I just began the book ‘Life is a Trip’ by Judith Fein. What an inspiration. Stories with heart, just begging the questions: Could I write about a few of my recent experiences? Do I really want to try? And would anyone really care?
My introduction to writing began with a Spiritual Writing Workshop in the Yucatan several years ago, led by none other than Judith Fein. To be honest, I hated writing. But that trip gave me something to write about. Judie actually encouraged us and made writing fun. Is that possible? I actually began to enjoy trying to piece together my thoughts into a cohesive, semi-understandable story. And so, with that crude introduction, I continue.
I have begun a mid-life journey, unexpectedly. For many years, I have taught children who struggle in school, offered workshops on learning disabilities, was even on national TV and radio, had a wife of 30+ years, raised a wonderful family, bought several homes in the suburbs. You would think I was leading a fulfilling life. I did all the proverbial right things. Yet, I was bored, frustrated and angry. Something was missing. I realized that I found the way Americans interact and connect shallow and I began to question who I was. What do I have to offer? What were my gifts and skills? And what do I really want to experience out of life and people? I wanted something real and authentic.
And then Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, came into my life. Originally it was just a trip, a getaway to a beach paradise. But something in me yearned to find something real. I hunted the Internet and happened to find a children’s daycare center there and a boy’s orphanage, and in-between playing volleyball, getting exceedingly drunk on the beach, wondering what I was doing at a posh Cabo resort, where people seemed like shadows passing each other, I became a clown. Just like that. I wanted to visit the daycare center and orphanage but didn’t just want to walk in and say: “Hey kids, I’m here." So I pondered: How could I relate? How could I connect with them? And what would I do once I had gotten past the door and was inside?
Then the light bulb shone above my head - just like in a cartoon - why not be a clown? A clown is universal. In fact, I'd venture a guess that even in the most remote place in the world. I’ll bet you noses to toes that they know what a clown is. And once I'd hooked into the idea, it grew, took on a life of it's own. “How about bringing a few magic tricks to boot! "
Thus, Professor Payaso (Clown) was born. And I was reborn! The kids loved it. I loved it, and thus my new journey began.
I felt then that any future trip to Mexico would have to involve a ‘clown connection.' And so it came to pass. Next trip, more clowning, better magic, then, art projects for the kids, an invitation to perform at a special education graduation, and a visit to a daycare center for kids of working mothers. I became reborn again and again.
Four and one half years later, I find myself continually energized, alive, enamored with the Mexican children, the culture, and the smiles. But I also continually grieve for the sharp contrast between the wealthy resorts and the stark poverty of neighborhoods called ‘barrios’, less than 4 miles from each other.
I discovered authentic people, eating authentic food, and singing authentic songs. Little children playing and laughing, as any child would, but with so much less, and in the midst of the utter sameness of daily survival.
Each return visit to Cabo is always fresh, new, and alive with anticipation. I find immeasurable joy in the first wide-eyed smiles that greet me as I gently sneak into a hospital’s children’s wing as a clown with my tricks, my soft musical horn. There's the surprise factor, the fact that the kids having no idea on God’s earth that a clown will be visiting them today. It’s the thrill of reading "Cat in the Hat" in Spanish to 40 preschoolers who rarely hear a story. Or introducing children to the idea that they can write a fictional story of their own about a magic truck that delivers toys and food to needy families up and down the Baja, complete with colored pictures of their adventure.
When people ask me why I love Cabo so much I tell them about the "abuela" (grandmother) in the small Mexican village of Santiago, who, when driving up to bring little gifts to her grandchildren, says to me upon leaving: “Mi Casa es Su Casa," (my house is your house), please come back anytime. And about quizzing the children in the local orphanage on their multiplication tables and watching their brains light up as they hunt for the correct answer. Or the pre-teen hunched over a huge atlas who, when I arrive, asks me to show him where Africa is. He had heard that it had elephants and tigers, but where is it in relation to his world?
The journey has been a morphing and twisting, with curves and bumps, not knowing where it is leading, not knowing where I will end up. And really, does it have to end up somewhere? Has life so engrained in me the idea that everything has to as to go somewhere? Does there have to be a goal? Maybe it’s the not knowing that intrigues me. I’ve always been one for calculated adventure anyway: A bit of risk, a little thrill.
In the past, I always had a ‘plan B’ if my adventure didn’t work out. But here in Mexico, there’s no plan, just love, connection, and real children, who breathe, eat, sleep, and have dreams, just as any child would. The difference here, though, is that the clay of opportunity to work with is meager. The food is the same, their houses all-alike, and their choices so limited. One dirt room with cardboard walls, a small burner stove on the counter, a water barrel outside. Usually, there is no electricity and trash strewn everywhere. Will one child break out and be discovered? And while other more fortunate children in nearby beach resorts are boating with their families on the clear, blue waters of the Sea of Cortez, it is likely that these children in the barrios -though they can see the sea at a distance from their casas - have never experienced the wet sea sprayed on their face, the salty water in their mouths, and chasing a wave as it ebbs and flows.
On one trip I was introduced to Mama Marea, and her three glowing daughters: Angeles, Berta, and Carmen. This family was said by the local community pastor of a small barrio church nearby to be very much in need. Of course, every family within the church’s 5-mile radius was in dire need, but this special family seemed to stand apart. The mother had shown her willingness to do whatever it takes to put a roof over her children’s heads, send them to school, and care for them. She wants desperately to start her own home business so she can stay at home with her children.
An American acquaintance to whom I told their story donated $500 to begin the project of starting Marea in a home business and, through other small donations, she was able to move into a bigger and more sturdy one-room house with actual concrete walls. Moving day brought cheers from the girls as they saw three big new pillows (one for each of the girls) and a lamp that people had bought, in addition to house-warming food and supplies.
My greatest joy was bringing the girls coloring books, art supplies, and Spanish books to read. For I had discovered that in this part of the world, though they go to a neighborhood school, their only books are workbooks, not what I call real books. No mystery books, no imagination books. I now hold in my memory the faces of the Lopez girls when they first saw the Spanish version of "Snow White," a gift for the younger Carmen. There was "Cinderella," for third-grade, Berta, and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factor" for the pre-teen, Angeles. All familiar titles and yet books previously unattainable for these girls.
Now, with moving day behind us, and much anticipation over beginning the new home business, I discover that Carmen, Angeles, and Berta have never been to the beach!
So off we went. And for the first time, the three sisters (who insisted I hold their hands and race with them towards the retreating surf of the sea, only to reverse course as the surf came churning toward us) experienced the cold, salty, wet sea that they had only previously viewed from a distance.
As I write this, I am back in the States with the vivid memories of the faces of so many children who have created, painted, and giggled as I performed my less-than-perfect magic tricks. I have conversed with them in my ridiculously crude Spanish and engaged them in the story: "Harry the Dirty Dog." Maybe for a brief moment in time, these children got a glimpse of something different, and maybe a glimmer of hope outside their normal existence. In Cabo, I continue to find for myself a microcosm of real life, real people, doing real things, which makes me feel real myself. Though at times my heart cries over the poverty and I get angry over the injustices and inequities between the haves and the have nots, I have connected with something.
Perhaps a recent experience sums it up for me. Going into a local grocery store, still wearing my silly clown hair, hat, and red nose, I overhear a child, who had grabbed her mother’s sleeve, shout out "Mama, Mama, aqui esta el payaso!!" (Mommy, there’s the clown!)
And so, with a partially borrowed phrase and apologies to Judie Fein, I proudly state that, for me: ‘Life is a Clown’.
Steve R. Shapiro is founder and director of The Learning Connection, a center in Colorado Springs specializing in helping students who struggle with learning and reading difficulties. He also is founder of "Travel With A Purpose-Cabo" and leads groups of travelers who want to immerse themselves in Mexican culture, volunteer at local orphanages and hospitals, and serve impoverished Mexican communities in Cabo San Lucas Mexico. For information, call: (719) 495-3400 or E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org