Eleanor Smith - General Care Projects in Mexico
'Random' is the one of the words, among many others, that I think describes Mexico best. Yes, Mexico is vibrant, colourful, friendly, laid-back, different, beautiful, and everything else you would imagine it to be. However it is also a country of many contrasts, many contradictions and just very....random! Only in Mexico would you find a family selling polka-dot bean bags on the side of the motorway or a McDonalds stuck right in the middle of an otherwise rundown and traditional neighbourhood!
For all its many differences to England, it also has many elements of the first world that we are used to, like Starbucks coffee houses, HSBC banks and American TV channels such as MTV. It shows great evidence that it is a developing country located right next to the USA, one of the most influential countries in the world. However, the Mexicans are still very proud of their own country and culture which is also extremely evident, from the Mariachi bands that serenade you in the plazas to the house-proud mothers who will happily invite you in for dinner to taste their delicious Mexican cooking.
What made me choose to go to Mexico in the first place was a mixture of things. These ranged from having a longing to spend my gap year in a different country to the countries that most people on a gap year typically choose, to wanting to fulfil my life-long ambition to learn Spanish due to it being my mum's native language. My friend did a teaching placement and turtle camp in Mexico two years ago and when I heard her stories it stimulated an interest in a country I had never really given much thought to. I attended a Projects Abroad open day in Brighton where I found out a lot more about what there was to offer, so if you're considering doing a project I'd definitely recommend going to one.
On February 24th I flew to Guadalajara after saying goodbye to all my friends and family. I wouldn't be seeing them for another five months because after my two month project I had planned to spend another three months travelling around South America. When I got off my plane in Guadalajara I was dreading looking out into the crowd and not seeing someone from Projects Abroad waiting for me but true to their word Daniel was there with his Projects Abroad sign and a big, welcoming hug.
My first day was jam-packed and very surreal! I was taken to the office which is situated on the edge of a picturesque plaza, along with the magnificent Expiatorio church and the local volunteer bar called the Fenix. I was introduced to all the staff and given a welcome pack which was explained to me in detail and made me feel more confident about being on my own in this big, unfamiliar city. Jonatan, one of the staff members, then took me on a whirlwind tour around Guadalajara where we visited all the important buildings, ate in the huge San Juan De Dios undercover market and rode the metro and bus. Finally I was taken to meet my host family who welcomed me very warmly, despite the fact that I was sweating like mad from the humidity and had the dirtiest, smelliest, blister-ridden feet ever after walking around the polluted city all day in my new flip flops!
My first week was probably the hardest week of my life because it was the first time I'd been away from home with only myself to rely on. I had to get to grips with using the bus system, finding my way around the city, working in my placements and living in a Spanish-speaking environment all on my own and the only word I can use to describe it is down right scary. At first I felt so frustrated around my host family because I couldn't speak much more than a few phrases in Spanish, so conversations were limited and it meant that my host dad had to convert to speaking in English which is what I didn't want because I'd never learn Spanish otherwise.
However, my second week was the turn around I had been hoping for. I started a month's Spanish course with one of the Projects Abroad teachers, a new volunteer Dave moved into my house and I changed my placement so that I was working two days a week at the original primary school I was assigned to and three days a week at a school for blind girls. Suddenly I was more confident because I started using the Spanish I was learning in everyday situations, enjoying the company of living with another volunteer and also enjoying the variety of my placements a lot more. I then went on a weekend trip to Rincon de Guayabitos beach resort arranged by a Projects Abroad staff member with other volunteers and it turned out to be three of my favourite days in Mexico. From then on I had a close group of volunteer friends and I had the best two months of my life because I really felt like I made a life out there for myself.
I created a routine for myself which consisted of working in either one of my schools from 9am until 1pm, then spending an hour in my local internet café, then having lunch with my host family at 2pm followed by my Spanish lesson at 4pm. In the evenings I would do various activities, some of the most fun (and random) included attending salsa classes, going to plaza de mariachis to eat tacos whilst being serenaded by a mariachi band, and even going to a live wrestling match at the local arena! Despite the routine, every day still managed to be very different and I enjoyed myself as much as I could have because I always jumped at any spontaneous opportunities that came along. As a volunteer I would strongly recommend getting a Mexican mobile or SIM card once you arrive as it is the easiest way to get in touch with Projects Abroad staff members and fellow volunteers since Guadalajara is a very big city to find people in!
My placement in the primary school involved assisting the English teacher with her classes because she herself was Mexican so her pronunciation and spelling weren't always correct. She was a lovely lady and encouraged me to help the children with their work, mark their homework, pronounce words so they understood them properly and play games to help them learn. On my first day when I was introduced to the classes by the head teacher, they were all falling over themselves to introduce themselves to me and try out the English phrases that they had learnt. They were a bit over whelming at first but as time went on I got to know some of them more personally and they would always be giving me random objects as presents that they found in their pencil cases , which I loved receiving, even if it was just a plastic Sponge Bob figurine!
My placement in the school for blind girls was just as enjoyable but perhaps not as stimulating. I acted as more of a helper than an actual assistant, so the two teachers conducted the lessons whilst I just aided the individual girls to do what they had been asked to do. I worked in the kindergarten section and my mornings generally involved helping them to complete interactive educational games such as placing 3-D foam letters into the alphabet and guiding them with everyday situations like going to the toilet or going to the tuck shop in the school yard. They would normally have a couple of hours of doing their work, then have a break where they all ran wild in the playground and then return to the classroom for indoor fun in the playroom. (Tip for any prospective volunteer working here - the tacos from the little tuck shop in the school entrance are AMAZING!) As time went on they came to know me by my voice and presence and it made my day when I walked into the classroom in the morning and their faces lit up! I was intrigued by their intelligence at such a young age without one of their most important senses and I really admired the way they got on with things like any other child of their age would.
By the end of my placement my host-house was full as another volunteer Stephanie had come to share my bedroom, as well as three other Mexican students who were renting out other bedrooms. Meal times were my favourite as we'd all congregate in the tiny kitchen and I felt like I had gained the large family that is typical in Mexican culture. I was ready to collapse after my non-stop busy life as a volunteer but I wouldn't have it any other way. I learnt so much about myself and also about a whole other culture. I learnt that it pays to be positive and light-hearted about any situation, even if it seems daunting at the time because then it can only turn out as a positive experience. I learnt that I am stronger than I thought and that I can make a whole new lifestyle for myself from scratch which will benefit me greatly for university life. I even ended up travelling for two weeks after my project with a fellow volunteer to the Caribbean side of Mexico where we had lots of fun relaxing on paradise beaches and discovering the ancient Mayan ruins.
So if you are trying to decide which country to do a volunteer project in, make sure you consider Mexico, as I have no regrets. Viva el Mexico!
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.