Last week, I flew out of hot-and-humid Georgia to visit my sister in hot-and-dry Juarez, Mexico, the largest city in the state of Chihuahua on the border of El Paso, TX.
My sister has been living in the desert and working at a children’s home in the city for more than two years now, and I finally had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of her life there. I stayed at her little apartment, walked through her unpaved neighborhood, met some of her precious children, celebrated Independence Day, ate fresh and authentic tacos and churros, discovered a new love of street corn, drove hundreds of miles through the deserts of New Mexico and Northern Texas, hiked high peaks, watched the most breathtaking sunsets, wandered through an incredibly cheap zoo in my sister’s neighborhood (ligers – ligres – do exist), and enjoyed a glorious week catching up with my sister (who puts me to shame with her fluency in Spanish).
My week in Juarez had me reminiscing about my year in Colombia, South America. I miss Spanish. I miss the culture. I miss the hospitality and friendship extended from strangers on front porches. But Juarez is also incredibly different from the island life I experienced. There aren’t a lot of trees in the desert. The Spanish is clearer. The food is spicier. Neighborhood roads are full of pot holes and unmarked speed bumps. Mosquitos are large and temperatures are ridiculously high. But the desert is also one of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever observed. You can see miles and miles and miles without any trees obstructing the view.
On my last night in Juarez, Lydia and I drove to a look out point in the Juarez mountains, which overlooks Juarez, the border, El Paso, and the Franklin Mountains in El Paso. It was stunning. The often cloudless desert sky was full of low clouds that evening, reflecting the pink and purple hues of the setting sun. Every night, we witnessed the most glorious sunsets, whether from the Franklin Mountains in El Paso, or driving back from Guadalupe National Park in Texas. Every night, we had amazing views of flat desert, brown and rocky mountains peeking up in the back drop, all surrounded by a wide and vibrant sky.
All of our adventures included the most spectacular views. We drove out to Cloudcroft, New Mexico, one of the highest elevated cities in the U.S. (nearly 9,000 feet). We left Juarez with temperatures in the high 80’s (in the morning), drove two and half hours through mostly desert, and arrived in Cloudcroft where temperatures were in the 50’s. Cloudcroft is located in the Lincoln National Forest and the views are breathtaking. From the peak, we looked out over lush green forest. Further out is the valley where we could see White Sands National Park, and even further are more mountains. We left Cloudcroft and headed down the mountains to White Sands. A mere 45 minute difference and we transitioned from perfect fall weather to raging desert heat. We didn’t last long, just long enough to take a few pictures, take our shoes off, and run around in the sand before collapsing from heat exhaustion and thirst. The desert is not friendly to the stranger.
Throughout the week, I found myself underestimating the extremities of desert life. We would drive for miles and miles without seeing any evidence of human life apart from the paved highways. No houses. No gas stations. Not even a McDonald’s. We consumed what had to be gallons of water. Always thirsty and never completely alleviating our thirst. We drove out to Guadalupe National Park, the highest peak in Texas. Sheer rock rising out of the flat desert plain. Even the lesser, “moderate” trails were tough due to the elevation and desert heat, but the views made everything worth it.
And everyday we enjoyed authentic Mexican cuisine: street corn (elote), freshly fried churros, roasted al pastor, homemade tortillas, cilantro, pickled onion, and gorditas. My taco loving heart was so happy. And I discovered a new love for nutella-filled churros and elote (crunchy non-sweet corn in a cup, topped with hot sauce, cheese, and butter). The food was absolutely amazing and delicious (one week later and I’m still craving fresh tacos and churros).
But more importantly than stunning views and delicious food, was an amazing visit to my sister’s home in Juarez. Mission life can be challenging, lonely, and discouraging. It’s also important, rewarding, and necessary. Visiting our missionaries, participating in the culture, stepping foot in their communities, witnessing in person their acclimation, is an important part of supporting the work they do. There is often a disconnect between sending off family, friends, and church members to pursue missions or humanitarian efforts but still not really understanding the significance or motivation behind their sacrifices.
Lydia and I can relate in a lot of ways. Both of us lived abroad doing mission work for a time, learning a foreign language, adjusting to the culture, participating in the community. We’ve also experienced the loneliness that sometimes comes as foreigners in a country that is not our home country, struggling to overcome language barriers, at times being the only Americans at the mission or in our neighborhood. But we’ve also experienced the joy and beauty of cross culturalism and diversity; the holiness of breaking bread with people from different backgrounds, countries, and cultures, and being welcomed into their own communities and homes.
Monetary and verbal support means a lot to our missionaries. But I also know physically visiting encourages hearts in ways notes and donations can’t. I had the opportunity to witness my sister overcoming cultural barriers by loving on her children, neighbors, and coworkers. I heard her communicate with ease whether we were ordering churros, crossing the border, or chatting with her kids and neighbors. Even the desert life, which is hot and dry and difficult, is growing on her. She can recognize the issues in Juarez while also praising the people and valuing their dignity. I’m not saying it’s easy or that she never has difficult days – I know she does. But I’m also incredibly encouraged and just reminded of the things I learned during my own time in Colombia: that friendship and community is possible whatever the differences. I had conversations with so many people before I knew 30 words in Spanish. We’ve all been created with an ability to communicate. And through Christ, we truly can love our neighbors whether in Mexico, Colombia, or Augusta.