Not Proud to be an American
by Andrea Askowitz
I went to a small beach town in Mexico to rescue turtles. I took my daughter, Tashi, who’s 14, because I wanted to teach her about the world and do something good. I did a quick Google search – Volunteering Families – and then gave Tashi three choices: old people in Guatemala; a cultural tour of Cuba; turtles in Mexico. She said, “I don’t care, you decide.”
The website showed smiling volunteers releasing baby turtles into the ocean. I thought turtles would be relaxing. So I picked turtles. I paid $2,500 for me. Tashi was a bargain at $350.
When we arrived, we were shown our room – a cinderblock box. There were two single mattresses on wooden bed frames and two floor fans. That was it.
Right away I thought about ways to improve the room. Two nightstands would make the place look more like a room and less like a prison cell. How hard would it be to put a shelf by each bed? The bathroom needed a towel rack. It had the two side ends, but no bar. Same for the toilet paper holder.
Also, Soft Scrub would have gone a long way to get the mold off the faucets and drains. And what about a shower head to screw into the pipe sticking out of the wall? A shower curtain might be nice.
One of the other volunteers, Jodie, a 21-year-old British student, had been there a week before we arrived. She’d volunteered with orphans in Africa, but when she got to turtle camp, she had a wobbly, which meant she cried all night.
Tashi had a bit of a wobble our first night too.
I understood. Our room was probably 90 degrees. They needed to cut a hole in the back wall to give us some cross breeze, that way I could have done without the fan. They told us to shake out our sheet and check for scorpions so every time my hair blew into my face it scared me awake.
On our first morning, Tashi and I were assigned to turtle pools at the Tortugario, which is a turtle conservation center. There are ten pools, about 10 by 20, each housing two or three turtles. The pools get mucky and gross and need to be drained and mopped daily. The turtles get slimy too and require a steel wool rubdown. Pablo, our volunteer coordinator, who was born and raised in Mexico and has a master’s degree in marine biology, told us to put our muscles into it.
After scrubbing for two hours, I asked Pablo why they don’t use a little chlorine in the pools, so we wouldn’t have to clean them every day. Pablo looked impatient. Maybe he’d gotten this suggestion before. He said chlorine would be a very dangerous experiment.
Other jobs included planting mangrove seedlings, digging up rotten turtle nests, bagging plastic from the beach, and feeding the iguanas. Iguanas like a finely chopped salad, so that job required grating squash and cucumbers. After I scraped my knuckle on the dull and rusty grater, I told Pablo we needed a new one. I told him I could have brought ten new graters, had I known.
The next morning I got up at 5:45 a.m. for turtle patrol. It was raining so hard, Pablo told me to go back to sleep. But I was already up and he was going out in the rain, so I left Tashi in bed, put on a poncho, and held on as Pablo drove us along the beach on an ATV. As the sun came up, we spotted a turtle just as she finished burying her eggs. Pablo rushed over. The turtle patted the sand, then made her way back to the sea while Pablo dug up the nest.
Rescuing eggs from poachers (who sell eggs as aphrodisiacs on the black market) and other dangers (animals, pollution, loss of habitat) is the main goal of turtle camp. Patrols go out twice a night. During high season, Pablo and volunteers rescue a hundred nests (a hundred eggs each) a night. But this was low season. We found one nest and the eggs were gone.
Pablo cursed and kicked the sand. The town was still asleep apart from one man about fifty yards away. This guy must have beaten us by ten minutes. He stole our eggs.
Our group had six volunteers: Jodie, Tashi, and me; plus Dora, a financial headhunter from Hong Kong; Scott an entrepreneur from the Bay Area, and his 13-year-old son, Mark. Tashi and I got to turtle camp a few hours before Scott and Mark. When I heard they were flying in a private plane, I made all kinds of assumptions: rich, spoiled, and lazy. I thought they might take one look at the place and fly out. But Mark and Scott turned out to be the roughest and ready guys I’d ever met. They got into the turtle pools and Mark said, “OK, let’s bang this out.” They smiled as we dug into the sand, elbow deep, and pulled out rotten turtle eggs swarming with maggots. Mark even removed a crab from our room with his bare hand. Still, Mark and Scott had lots of ideas for improvements.
One afternoon, while Dora taught us poker, we constructively criticized our living conditions. We all agreed camp could have been hospitable. Even adorable. There were five rooms in three separate houses, an outdoor kitchen, and two big cement picnic tables surrounding a small yard where hammocks hung in the shade of coconut trees. But next to our barracks was a pile of old furniture and other trash covered by sheets. Our outdoor living room had a couch so shredded, all the stuffing was exposed. Another couch was fully upholstered but looked like it had been dragged in from some curb and left in the rain for years.
Scott thought it would be pretty easy to ditch the couches and get a guy in town to build two simple wooden benches. Scott also suggested air conditioning in the rooms and once we got to talking about it, really, how much could that cost?
When we mentioned our ideas to Pablo, he told us they didn’t own the property, the landlord was a hoarder, and the home company didn’t provide many resources.
Mark calculated how much it would cost to buy the place. How a 13-year-old learned to calculate property value was beyond me, but he said if the rent was the equivalent of $500 a month, that’s $6,000 a year. Then he multiplied that by three years to get $18,000. Mark said, “We could buy the place for $20,000.”
Pablo didn’t seem enthusiastic, but my mind raced with possibilities. I wanted turtle camp to be the best it could be. I said, “If this place is awesome, we’ll tell our friends to come and they’ll tell their friends and soon the turtle camp will be the most popular volunteer destination in the world. We’ll save every turtle hatched on the beach.”
On our last day, Pablo called a group meeting. We were all getting an online survey, but before we registered criticisms, he wanted us to tell him first. In his near-perfect English, he said, “If you have complaints, come with me.”
On the online survey, I gave Pablo five out of five stars in every category. I was totally moved and impressed by his knowledge and dedication. In person, I told him my ideas again and added that maybe he could cut up a mango for volunteers when we first arrive.
I said, “Pablo, you have a rich, captive audience – us. We’re all dedicated to turtles now. Tell us what you need.” I was ready to write a check.
That night, the six of us went to a restaurant in town. This was our first outing without our Mexican guide. We were the only people in the restaurant, sitting under a fan on the bar’s patio. The music was blasting so I asked the waitress to lower it and she did. A few minutes later, the guy who runs the place turned the music up again, even louder. He came over and yelled over the music. He told us he’s from Texas, was an electrical engineer, and moved to Mexico six years ago for a chiller life. He was about 65, maybe 70. His face was burnt and bloated and pockmarked. Mark asked if he owned the restaurant. He said his partner owns it. He runs it.
I asked him to turn the music down again and he said, “The people love the music.”
When he walked away Mark said, “What people?”
I tried to show Jodie a video on my phone, but she couldn’t hear it, so I got up and turned the music down myself.
The Texan came over and yelled, “You touched my equipment. Would you walk into a restaurant in the U.S. and touch the equipment?”
I said I would.
He pounded his chest. “This is MY bar.”
He paced back and forth beside our table. He said, “You fucking Americans think you can march in and change whatever you want.”
He stormed away and even though some of us hadn’t gotten our meals, Scott motioned to the waitress for the check. We wanted to get out of there.
I was scared now. And sorry. Why did I turn down the music? Why do I think I can come in and change whatever I want? I wished Pablo were there. I invited him, but maybe he was tired of being told what was wrong with his camp. Maybe he felt completely criticized. Even saying he should ask for what he needs was patronizing. Like I was asking him to beg us for money.
Why am I like this? Is it, like the Texan said, because I’m American? Or is it something unique to me?
Twenty years ago, my mom and I traveled to Cuba on a Jewish charity mission. We were told Cubans weren’t allowed in our hotel room, where they could watch international news. We met a mother/daughter couple and my mom invited them over. My mom knew the rules, but she marched our friends up to the elevator and pushed the going up button. In seconds, we were surrounded by six big men wearing earbuds. I thought for sure we’d get arrested. When I asked her why she did that, she said, “I wanted to.”
I don’t always get what I want, but like my mom, I always try. I may not save every turtle, but I’m going to try even if it involves doing something against the rules, or something obnoxious. I don’t like this about myself.
I also don’t like how Americans value biggering and bettering. Companies must grow. Quality of life must get better. This is what kills turtles in the first place. But the instinct is in me. I want the turtle camp to get bigger and better.
According to the Pew Research Center, worldwide anti-American sentiment is higher than ever since Trump was elected, but disliking Americans is not new. America is the country that invades militarily and encroaches economically. We support dictators, impose sanctions. We do whatever we want. Now, Mexicans have a million reasons to hate us. A wall. “Rapists.” Our sense of entitlement. My entitlement.
The waitress brought the bill. I said, “He has a point.”
Scott paid and we hurried to leave. The Texan came back and got within inches of my face. I could smell his alcohol breath. I said, “I’m sorry I touched your equipment.”
The Texan said, “You think you’re better than Mexicans.”
Scott said, “You have us wrong. We’re volunteering.”
The Texan said, “Ugly, fucking Americans. You think you’re so great, trying to save the world.”
He approached Scott as we rushed toward the door. He got too close. Scott said, “Give me my space.”
The Texan shoved Scott. Scott shoved him back. The Texan swung. Mark got by his father’s side. Jodie and Tashi ran out the door. Dora and I were caught between the guys and the door. The Texan raised a chair and shoved it into Scott. Mark pushed the chair. I saw arms flail; heard screeching tables and chairs. I ran behind them and down the street to catch up to Tashi and Jodie. A few minutes later Scott and Mark joined us down the block. We were shaking, but no one got hurt.
Tashi and I have been home for two weeks. We’ve told the bar fight story a hundred times. Everyone says the Texan was crazy. He was. But what about me?
I took Tashi to Mexico to teach her something. What did she learn? That her mom is an ugly American.
Andrea Askowitz is the author of the memoir My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. Her stories have appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Rumpus (forthcoming), AEON, and others. She’s the co-host and producer on the podcast Writing Class Radio.