip was by presenting myself as a confident, mature adult, unafraid.
So when I return, the man with the kittens catches me off guard, marinating as I am in a homesickness made even more acid by my belief that others know best, that I can’t show doubts, that my own feelings are not to be trusted.
“¿Le gustaría acariciar los gatitos?” the man asks again. I imagine the kittens’ fragile, warm bodies, cradled in my hands.
“Oh,” I say. I look down at my feet, grimy in sandals. Glancing up into his face again, I try to persuade myself that there’s nothing wrong with baby cats. Nothing wrong with this pension, or this mission project, or this strange man. But then that dark rock, the one that’s anchored me through the whole trip, throbs under my ribcage. No! No! No! it beats, and I tell him in Spanish, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” and start to turn away.
The man’s smile hardens, sets in a leer. “Espere,” he croons, his palms extended as if in conciliation but his body aggressive. “Viene, güera. Podemos tener un buen rato.”
C’mon, white girl. We could have a good time.
My palms go cold and my heart speeds up. “No,” I say. “No, gracias,” and clamber quickly up the stairs.