Francesca de Felice - General Care Projects in Mexico
Guadalajara, the city that never sleeps. EVER! This was my home for five weeks in the summer of 2006. I spent my days dancing with, learning from, teaching, listening to and laughing with the residents of the impoverished areas of Tonalá and spent my nights absorbing the unique culture and atmosphere of the second biggest city in Mexico, Guadalajara. It was a summer that would, quite honestly, change my life.
When we turned 18, my best friend Jenna and I caught the travelling bug and decided it was time to see a bit of the world. No sooner had we raised the cash and booked the project then we were flying into a fully lit Guadalajara at night after 22 hours of travelling. After catching up on sleep in the Projects Abroad office and receiving a welcome pack and introduction chat from Jonatan, one of the local staff, we were given the official Guadalajara tour and sent off to meet our host family. Lety, our host mum and her family welcomed us with open arms and lots of food! Huevos, tortillas, sopa, enchiladas, quesadillas and cactus (surprisingly tasty and refreshing!). She was an amazing cook and treated us with special Mexican kindness.
The office staff, Carlos and Jonatan, took us to our placement and introduced us to the staff we would be working with. Our work base was in Tonalá, a 20 minute ride from home. From Monday to Friday we worked at DIF Tonalá, a community centre for residents of the town who needed support, education or just some company. Having walked around Guadalajara the previous day and seen the beautiful cathedrals and the plazas, Tonalá was a shock to the system. Julio and Juan, our drivers, took us along dirt track roads lined with barely roofed houses and rubbish covering the roadsides. You could not only see the poverty, you could smell it, hear it and feel it as we tackled the bumps and obstacles in our paths.
One of the teams we worked with specialised in the care of the elderly. Each leader would go to a group and do exercise routines or dancing, talk about life and see how everyone was getting on. It doesn't sound like a lot but for some of the members it was all they had in terms of support and socialising. The elderly suffer just as much as the children do in areas such as Tonalá. Several of their sons and daughters had moved to Los Angeles or into the city and there was no one left to take care of them in the community. I never knew that sitting with these people and listening to them chatting and joking would change my perspectives on society and family so drastically.
The other team at DIF specialised in the care of children and families. We would go out to a house and be joined by 10 or 12 mothers with their children. The time was used to discuss morals and values of the family and to educate the children on right and wrong. For half the time we would watch a DVD or discuss the issues around the importance of family and for the rest of the time we would play games with the children or do crafts with the parents. Another group run was for young mothers. There were three mothers that came, one with four children, one with two children and one pregnant 16 year old. The aim of the group was to boost self esteem of the women who had all been through some kind of personal turmoil that had shaken their confidence. By stimulating the interaction and doing activities, the women were finding their footing in life again and developing important social skills.
From the first day we arrived at DIF we felt welcome. The elderly people who stopped there for lunch would greet us with kisses and all the staff were eager to hear about our country and our friends and families. The sense of community and high spirits of the people we worked with was overwhelming and is so far incomparable to anything I have experienced.
After work, the late afternoons were an ideal time to go home, get some lunch, hop on a bus and tube into town and explore into the evening. If there is one thing that the Mexicans have down to a fine art, its markets! The San Juan de Dios market is one of the biggest markets in Latin America. This, as well as the market in Tonalá gave us plenty to do. There is something for everyone, from key rings and handbags to shoes and clothes to puppies and terrapins. The spread was amazing and while, at times, we didn't think we would come out of the market alive (it gets a bit squashed), they are a definite must for volunteers.
Our weekends were generally spent away from the vibrant city, visiting other Mexican wonders such as Guanjuato - a beautiful town with a slightly continental feel, Tlaquepaque- a short bus adventure south of Guadalajara, Tecoman and the Projects Abroad turtle camp conservation project, Lake Chapala and Tequila (of course!). The bus fares were cheap and the opportunities endless.
Some of my most memorable moments include: being caught in Mexican rainfall, the most torrential rainfall I have ever seen and then getting into a cab and the water seeping into the front on to Jenna's feet! Mixing up Jamaica water in two big bin barrels to serve to 300 elderly people. Looking out onto the Mexican landscape that stretched all the way to Baja California. Saying a tearful goodbye to the elderly people at the Doctors surgery. A man trying to sell me a giant catapult in San Juan de Dios. Trying to dance to Banda music at a Mexican club.and failing! Watching the football World Cup final at the top of a building that looked out onto Guanajuato.
It is very difficult for me to try and sum up my adventures, the volunteers, the staff, the communities, the food, the family, the trips, there is so much that I could talk about but to really understand and to really know what its like, you have to go out there and see for yourself. So get volunteering, it is worth every penny!