Of Photographs and Foreign Lands

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Mexico, my home away from home. Mexico, the place where my hermanito is growing up without me. Mexico, the country that grabbed a piece of me and hasn’t let go since I first stepped onto the foreign soil. Far above sea level, in the mountain air higher than Denver, Colorado, I found someplace special. Two years have gone by since that first trip, and two trips have been made down to the orphanage outside Mexico City. But this year, I was unable to head back down. Several of my friends just returned from a youth group trip to visit the orphanage. As is common after such trips, they have been posting pictures on Facebook. Nothing unusual, just snapshots of the kids they saw, the places they visited, and the things they did.

But for me, those photos offered an opportunity to breathe Mexican air, to touch the walls and the floor of the orphanage, to very nearly walk through the homes again and remember. The only thing the pictures couldn’t do was allow me to hug the children, to whisper in their ears, to be fully there. But if I can’t make it down to Mexico, I’ll take these snapshots. They swirl around me like the cool mountain air in the evenings there. The faces rush across my screen, giggling and smiling, reaching for hugs. Their voices squeal and whisper, tell secrets and tease–all traveling across a country and into my bedroom. I am amazed at the power of photographs!

I can almost feel the rain splashing down on the street, sometimes fogging up my glasses with the humidity. I splash in the puddles, kick at the soccer ball dancing away from my bare toes, and laugh with the children. I step through the city, gazing in awe of the cathedral and palace standing high above me. I gasp in childlike joy at the people around me, the things to buy, the very air I breathe. I lie down at night and listen to the band playing loud and late. I hear the tamale truck driving by, noisily calling people to get some food in the same manner as an ice cream truck here in St. Louis. Tacos and posoli and flan fill my plate on different days. I try a bit of the chocolate mole on chicken. It is surprisingly good. I sing songs in church that Sunday, savoring the Spanish around me melding with the English of some of my companions. I struggle to follow the sermon and Sunday school lesson, relying on my limited Spanish and the notes passed down by our group leader. I pull a little boy (who is growing up much too fast, if you ask me!) close, breathe in the smell of his shampoo, and attempt to show him how much I love him before I step back from our embrace and step through security toward my plane. I wave at him, tears streaming down, and call out loudly across the busy airport, choking out the words to say goodbye. And he reminds me, it’s not Adios. All I need to say is Hasta luego. It’s not a forever goodbye, it’s just a ’til next time.

In the midst of all these flooding memories, I must thrust my head above them for a time. I stop remembering, pull away from the pictures, and force myself to consider something more mundane. Too much emotion, too sudden, too hard. But after a few moments, I dive back into the flood. I gaze at the pictures, reaching forward to touch my screen as if that will bring me closer to my Mexican friends. I start to cry, all the memories becoming too much again. I smile at a familiar face, at the new puppies, at the old tree in that welcoming courtyard. I long for the feel of Mexican mountain breeze against my face, the familiar giggles of friends who can’t quite understand my less-than-stellar Spanish (or else find my estadounidense accent amusing). I come up again, gasping for air. As much as I may want it to be, Mexico is not my present reality. Next time may be months away, even years. But next time will come. I will see my beloved brothers and sisters again.

Two years removed from my first trip out of the US, I must admit that I cannot believe how much I have changed. When I first went to Mexico, I was planning on it being a one-time thing. One trip for one week. See what God’s doing in another country, practice my Spanish a bit, laugh with the kids, do some work. That’s all I expected. But God gave me so much more.

Looking back over these pictures, gasping and crying and smiling all over again, I find a blessing that–while not the same as being in Mexico–is a bit of Mexico thriving in me. I see the little boy growing into a young man. I feel his hug. I see the little girl growing up quickly too. I miss her sweet smile and soft voice. I hear the barking of the dogs and the squeals of the children. I see a baby who isn’t really a baby anymore. I see friends from St. Louis giving piggyback rides to kids from Mexico City. Though I cannot be there this summer, the pictures are enough. For the photographs spark memories that have lain sleeping for many months, awaiting the moment when I would need to remember. Now they flame vividly in front of me, reminding me that Mexico is not just some place I visited. Those kids are not just some orphans I met. No! Mexico is a country that is home to my brothers and sisters, children of the LORD God Almighty. The one LORD Who holds both me and my hermanito also cares for His children in China, in Germany, in Brazil, and in every country where people call on His name. I imagine that my experience in Mexico and the memories from that time which consume me now–those days living in another land and speaking another language taught me something. I learned–and am constantly relearning–that souls are precious, that people are made in the image of God, that children grow and things change, but the Word of the LORD remains. I learned that though I may not see my friends every day, or even every year, those children are my precious brothers and sisters. Not one of those children is just another kid. Every one of them is a child with a unique story and purpose. Each brother and sister of mine–whether they be in Mexico City or St. Louis or Timbuktu–is a person to be treasured and loved and valued. And I learned that photos enliven memories, remind us of truth forgotten, and allow us to share something we might otherwise have lost. I thank God for digital cameras, photo-happy friends, and Facebook. With those things, I went to Mexico this summer, even though I have yet to leave St. Louis.

¡Dios te bendgia! Hasta luego. =)

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