Beauty Around Town

Bougainvilleas (bugambilias in Spanish).

I see him most mornings. Every morning when I run to the bridge. He’s always there, around the same spot, but sometimes on different sides of the trail. He wears a tan trench coat, the same shade of tan as the trail, and admittedly, I have nearly tripped over him more than once. I used to be afraid of him, not knowing if he is dangerous. Perhaps I was more afraid of the pile of garbage that is his bed, his home. He is surrounded by styrofoam cups, plastic wrappers, and glass bottles. His hair is dark and matted, his skin a deep brown, weathered from
hundreds- maybe even thousands- of days and nights spent outside in the elements. Yet when I caught his eye one day, I noticed a twinkle. And a smile. “Buenos días,” I said to him. “Buenos días. Good morning, good morning,” he replied. He obviously knew I was una americana. With each hand, he gave me the peace sign.

When I see him now, we always greet each other. That is, when he is awake. When he is not up and about, or sitting up, I slow down as I run by, to make sure he is indeed sleeping… and not, well, you know.

The man is one of many reasons why some might avoid the trail. His pile of garbage is not the only one. As I run by, I try to avoid looking too much toward the river. I try not to think about the dumping ground that many treat it as. I have seen everything from ordinary litter to tires, refrigerators, couches, and computers in the brush next to the trail. I try to ignore it, looking straight ahead. I pass through pockets of stench, ranging from human urine to raw sewage to rotting animal carcasses. Frieda likes to stick her nose in the brush, catching sight of lizards and chipmunks. One time it was a grey cat she found, dead and bloated from the sun, its mouth open. I had smelled it before she found it.

As I run, I dodge roots from bushes and trees, trash, cow pies, horse manure, and other animal waste. I avert my eyes from the men just sitting there every few hundred meters, with radios or walkie-talkies, obviously waiting for someone or something. At first, seeing them made me feel uneasy, but I am used to it by now, having run the same trail, el bordo, as it is known – most days of the week for the last year.

El bordo runs alongside the Rio Grande River, which is the physical border between the United States and Mexico. It is one of two options for running here in Matamoros, for security reasons. The other is Parque Olimpico, just a quarter of a mile from our house. Parque Olimpico attracts a lot of families and fellow runners and walkers, as it has a fair amount of green space and a cinder trail loop that measures about 600 meters. It’s a good option when it rains, because el bordo becomes a muddy mess in the rain.

In spite of the litter and odors that permeate the el bordo trail, it is my preferred running spot. We are only supposed to run the 2.5-mile section of it beginning at the Gateway Bridge (one of three bridges in Matamoros spanning the Rio Grande, on the other side of which is Texas), and heading southeast, following the curves in the river. I have run this section hundreds of times by now, back and forth. I have learned where to cross to the other side to avoid stray dogs, where to jump over holes and roots, and where to hold my breath. I could probably run it with my eyes closed at this point.

In recent weeks, however, I’ve realized more and more that I wouldn’t want to close my eyes as I run. I’d miss the steam rising from the river as the sun warms it. I’d miss the bougainvillea bushes that have started to bloom in bright pink and purple. I’d miss the lone palm trees that stand tall above the regular tree line.

The most peaceful moments I have experienced since I arrived in Matamoros nearly a year ago have been on that trail, which in spite of its dual use as a garbage dump, is the only place I have found solace while running. And though I often long for the beautiful running trails of Virginia or Minnesota or Iowa, on which I have logged thousands of miles over the years, it occurred to me that my days of running on el bordo are limited. It won’t be long before I reflect on these days of pounding out dusty miles in the thick humid air, with sweat streaming down my face. And if I closed my eyes to avoid the ugliness, I’d miss the small pockets of beauty that are present among the grit and sadness that could easily characterize this town.

I decided to take some photos to capture these fragments, to remind me of this experience, and to show the beauty that exists beneath Matamoros’ rough exterior. Here is a sampling of what I came up with.

Thank you for reading!

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