Greening the Barrio, Part 6

05/25/2011 01:05 pm ET

I'd always wanted to swim with dolphins.

Our second day in town, we'd seen them from the deck of Charley's Rock, a San Carlos restaurant with a thatched roof and pale orange walls and an open patio on the second floor from which you could hit golf balls into the bay. We'd finished off fish tacos while pelicans dive-bombed the water.

Suddenly, a different movement had caught my attention. It was a dolphin, breaching.
Jennie's voice had broken with delight. "There they are!" she'd said. The dolphin's back and fin had glittered in the sun. Another fin had appeared, then a smaller one, moving smoothly through the water.

You could swim with the dolphins here in San Carlos. You could snorkel with whale sharks, scuba dive with sea lions, fish for marlin, mountain bike the tumbling hills. You might even be able to wander out to those red ribbed walls I'd seen my first day in town and climb. Ordinarily, that's what our group of adventure athletes would have loved to do.

Adventure athletes: men and women who engage in pursuits that contain an element of risk. Pursuits like ski mountaineering. Whitewater kayaking. Alpine climbing. Things where, if you screw up, you could die.

Kina had skied big lines in the Tetons for years; on many of them, if you failed to make the right turn at the right time, you would fall for a thousand feet, pinballing between the rocky walls of the couloir until you ragdolled out the bottom. Khyber began running Class V rapids in his early teens; deadfall, often lurking just below the river's surface, could hold you under until you drowned. I climbed in the Tetons, in Alaska, in Scotland and Kyrgyzstan and Peru, where avalanches, rockfall and inclement weather were an inherent part of any ascent.

We'd all lost friends doing what we loved to do, but every season we were back, staring over the tips of our skis at the narrowing funnel below us, finding the balance in the kayak just before the thirty-foot drop, swinging our ice tools into thin brittle ice that creaked in the twenty-below cold, the endorphins bubbling up right below our sternums. The sports we did were dangerous, and they were addictive. We'd built our careers and families and lives around such experiences, and we always sought out new ones that could produce them as well. I would have loved to kayak the serrated coast, to hike up to those cliffs on the hills around Guaymas and find out if they were climbable, or simply to dive into the sparkling sea and paddle as hard as I could for the dolphins.

But Mark Mulligan was addressing the San Carlos Men's Club Thursday morning, so Kina and Mati and I drove to hear him speak instead.

The San Carlos Men's Club met in a cafe across the street from the Marina Terra hotel. We ditched the car alongside the broken cobble and, guided by signs in English, walked upstairs to a low-ceilinged room on the second floor.

Fifteen or twenty men, most of them in their sixties, gathered around the L of a table. Sunlight splashed in through the windows, illuminating their tans. I had expected all Americans, but four Mexicans sat at the table as well.

We were directed to the president of the club Mel Klein.

"Why's Mark here to talk to you?" I asked.

"Every other week our group gets together," Mel said. He wore a green golfer's hat and a Hawaiian shirt; like most of the men in the room, he was in his late sixties. "We try to bring people we think are interesting to talk. Mark plays a lot of music around here, and he's been mentioning Castaway Kids in his shows, so I asked him to come to tell us more about it."
Mark was leaning over in conversation with a bald septuagenarian who wore large, rose-tinted glasses and looked like a retired B-Movie producer from Palm Springs.

Mark was five-ten, with close-cropped gray hair and a healthy tan. He was fifty and rested; he also looked as if he would have been more comfortable in a Hawaiian shirt than in the short-sleeve button up he wore. Part of the shirt poked up from his belt, untucked and askance, as he talked to the producer.

Mark slowly made his way to the front of the room, introducing himself as he moved. Then, he began speaking about his group.

The roots of Castaway Kids had started with Mark's early years in the barrio, when he had been a missionary teacher, and solidified with his marriage of seven years to his wife, Adela, a Fatima local. When Adela died in a car accident, she left him two sons, Marcos, seven, and Luis, three.

"Castaway Kids provides money, food, and care to the children of Guaymas," Mark said. He had the easy, conversational tone of a singer who was comfortable in front of an audience. I wondered how much the organization helped alleviate the grief of his wife's death. "Our goal is for these children and their families to become self-supporting so that they can assist other families like them."

Mark continued to describe the group's efforts. A month earlier, they had orchestrated the purchase of a home outside the barrio for a family whose shack had been swept away in a flash flood. At Christmas, they had taken some of the barrio children and thrown them a Christmas party, complete with presents.

In 2007, Mark had organized the building of a park in Fatima for the barrio children; Adela's family still lived in a home across the street. At the pointy end of the park--a triangle-shaped slab of concrete with a couple of blue and yellow swingsets, monkey bars and two barrels welded together for the kids to crawl through--stood a rectangular memorial. It was for Mark's wife; the barrio residents had erected it on his behalf without his knowledge, and unveiled it at the opening ceremony.

I looked around. The retirees of the San Carlos Men's Club listened attentively as he spoke.
Next to me sat a tall, friendly American who looked to be in his early sixties. What did he think of Mark and his Castaway Kids? "They're doing good work," he said. And why was he here at the meeting? He smiled gently. "I want to give something back."

I thought about Terry Challis, the woman from Arizona we'd met our first day in the barrio. She had impressed me with her pragmatic understanding of the children's needs. She didn't seek to put anyone through college; the scholarship fund she had helped to start simply covered the costs of secondary school for the children who might otherwise not go.

David Keilholtz, the husband of our translator, Rosa, had similar, modest goals. He had assisted in the construction of the park across from Adela's family's home, and he'd helped families in the barrio to build small cement-block houses where before they'd had nothing.

In addition to the eighteen-hole golf course where Mike Chase's house was located, San Carlos featured tennis courts, bowling lanes and two marinas. Above the harbor, houses with a Mediterranean accent ringed the hill in tight, hierarchical rows. There were restaurants featuring seafood, Sonoran beef, Mexican dishes and American cuisine.

I could almost imagine the life of the retiree here: snorkeling among the parrot fish, sailing the desert coast, fishing for yellowfin tuna, the hills tumbling, tumbling, tumbling toward the sea. You could relax in comfort and never even notice the barrio. Which is what I'd been sure most of the retirees did.

"If we get some downtime, I want to go kite surfing," Mike had said the day before. He'd been talking about kite surfing in Guaymas since he'd first told me about the project, months earlier; the bay was expansive, and the winds came rushing down the hills across the surface of the water. "You should try it," Mike said. "You'd like it."

He was probably right. I'd probably like the kayaking, too: for years, I'd heard stories about NOLS courses that came down to the Gulf of California and explored its mysteries by boat. In fact, there seemed almost limitless things we could have been doing that would have been a blast. But such things were secondary to getting the panels on the school's roof.

For a moment, I thought I understood something that had been in the back of my mind since the trip had begun. Mark, Terry, David and the other volunteers could have been golfing, fishing, sailing, doing whatever you do when you're a gringo retiree in Mexico. And they probably did do them, most of the time. But they also had their projects, and they kept chipping away at them, bit by bit.

When we'd arrived in San Carlos I'd had a certain skepticism about what we'd be able to do with The Guaymas Project. Any solar power we brought to the school would be minimal, if we could get permission to tie it to the grid at all, and I wasn't sure our lessons would have much of an effect on the children, either. Plus, we'd be in and out of there in a week--hardly enough time to make any real impact.

Terry had been handing out scholarship applications at the Fatima school the day we met. She had given me one. A line in particular had jumped out at me. "We can change the world," it read, "one child at a time."

I'd thought it horribly naive at the time. Now I wasn't sure.

On the way back to town, we drove in silence. I looked for the dolphins as we passed the bay, but they were nowhere to be seen.