I was a sophomore in high school, traveling with my youth group to Aguas Calientes, Mexico with an organization called Terremoto. It was my first mission’s trip and there was no way any amount of slide shows and brochures could have prepared me for what we were all in store for.
When packing we were told to bring a lot of tissues because toilet paper would not be provided, we were advised to show as little skin as possible in order to avoid unwanted attention, and it was recommended we bring a cot to sleep on because chiggers were a nasty problem. All of which sounded like an adventure to someone like me; never having been without a basic need or comfort in my life. After eight hours of flights and lay over’s followed by a 14 hour bus ride into Aguas Calientes, my perspective began to change. Being travel weary all I wanted was a hot shower and my pillow soft bed back home. Instead what I got was a sponge bath using bottled water, a toilet with a bin next to it for waste due to bad plumbing and a little slab of cement to call my own under a yellow and white circus tent shared with hundreds of other girls.
Before our training began we were placed into groups and each group was comprised of half American’s and half Mexican’s. Each team had at least one individual who was bilingual, however, the rest of us were left to communicate with a few phrases learned in our high school class room. Most of us were limited to basic necessities like where the bathroom was and I’m hungry. Phrases like these didn’t get us very far in terms of truly connecting with these new comrades. However, after a few hours of trust exercises and games with each other an incredible phenomenon began. We were able to talk and understand each other beyond expectation through broken understanding of the other’s vocabulary and the heavy use of body language. It was fascinating how close I became to my Mexican teammates using predominantly non-verbal communication. While growing as a team we were also given the tasks of learning dramas, puppet shows and dance’s in order to entertain and deliver our message to the surrounding towns.
Though camp life was an adventure and the foretold problem of chiggers was no longer a warning but an experience, the real adventure began when all the teams were sent to their designated towns. My team was destined to Zacatecas and the first image I have in my memory is driving over a hill and looking down upon color; lots and lots of color. Such a difference from the beige and natural hues found in my own neighborhoods. We were met in town by a pastor and his wife who offered to house us during our stay in town. The generosity of these wonderful people was unmatched by any I had ever witnessed. They had lived in the basement of the church they preached in for ten years before they were financially able to buy a home for themselves. Their vehicles were rickety and near the end of their days and though they now owned a home, they still needed to take life day by day to make ends meet. Aside from all of this they took in fifteen complete strangers, allowed us to use their vehicles, to sleep in their beds and eat their food. They also committed so much of their time to us. I felt as though the pastor’s wife and her family cooked all day for us. As soon as one meal was over the next was being prepared.
We had five or six predetermined locations we were to go and share our drama’s and our story. However, the way of getting us all there was somewhat of a challenge for our gracious hosts. Each day was different too, so they must have been asking friends and family if they could spare a truck or trailer for the afternoon or evening. The first day we ventured out we were all hyped up with excitement, nerves and adrenaline which made our mode of transportation all the more interesting to handle. All fifteen of us were directed to a 6×8 trailer with one little window in the upper corner of it. Coming from the United States where we are not even allowed to ride in the back of trucks for lack of seat belts caused us to feel a slight sense of shock and brief questioning on the safety of the situation but who were we to question our hosts. If I hadn’t known my team before getting into that trailer I would have known them quite well by the time we all spilled out when we reached our destination. All I remember about the trailer is looking around and not being fully sure whose foot or arm belonged to which body because we were all intertwined and jammed.
Once we safely made it to our destinations, which we always did, we would set up our props and stereo system and begin to draw in the crowds. The children needed no coaxing for some of us were dressed up as clowns, some as mimes and had puppets. It was heart melting seeing all of the excited faces. They didn’t even know why exactly we were there but it was as though they didn’t care and were hungry for the entertainment we appeared to have come to share with them. Once a large enough crowd had gathered we would begin our program. Those who were able to speak Spanish gave a brief introduction of who we were and then we began to dance, sing and involve the audience. We then would perform dramas where no one spoke because of our language barriers; we allowed our faces and body language to speak the message of the drama for us. When our performance was over we would then branch out and answer any questions people had or pray with them if they wanted. We showed them we cared and so many of the children didn’t want to let go of our hands or wanted one more hug as we tried to pack up and head out to the next destination.
There are a few snap shot moments that stick out in my mind aside from our experiences surrounding our entertaining the people. On the way home one night we made a pit stop to a local shop because the driver needed to run an errand. We were all in the parking lot milling about waiting to head back out when a lot of shouting and chaos erupted near the entrance to the store. When I looked in the direction it was coming from, one of our team members was in the center of it all and we all immediately ran over there. He was still dressed up in his clown costume and had most of his make-up on. There was a handful of guys grouped together yelling at our friend in Spanish, which he barely understood. The driver came out just in time to settle everyone down and get to the issue at hand. Apparently our friend had gone up to these individuals trying to talk to them and tell them what we were here for and they either didn’t understand or were extremely offended. That was terrifying for us because of our inability to understand what was going on and to have absolutely no control in the situation at all. The same unsettling feeling took root in my stomach when we would be walking around and men would come up to us and touch our hair while saying “Blondie!” At the time a handful of us had naturally light hair with some added highlights and didn’t realize how badly we would stand out. Though we were all in a group and stayed together, it was still a frightening experience.
On the plane ride home I remember being completely overwhelmed by everything that had taken place in only ten days. While I sat processing this incredible experience I recalled thinking how blind I had been to the massive differences between cultures. My world had always been very small and I felt such an appreciation for having experienced an eye opening opportunity. Nearly every person I met on that trip left an impression on me and I will forever think fondly of them and my trip to Zacatecas, Mexico.
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