July. 2014. A young guy stands in London Heathrow Airport with a 53L backpack at his feet, a thin red hoodie on his back and a one-way ticket to Puerto Vallarta (PV), Mexico in his pocket.
This young guy? He was me. Little did he know that this trip would change his perspective of his life, in ways he’d not thought possible.
During my second year of university, I saw an advert in a volunteering pamphlet about giving four weeks of my school summer holidays to a charity. This charity, the Seaver Foundation (Two-Birds at the time), was set up by a Loughborough alumni to help young children – from England and Mexico – who are socially excluded.
The Seaver Foundation offered four weeks volunteering on the Pacific coast of Mexico for a relatively small fee (which covered flights, accommodation and training resources to those who go).
My first summer back from uni had been eaten up by working at my old job, a drinking holiday to Faliraki (shoutout to Raki13) and days lazing about my parents’ house. Having studied Spanish at school for three years and having spent most of my family summer holidays in the Mediterranean (thanks Mum), I thought that I would go and check out what this opportunity offered.
What I learnt during an hour-long PowerPoint presentation was that this programme offered a chance to really give back to children who had been orphaned or abandoned and a chance to put the smile on their faces. I couldn’t refuse.
Fundraising for the trip wasn’t the difficult bit; through working any shift I could at my university job and holding the odd raffle (I apologise for the Facebook spam), I had raised the £1,750 I needed to get me there. The hard bit, however, was breaking the news to my family.
I’m the youngest child of three, and although I had lived away from home for 18 months by the time I left for Mexico, my parents were more anxious than I was. They had heard the terrible things that happened in Latin America, they feared kidnap, they feared the drug cartels, mostly they worried about not having their youngest son close by for most of the summer.
But they knew I had to go.
Flash forward a few months, to a posse of young adults waiting at Mexico City Airport after a 10-hour flight; we were waiting for a connecting flight to PV. Here I was, sitting at an altitude of 2,238m, with a group of people who had only met a couple of times, drinking a Starbucks coffee I ordered in broken Spanish.
LIFE GOAL: Highest altitude ever reached: 2,238m
Although it was the dead of night, and we were at this high altitude, Mexico during summer was still quite warm. Given these conditions, it was still ~25**DEGREES SYMBOL UNICODE**C and I had started to sweat a little. Sadly, this natural reaction did not stop for the 31 days that I was in the country. And to make matters worse, the inland hostel that we were staying in didn’t have a pool.
Other than that, the hostel was really nice! The rooms were tight and the manager provided us with some fans to circulate the air at night – the effect of these didn’t hit me but I bet for my roommates it was nice. The hostel also had alright WiFi and provided good shelter from the Sun’s rays.
But the heat. That’s one thing I wasn’t ready for. I knew I was going to be hot, and I brought a fair bit of sunscreen with me, but I wasn’t prepared for the constant sweating. This may be TMI for some readers but for those who are worried that they will find themselves in similar situations in the future, I have one word for you – electrolytes.
See, when you sweat, you’re sweating out precious salts (not just the kosher kind) which your body needs to function optimally. Without these salts, you will end up feeling tired, worn out and with a general feeling of fatigue.
Thankfully, they know this in Mexico and in many convenience stores is a drink which cures all of these ailments (it’s also good for diarrhoea).
Drink electrolytes if you’re sweating more than normal.
These will become your blood of Christ in countries closer to the equator.
Anyway, back to the story…
Whilst in Mexico, TSF offered support and another pair of hands to four projects:
- The child’s home, for children between 0 and 13 years of age
- A gym sports summer camp, where some of these children went to during the week
- A daycare centre for people with disabilities
- Teaching English and general pastoral care to locals who lives in a shanty town
I had been assigned the children’s home as my main project and during the first few days, it was quite tricky.
The residence of these children was no fewer than 30 steps away from the hostel we were staying in. Sadly it was up a steep incline. If you weren’t sweating by when you left for the project (~9 am), you definitely were 30 steps later!
The home was managed by a two Madres (Nuns) and hosted 20 – 30 children who by different means had been abandoned or removed from their natural guardians. Our job was to engage, play with and generally look after these niños during a time in which they lacked structure.
My time here was spent playing football, teaching some English, changing nappies, helping to cook dinner, dancing, playing chase, playing hide and seek, playing Pato Pato Ganso (duck duck goose), teaching some English, singing and a lot of cuddles.
Sadly, due to the sensitivity of these children’s circumstances, we do not have photos of these cherished moments, but they will forever be in my heart and mind.
No two days were the same whilst in PV and flexibility was key. One day I’d turn up with a game of Twister that we had brought over from England, only to be told that the kids were helping to do the washing. My broken Spanish came in handy here, although I wish I learnt more when I was a teenager!
That being said, what 19-year-old Brit can confidently say pañal (the Spanish word for nappie)?
The flexibility also came with which project you were working at.
Many mornings I spent were at the aforementioned gym.
This gym really did inspire me. This gym’s vision was to cut social barriers across the local area and it achieved this by a simple rule.
For every child who was paid to be there, one from a children’s home could come.
This mix of intake worked perfectly – during the two to three hours each child attended per day, they were able to socialise and play with those who they wouldn’t naturally.
The gym was great. The usual run down was a fun warm-up, followed by some team games / child-orientated circuits, with a freestyle game at the end.
Once we taught them netball, that’s all they ever wanted to play.
There was also sessions aimed around yoga, arts and crafts and making good choices when it came to food. Like many countries, Mexico is facing an increase in obesity following poor food and physical education and targeted marketing from fast food giants.
Note, to put the temperature thing back in perspective – the air con of the gym was set to 32 degrees. After exercising, this felt like a cold spring morning.
Although I only spent a couple of hours at the disability day care centre, I did spend a few days at the fourth project.
To be blunt, the location of this project was next to a dump.
We were working alongside another charity who provided enterprise opportunities to families who survived of garbage. In these families, the older males would go onto to landfill to salvage things that they could sell on. This is tiresome work, as you could understand, and to make matters worse, these gentlemen had to pay to go to the landfill and just prior to us arriving in the area, the local government had changed the location of their garbage disposal. The men just trying to feed their families now had to use some of their tiny hard-earned income on buses to and from this new landfill.
Their home was a literal shanty town. With single floor homes made from old refuse, walls made from mattress springs and corrugated metal. There were even a few chickens pecking about the place.
However, due to the charity, we were working alongside, they had one solid structure in the center of their township – a two-story brick chapel. Which had WiFi.
This community worked because of their similar situation and their history together, but they also worked together because of their faith.
I swear, standing in those services, 50 Mexicans squished into an air-conditioned room all singing hymns was an amazing sight to behold.
Our work at this chapel was to teach the women of this community how to sell their handmade jewellery to English speaking tourists. These beautiful (and fashionable) pieces were made using materials paid for by the income earnt off the landfill.
These ladies were so lovely and quite funny! Their attitude and their shyness always made me smile – definitely when they start laughing because of a comment one of their friends made. I couldn’t understand what was said, but I’d start laughing as well!
Everyone needs some downtime, right? Well, thankfully for us PV is quite a popular destination for American tourists. And as uni students, we definitely utilised the bars and clubs that this town had to offer once a week. On our days off, of course.
We didn’t abuse our time in this destination – yes we had fun on our days off, but not to the extent that we couldn’t perform when we needed to. I think this is really important if volunteering, be respectful of the establishment you’re trying to help! Or you just seem like a user.
Being an August Baby, it was also my birthday over there – celebrated with a Mike Wazowski piñata!
Surprisingly, it was tougher than it looked and I ended up breaking the boom with which I was beating it with.
And oh my. The storms. I’ve never seen thunderstorms like the ones I saw in that valley. It seemed like it would never stop, and the volume of the thunder claps was nothing short of epic. With 35+ heat every day and humidity to match – these storms came as a Godsend.
Mexican food that we have here in England is not the food of the Mexican people. Myself and another volunteer found a street cart near our hostel one day and we both got fresh tacos. For some reason I knew that those given to me wouldn’t be the hard yellow kind you get from El Paso. Still delicious though!
In the final week of our project, we redecorated the children’s home’s “classroom” to inspire the kids and to brighten up the place a little bit! This came after some discussion with the Madres, but when they saw the work that we had done, even they applauded. The kids absolutely loved it.
My time with these groups had to end, and it did 4 weeks after we arrived. Our farewell was heart-wrenching. All of the kids took it differently, some were crying, some didn’t want to speak to us. One of the children gave me a present which will sit firmly on my Christmas Tree for the rest of my life – a constant reminder of my summer in Mexico.
Now, I’ve probably gone on too much for a first post, but this trip showed me the amazing ways you can give back to a community that you didn’t know existed. And the effect they can have on you.
The hours of which I spent that summer are still the most fulfilling days of my life. Frankly, I doubt anything I will do in my life will compare to those four weeks.
One can dream.
In my next post, the twin to this one, I speak about what I did following this time:
Finally a pool!
Welcome to America
New York City