Chris Loftus looked heartbroken as he flipped through the photos on his cell phone. He and a group of friends had loaded up a truck with donated toys, clothing, toilet paper, and food, and headed down to Juchitan de Zaragoza, the city in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico, hit hardest by the massive earthquakes in September.
"It's so much worse than any of the reports you see on the news," he told me. The first thing you notice, he said, are the piles of rubble at the edge of every town, from the houses that have collapsed.
People are living in tent cities, afraid to sleep in damaged houses that could fall on them at any moment. Aid has been spotty, and there are news stories about corrupt local officials making off with millions of pesos intended to help the displaced. But the thing that made Chris choke up as he described his trip was how grateful people were in the small towns around Juchitan when he and his friends pulled up in their truck. People whose every possession is buried under the ruins of their homes thanked Chris and his friends passionately for the small toys and donated shirts. It was painful, Chris said, with tears in his eyes.
He showed me photos of his group's bright green truck trailer, festooned with colorful plastic balls of the type you find in crates at the grocery store. Rolling from town to town in this funny-looking vehicle, Chris and his friends played with the kids, handed out care packages, and tried to lighten the mood. There are hundreds of similar, small volunteer brigades arriving all the time. They can barely make a dent, given the scale of the destruction.
Chris is my husband's Spanish teacher. About a week after we talked to him, we made the beautiful, five-hour drive through the mountains to the Isthmus region around Juchitan along with a friend who is a tour guide in Oaxaca. We drove past the wreckage by the side of the road, and the towns that look like they've been bombed. Buildings have crumbled to the ground on every block.
Still, life goes on. The market is hopping. Vendors hawk huge piles of shrimp and fish, fruits, and flowers, alongside the elaborately embroidered dresses typical of the region.
We spent three nights in a tent city in Juchitan. Our neighbors in the fifty-odd tents around us received us with graciousness and good humor. Since we hadn't brought mats for sleeping on the concrete, one young man fished some out of a supply tent. He led us to our sleeping area and told us to make...