For some, vacations abroad are spent on lavish cruises or sightseeing tours staged from behind the curtains of a comfortable hotel. But for Charlie Barker, this is missing the point of traveling. Once a firefighter, now a fire inspector with the Lebanon Fire Department, Charlie sees time abroad as an opportunity for adventure and all of the wonderful, unanticipated, and utterly real experiences that come along with it.
Most recently, this passion prompted him to join an aid trip to central Mexico run by John Markowitz. John, who works in the DHMC Emergency Department, has been going down to the area around Puebla City, Mexico to climb and to work with the Red Cross since 1999, and in that time he has done hands-on relief for various crises and established lasting friendships with local agents of change. This trip, he told me, had three purposes: to bring down equipment and supplies, to build bunk beds for a Red Cross station in Ciudad Serdan, and to get some climbing in if time permitted. For Charlie, it was the perfect combination.
“When John approached me,” he reflected, eyes lighting up, “I was like: Trip to Mexico? Do some work and get to hike a mountain? Yeah, yeah, let’s go!”
And Charlie, John insists, was exactly who he needed.
“It was Charlie who encouraged me to ask other firefighters to come,” John said, “and he asked if we could bring soccer balls and soccer shirts for the kids, and then Charlie talked to his mother, a former schoolteacher, and came back asking: ‘What about school supplies?’”
As soon as the team touched down in Mexico City, Charlie allowed his adventurous personality to take the reins, inspiring his peers to do lunch the local way, grabbing fresh fare from food trucks down the road. In Puebla the following day, he reveled in a chance to observe the Day of the Dead celebration, and to analyze the effects of the recent earthquake on the city. He shows me pictures of churches with no steeples, and of entire blocks of buildings braced to prevent collapse.
“For a firefighter,” he says, “this stuff is fascinating – to see what their people do for a disaster – because it’s different in every country.”
Stopping in at the Puebla City firehouse and its hospital revealed some of the more nuanced differences. Their equipment was similar but outdated, the hospital’s Emergency Department looking like the set for a 1950’s doctor drama, and the firehouse sporting old, mismatched bunker gear. Charlie proposed a future exchange between the two firehouses, but for the time being he settled for traded shirts from the Lebanon Fire Department with the Puebla crew in a show of camaraderie. Then it was off to the real work.
For the next 8 days the team established a home base out of an old soap factory in Tlachichuca, a small village at 8,000 ft. They distributed their supplies, aided the Red Cross in the construction of the bunk beds in Ciudad Serdan, and plotted a course to hike the gargantuan Mt. Orizaba.
Serdan is where all of the northbound trains pass, ridden by scores of Central American migrants fleeing oppressive, often deadly conditions in their home countries. When I asked Charlie what it was like seeing this on the ground, he told me the story of a boy who, when flung off a northbound train going 50mph, lost both of his feet at the ankles. “They’re gonna patch him up, and then send him right back,” said Charlie. “It’s heartbreaking.”
But, he tells me, the experience was also eye-opening, allowing him to see the raw truth of a debate clouded by political agenda. “These are people,” he said. “All they want is a better shot at life, and I don’t think we here [in the US] often see it that way.”
On the final day, Charlie got up at 3:30am and hiked, with fellow Hanover firefighter Chris Sweitzer, halfway up the knees of Mt. Orizaba to an elevation of close to 14,500 ft. As the sun came up, Popo, an active volcano hoarding the horizon line, erupted with a cacophonous boom.
“It was awesome,” Charlie said.
John, who waited at a lower way station, echoed this sentiment, and lauded Charlie for his energy and enthusiasm, that day and every other.
“He helped make the trip,” John told me.
When I asked Charlie if he would ever do this again, or would recommend it to others, he flashed a genial smile.