10/27: Experiencing the Desert Southwest

20171026_162602On Our Way

The Southwest Chief, an Amtrak Superliner, rambles its way from Chicago through the heartland of America. Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico pass by the windows in a blur as plains turn to desert, then mountains, and graffitied brick turns to weathered barns and eventually to adobe compounds on scrub-brush hills where horses wander among the sage.

After bumping and bounding on this historic route for over 24 hours we said goodbye to the unique travelers we’d met on the train – those bound for points further west– and stepped out into the arid and bright climate of New Mexico.

We had arrived in Albuquerque.

Girded by a sheer tectonic cliff-face on one side known as the Sandia (Spanish for watermelon) Mountains, and surrounded at its circumference by volcanos dormant for millennia; Albuquerque is a town positioned uniquely in terms of geology, geography, and culture. Located centrally amidst the 19 Native American Pueblos of New Mexico Albuquerque is a melting pot of cultural and ethnic histories.

Our third location on the Gap journey, we ventured here to delve deeper into social justice and human rights issues as well as experience and participate in the vibrant modern culture and natural wonders of the area.


Home Away from Home

The Albuquerque Norbertine Community is an outpost of modern and classic dessert southwest structures where centuries old adobe architecture meets the sweeping lines and abundant natural light of passive solar design.

As much a part of the physical structure of the desert campus were the warm smiles on the faces of everyone we encountered – the stewards of communio. The clergy and staff at the Abbey made us feel not just welcomed, but as though we belong.

We weren’t simply guests in a new place – we had arrived home.


The Balloon Fiesta

Our first taste of the area was the International Balloon Fiesta, an event that draws tourists from around the world as spectators, balloonists, vendors, and volunteers. We were here to both spectate and volunteer – two tasks different in nature that turn out to take an equal investment of effort!

A 3:45am wake up call was in order for the day of the Fiesta and we arrived on the field by 4:30. The group was super lucky to have been standing next to the balloon that would start the ascension just before dawn – a spectacle that would eventually become close to 900 balloons in the air simultaneously just a few hours later. Folks who had been attending the festival for years (you could tell by their collections of commemorative pins, displayed proudly on hats and lanyards) told us that this was one of the most spectacular ascensions of all time due to particularly still air currents. We stood in awe most of the morning at the feat of art happening around us.

Our afternoon volunteer hours involved constructing quite literally from the ground up the entire spectator side of a music festival – from arranging hundreds of chairs to installing guard rails and serving as gate staff. The day was long and we had all had our fair share of sun by the end (as you can see on our rosy faces) but it is unquestionable that the spectacle we witnessed at dawn will remain with us for years to come.



The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

The IPCC is a museum for art and history contained in what was once a government-run boarding school for children of New Mexico’s pueblos. Historically a place students were mandated to attend with the end goal of assimilation, the center now gleams with the culture of a people it was once designed to subdue.

Our morning at the center was spent doing physical service – helping to prepare the display gardens to overwinter. In the gardens, we learned about the importance placed by native peoples on crops local to the area as well as how they adapted to those fruits and vegetables introduced by colonizers from overseas. Pulling weeds, raking, and removing detritus we learned how difficult it is to do manual labor in the southwest. The combination of sunshine, dry air and altitude was exhausting but also grounding in a literal and metaphysical sense.

In the afternoon we walked through the museum with a docent and learned about the intricacies of the many Pueblos in New Mexico. Most importantly, we heard first-hand accounts of modern cultural resiliency and about the pain and struggle that remains from a time of great persecution and hardship for those who walked these lands first.

Learn more about the work that the IPCC does and the beautiful art they host!

Read about the Starbucks across the street that we went to on our lunch break – the only Native American owned and operated Starbucks in the country!



Mandy’s Farm

At Mandy’s we had another opportunity to get our hands dirty in service to the community.  The farm provides community living services for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and has visitors arrive daily by bus from the greater Albuquerque area. Participants have the opportunity to develop skills while caring for animals like chickens, goats, and alpacas as well as while riding horses, organic gardening and receiving therapy in an indoor pool.

Our service involved mucking the horse stalls and preparing them for new mats as well as assembling picnic tables and clearing the garden in preparation for winter. In all we learned a lot, sweated a lot more, and even got to hold some baby goats!

Info on Mandy’s Farm and more about their founding story.


The National Hispanic Cultural Center

Mestizaje, Spanish for mixture – particularly in a cultural sense, is a theme that has resonated with us throughout our time in Albuquerque. We were first introduced to the term while seated underneath a massive cylindrical fresco inside an adobe silo at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Above us were larger than life depictions of a smattering of elements that in various ways relate to the timeline of New Mexican and global Hispanic cultural development.

We continued to explore this theme throughout the museum as we progressed from installations of historic to more modern significance, eventually ending up at an exhibit dedicated solely to piñatas (“guaranteed to be a smash hit”).

Take a peak at the featured exhibits at the NHCC



Refugees, Immigrants, Activism, and Sanctuary

A large portion of our time in Albuquerque involved the study of these four topics through in-person interviews, speakers, and site visits with the goal of forming a well-rounded understanding of the tribulations facing tens of thousands of human lives within our nation’s borders and without. What follows are brief descriptions of encounters we had in New Mexico during our exploration of those topics.

Homeland Security
A meeting with a supervisory border patrol officer gave us necessary perspective into the enforcement side of illegal immigration from the southern border. What we saw was a man dedicated to the people behind the problem. We saw compassion and we developed an understanding for work that is necessary but undeniably difficult – sometimes unduly so.

Expert Witness and Latin American Historian
This speaker gave us a history in numbers of the refugee crisis in Latin America with specific focus on women who are victims of domestic abuse or extortion by international gangs. We were astounded by the amount of effort it takes individuals like our speaker who work tirelessly (and without pay) in the legal system to advocate for the rights of refugees fleeing violence. Despite international agreements that cede rights to people seeking political asylum, we learned that the fight for life does not end when a refugee, fearing for their life, reaches our borders.

UCC Sanctuary Church
Here we met with an interfaith group of progressive New Mexicans who put their personal freedoms at risk to provide sanctuary to immigrants facing immediate deportation and to whom deportation could be synonymous with death. The two individuals being harbored within the church have been within the United States for decades, have held jobs, have gotten married, had children – have deeply planted their lives here and are being suddenly met with the uprooting force of radical changes in government policy. The church and its congregants will protect them until the legal battle can be won.

Read more about the Sanctuary Movement20171023_152124.jpg

As a group, we have learned of deep injustices present within our country for people who have no choice but to attempt to seek refuge or asylum here. We have met those who are dedicating their lives to making a difference in the lives of others and we feel challenged and compelled to continue on our path of higher education in pursuit of justice – each of us in our own way.

We are looking forward to continuing our investigative study outside of the country and a bit further south, in Guatemala. Knowing we will never fully comprehend the breadth of social injustices that exist in our world, we will continue to investigate and explore, formulating our opinions and personal plans of action.

For now, it’s time for some rest and preparation for the next leg of the journey.



A deep thank you to the Albuquerque Norbertine Community for your radical hospitality, to all of our speakers and community partners, to the individuals who shared your harrowing stories with us, and to the people who are fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves and speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves.


Other stops along the way:

How to Let Go of the World and Love All The Things  a documentary about the community-driven response to climate change that we watched and discussed with community members at the Abbey.

Bandolier National Monument – where native people dwelled in caves carved into the cliff sides, and an agrarian society rose from a nomadic one.

Tent Rocks – the famous hoodoos of the southwest, pillars made of unevenly eroded sedimentary rock that form a vertical lunar landscape in the middle of the desert.

Old Town Santa Fe and Old Town Albuquerque where artisans vending their wares of t-shirts, turquoise, gems, and metalwork are showcased in the center of these historic town squares.


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