Mexico, a country that is rich in history and culture. The landscape,regions and people can vary so much in a 10 hour bus journey through the mountains. I did not know what to expect before my arrival or how to prepare myself for culture shock even with workshops and assistance from experts. I suppose you never can fully prepare yourself for a project like this. Along with two other participants, Sinead and Amanda, I arrived in Mexico airport at night and were greeted by our PEI mentors who brought us around the city for a weekend. We visited Frida Kahlos museum, saw street markets and tasted roast grasshoppers. Our orientation came to an end and I boarded a bus that brought me to Oaxaca city. I assumed that I would be bored stiff on a 6 hour journey, but it turned out to be the opposite. The scenery was beautiful and I watched farmers work in the fields, using farming methods my own mother and her family used to work the land years ago.
Upon arrival in the outskirts of Oaxaca city I was hit by my first culture shock, the poverty. I felt ashamed about staring out from an air conditioned bus as we drove past the slums. I never fully comprehended how lucky I was to have an education or a degree for that matter. In Ireland I would often hear people be dismissive about third level education, particularly an Arts degree. If they witnessed what I saw, I think, they would quickly re-evaluate their opinions.
In contrast Oaxaca city centre itself and Col. Reforma was beautiful, with a combination of old colonial buildings, cobbled streets, vendors mixed with modern restaurants and cafes(sigh yes even a Starbucks found its way here). I spent the following two weeks brushing up on my Spanish in one of Oaxacas language schools (much to my amusement the teachers didnt approve of my Madridian dialect of Spanish). I would spend the evenings chatting to my house mother, wandering through craftshops or chatting to Oaxacans my own age in the cafes where they worked as baristas. Once my two weeks ended and I took a ten hour bus to through the mountains and into La Ventanilla, my bubble popped and I was catapulted out of my comfort zone.
La Ventanilla looks exactly like the setting for the blockbuster movie Jurassic Park and while La Ventanilla did not have dinasours, it did indeed consist of other not so cuddly creatures. The community itself is situated on a beach with a lagoon, jungle and mountains behind it. I settled into cabins designated for toursits and volunteers. I shared a bathroom with flying bats and showers with lizards and the occasional frog. The community once depended on turtle trade as a source of income but focussed on wildlife conservation and protection once this trade became illgeal, making it a sustainable village. Guides would bring tourists around the lagoon in boats and island to look at animals in their care and eat local cuisine. Ocassionaly if the conditions were suitable, tourists would pay to accompany guides to release baby turtles back into the ocean. My daily tasks changed from day to day, I would either help in the mangrove gardens, hunt for turtle eggs, clean animal pens and clear fields for new plants. Dodging scorpions, spiders and snakes became the norm as well and keeping a sharp eye out for crocodiles which we were warned about (during an innocent discussion with one of the children about pets, one little girl explained to me she once had a dog but ended up being eaten by a crocodile).Food poisoning,sunburn and been plagued by mosquitos were incorporated into the explorer experience also.
My second culture shock hit me once I settled in the village and that was the Macho culture in the region. Jobs and roles been designated to men and women didn’t bother me, but rather the way in which people were treated based upon their gender. One of the less pleasant experiences was being objectified,leered at or the frustrating assumptions made that I could not handle certain jobs because I was female (in saying that this was not everyones attitude). Some of the more kindly older gentlemen explained to me that women weren’t encouraged to be active, were suspicious of each other and that sexual education often went undiscussed in families.
There were a lot of issues revolving around gender that I witnessed there.
My time in La Ventanilla came to an end and I flew back to Mexico city via Huatulco, though not as smoothly as I expected, I did find a tarantula in my carrying on bag going through customs.During my final day in Mexico city, it did take me a while to adjust to being in the busy city again, where I met with another EIL participant Amanda who had her own story to tell over coffe and relaying my own journey to Cecilia over dinner. My own story and journey as an EIL explorer sounded strange and surreal to my ears. Even now back in Ireland, when talking about it out loud,it sounds like I made the whole thing up.