|Another story that reflects our area's proximity to the Mexican border (and that involves donkeys!), Jane L. Grider's entry is particularly appropriate on this fifth anniversary of 9/11.|
Loss of Innocence
Remembering a sisters' trip across the Rio Grande, before everything changed.
By Jane L. Grider
"Aw, c'mon, let's go!" my sister excitedly called to me.
We were standing on the edge of the Rio Grande at Boquillas in Big Bend National Park. Even though the sun danced on little waves made in the water by a fresh breeze, and a smiling boatman held out his hand, I wasn't entirely sure this was an adventure for me. Climbing in and out of swaying boats was not my strong point.
"Oh, okay," I sighed. We held out some dollar bills and somehow I managed to settle in the tiny aluminum rowboat. A short, gentle trip deposited us on the other side of the river. Another smiling man waved us towards some donkeys standing in a grove of trees. This seemed even more daunting to me than the boat trip. I had never been able to master the art of riding. Sitting on a stationary animal was one thing; having it move underneath me was quite another.
"El pueblito, es muy lejos de aqui?" I was hoping that we could walk to the little town, which was nowhere in sight.
"O si, senora, es muy lejos."
I tried again. "No se puede caminar alli?"
The donkey's owner looked seriously troubled for our well-being. "No, senora, es mas mejor pasear para el burro."
Again some more dollar bills passed hands. With some heaving and tugging, I managed to get seated. My sister was doubled over in laughter. The smiling man remained with his polite smile frozen on his face. I bravely held my breath as we started to move. Mercifully, the donkeys plodded very slowly. I clutched the reins with whitened knuckles, but some magic glue must have held me in the saddle. I didn't fall off. I silently prayed that I would finish the long trip to the town in one piece. My sister's casual, happy commentary on the passing scenery helped to take my mind off of my terror.
It turned out that the little village of Boquillas, Mexico, was actually only about a quarter of a mile away. My sister, a seasoned rider, tried to turn her donkey towards the buildings at the top of the hill, which seemed to be the hub of activity. That was when we discovered what so many, many tourists before us had already found out: The donkeys were trained to go on a set path with a food reward at the end. To our amazement, we stopped in a backyard almost as far from the center of town as the river was.
The donkeys were going nowhere else. There was nothing else to do. We laughed and got off. But it was a pleasant walk back up the hill as we passed by unplastered adobe houses with rickety fences. Some had trinkets and souvenirs for sale in the front yards. My sister wanted to buy some things to take back to her home back east. I sat in one yard and chatted with the owner while my sister poked around. The woman was far more interested in my sister than me, perhaps since she lives so much farther away in a place that must have seemed exotic and foreign, and because she has children. Shyly, the woman introduced her own children to us. They grinned and looked at us curiously. I asked about life in Boquillas, but there wasn't much to tell. It was obvious that the entire town lived on the tourist trade from the other side of the river.
Leisurely shopping concluded, we ambled to the top of the hill, where a bustling restaurant and a cool patio awaited. Cold drinks appeared, welcome in the warm midday sun. We chatted with other tourists while we waited for our food. Everyone was relaxed and in a holiday mood. There seemed to be no barriers between us. The place sparkled with the kind of warm friendliness that springs up in the happiness of a timeless moment, where the most important thing that you can do is simply enjoy the delights all around.
A few hours later, we slowly walked back down the hill, over to the river, and then ferried back across it. We were warm, satisfied and completely happy with our visit. It reminded me of the spirit of alegre that used to seem so common when I visited Mexico in years past. We dreamed of returning some day to once again enjoy the pleasures of the joyful little village.
Instead, we would leave the next day for a long drive back east.
Just a few days before we had visited a remarkable series of healing pools along the Rio Grande, a hundred miles or so away. We had driven slowly along lush green pastures, searching for a pool said to cure "female ills." No one was anywhere around the broad meadow, so we stripped to our underwear and slid into the warm water. The air was fresh and clear. The sky was a brilliant deep blue with huge, softly rounded cumulus clouds floating by. We relaxed against the worn stone walls of the pool. The water acted as if it were filled with a kind of electric energy, feeling almost like tiny champagne bubbles were coursing through our bodies. We did indeed feel invigorated and terribly healthy.
Later we would wander among buildings on the grounds of an old, empty hotel. It had long ago housed a small healing resort. There was a little wooden bridge that went across the Rio Grande. We could see the tower of a church in the middle of a distant village on the other side. I wanted badly to cross the bridge to explore the village, but missing planks and the general dilapidated, unsteady look of the structure held me back. I thought about returning in the winter when there would be no water in the river.
As darkness fell, we drove slowly along the river, looking for a place to sleep. We found a small plot of flat ground. We spread our tarps and blankets. Lying on our backs, we watched the stars and talked for a long time, as only sisters can, before falling asleep. In the morning, we were surprised to find that we were in a small corral only a few feet from the river's edge. No wonder that the sound of running water had finally lulled us to sleep the night before.
We would never return to Boquillas, Mexico. The little boats no longer take tourists across the river. The "donkey trick" is played no more on happy visitors. After 9/11, the United States government determined that this tourist trade was a threat to border security. I read that the boatman gamely tried to resist the inevitable power of the Washington decision. When he tried to keep his village alive by still bringing tourists across the river, his boats were smashed for his efforts.
I have often wondered what happened to the happy people in that village. Did they turn to drug and human smuggling for survival? Or did they give up their peaceful existence and move to a big, crowded city? Surely their lives could not have remained the same after the border was closed to them.
It's hard to imagine that our playful visit to the healing pools was only about seven or eight years ago. We did go back there last year, hoping to find peace and healing again. The old hotel was surrounded by a fence and padlocked gate. The buildings had been renovated and newly painted. The entire compound had a military feeling about it. There was no question of trying to find the little bridge across the river. An ominous energy seemed to hang over everything.
We could no longer locate most of the healing pools. Those that we did find were dried and scummy. The earth was brown and sere, the sky dull gray with a furious sun beating down. We saw someone take our license-plate number as we hiked briefly in the hills above. We couldn't wait to return home.
The drive back through the desert was uneventful. At dusk, we stopped at a building that seemed to be a forgotten tourist rest stop. The aisles were filled with trinkets, but no one else was there except for a lonely clerk. We didn't tarry.
Entering the interstate, my sister set the cruise control for 75. Within 10 minutes, the flashing lights of a law-enforcement vehicle were behind us. She didn't want to stop, sure that they were after someone else. I convinced her that, for some reason, they did indeed want to stop us.
Where once an officer might have let a person go with a brief verbal warning when seeing an out-of-state driver's license, my sister was given no such chance. She was ordered out of the rented car and backed up against a guard rail about 15 feet away. Bright spotlights were shown in her face, blinding her. In rough, border-accented voices, the officers barked at her to raise her arms. My sister kept saying that she couldn't understand them.
I could tell from the high pitch of her voice that she was clearly terrified. I approached, trying to explain that she wasn't local and that she really didn't understand them. I yelled out to her that they wanted to see her driver's license. As she produced it for one officer, the other ordered me back to the car. When I said that I was just there to help my sister, he demanded to see my identification. He backed off when I told him that I was an American citizen. Prudently, though, I retreated to the vicinity of the car. After a few minutes, they said that we could go.
We drove slowly towards El Paso. The officers nevertheless followed us all the way to the county line. The familiar approaching lights of the city almost seemed to offer an illusion of safety as they turned away.
I know where we have been and what we have lost. I wish I could be as clear about where we are going and what we are gaining.
Jane Lathrop Grider is a long-time resident of Las Cruces. Formerly a mental-health professional, she is now semi-retired, but continues to practice as a hypnotherapist and holistic counselor. She says that the idealism instilled in her during her Oberlin College education has never entirely faded and she remains passionate about civil rights, the peace movement and environmental causes. A great-great niece of New Mexico Territorial Governor Edmund G. Ross, she deeply loves the history and character of this area, and the land that gave birth to it.