Friday, February 19, 2016

Visit to Juarez, Mexico to see El Papa Francisco ; 36 hours in Juarez to see Pope Francis

Hello, everyone

I had the amazing pleasure of attending Mass in Juarez Wednesday February 17th, 2016 for Pope Francis' historic trip to this borderland city that has seen much strife in recent years.

About three weeks ago I decided to make an effort to get across the border to Juarez to experience the Pope's visit, whether I was going to be able to procure a ticket to the actual event or not. Once I made the decision after researching the logistics I put the word out that I was looking for a ticket to the Mass. Tickets were not sold, they were distributed to churches in Mexico and the El Paso Diocese of the Catholic Church.

A friend of mine based in El Paso but closely associated with St Mary's Catholic Church in Marfa was kind enough to acquire a ticket for me. I jumped at the chance to actually attend the gathering, and finalized my plans to go.

I left Marfa twice on Tuesday to get to Juarez with time to spare, including time for potential car trouble or border crossing issues. The first time I left I thought I had all my jail/JP ducks in order, but wound up being called back after finding out that there was no other local Judge available to handle a prisoner I was responsible for performing a magistration to. I turned around, came back and took care of the young man, after finding out once I got there that this gentleman was detained in the City of Presidio and was not technically my responsibility. Not to worry, I had plenty of time to spare.

I drove to Tornillo, TX, about 30 miles east outside of the city limits of El Paso to avoid a hectic and long border crossing, taking my advice from the El Paso Times. The Tornillo bridge is a recently constructed bridge, designed to handle truck traffic primarily. The U.S. finished our side of the bridge long before the Mexicans finished theirs and for years it was a visible "Bridge to nowhere" and considered a boondoggle. Mexico recently finished their side and I can say that the bridge is very easy to use. There is nobody there. The roads leading up to the bridge on both sides of the border are old and thin, not built for trucks, and signage is spotty. The actual bridge and Port of Entry is enormous, and practically devoid of vehicles and officers. One lane on each side out of tens available was open, and this was the day prior to an expected influx of travelers to see the Pope. It was a Tuesday and also, presumably, a day on which trucks would be running. I say none.

I was asked to shut off my truck on the U.S. side so the guards could ask me questions, which was less of an inspection and more of a general Q & A about Marfa and my trip to see the Pope. They warned me about Juarez, and also about traveling the border highway on the Mexican side.

Once I got into Mexico, the Mexican officials gave my passport and the back of my truck a quick inspection and asked me where I was going. I have been taking Spanish online daily since the first of he year and have also been attending a weekly conversational class in Marfa, so I was able to reply to the questions in Spanish. I later found that 24  hours plus of immersion into a Spanish speaking city really makes it easy to understand a deliberate, slow speaking priest with excellent diction. What a win!

The border highway Number 2 between the Tornillo Port of Entry and Juarez is pretty much a two-lane opposing traffic road with speed humps and multiple speed changes. Speed limits range from 30-80 km/h and the speed humps in the small, nearly deserted towns require you to nearly stop to avoid bottoming out.

Getting into Juarez you will pass countless Yonkes (junkyards) and when you eventually get into the east side of the city you are more or less given the option to head south to Chihuahua City or slightly northwest into downtown. I drove around for a bit trying to get my bearings. No cell service here and I did not bring a map.
Anyway, I found downtown and got turned around a few times trying to figure out where Chamizal Park was in relation to where I was. I finally kind of lucked into finding a lot of military personnel and then the location where the papal gathering was to be. It is surprising how little of El Paso you can see even being right there on the border, but the skyline is still very impressive. Juarez lacks the skyscrapers of El Paso, having few buildings over 20 stories even in the center of downtown.

I made an educated guess as to where to park and make my de facto in-truck campsite but found a place a block away from a long row of porta potties and the fence of the fairgrounds. I parked in front of a wrecked former residence and got out, looking for signs saying "No Estationarse". No sign of any of that and a few cars parked nearby gave me the confidence to not move the car again until I was ready to leave town.

Walking any city gives the pedestrian insights to the culture and condition of the place like nobody driving could ever get. I walked around the park area and over to the giant altar, first thing. The walk looked kind of short, but the fairgrounds area is gigantic, and there were already people selling funny Pope flags and food cooked on small grills once I got near the altar and the barricades surrounding it. News teams from Mexico and El Paso were taping their reports for later in the evening everywhere. Bulldozers and water trucks were still working on tamping out the grounds.
 Above: My stay in "Hotel Tahoe", 1995 model.

 Later in the evening as the sun went down I walked several miles around downtown making mental notes of where to go the following morning for breakfast and to search for a large-brimmed hat, which I had forgotten to bring. I had bought a copy of El Diario and decided to find a place to sit down, eat, and read it. On Calle Juan Gabriel, the big stretch of bars from the border to the cathedral, I found a seafood place that was excellent. I ordered a shrimp cocktail and a beer, only to be told they had no beer, despite it being on the menu. Reading El Diario five minutes later I learned that the City of Juarez had banned all alcohol sales from 4:00 Tuesday until 10:00 PM Wednesday. I think this turned out to be one reason why the trip was so remarkable; great masses of people everywhere on Wednesday and not a single drunk person that I saw.

Left: Shrimp Cocktail and newspaper. The Peso is 17.5 per dollar. Total cost with bottled water: 54 pesos. After tip, 84 pesos.
Right: Men's room at same joint.

After I finished dinner and explored the possibility of phoning in some commentary and live sound for Marfa Public Radio (and concluded that some sort of strange blocking mechanism was in effect or the TV crews were using all the bandwidth on my TELCEL data subscription) I decided to go back to Hotel Tahoe and listen to some music and head on to sleep. I got to bed in the back of the truck after brushing and getting pretty comfy around 10 PM. It's a good thing because I tossed and turned much of the night and I knew that they would be letting people queue up for getting in at around 6 AM. I must say, there's enough room for me in the back of a Tahoe, but I am accustomed to the extra foot or more of Suburbans and I couldn't stretch my arms out above my head, like I usually like to. It got down to about 40 that night, so I am glad I had a sleeping bag and blanket on top. I was not cold.

It was very loud throughout the night, and got louder after midnight. I thought that I was hearing people partying or even parading, and then  eventually heard the sound of large gates being dragged around. I sort opf made a mental check and note of that and went back to bed.

I woke around 7 AM Juarez time (8AM Marfa time) to the sound of lots of people talking from a short distance away. As I realized it was time to get going for breakfast and then make it into the "Green ticket line" I rose up and saw soldiers with machine guns right outside the truck rear windows. I quickly realized I had parked within the now-cordoned off security area and that I had been hearing security crews and gates moving around all night. I decided to move slowly within the truck, which has tinted glass, gather my needed items for the day and sneak out the side door of the truck and into the crowd that had been let in through security already. "Security Parking" in Juarez, MX

I made that happen without anyone hearing or seeing me move out of the truck and headed downtown to get some breakfast and search for a large hat, since the sun was already out in full force under clear skies. It was still pretty chilly at this hour, but I planned on moving quickly on foot and getting my body temp up.

Downtown was dead outside of a few taco stands that I wasn't willing to take a chance on since I was to be under the direct sun in an arena with very limited access to bathrooms for at least 6 hours that afternoon. I made it back down to the main cathedral and the marketplace area (limited to pedestrian traffic) and took some pictures in the beautiful morning light. Got a few more shots of the Cathedral and the plaza area. It's a wonderful place to go for a walk.

 En El Centro de Juarez, MX

For a little while I was shadowed in my picture taking by three female tourists, two older ladies and a daughter of one. I spoke in my Spanglish to them and took some pictures of them in a few places. The daughter spoke to me in English, which I found pretty much everyone who spoke any English did for me when I began to struggle with words in Spanish or got verb tenses or forms obviously wrong. this is one of the differences between Mexico and France. The French are aggressive in their disparaging nature of someone's not having mastered the language, while the people of Mexico tend to be happy that you are trying to speak Spanish and helpful in making conversation easier.

Great morning, great pictures and nice conversations and interactions with folks this particular morning, but it was time to go get into a line and find a hat, as even by 8:30 AM no shops that had any decent hats were open.

I made my way east far beyond Hotel Tahoe and probably walked 3 miles or so to get into line for the Green ticket line, relying mostly on overheard Spanish language conversations to get my bearings and directions.

I bought a "Papa Francisco, Juarez" ball cap for about $4 in case nothing else was available. The intensity of the sun reminded me of when I stayed at Big Bend Ranch State Park for 3 weeks in September of 1998. No sunscreen was going to adequate on its own today, in a large field, with no shade. Just like an unpaved version of the Astrodome parking lot...
Here are pictures of several neighborhood churches I passed by on my walk.


Before I finally got to the end of the line, at least a mile from the entrance, and not fenced or gated, I had been able to purchase, for 100 pesos, a "Pancho Villa" style used sombrero from a man selling used hats. His cowboy hats included two "Rustler" brand high-crowned denim cowboy hats from the Urban Cowboy era that I would have loved to have rocked, but, as usual, my head is far too large. Measuring in at minimum 7 5/8 few hats in Mexico on the rack fit me.The straw sombrero I bought is one that stretched pretty well, so I was able to wear it over the ball cap I already had on. Otherwise being clothed in jeans, tall cowboy boot Noconas a white undershirt and a classic polyester Guayabera turned out to be the right combination to keep me from burning up. Heat-wise or sun-wise. I spotted one other guy looking quite so "unique" and he was another gringo muy alto.

Speaking of ethnic presence, I saw very few obviously Americanos there, and as I would see later, leaving town, it appears that there weren't that many people who crossed the border to attend in person, compared to the huge size of the overall crowd.

 To the left: a rare gringo wearing an old white guy style "Tilley Hat" y su familia. They stayed throughout and somehow wound up being near me the whole time. I did not get a chance to speak to them.

To the right: federal Police look for line cutters. Two older ladies, myself and a few others who had been in line for hours helped bust some line cutter near the front of the queque.

No cameras were allowed into the ceremony, although cell phones were. So the remainder of my photos were taken all on my Motorola phone.No real zoom feature, unfortunately.

Oh yes, I had to get back into Hotel Tahoe to drop off some trinkets and the camera and had a hard time getting my soldiers to agree to let me set foot into the zone I slept in for even a second. A local older gentleman who was very well dressed helped me convince them to let me throw a few things into the truck. Thanks, stranger!

Two hours or more in a steadily moving line of friendly people who were well behaved and enjoying the weather and the upcoming event kind of flew by. I bought a coffee (instant) and a large donut from a vendor who was walking by. There were vendors of all types selling everything I saw for sale was something I was grateful I wouldn't have to carry around for the next 9 hours. The sun was already beginning to affect some of the older folks, I could see. I wondered how our indoor, sedentary American society would have handled this kind of line. The more difficult situation was still ahead, in the park itself, with no trees, dust, intense sun, virtually no access to bathrooms, no vendors of any sort and EMS service there only to cart people out who couldn't handle it. I was mentally prepared to meditate for the upwards of four hours we would spend sitting and/or standing in one place waiting for the Pope to arrive and begin the two hour service.

Once the line progressed to where we were near the first entrance (pre search/metal detectors) things began to move fast. Confusion but mostly calm was prevalent. Military police with automatic weapons moved people along in a friendly fashion. I saw only one or two people even put up an objection to being moved quickly or in a direction they did not want to go. Nobody at all was taking any pictures at this point, and I was afraid to, since cameras were banned. Cell service went from OK to zero in the course of two blocks prior to entering the fairgrounds and having our tickets picked up and replaced with wristbands. My "seat" in F-3 changed in a second to a "seat" in H-1. Not too different, but the places pre-printed on the tickets obviously were completely meaningless.

Metal detection/search went quickly. Lineas a heysquierdo por las mujeres, to the right, for men only.
Last chance for bathroom. Slam your bottled waters. No containers of any type other than the tiny juice pouch given to you as your water was taken away. I used the bathroom, planning not to use it for another 6-8 hours, and despite my doubts several times during the ultra hot day while drinking water from the spigots provided, I did not need to urinate and did not until about 7 hours later or longer.

Once the group I was near and therefore in got settled into near the front of our corral named H-1 the video screens, barely visible in the intense sunlight, showed a previous speech from El Papa that was quite nice. I focused on the four hour delay between now and the appearance of El papa in no shade and shaded myself with my sombrero, sitting Indian style for 20 minutes or so, speaking to nobody, nearly sleeping several times sitting up, and occasionally standing and stretching out my legs for the next 2 hours or so.

Most of the music being played was some kind of strange generic church-pop that I was surprised about. I expected Gregorian chants and classic hymns, but got none of that.
The closest thing to traditional church music to me was a sing-along about midway through of "Cielito Lindo" that the band played. Overall, the music was underwhelming but OK.Mostly what I did from about Noon until 3:30 was try to stay out of the sun, conserve my mental and physical energy as much as possible, and keep my space in the crowd. The dust was Terlingua-style extreme, so I was sneezing a good bit, but thanks to some neighborly people. I had a supply of water as people going to get water from the spigot were bringing back extra cups for anyone and everyone around them.

I neither saw nor heard any arguments of any kind, and people were respectful of elderly folks, who had a battle to fight to even be there under that sun for that long.

As the arrival of Papa Francisco got close, I realized that my self-preservation efforts had succeeded. I was only slightly sunburned, and felt good. Did not have to pee and risk my entire ability to be in the area I was in to relieve myself, had water and did not feel dehydrated. I was offered burritos and emparedadas by several folks and turned them down; I was not really hungry and did not want to need water to digest anything. I was relaxed and felt that even if I had to do the whole Mass in the direct sun I would be fine, if not pretty well sunburned, by the time everything concluded.

Once it was announced that Papa Francisco was on his way there and would be there very soon, everything sort of becomes one thing; the service itself seems, in my mind, to have begun in some way. I will let the audio and video footage I have speak for itself for the most part, and will only say that the crowd of 200,000 plus was respectful, pensive, grateful and compassionate to each other and to the Pope. Kudos to the volunteers and to the state and local police who were courteous and well organized throughout the ceremony.

The statements made by the Pope in his sermon are well-documented. Thanks to his wonderfully calm,clear voice and excellent diction, I was able to understand nearly every word he said. This is a man who speaks in clear, simple words but makes strong statements. I particularly liked his words on the immigration and migrant crises, and his pointing out that these are global crises, not merely regional. His message of compassion and responsibility completely make sense to me and I was inspired by it. I was inspired by the Mass as a whole and by the people around me. There was incredible pride in Juarez, and in the event itself. There was so much love for Papa from people young and old, who braved the sun and travel from afar to witness this ceremony. I saw as many younger people wearing Hollister mall clothing as I saw old ladies wearing traditional clothing and everyone was paying attention, praying and singing.
The entire Mass was in Spanish. The only real trouble I had as far as the language goes was singing the hymns and speaking the recitations which I know only in English.

I saw a few people break down and weep during the day, but as I said before, overall the audience was in a sort of positive meditation as a group and was very calm and happy. It's very hard to describe exactly how this appeared, as I don't know that I've ever been a part of a very large group where the mindset was so relaxed and attentive at the same time.

 As the sun goes down, shadows and dust inhibit the camera...

The Pope arrives in The Popemobile!

 The Mass concluded with a traditional Catholic Communion,which for the audience was limited to wafers and water from the spigots. There was not enough for everyone to partake but nobody was bitter. The Pope had some great final words about hospitality and being neighbors to one another. Much more, much soul. People were very happy, as was I. The golden sunset provided an excellent way to see El Papa leave in his motorcade towards the airport.

Following that, the crowd scattered very slowly, as, unlike in the USA, the fairgrounds had very limited ingress and egress. It would have been scary if people had needed to leave faster. As it went, though, it was calm and people were friendly, even after being exhausted by the sun for hours and hours with no food, bathrooms and just some water to get through.

I walked around for a bit and was patient.

After leaving the fairgrounds, my mission was to get away from the giant crowds and also to get some good food. I walked fast and decided to head back to Calle Juan Gabriel to the same seafood place I went to the night before.

Blazing my way by walking fast and taking some side streets, I got to  the dinner spot right before the big crush of customers and had a shrimp dinner with a Topo Chico en una botella retornable. Bathroom break at 8 PM, about 7 1/2 hours after the last. By the time I returned from the restroom the palce was already full beyond capacity.

 I ate a delicious meal and witnessed hundreds upon hundreds of Mexican travelers from interior Mexico getting on buses near the International Bridge downtown to head home. I noticed far fewer people traveling over the bridge back to the U.S. and many of them were on foot as it was.

After I got back to Hotel Tahoe I crossed over with a one car wait at Bridge of the Americas/ Paisano Hwy 62 near downtown El Paso/ Chamizal. Very quick passage. I was shocked at the lack of US folks there and the border patrol guard actually laughed about it. They were expecting more from our side of the border, as was I. I assume most people watched it on TV or in the confines of the Sun Bowl, which the Pope referenced in his closing remarks.

A short word here- I am disappointed that I cannot upload the audio files I have of Papa Francisco speaking. Some really good stuff, but the main thing I wanted to demonstrate was the utter silence of 200,000 hanging on the words of a truly great speaker. A man with a wonderful voice and a strong but compassionate message.

 I can say that the overall experience I had here will stay with me forever. 36 hours in Juarez of wonderful people, a man close to God and to the masses. A message of compassion and an audience of gentle, calm people in numbers like I have never seen in person. Brutal heat that was tempered by a calm meditative energy exuded by people from multiple nations, on a border known for violence in recent years.
It was a fantastic blessing to be able to attend this Mass.
I will never forget it.

I made it home to Marfa after a large Iced Coffee at Starbucks Airway and some good conspiracy talk about Presidio County and Scalia on AM radio. By 2 AM I was back at the Airstream and in bed...

Thank you for reading this account. I am sorry I cannot add anything further, but Ii hope you enjoyed reading it.


Unknown said...

Well done. Your perspective made the journey come alive. Thanks, Rob Schiefen said...

Finally had a chance to read the post. So glad you went. Jealous you were in Mex. I miss heading to the border towns. And so glad you got to see the Papa! What a great experience!