One year since volunteering in Mexico, Tom Dobin reflects on the vibrance and beauty that he encountered….
One year ago this week, I visited Mexico. I had always wanted to visit this vibrant, beautiful country, replete with aesthetic wonder and a welcoming, lively community, and in October 2012, I got my chance. After browsing the Love Volunteers website; the group which arranged my placement in Palestine, I found an opportunity to volunteer in Temixco, a small town in the south of Mexico. I took it. Three weeks later, my Mexican adventure had begun.
I arrived in the middle of the night, and took a thrilling, bumpy coach ride across the country, eagerly waiting for Mexico to wake up and show me its wonders. I eventually arrived in Temixco, and spent my first day walking the streets of this small community, overawed by the vibrancy and colourful buildings and environment which surrounded me. On my first full night, when I finally met the family I was to stay with, the forces of nature welcomed me to Mexico. In essence, I experienced the greatest and most powerful tropical storm I had ever witnessed. The wind howled. The rain relentlessly roared down upon us. We lost electricity, our faces solely illuminated by the intermittent flashes of lightning. It was beautiful, but fearsome. In spite of this dramatic introduction to Mexico (although it never rained again), I got to meet my host family, who took me to their home. I managed to experience so many wonderful memories and adventures during my time in Mexico, and my stay with this family was one of them. The term ‘second family’ is often used freely, but I can honestly say that in this case it was appropriate – I have never been a guest in such a kind, happy home, and I shall never forget the generosity and friendliness of these wonderful people.
The following day, I began my volunteering placement. My role was to teach English to a group of schoolchildren aged 6-11 in a remote elementary school, ironically named ‘Gran Bretaña’; this included teaching them John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ which was very amusing, particularly when the children gleefully sang ‘imagine there’s no people’…..a little bit morbid, but at least they’re singing in English, I thought.
Aside from the volunteering, I also got to travel. I have never seen a more beautiful country. One morning, when the sun was rising, I climbed onto the school’s roof and was mesmerised by the sight of an endless series of hills and valleys illuminated by the sunrise. Stunning. This view is microcosmic of Mexico, filled with breathtaking mountains, vegetation and jungles. For example, Cuernavaca, a city in the south, is beautiful – every street is bursting with colour and beauty and history, and I couldn’t help but stop and marvel at the incredible churches and castles – even the alleys were breathtaking. Moreover, the atmosphere was wonderful, particularly in the evening, as the streets were full of animated people – their personalities are reflective of the country’s aesthetics – colourful, friendly and unlike anything I have ever experienced. Taxco, a city lodged deep within the mountains, also exemplifies Mexico’s beauty. At the top of the mountain, there was a large statue of Jesus, overlooking a valley of white buildings with mountains glistening in the background. The panoramic view was arresting, and I could have spent the entire day looking through Jesus’s eyes, gazing down onto one of the most beautiful sites I have ever been lucky enough to see. On my final day, I visited the iconic capital, Mexico City, and after climbing the city’s tallest building, I was mesmerised by the view of buildings, vegetation and mountains, stretching into the sunrise and then beyond.
There was one particular series of mountains that I shall always remember. These mountains had a series of zip-wires at the top, which had to be used to cross from one side to the other. ZIP-WIRES!!! ON A MOUNTAIN!!! After a long climb to the top, we rose and rose until, eventually, we were level with the birds flying gracefully. The zip-wire was like a sturdy washing line, attached to a pole crossing a large ravine, with a large drop into the rocks and the river below. I was only attached by a small harness, and had to take a running jump off the edge of a cliff to begin this crazy experience. I took a deep breath, ran… and jumped. A strange feeling overcame me as I realised that I was suspended on a zipwire, crossing two parts of a mountain, with only a harness protecting me from plunging into the ravine below. This apprehension quickly turned to excitement and joy as I gradually accumulated pace until suddenly, I was racing -across a mountaintop! I looked below – the distant water and mountains rushed below me. Too late to turn back now. But I didn’t want to – it felt like flying! The experience was phenomenal, and I shall never forget the exhilarating rush.
Another highlight of my Mexican adventure was to visit Tepoztlan, an Aztec pyramid at the summit of a large, majestic mountain. On the way, I experienced the legendary Latin American buses for the first time. The bus journey felt like a rapid rollercoaster ride; it was even complete with a mariachi; a traditional Mexican singer, singing and playing his guitar. After an hour, we finally arrived. The mountain was incredible to behold – it reminded me of an ancient temple in an Indiana Jones film, surrounded by forest and situated on the edge of a sheer cliff – except it was real, and it was spectacular. After climbing the pyramid, I sat on its ledge, peering down into the valley and bustling Mexican town below, with mountains and lakes continuing until the horizon. No superlatives are sufficient to describe how incredible the view was.
I also gained a fascinating insight into the political situation in Mexico, which for the purpose of conciseness I must simplify here. A year ago, Mexico elected a new President, Enrique Pena Ñieto, who took office this month. The former President, Felipe Calderon, had adopted an intransigent approach to the country’s drug traffickers; some felt that Calderon’s ideals were poorly executed and caused significant collateral damage. For example, I was walking along the streets in Cuernavaca when I was shown an apartment block, where a botched operation to eliminate a prominent trafficker had incurred many civilian casualties.
This issue is not widely discussed, nor are its effects immediately apparent, yet it does cast a shadow over the colourful optimism of Mexico’s citizens. For example, the Mexicans in my area had an unofficial curfew and were reluctant to leave their homes after 8pm. Moreover, I was told that some still fear the sight of police sirens, as they instantly connect it to a shootout between the police and drug traffickers. It was suggested to me that Pena Ñieto, from a different political party, was elected because Mexicans are tired of bloodshed, of this ‘war’ which has left many in fear, and would rather their President place greater emphasis on keeping them safe than on combating drug traffickers. Honestly, I felt completely safe in Mexico, and never felt in danger. I shall only remember the country for the warmth of its people and the beauty of its land. The insight I gained into Mexico’s political and social situation was just one of the many fascinating experiences I had in the country, and overall, my adventure was unforgettable and compelling. One year on, the beauty, warmth and magnificence of Mexico has never left me.
Image Credits: Tom Dobin
A modified version of this article appears on Tom’s blog, A Mosaic of Adventures