One of the themes of our trip is the severe drought in California, especially in the San Joaquin Valley. In the small city of East Porterville, the drought has certainly made itself known. The residents mostly depend on wells for drinking water and showers. Due to the drought, many people’s wells have dried up and people have no water to drink. Many are suffering, and almost all have looked to the Church for support. Pastor Roman Hernandez of the East Porterville Iglesia Emmanuel has made connections with Tulare County and some large corporations to help provide his community with water. On top of the usual spiritual support, the Church has collaborated with the county to set up two shower houses and an additional series of sinks and mirrors. The showers are separated by gender and age and run from 5 AM to 9 PM. Members of the community circle in throughout the day to utilize the facilities that, unfortunately, will only be available for two more months. Pastor Roman commented that as a minister he never imagined himself working with the Anheuser-Busch Beer Company, but surprisingly, the company has come to this community’s rescue. Budweiser generously donated 50,000 cans of water to the East Porterville Church to give out to suffering residents. Pastor Roman said, “In the beginning I was generous with the cans and I gave a family more than what they needed; now I am worried that I will be out of water by the end of the day.” Unfortunately, the large shipping container outside the Church is just about empty and the 50,000 cans of water have dwindled down to about 200. To show our support, we donated our only three gallons of water to a family who arrived while we were there. By chance, we visited East Porterville on a day when the county was conducting a door-to-door survey to find out which residents had water. Some of our students were able to go with the volunteers to help fill out the surveys. Hopefully, the county and the church will continue to work together to provide for the community but the drought continues with no end in sight.
One of the great parts of this trip is traveling in a group of six thirty-one-foot RV’s from El Monte RV rental. Spending time in the RVs is by far the most exotic experience of our trip as it is a way of living that none of us were familiar with and we needed to get used to it in some way, whether we liked it or not. The learning we gained from this experience and the adjustments we had to make in order to get used to the RV is what made it fun.
The RV is in general really well planned; it can shelter many more people than it looks like and we had to learn the techniques to turn the vehicle from a sleeping place to a form of transportation. The challenges were not few; we had to handle being with many people in a tiny space for a long time. The organization of the place was really difficult due to the lack of space to put our stuff. But when we stopped you can push a button and part of the wall moved out on both sides to give more room. Each time we moved, we had to clean up our mess so we could push in the sides to drive around. One of the RV’s was just for the photographers who are traveling with us, one was for the teachers and two were for the boys and two were for the girls. Each day we would go out to shoot and then end up in an RV park for the night. Some were really beautiful like the one in Malibu; others were kinda sketchy with people living permanently in their RV in the middle of nowhere. One night we even slept in the parking lot of a big Wal-Mart. You can do this when you travel in your house. Each night we would cook dinner and all eat together. The last night in the Sequoia RV Park we had a beautiful campground, cooked Jamaican food and sat around a big bonfire. Each person had to say what they liked about the trip and what they were looking forward to in Mexico.
The interesting part was that once everybody got used to it, our group became more united. Even though there were complaints in the beginning of the experience, we are now able to say we had a really fun time.
After hours of driving through a zigzagging highway, we arrived at the Sequoia National Park. We went on this beautiful hike, once again stunned by the majestic composition of nature. Air was never as refreshing as there; we were drunk in the richest oxygen molecules every time you inhale. Sun has never been brighter, streams of warmth embrace every inch of your skin, massage it with such tenderness. Fifty shades of blue painted the sky to the most pleasing color possible. Variety selection of trees settle along the way, stretched in a unique, even grotesque fashion.
Hiking down the trail to the hidden waterfall, it seemed like a new world just discovered. Rocks in different sizes structured a relaxing, shady temple of tranquility. The rocks next to the waterfall stream were flushed millions of times so that the surface became very smoothing, tamed by the overwhelming power of the never stopping flow. Boys stripped their clothes and threw themselves into the water. Girls lay on top of the rocks under the sun, not wasting any minute to absorb the delightful color of the sun.
Before anyone realized, two hours of time slipped through our fingertips. Gently, we scanned through the waterfall for one last time, not missing a single detail, trying our best to take in this picture and embed it in our memory. We went on another hike up a valley trail, seeing the oddly constructed pieces of gigantic rock on the mountain top, covered with a skinny layer of snow. No matter how far we went in, that mountain top still seems unreachable. I chose to stop my footsteps, look up to the mountain and bow down wholeheartedly to nature.
Big Kitty Xue
Today we all woke up around 8:00 am, ate a quick breakfast, and hit the road, our destination the Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. During our hour-long ride to the Park, the only conversation topic was the Great Sequoia. Everyone was ready to stand beside the beasts, dwarfed by their epic size. But as it turns out, our RV’s, thirty-one feet in length, were far too large to traverse the twisting and turning park roads. The road was covered in signs encouraging no vehicles above twenty-two feet to pass.
Our inability to drive the twenty-mile stretch necessary to reach the Giant Sequoias put an instant damper on our day, but we were determined to make our drive worthwhile. We entered the park and drove about four miles in. We found a beautiful parking lot, one that could fit our RV’s, and began our hike. After about five minutes of exploring, following the sound of the river, we found a chill spot where we could spend our day.
Giant boulders, left there during some ancient ice age, and lush green plants were scattered around a large pool of calm water in an otherwise temperamental river. Instantly all the boys stripped to their shorts, some even to their underwear, and hopped into the frigid waters. Some of the braver girls also hopped in, but most lay themselves on top of smooth boulders to begin tanning for the day. After cooling ourselves down in the refreshing river waters, many of us ventured off to find a way to the other side of the river. We found two paths; one called for leaps from boulder to boulder and the other a small swim across a swiftly moving current in the icy waters. Eventually we all made it across. We found hundred-foot boulders, a collection of smaller pools, mandarin colored salamanders and even sighted a yeti.
Yetis aside, it was a truly incredible day. The sun lowered and as it cooled down some of us left the park in order to prepare our Jamaican style potluck: jerk chicken, vegetable curry, and plantains. The rest went on a 2-mile hike in order to get a better view of the park and to take a few more photos. Finally, with the sun below the mountains, the entire crew had returned to the RV Park. Campfire lit, reggae music playing, and delicious food in our mouths was the perfect end to what had turned out to be a perfect day.
For our second day in Mexico, we continued working on stories we found the previous day. My group stumbled upon a restaurant in Rosarito called El Nido. While ordering lunch, we noticed a message at the top of the menu saying all meat and produce served came from their own local ranches. We spoke to the owners, who enthusiastically offered to take us to their farms. We arrived at the farm today around 6:15 AM and toured around until a little after lunchtime. Later, all the groups returned to Hotel Las Rocas for critiques. Ron and Michael (the photojournalists we are working with) gave great advice to our budding photographers on landscape, detail, and photo-journalistic styles.
We packed into the RVs and departed Las Rocas for San Diego. Needless to say, driving a caravan of six RVs through the crowded and complicated city of Tijuana was a real adventure. The GPS navigation took us through a wrong turn and cabs and cars coming from all directions soon swarmed us, forcing us to split up. Our CB radios fell out of range, so each RV had to fend for itself. A certain amount of panic ensued as we wandered the back streets of TJ (as the locals call it).
The lead RV, aptly named War Pig after a lead sled dog in Alaska, happened upon a kid on a bike named Alex who pulled alongside and waved for them to follow him. They tagged behind Alex for a short time and successfully made it to the border. Alex then turned around and went to find the rest of the caravan. Meanwhile, the other RVs (El Guapo, Paddy Wagon, Titan, Plague Ship Party Bus, and Magic School Bus) were circling the downtown area near the border trying to find the correct exit. Several signs pointing to San Diego led to dead ends and turnarounds; cabbies, kids, and people in other cars waved us on to direct us the right way. Eventually, Alex found us and told us to follow him. Plague Ship Party Bus was able to get to the border, but the other four RVs got separated again and had to find their way on their own. After around another fifteen minutes, we had all made it to the border crossing. Unfortunately, Titan was selected for “secondary screening”. After waiting for one and a half hours, the border patrol confiscated all of our eggs (yes, just some regular chicken eggs) and we finally were able to cross. The caravan was back together, and we headed to our final destination for the night, a Wal-Mart parking lot. We set up camp while some kids ran into Wal-Mart for some dinner. War Pig even cooked up some steak and pastry puffs. Fully exhausted, we finally got some some well deserved rest to prepare for the morning drive to the Central Valley.
Today we divided into our small work groups and traveled by taxi to separate locations. Some groups went to The Wall, the giant fence where the USA/Mexican border meets the ocean, while others explored the streets of Tijuana and Rosarito. My group (Nikki, Dan, Jeong Ho, and Luca) had the pleasure of visiting “The Ranch”, a large community centered around a Christian Church, the Iglesia Bautista El Camino, a home for orphaned and abandoned children, a Mexican school, and a Christian English Bible College. We departed Las Rocas Hotel at 4:30 am and arrived at the compound at 5:00 am to attend an early morning bible class. After we visited some of the children’s classes and observed their daily routine, we sat down for a formal interview with Bob Walker, the American missionary who established the Ranch, and his son, A.J., a former student at the American school. Bob and A.J. gave us insight into their teachings of the Faith and how the children find salvation, as well as how “The Ranch” was established and how it continues to flourish. Afterwards, we interviewed Tiffany, an American missionary who has spent two months teaching at the Ranch. It was interesting to hear about the Ranch from a different and more relatable perspective. Once we completed our interviews and gathered tons of footage and photographs, we had the opportunity to play [and speak broken Spanish with] the kids from the home. We played soccer and basketball with them and they took us around the Ranch, showing us their animals and the activities they like to do after school.
Once we bid farewell to the children and the wonderful people at the Ranch, we headed back to Las Rocas for a quick nap and to prepare for our photo critique. At 2:30 pm, the whole group gathered in the conference room for three hours to share our photos with our amazing professional photojournalists Michael Robinson Chavez and Ron Haviv. They gave us extremely helpful feedback on our images, pointing out the aspects we did well and offering suggestions to improve our photographs both in post-production and in the field. After several hours of critique, we loaded the RVs and went to cross the border back to the USA.