Having caught her breath after returning from volunteering at the street children project in Mexico, Gwenan shares a colourful account of what it is like to live and volunteer in Mexico.
“It all seemed an exotic walk in the park when I initially signed up to Outreach International’s Teaching Street Children in Mexico project. Then, a few days before my flight, bags almost packed, it hit me. I was flying 6000 miles from home, alone, to live and work for three months with people I’d never met… using a language I’d never spoken… Argh! I can tell you I almost chickened out.
Greta, the supervisor for all Outreach volunteers in the area, was an instant calmer. From the moment of meeting at the airport, brilliantly friendly, talkative and informative, she helps such a foreign place seem that little bit more familiar. In fact, her attentiveness and words of advice throughout my entire project, whenever I needed it, provided inside knowledge you simply couldn’t get from someone outside the country. And with her generosity of time and innate sense of fun, I’d like to consider her a firm friend.
I had a very informal role at the Salvation Army Children’s Community Centre, one that required me to use initiative and get involved if I were to make the most out of my work there. With four employed Mexican locals, the two Captains and, some days, mature American ex-pat volunteers, we served the children of Mojoneras (a poor suburb on the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta) lunch each day, supervising and supporting them as they hung out at the centre before and after.
I liked to get stuck in with their games of “duck, duck, goose” (or “pato, pato, ganzo” as they insisted), football and colouring as well. This is when I wasn’t helping with the gargantuan clear-up of 60 children’s lunch, learning new Spanish innuendos from Rosa, Maria and Juanita (Mexican women have hilariously dirty minds) or practising my Spanish pronunciation with Mario, the 70-something ex-drummer who washes the dishes and all-round legend. Luckily, six months of working full-time in a café in the UK prepared me for all the washing, drying, mopping and tidying.
Yet, with the various family members and neighbours walking in and out for a chat each day, one could just as easily sit and participate in the conversation and banter all morning and still be appreciated for being part of the community. The children are very self-sufficient, playing amongst themselves and not used to relying on adults to create fun, yet they are always willing to let you join in (unless you score an own goal in football…) and teach you their games. I’m still proud to this day of my infamous reputation in the neighbourhood after I completed every level of a complicated jump-rope game the girls taught me.
Initially with the host family, making yourself comfortable in someone else’s home is difficult. Establishing their home as your home (as I believe it’s important to feel at home anywhere you stay long-term) never comes naturally with the English customs of politeness and reservation. So yes, there was initial awkwardness. Can I sit with the family in the evenings? Do I accompany them on day trips? Is it rude if I want time alone in my room? Can I eat food in the fridge? Fortunately (and it took me quite some time to realise this and stop fretting), I found the general rule for Justina and her (vast) extended family is: do whatever makes you comfortable and we’ll accept you as you are.
Truly, as long as you extend a smile, attempt some Spanish as best you can and show an interest in their way of life, they will be the most understanding people you’ve ever met. However, I think the thing that struck me most was their immense sense of fun. Whether playing a board game with younger cousins, jumping at the opportunity of karaoke in a bar or simply chatting with friends on the front porch of an evening, the Mexican people joke, tease, laugh and break out into spontaneous singing.
As a previous natural stresshead, I am so enormously grateful to have been influenced by such an enjoyment of life’s moments, whether big or small, confirming that anxiety for the future or worrying about the past are redundant when appreciating what we have in the here and now. I would quote the popular phrase “dance like nobody’s watching” to summarise my three incredibly, salsa-dancing, tequila-drinking, piñata-bashing months in Puerto Vallarta. However, for the Mexicans, I think the following is more appropriate: “dance like everybody’s watching, and do it anyway“.