A journey to Mexico begins with a bumpy flight
The engine begins to rumble loudly enough to drown out the voices of the pilots, and the plane’s vibrations shake me in my tightly belted seat. We accelerate down the snowy white runway picking up enough speed to lift off from Truckee.
“It may dance around on the runway a bit, not to worry,” Bob Horvath, a Truckee resident and experienced pilot, tells his nervous passenger ” me.
In the week before the bouncy takeoff on the way to an obscure Baja California town, my mind was buffeted as if by a turbulent storm. I was downright scared to fly in a six-seat plane from the Sierra Nevada across desert plains and through Mexican canyons.
I was also nervous about spending five days with a group of adults whom I knew very little about. But I was excited to donate my time and energy to report on a volunteer mission to a rural Mexican village.
I was about to embark on my first “Los Medicos Voladores” trip combining the three loves of my life ” travel, writing and helping others. Known in English as the Flying Doctors, seven volunteers from Auburn, Truckee and the Bay Area organized a dental clinic for April 19-20 in San Ignacio, Mexico, and I was given the opportunity to tag along and report on the involvement of Tahoe-area volunteers.
After a mild Tahoe winter it seemed spring had sprung ” until the eve of our departure. Looking down on the white-capped peaks and snowy shore of Lake Tahoe, I’m impressed we’re able to keep schedule with the surprise storm, and looking forward to warm sun and the promise of sand between my toes.
“We’re going to top those clouds and head over to Sacramento Executive,” Horvath says into the headset.
I have a long history of an on-and-off fear of flying, and the thought of careening through the cloudy gray skies in something slightly larger than a VW Beetle was less than comforting. Valium takes off a bit of the edge, but the beauty of an aerial Tahoe-Truckee view slices right through my lingering distress.
The plane is 20 degrees colder than I’d anticipated, as we’re flying nearly 13,000 feet over the Sierra to avoid the incoming storm. I cuddle in the very back corner of the plane in a pile of pillows and blankets trying to keep my fingers and toes warm.
Lynn Meadows, a Truckee resident and Horvath’s co-pilot, and Marilyn Britto, a Truckee nurse and a Flying Doctors volunteer, are fellow passengers in the twin-engine Baron Beechcraft C55. First stop ” Sacramento, where Dr. Ricardo Guillen, a volunteer dentist with dozens of Mexico missions under his belt, waits for us at the airport.
With the help of strong tailwinds we make good time from Sacramento to Mexicali for a border crossing interrogation. Still a little anxious about getting back in the plane for another three hours, I chatter with the other women about The Flying Doctors as they explain why they keep making the trips despite family, work and generally busy schedules.
Horvath has been a pilot for 40 years and a volunteer with Flying Doctors since 1993. He says he’s retired, but he still runs a heat-tape business with his wife, Mo, in Truckee. While he and Mo often travel to Mexico, he reserves a handful of long weekends each year to fly a team of medical volunteers to Baja villages.
A Sacramento native, Guillen has family in Mexico and is fluent in Spanish. He has worked with a number of different organizations providing pro bono dental care in Mexico, and says he has been on “too many trips to count.” Guillen runs a private dental practice in Sacramento and has to close his office each time he volunteers abroad.
Britto, a mother of three and a registered nurse at Tahoe Forest Hospital, has rarely had the time to commit four days to a trip with Flying Doctors, but sacrificed Spring Break with her husband and son to work as a dental assistant in San Ignacio.
And Meadows wears a number of different hats as a volunteer with the Flying Doctors. She has worked with the nonprofit for about 10 years and will serve as the other makeshift dental assistant.
“It’s just rewarding ” wait until you get there and you’ll see,” Meadows says. “Ladies buy you date nut bread, one man came with his bottle of homemade wine. They’re just so appreciative.”
We board the plane once again and continue to our final destination.
The outskirts of San Ignacio, located inland in Baja California Sur, are barren. But just as the other volunteers promise me, not even four miles away I spot acres of green ” a date palm oasis fed by a spring from the surrounding mountains.
We land on an airstrip a few miles outside of the village, greeted by Mexican federales who search my purse for who knows what. Four days of adventure and opportunity wait just around the corner, literally, and I’m anxious to undertake an opportunity of a lifetime.
“Flexibility, that’s the name of the game,” Meadows says as we climb into a rickety tour van that would take us to our guesthouse.
“Flexibility and ingenuity,” adds Britto.
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