Out of all the places I have traveled to in my relatively short life, there is one trip that has remained etched in my heart for the past five years. It is not a trip that took place abroad–it is a trip that occurred within the borders of my own country, the USA. I have never covered this trip before in my blog because even five years later, I am still unsure of how to process it–even now just writing about it I feel conflicted. This type of trip was a very stark contrast from the typical “let’s visit a palace/cathedral/museum and sit in a quaint European cafe” hostel-hopping kind of trip (not that there is anything wrong with those, I’ve endured my fair share of them).

What am I talking about exactly? A Native American reservation, specifically the Tohono O’Odham Nation situated in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. Let’s be blunt: the majority of Native American reservations are not vacation destinations. In fact, most Americans will probably never visit one during their lifetime since most reservations are located in very rural, isolated locations.

So how did I end up there in the first place anyway? By participating through an Alternative Spring Break trip organized through my college during my spring break my sophomore year. To break it down simply, a group of about ten college students decided to spend a week in Pisinemo, Arizona to volunteer and help out around the community.

What I wasn’t prepared for? At just how different everything was. I had never felt like such a fish out of water, and it was very bizarre feeling that way in my own country.

arizona desertAerial shot of Pisinemo courtesy of Google Maps.  We really were in the middle of nowhere. Closest city was Tucson and that was two hours away.

We spent the week bunking at the Pisinemo Recreation Center, essentially the center of community life, a village (though calling it that feels like a stretch, it felt more like a cluster of ramshackle buildings) of about 230 inhabitants. We slept in sleeping bags we brought in one of the rooms of the rec center on the hard wood floors and cooked meals in the rec kitchen, using food we bought at a grocery store on the reservation.Less frills than the average hostel, but we were comfortable.

However, were the rest of Pisinemo’s inhabitants living comfortably? Up for debate, I suppose. Nevertheless. the level of poverty (or what I perceived to be poverty) astonished me. To me, Pisinemo vaguely resembled a shantytown, the impression no doubt magnified by the desert’s harsh and unforgiving landscape. The pack of semi-wild dogs roaming around highlighted the desert’s unpredictable and inhospitable nature. It was so hard to watch these doggies begging for food. I wanted to take them all home and give them them all a great big hug.

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Dogs escaping the unrelenting desert sun by staying in the shade.

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Buildings in “downtown” Pisinemo.

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These dogs were very skittish–they got close to you if they noticed you had food.

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I think the Arizona desert is a beautiful place, despite the harsh living conditions that surrounded me in Pisinemo. I never tired of taking in the view of the red-hued mountains (not sure what mountain range that is), the abundant amount of prickly cactus, and the desert’s sheer immensity. It also boggled my mind at how highly adaptable we humans are if some of us can manage to live in such a parched and desolate environment (at least I don’t think this human here could do it, the sun would have a field day with my pale skin!).

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The media always seems to focus on poverty and underdeveloped communities in other countries, especially ones of the “third world” variety. To a lesser extent, it does cover the same topic on our home turf in the US. But you almost never hear about Native American reservations. My theory as to why is pretty simple–I think most people forget that they are there, as sad as that is to admit. I also don’t know if many Native American reservations are like the one I stayed at, but the statistics for Pisinemo speak for themselves–about half the population (of 230 people) lives below the poverty line. That week in Arizona was very eye-opening for me and introduced me to a reality I had not known existed.

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I plan to write a few more posts about my trip to Arizona, so stay tuned.

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