RALEIGH — Imagine walking from South America to North Carolina, traversing undeveloped swamps, evading poisonous critters and the threat of drug war violence.
That's what N.C. State senior Saul S. Flores endured on his 5,300-mile journey, retracing a path through cities and backcountry that migrants use when seeking refuge in the U.S.
Flores snapped 20,000 pictures along his 10-country, three-month trek from Ecuador to North Carolina in the summer of 2010. Thirty of them are featured in "The Walk of the Immigrants," an exhibit on display through April at the D.H. Hill Library at N.C. State University.
Flores went to Ecuador as part of a service trip sponsored by the university's Caldwell Fellows program to build a rehabilitation center for the yellow spotted turtle. The Caldwell Fellows program promotes leadership development at N.C. State.
Flores, 22, has helped lead service trips to his mother's hometown, Atencingo, Mexico, with fellow students Luisa Jaramillo, Kevin Miller and Lisbeth Arias. He is selling prints of his photos online to raise $30,000 to aid a school in the poor, rural, sugar-refining community about 110 miles south of Mexico City. He also plans to publish a book detailing his journey.
Flores, a double major in graphic design and business marketing from Charlotte, recently talked to The News & Observer about his trek.
Help for others
Q: Where did you get the idea for this project?
It was a combination of my experiences: the way that I grew up and the project that we've been leading to Atencingo every year and especially, the pressures of society on Latin American communities in the United States. There's a lot of pressures on family members, and my family and a lot of my friends are being put into this really tight situation. I figured that it was really important that the American audience really tried to understand the reasons why migrants are heading up north.
Q: Was the idea from the start to raise money for Atencingo?
Absolutely. I documented the whole way through photography, which is a really big passion of mine. And I figured that the way I could contribute back to my community in Atencingo was by capturing the beauties and the struggles of Latin America and then selling those images to direct proceeds toward the school.
Q: Who traveled with you?
I was by myself for the majority of the trip. I actually ... walked with many migrants throughout the trip so I met migrants from Africa, every place you could imagine (including) Australia.
Points of dangers
Q: Did you ever feel in danger?
Absolutely. I think my biggest struggle was crossing the Colombia-Panama border (alone). I tried to cross the Darien Gap, which is 99 miles of undeveloped swamp lands. I brushed along a poison dart frog and lost feeling in my right leg and upper lip. ... It was a really tight situation, because I didn't have access to medical facilities. I just had to wait it out. The paralysis was probably about three days, I think. I tried to stay optimistic and found comfort in the thought of making it back to the United States. Mental strength was everything to me during the walk.
Q: How many pairs of shoes did you go through?
Actually, I only went through one pair of shoes. They were Nikes. I made sure to invest in some adequate sneakers before I left.
Q: You spent time in Juarez, Mexico, which has a reputation as a pretty dangerous place.
Juarez was probably the most frightening place throughout my entire walk. ... I had heard about the gang violence, the drug wars. Juarez lived up to its expectations, sadly. I think when I was there, ... about 45 people were killed in a span of a couple of days. So it was definitely the most difficult part of my trip, for sure.
Q: What other adventures did you have?
There was one part of my trip when I was actually trying to cross the Darien Gap and they denied me (entry into Panama) about a couple miles in. It was presidential elections and they sent me back (into Colombia). The Colombian army ... told me to fly. I was fortunate because there was an indigenous group of the Kuna Yala that took me by canoe across the Archipelago de San Blas, which was alongside the coast of Panama. I was able to live with an indigenous group for about a week, and we were just paddling island to island to island.
Travel on the cheap
Q: How much did the trip cost, and what foods did you live on?
I spent a total of about $1,200, eating only the bare minimum and paying for housing only when it was absolutely necessary. My cuisine ranged from roasted bugs and insects in the Amazon, to half-cooked fish along the coast. I was able to sleep in parks, beaches and churches to save money. The majority of my costs were paying for directions and best routes throughout the countries.
Q: What did you learn from the experience?
"The Walk of the Immigrants" made me realize the commonality that we have as people. Underneath, we are all individuals that seek happiness, survival and hope to avoid suffering.