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The Practice of Being Human

Though it's been awhile since my last article (that richly-packed life), I never stopped scratching down notes for all the budding pieces I knew were coming. Grateful for the inspiration and time to sit down with my laptop today.

The stories below are small but humbling. These experiences very much have a place in my heart and, among the other articles I'm in the midst of, I knew I wanted to share these first. As the state of the world becomes less peaceful and more quickly exclusionary of differences, it is becoming all the more necessary to practice considering how our own judgements are formed and how they guide our treatment of others in the world.

This is not a political post- simply some positive stories about a group of people I've chosen to support that deserve to be out in the world. It's the Good Stuff. And I think everyone loves a bit of the Good Stuff.

My husband and I have been traveling to Mexico since April 2015. If you’ve read my post on our first time there it’s obvious how special Baja has become to us. In addition to dozens of trips, we recently spent my 35th birthday enjoying a gourmet dinner in the vineyards at our favorite winery with ten of our most adventurous foodie friends. We’ve become close with the owners since first visiting last summer and we send everyone heading down that way to enjoy their wonderful temperanillo.

The vineyard is owned by Hilda and James, a married couple who embody joy, a passion for life and a genuine love of others. James grew up in the L.A. area and has been making his wine since 2007. He loves winemaking with the contagious excitement most of us reserve for drinking it. Having been on many of his tours with various friends, his passion remains the same every time he informs visitors of his worm tea and organic approach. Hilda was raised in the Mexican orphanage system. She is, next to my own mother, one of the sweetest people I know. When she hugs you, she hugsyou. Her food also rivals that of Michelin star restaurants I’ve been to and my birthday meal there was easily one of the top three meals I’ve ever had. Hilda also runs Corazon de Vida Foundation and raises over $1 million a year to support orphanages in Mexico. The foundation and the incredibly dedicated staff provide opportunities far outside what the children would normally have available to them. It’s not rare to find a resident interning in Hilda's vineyard kitchen; one of the teenagers I was fortunate enough to meet is now in culinary school in Tijuana and interning in San Francisco at Atelier Crenn, a 2 Michelin star restaurant.

Hilda's work and graciousness inspired me. It was easy to say yes when she approached me to consult on their special needs house. I soon partnered with Rancho de los Ninos, an orphanage near the winery, in an attempt to bring more meaning and purpose to the residents’ lives. She was instrumental in facilitating communication with other professionals in Baja and Southern California, and the special needs house is now a full-blown, financially-supported project. The home has been renovated through a grant and, this month, several more professionals from the Tijuana area visited the orphanage to meet staff, take inventory of learning tools and collaborate with their Director, Jorge.

Meeting Jorge in 2016 felt like something out of a movie; he is humble, gracious and hard-working. I am sad to say that I incorrectly assumed Jorge did not have a full-time job and that he and his wife ran the orphanage as their sole source of income. I learned that not only is Jorge a high school teacher helping his wife run the orphanage in his "free time", but I became privy to the numerous hoops he has jumped through to get properly certified. Jorge also shared that he and his wife grew up in that same orphanage as children. They left, met, married and returned to the orphanage to support the children currently residing there.

If you had said “Mexican orphanage” to me a year ago I would probably have thought of children living in deplorable conditions without proper care or nurturing staff. However, Rancho de los Ninos is lovely. Open courtyards, big trees, a farm in the back where children learn to grow their own food, clean furniture and living spaces, basketballs and soccer balls scattered around the courtyard and plenty of room for everyone. The children I’ve met and played with are purely happy and love to play with anyone who comes to visit. The several dogs on the property approach you like a familiar friend and occasionally roll over for a belly rub. Jorge gave me a tour with pride, introducing me to some of the teenage boys and showing me which room used to be his. He laid out all the paper work he has finished and told me about the future he wants for the children that live there. He and his wife are genuinely dedicated to the place that raised them.

My visit changed my entire perspective on not only the Mexican orphanage system (though houses with support from the foundation are likely better off than those without) but on the people of Mexico. It was becoming evident to me that people here take care of each other in a way most of us may still be trying to practice in our own lives. Meeting individuals that long ago left the orphanage system and later returned to help, regardless of their own resources, was heartwarming in a way I still struggle to describe.

My two additional stories are brief but may be even more enlightening than the last.

While down in Mexico with friends we were driving on the back country roads on our way to dinner. As we turned a corner my then-fiance caught the setting sun directly in his eyes and ended up nearly running off a 7 foot embankment. Though we were safe, the car’s front right tire was dangling over the embankment, stranding the car on the dusty road far from anywhere we could find a tow truck. Panic. No cell service. After-hours desolate back country Mexico.

After several minutes of entertaining hypothetical “what ifs”, three beat up cars approached us coming from the opposite direction and stopped on the side of the road. Without hesitation several men stepped out of each car, assessed the damage and began helping to push the car back onto the road. Knowing no English, they spoke to each other in Spanish and engaged our friends in the charades necessary to communicate their instructions. They continued to push and pull the car, sweaty and covered in dirt, for the 30 minutes it took to finish the job. Once the car was operable we all reached into our wallets. They had completely saved the night not to mention the car and possibly our lives, as we may have had to spend the night there. In all we probably had $80 in cash to offer.

No one took a penny. Our insistent offers of grateful compensation for their help were met with head shakes and waves goodbye.

The following day we were heading back to San Diego and desperately needed to stop for food before hitting the border. Our Mexican surf shack is a few miles from Splash, a cliffside restaurant known for its incredible food and hilarious upstairs karaoke. When we walked in we realized we were out of cash. I asked Nico, the owner, if they had an ATM. He said they didn’t and I gave an “Ah bummer, ok see you later!” while turning to walk out the door. Nico stopped me and told us that we could eat there without paying, that we were like family. “Get me next time you come down” he said, with a pat on the back and a smile. The man who usually washes my husband's car came to our table to get his keys as he normally does. My husband said that we ran out of cash and that he wasn’t going to get the car washed that day. Without asking Nico, without hesitation and with a smile, the man asked for Will’s keys again and said “It’s on me”. This man washes cars for a living and did it for free because he thought it was a hospitable, nice thing to do.

The four of us finished our meals and headed north. Blown away, our hearts were swollen with gratitude and a feeling of community. After re-living the sincere generosity and hospitality we encountered that weekend, the car went silent. I distinctly remember the palpable feeling in the car- we wished these were the stories being told (the "bad hombres" comment from our now- President was made several days before these encounters).

In the days of building walls, some metaphorical and some terrifyingly real, we need to be good thinkers- meaning, critical thinkers- capable of and open to different perspectives and information before making our own conclusions about places or people. It’s hard and our opinions form fast, but it’s my hope that these stories make people a little more informed, a little more compassionate and a little more hopeful about the state of humanity beyond what we see on our screens. I’m happy to know that these stories exist and I’m grateful for the people about which they’re written. My husband, friends and I are no doubt better people for knowing them.