I am back in Indiana and it feels odd. Over the course of this trip, I have grown and learned so much and yet when I am back here it feels as if no time has passed. I worked on preparing for classes and went to the grocery store today. Mundane things I did often before our trip, but it felt different. Our team spent almost every moment together, and now I am attempting to adjust to being in my apartment by myself. I am so grateful for the relationships I made, and the relationships I strengthened. I know my teammates, what they like to eat, what their nighttime routine is, what music they listen to… They have probably learned so much about me too, maybe more than they thought they would. I miss eating together and getting into random discussions, like what animal or insect we would be. Most of all, I miss the routine. Wake up, get dressed, go to breakfast, lace-up my boots, and go.
This morning when I woke up, for a moment I felt like I needed to get ready for another day in the field. Then, I remember that part of the trip is over. It was strange, I was ready for another tiring day in the field, but as I realized my mistake, I felt immediately exhausted. Yet I have no reason to. I slept in a comfortable bed, instead of out in the elements. I know that I have so much I could be working on, but I find that it doesn’t give me the same urgency it once did. When I know someone is out there struggling to survive, how could I find preparing for classes to be a critical task. With the goals we had in Texas, I felt like I always knew that there was something to be done. Now I am left with trying to fill my day with activities that seem insignificant.
I found that on this trip I learned that even the smallest actions can be meaningful. Searching an area and not finding something should not be considered a failure. Finding one more element for a loved one’s family is important. Still, it’s hard not to think about how I can no longer help in the same way that I did just a few days ago. Now, I am over a thousand miles away.
I try to remind myself that everything we were able to accomplish meant a great deal and just because we have left, it doesn’t mean that the impact of what we did is diminished. I want to do more. I want to see more. I want to learn more. This trip has changed my perspective in so many ways, but it has also given me a stronger drive to seek out ways I can meaningfully contribute in a humanitarian context. Something I will be forever grateful for.
Another day, another search. Today is the hottest day we will experience, with a high of 87 degrees. We start our day with breakfast at the hotel again. Don and Ray join us with coffee in hand. We chat a little before we head back to our room. At this point we all have a mini checklist that each of us go through before heading out. Wrist compass? Check. Walkies? Check. Camera? Check.
Once we feel confident we have what we need, it’s time to pile into Don’s jeep and Ray’s truck. Today it is my turn to ride with Don and Socks. I sink into the passenger seat, amazed at the number of buttons and gadgets he has within arm’s reach. Socks is excited to see a fresh face, immediately hopping up on my lap. We pull out of the hotel parking lot, and we are on way. Socks moves from Don’s lap to mine and Don starts to tell me about the areas that we pass. Don says that as soon as he shifts the Jeep into 3rd, Socks will settle in the backseat. Sure enough, as Don shifts, Socks moves at once. Originally, due to the ranch’s planned hunting excursions, we were not going to be able to search until noon. However, Don says that he has gotten confirmation we can head there early. We are about to turn towards a gate to the ranch when I see a Nilgai running along the left-hand fence. Don says it is most likely a young female Nilgai that is looking for a way inside. We pass by it, and I wonder if it will find a space to get through the fence.
That thought aside, we turn into the gate and drive into the ranch. Once we drive close enough to the first search area, we all grab our packs and begin walking. We start in a line search, walking along a space that seemed to be under water at some point.
We find some evidence of people traveling, including clothing and footprints. Ella also finds a few non-human (possibly turtle) bones, while Chastidy finds a non-human bone as well.
We search until we are pretty far from the cars. Ray recommends we settle down for a quick break to plan the route to our next location. Don plans a hike through the brush. We are headed to a location where he had done a recovery before.
We begin walking in single-file. Don is at the front of the line, barely letting any branches or thorns slow him down. Ray follows behind us, making sure we are still doing well and pushing us to stay hydrated.
Though we have not yet reached our main search area, we get to a clearing that has more space. Don recommends that we spread out a bit and search the brush moving south.
Ella and I partner up making sure that we never lose sight of one another. We find various water jugs, most of which had been spray painted a dark color. We also find clothing and backpacks. We check these for anything identifying and hang the items that can still be used in branches for easy access. These are some of the most recent evidence we’ve seen since we came to Texas.
Up to this point, much of the items we had found were clearly discarded a while ago. Many of the clothes had holes and the food package labels had clearly been bleached by the sun. Today, however, many of the items are in good condition suggesting they had been left behind fairly recently. I am struck by where I find these items. I am dressed specifically to walk through the brutal vegetation, and yet many of these people are not. I find things in deep parts of the brush where, if you aren’t dressed the way our team is, it would be painful to hike through. I know that people traveling do this to remain unseen while they rest, but I can’t imagine the discomfort and stress they must feel.
After a little while, Ray helps us group together again to head towards Don’s location. We hike again towards the next search area in a single file line. With the search area just ahead, we settle down for another break.
As I mentioned, Don previously recovered elements from this area and wants to search it again. The remains we are searching for are thought to be from an individual that had been traveling through this ranch. The individual had perished leaving behind his bill fold with an ID inside. Another person that was also traveling through the ranch later found the ID and decided to mail it to his relatives in Central America. The son of the deceased received the ID and was able to contact family that lived in the U.S. to begin the search and recovery process.
Don leads us over to the area and stops. He says (or rather sings), “just take a look around”, motioning to a spot near his feet. Ella looks down and sees an element that looks to be human. We begin to search the surrounding area and find two more. As skeletal elements are found, each is marked with a bright orange flag. At this point Dr. Latham directs us to begin clearing the area. We work to clear the vegetation and surface debris.
Ray kindly lets us borrow his knife to cut down the taller plants. Ella finds more elements as we begin to dig below the ground’s surface. Hours pass as we tirelessly search, finding 10 elements in total. As we work, Ray thankfully makes the 1.3 mile trek back to the cars in order to drive his truck closer to where we are searching. This way, we won’t have to walk back after the team finishes. Once notes and photographs have been taken, we clean up and pile into the truck. All of the student team members decide to sit in the bed of with Don and Socks. Once we make it back to Don’s jeep, we leave the ranch. We head out the same gate that we passed through earlier and head down the road. Surprisingly, the young nilgai we had seen earlier is still there. Don pulls up next to the gates and puts his jeep in park. I sit with Socks in the passenger seat. Don hops out and begins to work on getting the gate open, while Ray uses his truck to heard the Nilgai towards it. After some patience, the Nilgai runs through the gate and Don closes the gate behind it.
Happily, the group heads toward a celebratory ice cream stop. We sit in the Dairy Queen near the hotel and relax for a bit. It was great to decompress after another tiring day in the field.
Once we finish, Ray and Don take us back to the hotel where we will prepare for our final workday tomorrow. I am curious to see how tomorrow will compare.
Today was our first day in the field. We were able to sleep in a bit, at least compared to our 4AM start yesterday. The day started with breakfast at the hotel which prompted the conversation of how toasted toast should be. We also made some homemade wellness shots using Emergen-C and the hotel’s juice selection. From there, our team visited the South Texas Human Rights Center for the first time.
We met Eddie, one of the organizations three founders, and he gave us the run-down of how the South Texas Human Rights Center came to be and what the center has been able to accomplish in the past few years. Eddie and his two colleagues, Nora and Vanessa. answered phone calls from those who need help throughout the moring. Much of the help they provide comes in the form of information. They answer so many different questions depending on the information someone needs. Where should I go? Who should I call? What does this mean? Though the help they provide is important, Eddie remarked the most important aspect of answering calls is being willing to listen. Many who call the center may be experiencing a tragedy, and speaking with someone who is willing to listen can be a great comfort. Eddie and his colleagues told us stories of how they were able to help and sometimes when help didn’t come soon enough. It was heart wrenching.
At about noon, Eddie headed out to tend some of the water stations with a service learning group from South Carolina University just as Don and Ray arrived. Don and Ray will be our guides and support system as we head into the field. Don is a skilled tracker wth extensive experience doing searches in the remote ranchlands here in south Texas. He is able to tell so much information from what he sees in the field. Ray is also an expert in search and recovery, and a medic. He makes sure the team can give our best out in the field. Ray carries a large backpack that holds medical supplies if we need it.
We packed into Don’s Jeep and Ray’s truck and headed to the area we will be searching. Our search today was based on GPS coodinates where someone was reported missing. First, we did a systematic line-search, which was a new technique for the whole student team. The struggle of keeping pace, while making sure to search the area effectively was a new challenge.
Don scouted ahead disappearing and reappearing multiple times. Just when we thought we had not seen him for a while, he would chime in over the radio about our progress waving from his vantage point. Don was also followed closely by his dog Socks. She often ran through our line to check in on us before returning to Don’s side.
Ray followed behind us, giving short anecdotes as we searched. We then moved into a more difficult area with dense vegetation and mots (mass of trees). The area required us to partner up so we could search without losing our way. Over the course of the afternoon, we found some trash and debris, which was evidence of migrant activity in the area, as well as a plethora of animal bones.
Overall, today offered so many learning opportunities. I look forward to how we will improve as we continue throughout the week.