I was browsing the Internet when an article popped up on Yahoo. “Mexico: The most dangerous country to visit.” I had recently explored the Mayan Riviera and the only dangerous elements I had come across were obese and pathetically drunk Canadians and Americans falling over themselves on the beaches. Of course, this doesn’t mean there aren’t pockets of affected areas in Mexico, but that is the case anywhere may it be the United States of America or Europe. Having an alert head on your shoulders usually helps when you travel and explore various parts of the world.
I have always been a rebellious kid. When the adults said no, it made me do it even more. So, I googled organizations that cater to volunteering programs in Mexico and came across IVHQ. I signed up with IVHQ's Casa HOY, paid my fees, packed my bags and had a small farewell in case something was to happen to me on my voluntourism adventure.
“Mexico City is very dangerous. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Mexico City is where all that bad stuff happens. They don’t even spare their police guys.”
“Please be safe. We are really worried about you.”
“Leave all your valuables in Toronto, please. They’ll steal your camera and your jewels.”
The concern stemmed from my friends, but for some odd reason, it didn’t faze me. There are journalists and aid workers squeezed into god forsaken areas of Afghanistan and Africa and if they let fear govern their lives, they would never be able to help any developing society in the world. I myself hail from Pakistan and sometimes the bombs fall quite close to home, so fear wasn’t on my agenda whatsoever. Moreover, being a photographer, I wanted to see everything. The good, the bad and the ugly.
I decided to embark on a journey deep into Morelos and surrounding areas, a central state of Mexico that contains unique towns, cities and landscapes such as Cuernavaca, Mexico City, Tepoztlan, the famous and stirring “Popo” volcano, the pyramids of Teotihuacan and Frida Kahlo’s home town, while volunteering and teaching English to children from low income families. I arrived in Cuernavaca to be greeted by vibrancy, colours, inviting food stalls, people dressed conservatively to reflect the deeply religious Catholic predominance of the country, hardly a tourist in sight. Barely anyone spoke English, except my host family comprising of Americans and Mexicans. The streets were made of cobblestone. Traffic was in abundance and the smog even more noticeable. If I didn’t know any better I would think I was roaming the streets of Mumbai. Buses whizzed by at the speed of lightening in narrow streets, startling people, dogs and children out of the way.
This was Mexico. This was the culture I was craving and I finally had access to it. I roamed the unknown and desperately new streets of Cuernavaca, climbed up a mountain in Tepoztlan, visited the virgin of Guadalupe and admired the works of Frida Khalo and Diego Riviera. “Convivir” was an essential part of Mexican culture and it essentially highlights the primary and most celebrated meal of the day: lunch. No television sets, no microwavable dinners and definitely no take out. Families sit together, from children to the elderly and enjoy conversation and hearty meals consisting of beans, tortillas, quesadillas and chicken with a spicy chocolate sauce, discussing the woes of the world and especially how Mexico is being ripped to shreds in the media, affecting tourism and volunteerism. As the co-director of the family run hostel I was staying at said “We live here. Mexico is our reality. So when we see people thinking twice about coming here due to news reports on the drug wars, it deeply affects us.” Mind you, this co-director is a New Yorker who decided to give up her life in the super power, and I doubt she would be living in the heart of Mexico with her daughter, hosting volunteers from around the world, if it wasn’t safe.
The institute I volunteered at through Casa HOY was Telesecundaria, a middle school that gave me great insight into the daily lives of Mexican children and educators. It was heart warming to meet parents who were hopeful for the futures of their children. Children who had big dreams of studying at accomplished universities in the United States and Canada; children who wanted more than just a reputation of the “wild, wild west” or stigma stemming from unfortunate drug cartel wars. These children were filled with love. I received more than a hundred embraces and kisses daily. My soul felt free.
The people in these towns and cities conserved water and shared food. The culture was not a selfish one, developing solely on the basis of an independent person but rather involved the entire community, creating a strong network of support needed for healthy and balanced living. I took my Nikon everywhere, in alleys, on main roads, inside schools and cemeteries, but no one bothered me. Children were not attached to ipods and laptops but rather played outside basking in the sunshine. Women carried their baskets to the bazaar to buy healthy, unmodified produce and meats. Groups of teenagers would congregate outside beautiful architectural cathedrals, churches and museums, in love, kissing openly adding romanticism and sensationalism to the air. It was a whole other world, one I was overwhelmed to have experienced, even if it was for a fleeting moment.
Before I left for my volunteering program, friends warned me against Mexico’s dangerous state. Even embassies had issued travel warnings and websites described Mexico as the most dangerous country to visit. I was not harassed, mugged, drugged, stabbed or disturbed at any point of the trip and I do believe people from other worlds need to come out of their comfort zone, namely Cancun, and discover authentic Mexican culture and landscape while also giving back to it’s community in one way or another.
I’ll leave you with an inspirational quote I found online: “If you want something you’ve never had, you’ll have to do something you’ve never done.” Get up and do that something you have never done. You will not regret it, this I promise you. You will meet people who will enlighten you and challenge your school of thought and your experiences will give you more knowledge than any formal educational degree ever could, turning you into a wiser, more compassionate and adventurous person.
by Mariam Magsi, Casa HOY volunteer, 2012
check out Mariam's pictures: pictures
video about volunteering: video
Casa HOY's website: Casa HOY