Eight Pine-Strawberry sixth-graders and two seventh-grade ambassadors load up into two school vans.
Chaperoned by their teacher and three volunteers, the students are leaving their world of American comfort in the cool pines in exchange for Mexican tradition and desert living.
The students' destination is the tiny desert town of Cucurpe, Sonora, Mexico. As the vans bounce over a concrete path cut into the sandy floor of a desert river bottom, we see the ancient village that rises from the east side of the San Manuel River. The village must look much as it did when Padre Kino visited the town some 400 years ago. The worn adobe walls that greet us prove little has changed.
Homes line a tiny concrete main street. Students meet their fifth- and sixth-grade counterparts at the red brick "escuela" (school). The four-room structure is the learning center for first- through sixth-grade students.
After a brief welcome and introduction we head home with our hosts, beginning a weeklong immersion into a culture so far from and yet so near our own.
The first night is spent in homes with polished concrete floors, not a stitch of carpet to warm the cold foreign toes. Most of the P-S students sleep in the same bed with their Mexican partners.
As we make our rounds through the town to check on the kids, one family welcomes us into the bedroom area so we can see for ourselves how their new charge is faring.
The student shares a large bed with her partner, and it's apparent that the parents had given up their bed for the week to accommodate their 11-year-old American guest. The parents slept with the younger children in smaller beds for the four-night stay.
In another home a student told me her Mexican parents pulled two couches together as a makeshift bed for themselves and a younger son so that she and her partner can sleep in the only bed in the one-room home.
The world of climate-controlled comfort seems eons away now. No more heaters or air-conditioners. Wool blankets and siestas are the long-time traditions that enable these people to cope with nature.
In spite of what they do not have, under the tin roofs of their adobe and concrete homes children find friendship, warmth and kindness. Strangers become family as mothers' fuss over their new American children, and partners relate like siblings sharing, laughing and crying.
Outside, in the streets, American children find a freedom no longer common in their hometown.
With the city limits stretching only one-mile square, children can run free to any one of three community parks. It is easy to gather enough players for a competitive game of basketball, volleyball and even baseball. These common sports help children break through the language barriers. And afternoon walks to the sandy banks of the "rio" (river) find partners splashing about in the ankle-deep water. During the school day the children make crafts, play sports under the direction of a coach, tour the historical points of the town and work at communicating.
In a blink of an eye, the American students must leave, and a tearful Friday morning departure has become another long-standing tradition. For 14 years these two tiny schools have been working to improve international relations one student at a time.