A Travellerspoint blog

Alternative Spring Break Participant Testimonial

LMU AB Trip, indigenous/rural themes

A bit out of order, what with all the craziness at Casa HOY, but this is a participant testimonial from the LMU spring break trip from February. We went to Cuentepec for a rural/indigenous themed alternative spring break trip. Enjoy!
My first experience with Cuentepec involved a broken-legged puppy and outdoor classrooms separated by thin sheets, waving in the blazing afternoon air. As a group of thirteen privileged students from Los Angeles, our first impression seemed to beg for a stereotype: a rural, indigenous town in Morelos, Mexico where we could make a difference in the impoverished life of its inhabitants. The next five days did more than prove that stereotype wrong.

The goal of an Alternative Breaks trip is to trade a week where most college students would enjoy the comforts of home or wild times in Cabo for an immersive service experience. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have my doubts about exchanging a week of relaxation for a different kind of spring break in Mexico. We had been warned that showers would be few to none and sleeping on the floor should be expected. We were also only allowed one traveling backpack, so there was no need to worry about packing matching outfits or expecting a variety in our wardrobe for the week. I also knew that I would be without electronics, essentially cut-off from the outside world. All this I knew, but what I didn’t expect was how little I would care.

The town of Cuentepec met us with open arms and intense curiosity on our first day. We had been taught that smiling and saying a greeting to everyone we passed was the custom, but the intense stares of interest that followed us were certainly telling of the effect our visit had on the town. Most of the inhabitants of Cuentepec speak Nahuatl, an ancient language spoken by the Aztecs, and are still in the process of learning Spanish. It was only fifteen years ago that a road was built to connect the tiny village to a main road. Therefore, the influx of commercialized products and introduction of wildly different cultures is still new to the shy people of Cuentepec.

Our sleeping accommodations were on the cement floor of the community center where the elementary school had temporarily set up shop while its main building was undergoing repairs. This meant we often woke up at 7:30am to the wide brown eyes of first through fifth graders peeking around the hanging tarp that separated our corner of the center. The first day of our work in Cuentepec was with these understanding souls that I will always remember as never giving up on me and my complete lack of Spanish. We observed many of their classes throughout the day, learned a little Nahuatl ourselves, and attempted some English workshops with them. One little fifth grader in particular, Star, the brightest in her class, took an immediate interest in helping me to understand what the other children were trying to say to me in their mixture of Spanish and Nahuatl (here they’re already bilingual and still wanting to learn a third language, while most Americans groan over having to take a second language in high school). Star never let go of my hand and always repeated the words slowly and with actions. Our languages finally collided when she asked me about the Jonas Brothers. I replied by singing one of their songs and watched as her eyes lit up, convinced that all of her patience with me had paid off.

The other half of our work in Cuentepec consisted of working alongside the women of the village. All thirteen of us piled into the back of a rickety truck and drove out to the desert to collect bags of clay and cow dung, used for fuel. We were able to collect enough bags to provide the women with up to six months of supplies, saving them the usual two hour walk they would make for only two bags of materials. It was when I was side by side with one of the sixty year old women, kicking over a dried piece of cow dung to check for hiding scorpions, that I realized what this trip really meant.

As all of us drug our tired and dirty bodies through customs days later, we weren’t thinking of how privileged we were in America. We weren’t pitying the living conditions of Star or the grandmother of the village, Dona Jose, who made lunch for us in her home everyday. We hadn’t come as a blessing to these people, the only thing that could help them continue on and better their lives. In fact, the people of Cuentepec had given everything to us. We had worked according to their customs and routines that had served them well for decades. We learned bits of their dying language, and were inspired by their strict conservation of water and use of the land. The people of Cuentepec live happy, functional lives that are not bogged down with consumerism or waste. By immersing ourselves in their culture for just one simple week, we had gained perspective and humility. And not for how great we had it back home, but for how much our uneducated, “advanced” country needs to learn. That is the message we felt in our bones as we left the dusty streets of Cuentepec. Not pity, but respect and gratitude.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 08:57 Archived in Mexico Tagged parties travel mexico de reyes international traditions community cultural volunteer casa voluntourism casa_hoy participatory rosca Comments (0)

Introductions: The Importance of the Fist Pound

Introductions in Volunteer Experiences

Introductions are important. And even though you might be able to change a first impression, those are usually really important, too. Plus they especially stick when you’re working with teenagers. One false step and you lose their trust.

This week HOY volunteers are working with a foster-care type organization for pre-teens and teenagers. Although it’s my fifth year going back to this place, it’s obviously a new group of kids and a completely different experience every time. At HOY our word is convivir – to hang out, and spend meaningful time together. Even if as a volunteer you come with an agenda to teach English or work on an environmental project, convivir must be your primary motive.

Introductions are part of that concept, and every culture has a different way to do it. With teenagers in Cuernavaca, it’s usually the fist “pound” with the guys and soft handshakes accompanied by kisses on the cheek with the girls. You say your name and where you’re from; even if you don’t remember all of their names the first day (or the last day), they will remember yours.

Unfortunately, I, a veteran volunteer, kinda sorta didn’t quite remember this very important interaction on our first day of volunteering. Although at the moment it didn’t seem like a big deal, going back the second day and doing things properly had an obvious effect. On our first day when we arrived the kids had already started a craft project. We tried to silently incorporate ourselves into each small group, introducing ourselves and asking questions. Some talked, but most of them were in their own world or too shy. We were invading their space and maybe being just a bit too nosy. Later we introduced ourselves and talked a little bit, but honestly, it was just too late. We had made our first impression. Plus, the volunteers didn’t really feel welcomed or integrated into the group.

In contrast, on our second day when we arrived, the whole group was together and we came in and introduced ourselves. Of course they remembered our names. And just that simple change in timing with introductions led to a whole different dynamic. We were approached by more teenagers, told intimate details about their families and lives, and asked hundreds of questions. We led the activities instead of lamely following along, and we were able to actually convivir instead of sketchily hanging around.

Although I don’t like to report on negative moments, these are the kinds of little details that make for a meaningful volunteer experience. And seriously, even Obama knows how important the fist pound is.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 08:32 Archived in Mexico Tagged parties travel mexico de reyes international traditions community cultural volunteer casa voluntourism casa_hoy participatory rosca Comments (0)

Should you “friend” the teenagers you volunteer with?

Facebook and volunteering

92 Friend Requests. That’s what awaited one HOY volunteer after a day at a local middle school. Over 100 notifications the next morning. “Likes” on every picture. A common debate on school campuses, Facebook relationships and privacy are now important topics in volunteering as well.

Volunteering, especially in another country, is an experience that every Facebook user wants to document – with updates, pictures, comments and of course, new friends. When you make a connection with a person, your automatic reaction is “Facebook me.” You want to be able to write that person, follow their lives, look through all their pictures, and so on.

Some volunteers think that it gives them a better connection with the people they are working with. You’re not a teacher or a parent; maybe you want to be considered a friend or a big brother/sister. You can keep in touch with someone so they can keep practicing their English or continue working on a project together. It is a chance to look at pictures after your volunteer experience and to keep in contact with a few people you feel you’ve had an impact on.

But when you’re volunteering with children or adolescents, sometimes those relationships can be a bit blurred. Teenagers love to stalk and “like” each and every one of your pictures and add comments. They might use the information they learn about you to ask awkward personal questions during your volunteer experience. Plus Photoshop can do miracles with any pictures they have access to. And it’s highly likely that, as an adult, you have more “adult” content on your Facebook, even if it’s just you in a bathing suit or having drinks with friends.

So what should you do? Do you tell them you don’t have Facebook? Do you put them on a restricted setting? You might want to ask the volunteer organization you’re working with what they suggest. Sometimes organizations have rules – you can’t post pictures with minors, especially if you’re working with at-risk children or in foster-parent/half-way house situations.

Some ideas:
Don’t add people until after your volunteer experience.
Add people under a restricted profile.
Say you don’t add minors, and be firm about it.
Have an alternate profile, used for non-“social life” experiences.

What are your feelings/suggestions? Have you had a positive or negative experience with using Facebook and a volunteering? How can volunteers tiptoe through this grey area? In the meantime, add Casa HOY to your Facebook profile! We promise to only write on your wall when we’re bored. *Poke*

Posted by UnMejorHOY 16:54 Archived in Mexico Tagged parties travel mexico de reyes international traditions community cultural volunteer casa voluntourism casa_hoy participatory rosca Comments (0)

FRIDAY – Peace Gardens

a new project in Ocotepec

You thought the week was over, didn’t you? But it’s not, there’s always fun on FRIDAY! To change things up a little bit, (sorry lettuce, I will always love you), we visited a new project called Huertos por la Paz (Peace Gardens). HpP is a community project that started up about 6 months ago in the small town of Ocotepec, a town famous for its Day of the Dead celebrations (which I’ve written about before, check blog). Huertos por la Paz (Peace Gardens) was started by a group of neighbors, Mexicans and foreigners, in response to the recent rise in violence that has been plaguing parts of Mexico.

The soil at HpP had been damaged, so we worked to create a compost that gardeners would use to rebuild nutrients. We made a sort of mud pie tiramisu, with at least 5 or 6 layers of several ingredients. To make the compost we used soil, rock flour/dust, water, rice husks, a sugary extract, yeast, and bio-char (a more environmentally friendly charcoal that I will talk about later). We spent about 4 hours piling laying on top of layer, and then another hour mixing up the layers so that the yeast would kick in and start heating things up. It made all of our hard labor from the days before look like grandma’s work. My white (*stupid, Cindy) shirt was wet and streaked with dirt. Our HOY volunteers white (*also, not smart) shoes were now a sick looking brown.

To make the bio-char, HpP gardener Vincent showed us a technique he perfected by watching YouTube videos. Seriously- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXMUmby8PpU (check out minute 4:00 to see what it looked like). It is a clean process of making charcoal, with less smoke and less waste. Plus it only took 20 minutes and wa-lah, ready to barbeque. It would be really cool if eventually gardeners and land-workers around the world could start to use this technique. So much pollution is caused from burning organic waste and trash that this method could really make a difference in air quality (and soil quality!).

This project was our HOY volunteer’s favorite, because all of the gardeners spoke English and she was able to ask lots of questions without needing me as a translator. It was lots of physical work as well, but always something different so it wasn’t repetitive. The idea of a community garden was really at work: several neighbors stopped by to chat, and they explained how several other neighbors have even started their own little gardens. Huertos por la Paz also does meals every once in awhile to raise funds. I’ve already signed up myself and Casa HOY. I will do anything for food. Seriously.

Come back next week to follow our 2-week volunteer trip with HOY volunteers from Canada. Saludos!


Posted by UnMejorHOY 09:39 Archived in Mexico Tagged parties travel mexico de reyes international traditions community cultural volunteer casa voluntourism casa_hoy participatory rosca Comments (0)

Last Day at the Organic Garden

weeding and planting

We are now lettuce experts. Since our baby lettuce survived transplanting on Monday, we were now seen fit to plant bigger lettuce plants in the ground. On our last day we got to do work on our own since Jean Louis had to go into town and buy more supplies for the garden. It was kind of cool to have the whole huge garden to ourselves. We took a break from lettuce planting and saw the rabbit hutch where there are at least 40 rabbits. Jean Louis says he keeps them to eat. Poor bun-buns.

Our main project besides planting was weeding. We weeded the asparagus plants that we had watered the previous day, and then we took to weeding the larger lettuce plants and cucumbers. There was grass EVERYWHERE. As we weeded, we left the grass around the plants. Jean Louis said it would decompose and leave nutrients for the soil. Weeding went really fast working with our HOY volunteer, although working in the sun was hot. I officially have a bad-ass farmer’s tan. For our next trip I need to get a big ol’ hat.

It’s amazing the amount of work you can get done with more people helping. It was a real honor to meet and work with Jean Louis and his collaborators on such an amazing project. Can’t wait to help out the next time HOY volunteers do the Environmental program!

  • If you’re considering volunteering but you don’t want to work with kids/youth/adults or you just plain don’t want to teach English, the Environmental program is a fabulous option. I had been teaching for almost four years and well, sometimes you need a break. Plus it’s always fun to play in the dirt. Garden/farm work is a much needed chance to be alone and in nature, or it can be an opportunity to be social and communal and chat with people- whatever your needs may be. It can also be as laborious as lugging buckets of water, or as simple as pulling weeds.


Posted by UnMejorHOY 15:58 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

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