It has taken me a long time to see what all the fuss is about. And I begin with the hundreds of people who die every year in my desert, when it makes absolutely no sense because I know they shouldn’t be there in the first place. I find it hard to believe that anyone with common sense would risk it. They are, I suppose, okay if you get to know them. It’s something I don’t like to think about. My neighbors are hard working enough, some of them legal and others are not, hardly aware of them most of the time, and they work harder than I ever would. They’re in here less for the freedom and more for the jobs, some say to take jobs away from us, so why encourage them; and then this artist Neil Bernstein comes along. Bernstein builds what he calls a piece of art, a sculpture, a bridge, a GOLDEN GATES BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED BORDERS, a memorial to Mexican immigrants who risk their lives illegally crossing the border, Bernstein telling me I should care.
I believe I first started working side by side with Mexican immigrants when I first moved to Tucson over thirty years ago, but the story was different then; and the story was about success. The wall/fence is perhaps the only story today that explains the fuss. It is very strong and getting longer. The goal was 370 miles by the end of 2008. A deterrent forcing crossers through a more deadly chute. Chetoff says, it serves a purpose. “I’ve seen pictures of human waste, garbage, discarded bottles and other human artifact in pristine areas,” said he. By human artifacts does he mean human skeletons? Or is he inferring that we’ll spend years cleaning up the mess. (Another mess for Obama.) The pendulum of public opinion continuously swings; the floodgates for immigrants open and close. A light in the desert (Bernstein’s bridge); too far away from a dying pregnant woman. Where are her children tonight? And during the night, somebody or a group of somebodys will destroy the light (Bernstein’s bridge) and leave it scattered in the desert. (Vigilantes or vandals would destroy the bridge four more times; there’s persistence for you.) Its destruction is symbolic of the controversy, of a promise broken, pipes busted, as precious water is lost in the desert sand. What Bernstein has to say with his art should be taken seriously; but like him or not, at least listen. And when the debate is over and the sun comes up, please don’t let the early morning desert breeze bring a smell of things we’d rather forget: the smell of a body rotting in the heat. And if this picture alone is not enough, I don’t know what to say.
To find out more about the artist, google Neil Bernstein, artist.
There were the usual people bathing in the river; with the usual separation of the sexes, men and boys upstream and women-girls and small children down river. The rivers were also used for restroom facilities, and that didn’t seem to be a huge problem as long as the water was running.
The Dutch, from whom the country had won its freedom after World War II, did not bring the amenities of civilization to this part of Sumatra. The region had been passed by, or so it seemed…it wasn’t as remote as it would get when the road gave out and the route along the coast through the jungle turned to trail. It would horrify some travelers. But it could and would get worse in another setting with comparable amenities except without a running river. Then it wouldn’t be as healthy; the “usual” then could lead and often led to a catastrophe; and as in our case turn cuts on our feet into huge tropical ulcers, and, with no doctors, greater complications. There was the role flies played: flies on feces, back and forth from feces to sores, which was just part of what made it serious. It might be said at this point that this was our perspective, a western perspective, which does not take into consideration the powdered penicillin that everyone there poured onto open sores. It must’ve worked because we didn’t see any sick people around.
Just as our situation…in this case our infected feet…colored our perception, and without the infected feet we might have passed through there without equating defecating on dry ground with a health problem. The jungle had slowed us down; our feet had slowed us down even more. That made it so that we couldn’t ignore a dire need. The need existed at that particular time. But was it something that we could’ve done something about? Here we had experienced and noticed a major problem; maybe we should’ve done more than look after ourselves. We could’ve brought it to the public’s attention. The fact was that we were more interested in our travels than the fate of the people along the way. As it was, just getting out of there, with what was for us one adventure after another, required a great amount of energy and a little bit of luck. Now, hopefully, after so many years, the sanitation situation over there has improved.
The choices, however, remain. There are stories of other international travelers who stumble across a need and are so moved by it that they do something about it. This leads me to the adventurer Greg Mortenson and writer of the New York Times Bestseller THREE CUPS OF TEA. He went back to a Pakistani village in Karakoram Mountains after he failed to climb K2. After recognizing a need for education in the “Taliban’s backyard” (particularly for girls), he has built over fifty-five schools. Filled with color and adventure, THREE CUPS OF TEA is a good read.