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El paseo: The incredible 5,000-mile journey of Saul Flores

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Five thousand miles. Three months of walking, hitchhiking, sleeping on the ground and in hiding places. A trip from Quito, Ecuador, to El Paso, Texas, through 10 countries, nine border crossings and a kaleidoscopic hemisphere of beauty, danger, poverty, death and hope that is the Americas. What Saul Flores experienced on "The Walk of the Immigrants" is as visually and intellectually stirring as it is politically infuriating. He saw many different cultures, Flores says, but finally he saw just one people. "We are, all of us, Americans."

Flores, an N.C. State University senior, took the "Walk" in the summer of 2010. He began it in a burst of idealism and a romantic notion that the circumstances of his life to that point had set his path before him. He ended it in exhaustion, joy that he was still alive and a more grounded idealism for having come through a journey that so many immigrants take—and so many die taking.

Along the way, Flores embraced a brother—his stepfather's son—in El Salvador. They'd talked on the phone many times, but they'd never met in person. The accidents of birth that defined Saul Flores' privileged life as an American citizen and his brother Sergio's terrifying existence in a place wracked by gangs, drugs and civil war—a place Sergio has tried illegally to escape five times—hurts Saul's heart.

Knowing the danger his brother is in, and that his stepfather's many efforts to bring Sergio into the U.S. legally have also failed, is a stinging reminder to Saul of the consequences of immigration policies that tear families apart—policies most Americans accept without ever thinking them through.

An accomplished photographer, Flores returned with 20,000 images of his trip, a selection of which is featured in a major exhibit mounted at N.C. State's D.H. Hill Library through April. Prints of some of the photographs—depictions of the beauty Flores encountered on his remarkable journey—are on sale in connection with the exhibit. Flores has pledged all of the money to a cinderblock elementary school in his mother's hometown of Atencingo, Mexico, a pivotal place in the story of how he came to take the walk.

It's a story that Flores tells so modestly, with such understatement, that at first you don't quite grasp the gravity of it. Indeed, it will require the book Flores is writing, and his photographs, to convey it fully. But it helped to hear Susan Nutter, vice provost at N.C. State and head of the library system, introduce Flores when his exhibit opened in January.

Nutter spoke passionately about Flores and his courage, calling him "a tribute to the university" and "a living reward" for every faculty member who strives to imbue in their students a curiosity about the world and an ethic of public service toward it.

"Have I embarrassed you enough?" she asked Flores at the midpoint, but as she said, it was a rhetorical question. Nutter added that Flores brought an unusual combination of skills to his project as a dual major in graphic design and business marketing, together with his passion for photography.

Most important, Nutter said, "This is the story of a type of persistence and resourcefulness that is astounding at any age, in any setting or in any country. Saul Flores is the real deal. And to know Saul Flores—and this may sound trite, but it isn't—is to love him, to be crazy about him, and to be inspired by him."

Flores had three goals in mind for his journey. One was to illustrate the beauty of the multicultural Americas and its people. A second was to document how grueling and dangerous the journey of immigrants to the United States is. A third was to raise money for the school in Atencingo.

In talks to campus and community groups since returning, Flores resists veering into polemics about the immigration issue or how to address it. Rather, he observes pointedly that most Americans have little concept of why so many people from other countries are drawn here, legally or illegally, or that it is anything but easy to, as he's heard it described too many times, "hop over the border."

"We are blind to the experiences that shape our opinions, and to the opinions that shape our actions," Flores says. "We are blind to the stories of others. We forget to listen. We forget to receive."

If Americans—U.S. Americans—could only see these stories, he thought, the immigration debates would have a different, more humane tone.

A key part of Flores' story is that he is a Caldwell Fellow at State, meaning he's in a prestigious program for high achievers named after the late John Caldwell, a university chancellor who encouraged students to "think big" and make the world better.

The Caldwell Fellows take service trips abroad. Some had been to Mexico the year before Flores' class came in. When they returned, Flores joined them, leading the group on a side trip to Atencingo, an impoverished town in the rural state of Puebla, Mexico, a little more than 100 miles south of Mexico City.

Flores' mother emigrated from Atencingo to Brooklyn, N.Y., 22 years ago. Because she did, Flores was born in the U.S., making him a citizen. Visiting Atencingo, he saw the life he might've lived had his mother not made the dangerous, and illegal, trip across the U.S. border.

Many of the children in Atencingo live in aluminum shanties and sleep on the floor, Flores says. They don't have much to eat. Their school, if they attend at all, lacks the most basic tools—like textbooks.

"It was heartbreaking," he says. "But what was amazing was the open arms they offered us, which—you know—beats anything materialistic. I fell in love, and the Caldwell Fellows fell in love, fortunately."

Flores led a return trip to Puebla and Atencingo last year, and 15 Caldwell Fellows are with him again this week for a third visit. They're bringing donated books, computers and money to fix up the school and the grounds.

After his first trip to Atencingo, Flores had a chance to take another service trip to Ecuador, which is why the "Walk" originated there. When he mapped it on the Internet, he says, laughing at himself, it looked like the distance was "only" 2,000 miles. On foot, with nine border crossings, he ended up traveling more than 5,000. "That's not a small mistake," he jokes.

Even before he left Quito, Flores was given a rude lesson in the treatment of immigrants. A man from Africa (he doesn't recall which country) whom he'd befriended, and who also intended to travel to the U.S., was arrested right in front of him and sent to be deported.

Flores had his U.S. passport, which helped him in Quito and got him across the border from Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso three months later. In between, though, he rarely showed it, and even when he did, it didn't necessarily give him safe passage.

At the border between Colombia and Panama, a swampy region controlled by the long-standing insurgent group known as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), Flores' passport was suspect, and authorities detained him for a day thinking he was a FARC agent with counterfeit papers.

That was one low point of the trip. Another was his brush with the venom of a poisonous dart frog, which paralyzed his right leg and, for some reason, his lip. Worst of all were the long stretches of dusty roads where food and water were scarce and he, his passport and the few hundred dollars in his possession notwithstanding, was no different from immigrants making the same walk in utter anonymity, danger and exhaustion. Ironically, he was robbed just once, by a pickpocket in Quito who nabbed his cell phone. He held tight to his Nikon camera after that. But the fear of being robbed, or worse, was something he didn't anticipate and couldn't shake.

The high points? Meeting his brother, who told him he loved him and forgave him for benefiting from decisions that others made and Saul could not undo. Another was his encounter with the man who finally helped him escape the Colombia-Panama border.

Released by the police, Flores couldn't find anyone in the tiny border town of Armila, Panama, who would risk helping him or even sell him food. Desperate, he stood on a pier, hoping for a boat to come by. What arrived instead was a large canoe—fashioned from a hollowed-out tree—steered by a man from one of the indigenous Panamanian tribes, the Kuna.

The Kuna man told Flores he could get him to Panama City. And seven days later, he did, after they'd stopped at a series of fishing villages where the boatman took and delivered other passengers and messages for the tribe. Seven days on the water, catching fish and eating fish. Flores' skin was blistered, he was weak from the jail and the paddling, and he was thankful beyond words.

"This indigenous man, I don't know why he offered to take me. I don't even know why I went with him, but I was so tired and afraid. He didn't charge me any money. He gave me the most important thing he had, which was friendship," Flores says.

"What if we all acted that way? And if nations did?"

This article appeared in print with the headline "El paseo, or 'the walk'."

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