Few of us Texicans knew anything about Monterrey before reaching the city. Someone told me on the trip down that it was the second-largest city in Mexico, with a metro area that was almost as big as Dallas-Fort Worth.
Our personal Monterrey was much smaller than that. Our late arrival Sunday canceled plans to tour the city our first day, so most of our city experience was limited to the neighborhood around the mission compound.
We stayed in the Iglesia Christiana Elim, or, roughly, the Elim Christian Church. “Compound” seemed the right word for the church, since it was a plain white concrete building surrounded by a high wall. The wall had bits of multicolored broken glass sticking up from the top, as a cheap and somewhat more decorative form of razor wire. The iron gate that served as the only pedestrian entrance was usually kept locked.
The building itself was effectively divided in two by a central staircase. On the left, the church sanctuary comprised the first floor, with the parsonage on the second floor and the men’s dormitory on the third floor. On the right, the two stories held the cafeteria on the first floor and the women’s dormitory on the second. In front of the cafeteria was a courtyard with a basketball goal on one end and two small soccer goals. Below the courtyard was the garage, which was big enough for the mission’s six 15-passenger vans and our own van and trailer. And a dog.
Besides the pastor and his family, the compound was home to 3 full-time missionaries and about a half-dozen summer interns. The interns, who were mostly college students or recent college grads, had paid their own way to stay and serve in Monterrey for a few months. They served as our drivers, guides, and co-workers throughout the week.
At our first meal in the cafeteria—it was taco salad—the lead missionary reviewed with us the rules and procedures:
- The first person in line for a meal prays for the group.
- No shorts were allowed outside the dormitories, except for those putting on soccer clinics (and even then, long pants or skirts were preferable).
- Only human waste was to be flushed down the toilets. The compound had running water, but the drain pipes were small enough that any toilet paper quickly clogged them. Toilet paper was to be thrown in the trash.
- Don’t drink the water.
- Don’t brush your teeth with the water. Use bottled drinking water instead.
- Don’t buy any drinks locally that contain ice.
- Don’t use the words “idiot” or “stupid”. They mean something very different in Mexico, and are considered fighting words.
- Any time we were ministering to the community, we had to wear dress pants and shirts, or dresses for the girls. This included our evening water sports in the park.
- School-style bells would ring to wake us up, and to summon us to every meal or meeting. The bells were loud. We would not sleep through them.
- Lights-out was at 10:30 p.m., or something like that (I don’t remember exactly, since we managed to get around this rule multiple times).
- We could only leave the compound in groups of 4 or more, and there had to be at least one male in each group. We were advised not to go beyond the hamburguesa stand and park a couple of blocks south, or past the pharmacy and fruiteria several blocks north. No one was supposed to go into the surrounding hills—not even the full-time missionaries—as it was considered too dangerous.
He also explained how we could get dollars exchanged for pesos, so we would have spending money. A U.S. dollar was worth a bit more than 10 pesos. So, though a bottle of pop might look expensive with a price tag of $7, it was actually pretty cheap at a bit under 70 cents. (The store across the street sold Coke in glass bottles, and it was half price—3.5 pesos—if you exchanged an empty bottle for the full one. Empty bottles were kept stashed in the cafeteria just for that purpose.)
With its bright colors and high denominations, the Mexican currency was affectionately referred to as “Monopoly money” by the Americans. It felt different carrying around fifties and hundreds instead of fives and tens, even if it was worth the same amount.
Not that much money was needed; I only spent about 100 pesos the entire week. I did make it to the hamburguesa stand a couple of times. The grill, which didn’t even open its window until 7 p.m., only had three menu items: hamburgers, special hamburgers, and baked potatoes. The food there was a wonder, though: the baked potato, which I did not order, came loaded with something like a pound of butter, a cup of cheese, and a slice of ham. Not measly bacon bits: a ham steak. The hamburguesa especial consisted of a homemade bun, topped with avocado, salami, melted cheese, ham, melted cheese, a hamburger patty, melted cheese, ham, melted cheese, and salami. A heart attack that is actually worth having, and all for only 25 pesos.
Most of our free time was spent in the compound, though, with most of that time spent sleeping. Upon moving in to the men’s dormitory, the interns let us in on their secret: they don’t sleep in the un-air-conditioned dormitory; they sleep on the roof. Since the beds only consisted of foam slabs anyway, it was much more comfortable to carry them up to the flat roof and sleep in the open air. Though Monterrey was uncomfortably hot during the day, at night it cooled down enough outside that a bit of a blanket was necessary.
The roof also provided the best views of the surrounding city. Every house within sight of the mission was of similar concrete construction, and had a flat roof that doubled as an extra room. Some of these rooftop rooms were more developed than others. The house immediately behind the mission kept chickens and roosters on the roof. This was apparently a common practice, as the sound of roosters trying to wake us up was heard almost continuously.
We also had a good view of the Cerro de la Silla, or Saddle Mountain. The three distinctive peaks of this landmark mountain were often the only way I could tell our location as we rode in vans through the winding streets of the city or the surrounding countryside. The alignment of the peaks and the distance to the mountain provide a rough triangulation reference, with which you could at least find your way back to the general area of the mission, or judge how close you were to the city when traveling back from a day working construction.
Or, as they say in Monterrey, construcción.