So there I was, wiping boogers in the middle of Mexico (no they weren’t mine), when I realized that I was in the midst of the most immersive travel experience I’ve ever had. There’s clearly more to the story, but when it boils down to it, this is basically a tale about how volunteering in Mexico changed my mind about, well, Mexico.
I had made a pretty airtight pact with myself that I’d never return south of the border. It might’ve been ten years ago, while battling a serious case of Montezuma’s revenge, but it was one I fully intended to keep. I had spent five days in Cancun for my best friend’s birthday, and as I pleaded with the stomach gods from the window seat of the plane, I vowed that it would be the first, and last time I visited Mexico. My uproarious insides were proof enough that our southern neighbor and I did not get along.
And yet…here I was, on a plane to said forbidden land, practicing my extra casual level of Spanish, which extended to “Hola” and “Gracias.” Wait, did “enchilada” count too? I was embarking on a trip to share a room with two strangers and work in a daycare classroom where I couldn’t communicate with the teacher or children. I was also rolling the dice with my sensitive stomach by breaking that decade old golden promise. Cool.
Most of us have boozy visions of Cancun dancing in our heads when we think of Mexico. We’re not wrong, but replace those visions with tiny Mexican nuggets boasting better rhythm than we’ll ever hope to have, and you’ll have a solid image of my most recent trip. A late night, shot chuggin, slip and slidin’ beach-cation it was not, and I was pumped at that prospect. I had signed up for a different kind of travel this time; a volunteer trip that would hopefully fuel some serious inspiration, instead of gas.
The only expectations I had going in, were to help in any way I could, to learn, and to eat guacamole, surely. If I was responsible for one smile while there, then that’d be a bonus.
Enter San Miguel de Allende; a real beaut of a city in the middle parts of Mexico, about four hours north of Mexico City, and equidistant from both Leon and Queretaro airports at an hour and a half. The city itself is bursting at the seams with a “c” trifecta: color, cobblestone, and character. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s home to massive amounts of historical and cultural importance, and just as much eye candy to boot.
Tourists-a-plenty lodge in fancy hotels without a clue that just outside of the city center are single mothers trying to provide for their families. That there’s a place where children of rape are looked after, free of charge, at a daycare while their young, (sometimes teen) mothers, go to work. That there are boys from the Casa Hogar Mexiquito orphanage with shoes three sizes too big singing songs in a classroom. That a whole team of volunteers spend a fair chunk of their days aiding in running the classrooms at this facility, Centro Infantil de los Angeles. That a poverty stricken community joins together everyday to keep their families afloat.
We talk about wanting that immersive travel experience. Living in a place, experiencing it like a local, cheers-ing in their usual watering holes, and discovering the nooks and crannies void of tourists. Anything that would induce a feeling like maybe we have a shred of belonging in that far flung place away from our usual world. By volunteering in a community driven place, you can go about 23894 levels deeper on the immersive scale by contributing and relating to that place.
I’ve volunteered at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, worked remotely from the jungle for a month in Bali, stayed with families in local homestay accommodations abroad, fished with my hands in Greenland, drank with the locals in, well, most places, and broken bread in Italian family homes a few times over. I even taught English wrangled Italian youth at a private school in Tuscany for a summer. I’ve done immersive travel.
But this, this snagged the most immersive travel trophy; these innocent little cherubs truly needed it. They needed to make me pretend tacos and I’d be damned if I wouldn’t pretend eat them. Even though they were rocks.
The planning for this trip was all relatively easy due to the exceptional work of the volunteer coordinator, Michelle, who becomes an instant friend. Her obvious passion for this organization is a rarity that can’t help but be contagious. That’s how everyone tied to this project is, emphatically passionate about it. I shared a room with two others, but the heart of the house, like all others, was in the kitchen/dining area. We spent down time connecting in the communal areas, and oh, did I mention the rooftop with top notch views? That too.
Upon arrival, we had a short orientation, and the next day, were placed in the daycare rooms that seemed like they’d be the best fit for each volunteer. I was put in the three year old room, naturally. Probably on account of my experience, and not because I would relate to them the most. Probably.
Photo in collaboration with Alice Ford
As a previous preschool teacher I had a confusing excited/scared thing going on. I loved kids and working with them, but it had been a while, and I certainly never taught in Spanish. I have a thing where I hate not feeling helpful, and that’s exactly how I felt in the classroom the first day. Almost all directions given zoomed right over my head.
But, before that “I’m not helping enough!” panic truly set in, one of the little girls reach for my hand as we lined up to go outside, gifting a big smile. Oh. There it was; the moment of “this-is-why-I’m-doing-this” clarity. It didn’t matter that I understood .1% of what was being said, or that I felt useless. It mattered that I was there, willing, and on the receiving end of holding even just one hand. And in the end, the teacher and I were champs at Mexican charades to communicate. So it’s possible, people.
Photo by: Lauren Breedlove
Volunteering wasn’t glamorous, shocker. There were bathroom visits, diaper changes in the baby room, spicy little temper tantrums, teeth brushing, crying, and nose wiping. Classic kid stuff. There was also delivering hot meals to a class full of hungry children, their appreciative reception proving that not all heroes wear capes, playing on the playground, helping with educational games, singing, and oh-so-much dancing. I’ll take my rewards in beaming grins any day of the week. *Insert cliche here.*
Photo by: Lauren Breedlove
Family ties are hefty in the Mexican culture, and by volunteering your time and heart, you too will feel like part of the family. Just try not to have some of the passion rub off on you from Donna, the founder who started the project in 2001 by asking women in town what would be helpful in the community. A question that catapulted into so much more than a safe place for the community’s children. Or Patricia, director of Centro Infantil de los Angeles with her own set of stories that will light a fire in your heart. Or the teachers and school cook, many of whom were teen moms and had children at the daycare at one point or another, and still have loads of love to give to the children in their classrooms everyday. Or the group of brilliant people who run Feed the Hungry, supporting the kitchen at Centro Infantil and various schools in the surrounding disadvantaged communities.
The real charm of San Miguel lies outside of the cobblestone street lined center, brightly colored tourist shops, and even the sweet carts with floral crowns and ice-cream (though, um, delicious). It’s the outlying community filled with hard working single mothers, children that get their full bellies from the cook at school, and a weaving together of people in the neighborhood who care to make this all happen.
Centro Infantil was a far cry from the preschools on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where I spent a few years teaching. These kids lived in shacks in informal settlements. They didn’t have clean water until recently, and were forced to cross a six-lane expressway to get to daycare everyday until a pedestrian bridge was petitioned for and built. There are children of rape, children who have witnessed domestic abuse. And yet, they are happy. They didn’t care that I couldn’t speak a lick of Spanish, or that I didn’t know the exact routine. And there was not one complaint about the food served.