It’s amazing how much you can change and grow in only two weeks. I have just arrived back home from vacaciones and tomorrow will fall back into my daily routine. However, the two-week break from school exposed me to things I have never before had the opportunity to witness. Because so much has happened, I have decided to split this entry into three separate sections – one for each of my travels.
Part 1 Yuxunah
On Thursday morning of vacaciones I grudgingly rolled out of bed, grabbed my hammock and arrived at the central bus station to head off to spend the next four days with the 600 Mayans who inhabit the small town of Yuxunah.
After a three hour bus ride, my friend Rachel and I were dropped off in front of a one room concrete house. Our señor kindly let us in and removed himself from site (the downside of the four days was that we were not able to interact with the Mayan families that had lent us the one room cinder-block homes placed next to their traditional huts). We strung our hammocks and walked into the bathroom where two buckets of water awaited us. For a second I was stunned. I had anticipated a cold dribble of a shower but a bucket bath? Needless to say, four days without running water opened my eyes to how much water I use in a day (and I don’t consider myself to be a water waster). Using an empty bottle, I managed to shower the first night with 4 bottle scoops of water. The two of us only used ¾ of a bucket that first day, an amount equivalent to about three toilet flushes. While living without running water was shocking, I was surprised by how quickly I adjusted and how much I paid attention to the amount of water I did use.
Another wonderful aspect of our stay in Yuxunah was the day we cooked Cochinita Pibil, a Yucatecan dish consisting of spiced pork, in the traditional manner of burying it underground. To do so, a huge fire is built in a hole and rocks are placed above the wood for about an hour. As the wood turns to ash, the rocks grow scalding hot. At this point, the cochinita, now covered with adobado, onions, and tomatoes is placed in the hole and the hole is covered with layers of sticks, leaves, and dirt. Three hours later, after carefully undiging the hole (la tierra can give you tremendous burns) your delicious meal is ready.
Lastly, the small town life of Yuxunah grabbed my attention. Every day after lunch we took a siesta. I hadn’t slept that much in a long time, and now finally rested, I felt healthy and alive and ready to greet the day. We spent our time swimming, running, chatting, and forming friendships as we participated in various volunteer projects such as cenote cleaning and building window screens to keep out the mosquitoes. Despite its different feel and vibe, it amazed me how easy it is to form friendships with people and find commonalities that we all share as human beings.
Part 2 Mexico City, Pachuca, and Puebla
Monday morning I arrived in Mexico City and was greeted by the husband of my coworker Letty and Letty’s friend and daughter. I was staying with a family in a small house with two bedrooms, a bathroom, a small kitchen and a living room. Each room was probably half the size of my bedroom, yet six people inhabited the home. Walking into the house I felt as though I was living on top of others. Used to my own personal space, I quickly realized privacy did not exist. The family was kind and hospitable, but one quickly noted their lack of education. All three children dropped out of middle school, two of which (now 21 and 19) have babies of their own. Yet they lacked not just scholarly education, but a general knowledge of the world that I have always taken for granted. For example, Christian, a ten month old, eats fried chicken nuggets and drinks coca cola out of his bottle daily. Never having been exposed to other healthier options, Christian refuses to drink water and rarely drinks milk (milk is always available to the family due to a stipend program).
Not only does the baby lack nutrition but lacks engagement as well. Christian is often placed to the side as the mom socializes with friends in la calle and the grandmother takes care of the necessary household chores. He hasn’t muttered anything close to a first word and still does not stand up well – even with support and guidance. Dana, the ten month old who lives with my host family in Mérida already walks up a storm, waves goodbye, and has mastered a handful of words. Although Dana is an early walker, I was shocked by the differences in development. If Christian is already so far behind, how will he ever be able to keep up with children like Dana? At such a tender age, Christian already has a giant mountain he must climb to overcome the disadvantages his environment has presented to him. Unfortunately, he will most likely tire of climbing his mountain before reaching its peak, will drop out of school, and will lead the same life of poverty his family currently lives.
In contrast to this family’s lack of education, Claudia, another friend of Letty, and her 16-year-old daughter Mónica were quite a different story. Equally crammed in a small house, the family treated each other with a respect that made me smile. Claudia and Mónica, despite being mother and daughter, are best friends and spend the majority of their time together. But despite the close friendship, Mónica knows her limits – when a ‘no’ is a ‘no’. Claudia places an emphasis on the importance of homework and Mónica has flourished. While she still hates math, she studies hard and knows she will one day attend a university.
Another eye opening development I came away with was the difference between city poverty and poverty in a pueblo. Once outside of the manicured Mexican politicians’ lawns, you become engulfed by a horrendous filth and stench. People throw their trash por todos lados. Families live on top of families. There is never a moment of tranquility. However, in the pueblos, although the level of poverty is the same and ten people may inhabit a one-room home, there is a peacefulness… perhaps better described as a naturalness…Land separates homes. The pattern of life is natural. One wakes up with the sun and begins one’s day early. Food is homemade – tortillas patted out and cooked over a small fire. There is not nearly the level of processed foods available as there is in the big city.
While all these experiences were new and eye opening, my favorite part of this portion of the journey were the three days Don Cucho (Letty’s husband), Claudia, Mónica, and I traveled through Pachuca and Puebla. Born in Pachuca, Don Cucho showed me the places important to him as a small child. I felt as if I could see him 40 years younger, climbing the hills in la orilla of the city. In the same way I feel as though I finally understand the complete life story of Letty. A sad childhood to say the least, Letty’s childhood came to life as we drove past various casitas in Puebla. This was the most important aspect of the trip for me – to have the opportunity to see and visit the history of someone so close to me.
Part 3- Tijuana
After the eye opening experience in Mexico City, I few to Tijuana to meet up with my church group. Twice a year members drive to Tijuana to work with an organization called Esperanza that helps to build decent housing for the poor. However, rather than just building homes and leaving, Esperanza emphasizes community building – something hard to accomplish in a city that is the last stop for immigrants hoping to mejorar sus vidas in the United States.
My first trip to Tijuana (being also my first trip to México) was during my senior year in high school. Eye opening to say the least, it was incomprehensible to me how a wall could separate opportunity and wealth. I was embarrassed by my country’s harsh “keep out” message. On the last night of the trip, Eduardo, the volunteer coordinator, took us to the border to discuss México’s perception of immigration. Naïve to think that everyone in México wanted to come to the United States, I was surprised to learn that the majority of Mexicans take great pride in their work and want to play an integral part in the betterment and development of their own country.
I came to Tijuana this time hoping for a similarly shocking revelation, yet left without any luck. In part, it must because I have seen so much in the past seven months living in México and no longer posses quite the same level of naivety. Additionally, due to rain, I was only able to help build homes one day and thus did not have much of an opportunity to discuss issues with the families. I left Tijuana slightly disappointed, no fault of anyone’s but my own. As my Dad always says, “make your own experience”. I should have opened up a dialogue with at least Eduardo, if not the families about my experiences in Yuxunah and México City.
Lastly, adding to my frustration, I realized no matter how many people ask me about my experiences, they will never fully understand what I have seen and felt. I long to have someone understand the confusion, the solitude, the joy, the growth, and the friendships that come through these trips. But the experience is mine and mine alone and no matter how much I want to share it, their understanding will always fall short. I guess it isn’t about someone getting the whole picture, instead maybe they will catch a glimmer of something they have never been exposed to before. Maybe a sentence I say will spark a thought, or that something will resonate within them and maybe open their eyes to a new idea, just like Eduardo did for me on my first Esperanza trip.