Each time I head south of the border I get a little nervous. Kind of like the jitters that accompany a blind date. What’s it gonna be like? Will it be love at first sight or will even just first impressions leave me hightailing it in the opposite direction?
The truth is, sometimes Mexico is gentle with me. She greets me softly, easing me in, allowing my work to unfold as planned. She spares me the raw brutality so often revealed. Her gentle, reassuring underbelly soothes me with its brightly colored display case of the progress made for the animals thus far.
On those trips, our spay & neuter clinic runs without a hitch. Our rescue center greets me with a sea of four-legged immigrant hopefuls — beautiful souls of every shape, size, and color; all healed, healthy, and ready to head north. I fall in love again and again and find inspiration in each one. Productive meetings are held with staff and local officials. I encounter sick and suffering animals, but I am able to help them. The work is richous and good and meaningful. I am tired, but in the very best way. Progress peeks out from behind every dusty corner and even the biggest of challenges seem laced with unmet opportunity.
Other times….not so much.
That Mexico, she’s a tricky one. As inviting as she can be at times, at others I’d swear she’s conspiring with the Sonoran desert to push me to my utmost limit and then push me just a little bit more; chewing me up and spitting me and my good intentions right out onto the rocky bluffs of the Sea of Cortez, never to be seen again.
It’s not so much the triple digit blazing heat of summer, the sandstorms that can literally blind you, the prickly landscapes and the desolate desert horizons – it’s the suffering she dangles before me. The suffering of animals I cannot heal. The suffering of animals that will never be healed. The suffering that will never be righted or alleviated and seems to be all around.
That suffering pins me to the wall, staring right at me with a tragedy so vast the whole wide world fits inside, painting the sky black and daring me to go ahead and try, just try to make a difference.
What I will come to find is that this trip, like so many before it, will be a blend of both. Merciful at moments. Tragic at others. All that one heart can possibly hold. The blind date you’ve always wanted and never wished you went on all in the same encounter.
It begins as my husband, Moncho, and my 9 year-old son, Diego, and I load up in our rescue van and head south for the two-day drive. The van is packed to the hilt with donations. First stop along the zigzagging trail from Santa Rosa, CA to Puerto Peñasco, Mexico is a slight detour to Fresno. We are going to squeeze in a shot clinic on the way down. There has been a recent Distemper outbreak in the area, so we are hoping to pop vaccines into as many animals as we can.
Our incredible partners in Fresno meet us at the clinic with their shiny bright hearts of pure gold. Ready, as always, to pour heart and soul into the mission. Their passion continually humbles me as they face their daily challenges with a grace, humor, and strength I’ve seldom encountered in all my years in animal welfare.
After working alongside them in the sweaty, smoggy Valley heat at a frantic clinic with over 200 patients, we settle in for some cheap El Salvadoran food in an empty strip mall around the corner.
Hearing them speak of how painful it is being on the frontlines of the Distemper outbreak in the Fresno county shelter makes my heart break wide open and spill out all over the cheap folding table we are eating on top of….fortunately, no one seems to notice and we end the evening on a high note with a game of foosball before hitting the road.
For that night, a bit of that pain is laid quiet under the 200 vaccinations we gave and I continue our trip south feeling as though at the very least, we’d done something.
Fast forward through a couple of hot, hot summer days of travel and we land in Puerto Peñasco. We are greeted with a sandstorm that makes our trip to the rescue center to examine and evaluate the dogs slated to head north in a few days with us that much more difficult.
Sand fills our eyes, mouths, and ears as the wind whips up the desert around us. Still, the rescue dogs are beautiful. As always, I fall in love with each and every one and somehow the gnashing grit of sand and dirt between my molars seems more than worth it.
Next we land at the clinic and everything looks good. Shelves are organized. Medication baskets filled just so. Patients are all well cared for, treatment sheets filled out; every last detail squared away and operating according to plan. Pride for the incredible Mexican team wells up, along with appreciation for US staff who recently travelled to the clinic for a big training and helped to make this smooth operation a reality.
As I open one cabinet near the exam table and find a well stocked bandaging kit, my mind wanders to three years ago, when the clinic very first opened. Upon arriving to town, I had walked in and found a white poodle who was matted and painted brown with Sonoran dirt. He was huddled in the corner of his cage. He had been attacked by another dog. He had a laceration from a bite wound to the right jugular vein in his neck and was bleeding out.
Upon recognizing this, I thrust him out and onto the treatment table. I pressed my bare palm to his hemorrhaging neck and attempted to put enough pressure to hold it all in, all the while shouting orders to the staff.
Turns out we had no bandaging material at the clinic. Turns out the wound was too deep. The injury too severe. I was too late.
As he weakened, I pressed harder. I improvised. I did all I could. But it wasn’t enough. I lost him. He died.
At the time, the whole encounter felt like a big, painful metaphor for the futility of my work. For my life. Frantically holding my palms up to the wounds around me, pressing as hard as I could….but not able to stem the flow of the suffering all around.
Now, three years later, staring upon the organized bandage drawers, the piles and piles of gauze and bandaging material, the layers of wound care supplies, I take heart in the progress we’ve made….but that memory settles in behind my temples and follows me throughout the rest of the trip.
After the clinic visit, we walk over to our new puppy orphanage across the street. I recharge on adorable, happy puppies and beautiful mama dogs with their litters. This center, which just opened, has been a dream of ours for so long; seeing it realized and operational, filled with these precious, innocent beings, knocks me into a good mood for hours to come.
The next few days are filled with the usual ups and downs. We rescue some incredible dogs in absolutely terrible shape off the streets, save a bunch of homeless puppies, perform lifesaving surgeries, hold trainings and then end the second to last day with the rescue of a dog in very poor condition. Neurologic. Bone thin. Covered in wounds that have attracted flies. Locals say he has been this way for some time and are grateful we are taking him in.
There will be no happy ending for this boy. He’ll arrive to our clinic, where I complete my exam and do some testing only to confirm he is in the end stages of Distemper. Even in this condition his tail wags and he tries to roll over for belly rubs. I run my hand down his prominent spine, trace his open sores, and look into his beautiful brown eyes and wish and wish and wish I had something to offer him other than what I am about to do.
I feed him the most delicious food I can find and tell him all about his gorgeous root beer brown eyes, before giving him the injection that will end his life. I am alone in a small quiet part of the clinic when this happens. The knot that is my chest tightens and twists as I convince myself that this was the best I could offer. Even though, I would have given anything, anything, for his long struggle to not have ended with the cold prick of a needle but with the warmth of a loving home or at least a bit more tenderness and ease.
The salt sting of warm tears mixes with the reality that there is still much work to be done, so I pick myself off the floor and carry on. Outside, in the hustle and bustle of the clinic, no one seems to notice my shaking hands or moist cheeks.
Fast forward again and there are many, many more meetings, a few new hires, wonderful moments of rescue, and brief moments of joy, sunshine and sand at the end of long days of hard work, sweat and giving it our all.
On the very last night, my son sits beside me at a folding table eating a bean and rice burrito with our good friends from the Mexico team. We’ve created a makeshift picnic space in the middle of surgery prep at the clinic after a long day of emergency surgeries and the general chaos that is our free clinic in Mexico.
His smile and absolute ease with this unconventional life of ours fills me with a deep satisfaction and appreciation for our world and all it is filled with. Mexico winks at me from under a pile of warm homemade tortillas with the confidence of a persistent suitor who knows the next date is in the bag.
As the trip comes to a close we wake up at dawn and load the rescue dogs into the van: Paper ID collars, checking off lists, checking and double checking paperwork, and getting all 36 souls settled for the big drive. We are exhausted and it isn’t even 7 a.m. The sun breaks over the Sonora desert in a celebratory farewell as we begin the big journey north.
We arrive to the border a little over an hour later and due to a missing stamp on a single export form we are impounded for the next 11 hours at Mexican customs. 11 hours. The stamp had not been placed properly by the Mexican custom agent who was helping us.
Each passing hour seems impossibly worse than the last and the frustration and angst from having ourselves, our son, and 36 dogs trapped in a van hour after hour in the Sonoran heat due to a clerical error is difficult to fully express.
Come on Mexico, I really do have to go. Let’s say goodbye now, shall we?
Sweat, tears, frustration and flaring tempers swirl together in a toxic blend that make those 11 hours in that van truly trying. Fortunately, the dogs are our champions of calm, cool, and collect – never once complaining. Between fits of self-indignant rage we feed and water them, taking them out for walks in the long shadows of the parking lot carport — they provide the purpose and distraction we needed to remain sane.
Diego and I are allowed to leave just once, at dinnertime, to cross over to a convenience store down the street in search of food. We leave Moncho and the dogs idling in the van as a guarantee of our return. I manage to scrounge together a family dinner of white bread, avocados, potato chips and mustard which, by that time of the day, tastes like a four star meal.
Finally, after a final meltdown on Diego’s part, which I very intentionally put on full display, center stage in the Mexican customs office, we are granted permission to cross the border around 9 pm. That means we have to drive through the night. So be it, I think, as I wave goodbye to Mexico in the rearview mirror and silently swear I will never ever be back. Never again. I have had it. I am done.
And so it was. We drove and drove in the dark, alongside the bright lights of the semi-trucks and the wide open night sky. Red bull, more potato chips, rescue dogs and podcasts filled the van as we recovered from the 11-hour incarceration at customs and headed north as quickly as we could with our precious cargo.
Finally, 18 long hours later, we arrive to Muttopia, our shelter in California. Suddenly, the mood within the van shifts and everything feels like roses and butterflies. The pure happiness of seeing the dogs unloaded and handed off to the loving staff and volunteers is intoxicating. We have made it. The dogs are safe. Another load of beautiful, four-legged immigrants successfully delivered.
That particular joy proves itself to be a potent, intoxicating salve that Mexico rubs all over me, time and time again — making me forget how hard that journey had been in the first place.
Yes, yes, we are tired- but look at the dogs! Sure, sure, the hold up at the border was downright awful – but look at the dogs! I suppose there had been some hard moments of quiet desperation throughout the trip, but I mean, come on, look at the dogs!
Those dogs. The happiness in seeing them, these improbable survivors with their scruff and fluff and limps and quirks and shiny bright white resilience – seeing them welcomed, loved and doted upon; pulling them out of the van and setting them carefully upon the ground as they take the first step towards what will now be their new lives….it is what sustains me.
And so, with the last dog unloaded I turn to an impossibly bright-eyed, well rested volunteer, absolutely beaming with the joy of a whole new load of dogs safe and in our care.
“How was the trip?” she asks with a genuine interest and enthusiasm that is utterly disarming.
“Great!” I hear myself say.
And….you know, standing there and thinking it all over…..the truth is…..it was.
I can hardly wait until next time.