After 18+ hours of travelling, I was really looking forward to landing in Mexico, getting a shower and a full nights sleep. Getting through security was taxing, but we did it and met Juan, a member of staff in PEI. It was then that I started to realise the extent of our journey. Juan couldn’t speak much English and I couldn’t speak much Spanish, but through broken English and broken Spanish we figured out how to communicate. This was a learning curve for me as I arrogantly assumed people in the City of Mexico would have a basic level of English. This fixed my mindset and I truly began to dive into the Mexican culture and the Spanish language. I was in Mexico after all, so why would I be speaking English? From there it was all uphill.
I lived with a very lovely family in the centre of Oaxaca. This was my first time being alone in a new city with new people who I struggled to communicate with. But I couldn’t have ended up in a better family or at better time in Oaxaca. The week we arrived was the week of celebrations for “Día de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead. A yearly celebration of family, life and remembering the people who came before you. While it’s a time to remember the dead, it is not about death. Instead it is about their life connecting to your life again for one night. While the person you love is not physically there, you can share your memories of them, keeping them alive in your heart and mind and the heart and mind of others. The people I encountered in Oaxaca believed this wholly and knew it wasn’t a common occurrence outside of Mexico. While in the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, where we had 2 weeks of Spanish lessons, we learned more about Día de los Muertos. How each day celebrated a specific group of the dead such as children, pets, ancestors and parents. Living with a oaxaqueñan family showed me first-hand how families honour the dead. In each home, they have an altar decorated with cempasuchil or flor de muerto (marigold flowers) and pictures of the loved ones they want to honour.
Each day, something new was added. This was something the person loved in their life along with food and gifts. The flowers were to guide them home and the gifts were for them when they arrived. I feel very honoured to have been given the opportunity to peek behind the curtain and be involved in this celebration in the home. The celebrations this year were slightly different to previous years, yet we were still able to experience the night time festivities where people dressed up and danced in the streets. It was surreal! This went on for around 4 nights, people immaculately dressed up as the dead or as devils. You could really see how important this season was to the people of Oaxaca through the effort they put into decorating the streets, shops, restaurants and outfits.
While I hadn’t officially started on my project focusing around the UN SDG 15 (life on land), I was still able to learn a lot about the issues Mexico faces with climate change, expanding populations and deforestation from my host papa Carlos. He is a member of the scouts and is very connected to the land. We discussed the issues of deforestation for farmland and compared the similarities and differences in Mexico and Ireland. I was astonished to see how we face the same issues and how through education and politics, we can prevent most of the destruction. Even though we have a different climate, different governments and different ways of life, we are still battling the same issues. I couldn’t have gotten luckier living with Carlos and Paz, as through our discussions, mostly over breakfast and dinner (some of which almost made me late to class…) started turning the wheels in my head and allowed me to start my project in Totlali with more understanding about the environmental issues facing Mexico than if I had just jumped right into Totlali from the get go! The two weeks of Spanish lessons have also been crucial. While I still don’t understand much of the language, I have gained a basic level and have been able to communicate with the workers here in Totlali. I believe this allows me to experience the culture and way of life better.
The work pace here is very different to what I’m used to. It has allowed me to think about my actions and try to understand the reasons behind my work, rather than ticking off a to-do list. This is something I will definitely take home with me and incorporate into my daily life. To give myself time to stop and think of why I am doing what I’m doing.
This is only the beginning of my journey and I still have a lot to learn. I wake up every morning (and after a coffee) I am wide-eyed and ready for the day! I feel very fortunate to be able to wake up each morning, take care of some animals and surround myself in nature, knowing that my actions will have positive effects on the wildlife surrounding me.