“Do you want to come to Mexico for 10 days to volunteer?” This was the question that eventually triggered a whole series of events. Before this, Mexico had been near the bottom of the pile when it came to places I wanted to travel to, but I knew I couldn’t turn down this opportunity. Little did I know that those 10 days of volunteering in Mexico would lead to Mexico stealing my heart and my returning to live as a Mexico expat for an entire year of my life.
My 12 months as a Mexico expat were some of the most beautiful, exciting and heart wrenching I’ve ever known. I spent my one year in Mexico with the same charity that I’d connected with for my initial 10 days I’d spent volunteering. The charity was called Youth With A Mission also known as ‘YWAM’ and is a global faith-based movement that’s in over 180 countries. I spent my time based in Ensenada, Baja California (Baja California is the little arm that sticks out under California, USA), but also visited jungle towns, Mexico City and Tijuana amongst other places.
When you’re volunteering in Mexico your only guarantees are that no two days will ever be the same. I did a training programme called a ‘DTS’ whilst I was there that was broken up into a training and outreach phase. Some days we’d be learning more about our Christian faith, other days we’d be helping the homeless and other days we’d be helping teach English, building homes or teaching kids action songs in the Colonias (pictured below). The Colonias are low-income unincorporated housing areas located along the Mexico-US border.
I also helped staff a youth mission trip programme called Mission Adventures during the summer time where I helped host groups of young people to come to Mexico and do volunteering such as house building and renovation work just like myself.
My time in Mexico taught me some pretty important things;
I could talk about Mexican culture forever. From their insatiable love of fun, to their colourful carnivals and of course, the phenomenal food. But perhaps the thing that stood out to me most was they prioritized relationships. Relationship and connecting with others is so important to the Mexican people and they are quick to make friends.
Let me share a few stories;
One day we met a group of girls in Mexico City and got chatting to them, they then bought pizza for their dinner but insisted we share it and even bought us more when it had all gone. They then declared us friends. Simple as that.
Or the time I was out in a Colonia (a Mexican neighbourhood) doing some volunteer work and needed the toilet but there were none to be found – I knew I could ask the Mexican lady in her yard if I could use her toilet. She said yes, and then asked if I would like to stay for dinner. I had never met her before.
How about the Mexican people having an open house policy where you’re welcome any time and it’s not just a figure of speech – they actually expect you to come. It doesn’t matter if the house is a mess or if they’re cooking dinner – you just slide into the running of the family.
Another example is if there’s a trip to the cinema, it’s assumed that anyone and everyone is welcome. Not just those who were specifically invited. It held up a mirror to western cultures where work and success often wins out over time with loved ones, or the need to present a perfect home that steals us of time we could have with friends.
Mexican Gratitude and Humility
As I mentioned I was over in Mexico as part of a charity, so I saw two worlds. One where there were shops and gorgeous homes and vivid celebrations and another where poverty was rife.
Where families lived in shacks held together with scrap wood and the only things inside were a bench and a double mattress and where children were left without parents. I was humbled to get to play with these children. I was humbled to have opportunities to build houses for those who didn’t have one that would last the winter. I was humbled to realise that all these people were some of the most joyful I’d ever met and where a biscuit to a child was the best present in the world. But more than this, I was humbled that those who had nothing would give us what they did have in thanks – watermelon juice or tortillas, kool aid or fish tacos.
It made all the wants of the western world melt away.
Spending time in several areas of Mexico allowed me to see the beauty of its diversity. Mexico City was modern, contemporary and huge with beautiful architecture and a rich depth of history, where native and Spanish influences mixed. Travelling just outside of the city to see the remains of Aztec temples such as Teotihuacan shown below, which stand tribute to the great people that once lived here.
Then contrast this with the jungle villages and towns where many of the population still speak the ancient language of Nahuatl and internet is a luxury but where the tropical plants and sunshine are aplenty. Now jump back to Ensenada where the American tourist influence is strong but the beach holds its own and the local taco hotspots are booming. I felt like I could travel around Mexico forever and always learn something new.
So there was a taster of the most precious country I know and a few things that one year as a Mexico expat taught me after I turned up on a whim to volunteer for just one week.
Have you been to Mexico or are you interested in volunteering? Feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!