From the rooftop of my office building in Bucerias, Mexico, I overlook the Bay of Banderas, an area well-known by residents of the Pacific Northwest as a surf and kiteboarding destination. I’m coming up on one year in this small, seaside town and it only seems right to reflect on how I got here.
To really explain how I ended up in Mexico, however, I have to begin in Peru. When I graduated from the University of Oregon in June 2016, I changed out of my cap and gown in the car on the way to Portland International Airport. By sundown that day, I was on a flight to Lima, the sprawling, hectic and cloudy Peruvian capital city.
My postgrad plans, though different from most of my friends, were hardly revolutionary. On the contrary, I would be joining the masses and becoming one of hundreds of thousands of college graduates who head abroad to teach English. I was excited; I was interested in pursuing a career in the social sector and didn’t want to just travel, but travel in a meaningful way. I wanted to change the world. After months of searching online, I found a program that fit my interests, my timeline and my budget. I would be living with a host family, taking a course at a local university, and volunteering at a school in an economically challenged area of Lima for one month before exploring Peru for the rest of the summer.
Of the people in my volunteer cohort, only three were teachers or studying to be teachers. The rest of us had backgrounds in Spanish, international studies or other areas unrelated to teaching English. Each day, we piled in a van to be driven to the school where we worked. The driver would battle through the dense traffic of the Lima morning commute and push out onto the highway that winds along the coast. Even in South American winter and the near-constant garúa, or fog, we could look down the steep cliffs to see surfers below. It took around an hour in the early morning mess of cars, busses and people for us to inch away from the city center. While most of the passengers slept, I would wipe away the steam from the inside of the windows to watch the landscape change from high-rise buildings to high dunes of sand, stretching for miles and dotted with tiny, colorful houses.
We were heading toward Villa El Salvador, a district on the outskirts of Lima that began as one of many pueblos jovenes, a so-called shantytown or land invasion. These literally translated “young towns” were the result of mass migration to Lima in the mid-20th century as people left rural areas in search of work and education. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, this migration increased as more Peruvians fled to the city amid terrorism and political unrest, making Lima one of the largest cities in the Americas and forcing people to spill out into the surrounding hillsides. Every day, I was in in awe of the sheer vastness of it all — the colossal metropolis that dissolved into desert at its edges.
The school was at the top of one of these giant mounds of sand, and as we pulled up in the van we could always hear the hum of little voices echoing off the concrete walls from about a block away. It was an elementary school full to bursting with children and the occasional neighborhood dogs that ran in and out of the classroom from the street. The classrooms were much too small for the number of people they held and the teachers needed help keeping their huge groups of students under control. The students were bright and out of control in a way that suggested they needed more personalized attention. Most of them spent long evenings at the adjacent after school program because they needed a place to be while their family members were absent or working.
KENZIE YOSHIMURA grew up in Hood River, where she attended Hood River Valley High School and worked as an intern for the Hood River News. She earned degrees in journalism and Spanish from the University of Oregon, and now works with Human Connections, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Bucerias, Mexico. More people travel each year and the demand for responsible, sustainable travel experiences is increasing.
For more information on Human Connections and its impact, visit www.humanconnecti....
For questions or to learn about how you can participate in a Human Connections’ program as a traveler or a student, contact kenzie@humanconne....
What they didn’t need was their education to be trivialized by a foreign visitor like me who was using teaching English as a pretense for adventure. It was a revelation that shocked me even as it occurred to me. I wasn’t qualified and I wasn’t there to stay. In their daily lives or future job opportunities, was English a higher priority than other skills they might need? I fancied myself as well educated and well-traveled and with good intentions — was it possible that I was doing more harm than good?
In my eagerness to travel in a way that was meaningful, I had created a trip that was meaningful to me, and failed to ask the questions that really mattered. Where would I be working? What kind of resources did the school and its students have access to? What did the teachers think about volunteers showing up to their classrooms for just a few weeks? What did the parents think? The students themselves? And, the kicker ... what would happen when we left?
In an effort to solve a problem that we ourselves had perhaps created, we shifted our focus from the one thing we had come there to do. We didn’t teach English in Villa El Salvador, but rather acted as classroom aides and supervisors in the afterschool program, providing additional sets of watchful eyes on the hundreds of small and energetic students who needed a question answered, a shoe tied or a conflict resolved. We tried to fill a real need (a staff that was severely outnumbered) instead of a need that had been created for us. We worked with the school’s English teacher on her skills as an attempt to create some kind of impact that would actually be sustainable. I cherished my time at the school, but left with more doubt than I had arrived with.
When I came home to the U.S. at the end of that summer, the tumultuous 2016 presidential election was well under way and tension was palpable. I was job searching and looking for answers to the questions I had stumbled upon in Peru, and to the divisive politics around me I was struggling to understand. Around the week that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I sent in an application for a role at a small nonprofit in Mexico called Human Connections and began a series of Skype video interviews. By the time he was sworn into office, I had been offered and accepted the job. Amid widespread jokes and claims about people leaving the country if Trump was elected, I was planning to do just that. But I wasn’t moving out of anger, or protest, or political frustration. And this time, I was leaving home not to change the world, but to understand it, and perhaps to create a way for others to understand it, too.
Human Connections as an organization is exactly what I had been searching for as a student: quite simply, the opportunity and the resources to travel responsibly. We work with local artisans and entrepreneurs, connecting them to international visitors through educational day tours and student programs. It’s a social enterprise with a double-impact strategy; that is, a mutually beneficial model that is financially and emotionally empowering for our local partners and leaves travelers with an understanding of Mexico they may not get from traditional tourist activities. It’s the antithesis of my experience in
Peru in that the organization builds real relationships locally and asks the important questions that I didn’t ask before volunteering abroad.
Mark Twain wrote that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness,” and in travel, I found some of the answers to the questions I had about humanity after the events of 2016. Before I came to Mexico, I didn’t know that I had been on a path toward a career in responsible travel, nor did I know that “responsible tourism” as a concept existed. In my failed attempt to help in Peru, I had actually taken the first step that would lead me to this office overlooking the Banderas Bay and to the job that would change my perspective on the different ways to travel and experience the world. As people and politics seem more and more divided, now is not the time to change the world through careless volunteering, but to create real connections and understanding across cultures. I like to think we have the power to make those changes at every level, in all fields of work. By shifting the focus from “helping” to education and cultural exchange, there is a way to turn those good intentions and desire to travel into actual good, with actual results.