Mexico: Volunteering at El Rancho Del Rey
An Orange Tree in a Field of Flowers
I was driving with a friend, Norm, down from towering mountains that surround the Monterrey Valley in Mexico when I saw a break in the dense underbrush on the side of a dirt road. Norm pulled the car over and I jumped out to explore. The entrance was just large enough for me to slip through without stabbing myself on tangled thorns.
I stepped over a mangled barbed wire fence, ducked underneath low hanging branches and entered an ethereal world straight out of my imagination.
I found myself standing in a field of white flowers and tall grasses that gently swayed in the warm spring breeze. A slight hill stretched away and down to a distant tree line, which was devoid of underbrush; an orange tree stood by itself in the middle of the space, and a single orange hung from a branch just above my head.
Everything was cast in a golden hue. I called over to Norm and he killed the engine and joined me in the field. Together, we watched the shadows stretch longer as the evening sun dipped below the mountains.
A storm sweeps across the Monterrey Valley
In my experience, if you ask most Americans what Mexico is like the response you’ll probably hear is that besides the beautiful
beaches, Mexico is dirty and stinks. But what is often overlooked because of these preconceived notions is the breathtaking natural beauty and the rich culture that saturates every inch of its landscape.
From quaint white churches with short steeples hidden behind clustered orange groves and stretching farmland, to the best tacos you’ll ever eat in your life, Mexico is a trove of hidden treasures waiting to be discovered by the adventurous traveler.
Later, we arrived at the white gate of El Rancho Del Rey, a Christian home for troubled boys we are staying at in Santiago, just after dusk. Most of the kids come from poor boroughs in nearby Monterrey. Many of them are abused and exposed to drug violence at a young age.
They are like dry sponges that need to be drenched in love and affection. That’s what brought me there. Small cheerful faces greet me as I step down from the van and small arms embrace me with hands reaching for my slung camera.
The last time I was at the Ranch, a storm swept through the valley and caused a lot of flooding. Because of the topography, storms here are intense and occur suddenly. One minute the sky is blue and cheerful, the next it looks like hell.
Monterey, Mexico: The City
The boys’ home is about an hour’s drive outside of Monterrey, which is a bustling hub of commerce and activity.
On the outskirts of the city, purposeful structures give way to random shack dwellings thrown up by desperate squatters.
A boy descends a staircase in an unfinished church in Monterrey Mexico. Andy Chambers photo.
The city lies in another valley.
The wealthier inhabitants live on flat ground, and poor residents are forced to live on the side of the mountain in homes that sometimes can’t be accessed by road. There is definitely a lot of poverty here. In 2013, over half of the population of Mexico was under the poverty line.
A year earlier, I went into an unfinished church that was being built by members of its congregation. They carried the materials up the side of the mountain and built it by hand. The pastor of the church said that the downstairs was going to be designated as a drug rehab center. I’ve found that Mexican people are compassionate and incredibly loving: I know when I’m in Monterrey because of the warmth and hospitality I’m received with.
A young boy from El Rancho Del Rey
Monterrey is a far cry from the relatively quiet streets and pervading peace of Santiago’s suburban community.
Except for friday nights, when the bark of wild dogs mix with the pulse of pop music from the pub down the road, the residential area is for the most part, peaceful. There’s a park with a playground and soccer nets about a stone’s throw from the home and a quaint, traditional village center about a twenty minute drive away.
Inside the Bat Cave
The next day, Javier, one of the dorm parents and a Santiago native, took me up to a bat cave across a lake. He said he used to run up to the top as training when he was an amateur boxer. On the drive over, we passed another orphanage where Javier used to work. He said he was in charge of 40 kids at once, at El Rancho, he’s only in charge of about 10. About a half mile out, I saw the hole in the side of one of the mountains; four hundred feet up the side is a gaping crevice in the rock.
It’s the remnants of an old mining shaft that is now a home to bats, Javier said. We waded across a river, past a no-trespassing sign and began to climb. Half way up I accidentally grabbed what Javier called “metal nettles.” It felt like someone poured acid into my hand. The vegetation can best be described as wild. It’s a tangled web of thorns and tough bushes.
Despite the pain, I continued climbing over rocks and through the dense underbrush. After about 45 minutes, we reached the opening. It was blocked by a fence with razor wire at the top and another iron fence painted red and curved over at the top. Javier knew a way around. We duck through a hole between the fences and rock, into the opening of the cave.
Inside, there was literally a mountain of bat poop everywhere on the ground. The ceiling was at least 300 feet above us and it felt like wading through sawdust. The smell of bat urine permeated everywhere. Deeper inside, water dripped from the ceiling and the atmosphere became heavy. I couldn’t see anything but the occasional drop of water. Above, I heared bats chattering to each other like aliens. Javier shone his flashlight up into the darkness and pinpricks of reflection gazed creepily back. We ventured in deeper as far as we dared, leaving before sunset.
On Tuesday, we went to the open air market underneath an overpass to buy fresh fruit parfaits for a quarter and a half. The market is a tent city that stretches along a river for about a mile and a half. Vendors sell their wares while children and dogs run wild. You can find anything from used t-shirts to pirated DVD’s.
I bought a shot glass and a pair of suede slippers. The Ranch’s cook, Juanita, picked out a few dozen oranges for the boys. There was fruit everywhere in abundance. In my experience, fruit is served with just about every meal.
Shack dwellings on the outskirts of Monterrey
Later, we dropped some of the kids off at school. I remember how scared I was the first time that I drove the home’s old 1980’s white Dodge van down the freeway with 20 excited kids in the back. The steering wheel has play in it, and if you don’t get a running start up hills you’ll stall and roll back down. I learned that the hard way, trying to turn onto the freeway after I took the boys swimming. There aren’t seat belts either, but that’s pretty normal here.
Public transportation in the region is mostly a few cheap buses that run linear routes. Afterwards, we stopped for Mexican mango ice cream and paletaria, a mix of sweet, hot and too much salt. Everything is hot in Mexico, even the ice cream. Back at the home the food is bland. They serve the boys mostly beans and rice.
Later that day, little Christian, who’s 11 years old, dared me to eat a jalapeños whole.
Much to his surprise, I ate it without flinching.