Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sunshine on my Shoulders - Journeys of Discovery #1: Mexico

Waaaay back in spring of 1995, when I thought I was a grown up already, I was busy cramming for my end of year post-graduate exams in Maynooth Collage.

That upcoming summer would spell the end of my education after seventeen years of going through primary school, inter and leaving certs, a degree and my final I-have-no-idea-what-I-want-to-do-now-and-what-exactly-does-an-Arts-degree-qualify-you-for-anyway?' post-grad year in IT.

On wandering through the college one evening that final term, I saw a poster looking for volunteers to travel abroad volunteering for three months with the university. Instantly I knew that this was what I would end up doing that summer. There were only 12 expenses paid places available and a reem of applicants, but I knew 100% from that moment that I would be going on that trip.

I have no idea where that confidence came from, but a few weeks later I got the call to say I had been picked. Destination: Mexico.

There were four of us chosen to go to that particular location and I had never met the other three. As it turned out two of them were studying theology and the third was training to become a priest. The project that we would be staying at was a catholic one, with volunteers from all over the world. I made the sign of the cross, took a deep breath and decided to fully embrace the experience.

On touch down in the dusty streets of Tijuana we realised just how little Spanish we actually had between us all. Tijuana was a big town on the Mexican border, filled with ancient pick ups, stray dogs, and seedy bars. When our guide wasn't at the pre-arranged meeting place we did what any self-respecting group of Irish would do in such a situation - we went for margaritas.

A few hours later we had been rescued from our tequila cocktails and introduced to our fellow international volunteers. Our hosts were in equal measures horrified and amused at our little diversion. By the time we had been shown to our dorms we were all slightly panicking. It seemed that Hola and Gracias didn't quite cut it for conversation around these parts, no matter how much nodding and rosy cheeked smiling was involved. 

The next few weeks were a tough but wonderful emotional and physical journey. I was assigned to a hilltop village with another more experienced volunteer. The brief as I understood it - to make the local kids and families feel like somebody cared. 

We travelled to and from the village daily in ancient station wagons that had been converted into taxis. Two passengers sat alongside the driver, three in the back seat, plus another four facing each other in the boot. You could usually count on a few live chickens being snuggled up on the back seat too. The women were undeniably large and seemed to wear thirty pleated skirts at once. The men wore black, accompanied by hangdog moustaches and murderous expressions.

I spent my days and nights visiting families, strolling the sandy streets, noting the difference between the rich concrete houses and the ubiquitous corrugated iron shanty homes. I played basketball with the older teenagers, chasing with the smaller kids. I snuggled the toddlers that ran freely through the town, and fell in love over and over again with the big wide smiles and huge brown eyes that gazed up at me day after day.

A couple of months later, when the rest of my college group were returning home after their three month stint, I was changing my flights. I finally graduated - from packed taxi to dirty red pick-up. It was at least as old as I was, and I had the rusty keys to it for the foreseeable future. 

I'll never forget bumping and bouncing over those dusty hilltop streets in the burning sunshine with barefooted kids running and grinning alongside me as I drove past their family homes. They would call out my name and wave frantically as I bumped to a halt by the old buildings we used as our base. Sometimes I would let a bunch of them jump in the back and we'd go for a ride - their squealing voices ringing in my ears.

Instead of twelve weeks in Mexico I stayed until Christmas. Just over six months. I learned Spanish, taught English, met incredible people, made friends, listened to stories of survival, ate at roadside tacos bars, drank tequila, set up a football league*, dug trenches, swam in the ocean with thirty dirty and delighted kids and learned that sometimes the poorest people in the world are in fact the kindest.

It was six months that shaped me as a person. It had such a huge impact on me that it will always be one of the most important times of my life. 

And maybe after those six months, by the time I got back, I really was a grown up.

* When I paid a return visit to the project five years later my football league was still going strong with about 8 teams and over 100 people participating. Never been prouder. 

This is the first in a series of Sunshine on my Shoulders posts reminiscing about my past travels. If I don't write it down somewhere now they will probably be lost forever. If you feel the same about your own far flung adventures of old join in with #journeysofdiscovery. 

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