A retired HIV/AIDS worker finds a pocket of AIDS advocacy in the Yucatán.
My Turn by Willima B. Kaliher
Interior Yucatán heat gripped the afternoon as the dented, blue Jetta eased to the asphalt entrance. The change from Mexico City’s coolness wasn’t dominating the child’s mind when her mom sat her beside the driveway and slammed the door. The four-year-old girl looked at the low, motel-like building and rocky soil for a split second before turning. She ran twenty paces as her parents sped away. A wizened, ill, thirty-two-year-old left the yard and walked to her. Grabbing her hand and ignoring the tatters he said in Spanish, “That’s a pretty blue dress. What’s you name?”
Maria was the fourth HIV-positive child of drug-using parents abandoned at Oasis De San Juan De Dios, AC. Depending on illness, anywhere from eight to twenty-two HIV-infected men would become her new parents.
For thirty-three years I worked with communicable diseases, and the last twenty-one years of my career my focus was on patients with HIV/AIDS. Before and during those years I traveled to Mexico virtually every year. My vacations were spent exploring the pyramids and country. At retirement three years ago I thought I was finished with HIV/AIDS and would just enjoy Mexico as a retiree. That wasn’t to be. A year ago, while exploring the archeological site Quiahuixtlan I met Jack Turner and his second family. Jack turned out to be half-missionary and half-land speculator. He carried a truckload of toys for poor children and orphans in the Yucatán and Chiapas, Mexico. We were both from the same state, but Jack had lived near Merida for eleven years. On parting Jack said, “Come on down and visit a few weeks on your next trip to Yucatán.”
Not being overly religious I had my doubts about visiting a missionary-type guy for a few weeks, but in our e-mails I found Jack more a regular guy than an overt proselytizer. In his words: “I’ve too many faults to be a preacher or missionary and Jesus sure knows that but he helps me.”
I’ve known and loved the Yucatán since 1971. So, in February, 2010 I showed up at Jack’s home in Caucel near Merida. His wife and child were in Florida and he turned out to be quite the host as we explored northern Yucatán. I aimed to revisit old acquaintances and see a few areas I’d never explored before. Jack acted as tour director and we rambled day and night, even tackling an undisturbed, giant set of pyramids. No matter what direction we traveled Jack needed to stop here or there to touch base with some group he was aiding as a missionary. Those interactions with regular people, usually Mayan Indians, turned out more interesting and informative than the visit to an ancient church or ruin. One night returning home we crossed Merida on Avenida Jacinto Canek. On block after block surgically altered drag-queens, including a Marilyn Monroe copy that stopped traffic, competed with prostitutes for customers. “Holy crap,” I said. “I can’t believe the changes in Merida. This would have been impossible five or ten years ago.”
“Merida and the Yucatán are changing on a daily basis,” Jack said. “Make sure I show you my AIDS mission work before you leave.”
It was the fourth time Jack had mentioned his HIV/AIDS work. Obviously that effort rivaled his concern for poor children. After working with HIV/AIDS for twenty-one years, interviewing over a thousand HIV-infected people, seen every type of hospital and AIDS organization possible, I wasn’t overly thrilled about visiting but kept my mouth shut. Jack was a heck of a host and we’d go when we traveled to that area.
On the following Sunday we pulled into the driveway where Maria started her new life at Oasis De San Juan De Dios, AC. “See that goat herd,” Jack said pointing. “We gave them six goats four years ago and now they have twenty-two. Did you know goat meat was the most consumed meat on earth?”
I immediately knew I’d certainly not seen every type of HIV/AIDS organization possible. Patients in Mexico face a different experience than their counterparts in the United States. Little government support reaches patients and help is based on voluntary contributions and do-it-yourself community projects. Jack bragged on the patient’s accomplishments and was greeted by Juan the second in command.
The founder of Oasis De San Juan De Dios, AC, Carlos Mendez and a few patients had taken the children to the Merida zoo. Jack explained. “They try to give the kids as normal a life as possible. Every Sunday is a trip for the little ones.”
Jack placed the bulging bags on a table in the open foyer to give Juan the clothes and other items his good work had garnered. Juan’s fingers caressed the old stethoscope as if examining a jeweled object. This obviously answered at least one of many needs.
We walked over the four-acre compound, Jack examining the projects he’d instigated and explaining this world to me. “The nearby Catholic church and government don’t help at all. The Florida Methodist missionaries are the only church group I know who have helped so far. Cemex donates cement for the buildings and some workers to spread it out but we’re looking for more contributions this year. I raise what funds I can to help and you’d be surprised at the number of American and Canadian tourists who vacation around Progresso that hear of Oasis De San Juan and contribute before returning north.”
After examining the housing complex and talking with a number of patients we walked out back. A great many farming projects were in various stages of completion. Jack, however, focused on the chicken house. “They’ve built it exactly like I recommended. It’ll be finished this week. We’ll have to buy some biddies and perhaps even a goose or two. Can you imagine how fresh eggs and a chicken dinner now and then will help?”
The stop was a wonderful experience and taught an old (AIDS)-dog new tricks. Retirement hadn’t ended my HIV/AIDS work. Even then little did I realize part of my new HIV/AIDS world would involve stopping and pricing baby chicks at virtually every town we passed through the next three days. I’d be back. I wanted to meet the children and would be bringing needed items for the men and children calling the haven Oasis De San Juan De Dios, AC, home.
William B. “Bill” Kaliher has traveled Mexico at every opportunity since the 1960s by car, bus, train and motorcycle. Although known for his Mexican travel articles, he’s written for over 300 publications, including The World & I, The Pragmatist, and Down Memory Lane. He currently works with the Mexico Today Program and his tour business, www.billsmexicantravel.com, is designed to allow small groups to experience the Mexico regular tourists seldom see.