December 14, 2008
By Rachel Palmer, Holladay, UT

For many American teens Mexico is a land of opportunity. It is a place of two for one drinks, endless sun, and half naked, or should I say mostly naked, bodies on the beach. To the middle class and wealthy, tourist hot spots such as Cancun, Cabos, Baja, and Acapulco are the foundation for their knowledge of Mexican culture. In June of this past year I myself took a trip down to Mexico, but I can assure you that this was not a spring break vacation with my girlfriends. I discovered that real Mexico is hardworking, humble, and dirt poor.

To begin my little adventure I must rewind back to a month earlier to a run down dance studio in Judge Memorial Catholic High School. It was Saturday night and I was praying that the Ricky Martin wannabe we hired for entertainment was on his last song. I was at Judge’s annual Rotary Interact benefit dinner, which we plan every year to raise money for our cause. This year the cause was the hidden gem of Mexico, Chiapas. It is a state of good-natured people who have run into some bad luck the past few years starting with Hurricane Stan and ending with massive flooding for torrential rains in 2007 that left one million residents homeless in Chiapas and its neighboring state, Tabasco. The benefit was as successful as fifteen high school students could make it and we ended up raising quite a chunk of money for the people there. All that was left to do was deliver the money into Chiapas.

Never in one billion five hundred twenty six thousand years did I expect to be one of those kids who travels to exotic places and builds huts made out of cow poop. That’s why I told the Hispanic Rotary Club president I would think about it when he asked if I would like to travel to Chiapas by plane and personally see our money put to use. In my language “I’ll think about it” means absolutely not. Less than a month later I was on a Mexicana airplane sitting in between my two best friends, Alexis Naylor and Teresa Highsmith. Lucky for me, Teresa informed us that Mexicana Airline used to be nicknamed “Mexi-maybe”, right as we were taking off. I wasn’t sure if it was nerves, excitement, or something I ate that was making my stomach hurt, but whatever it was it wasn’t the last time my stomach didn’t feel quite right that week.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Tuxtla GutiĆ©rrez, Chiapas’ capital, was that there were paved roads, cars, and a Quality Inn. I immediately felt naive to think Chiapas was going to be a tiny village with vegetable gardens and children running around in loincloths. The second day however, my prediction was almost spot on for a village we drove to four hours away from our hotel. For the majority of the ride it was smooth sailing, but for the last couple miles we were forced to drive on a dirt road through the jungle that hadn’t seen travelers in awhile. After we stopped for the third time to get out of the van, so it could attempt to make it up a steep incline, I looked ahead and saw a man lying dead in the road. At least from where I was standing he looked dead. Alexis and I looked at each other and knew the other was thinking, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” A native of Chiapas, and Congressman, Carlos, assured us the man was not dead, but passed out from drinking. He explained that the men in many small Mexican villages, such as our destination, drink a homemade alcoholic concoction almost daily to escape the horrors of a dead end life. The rest of the trip could be considered uneventful, and then we arrived.

The village was literally a couple of shacks and a muddy soccer field. The surrounding beauty of the luscious jungle seemed a deceivingly inviting place to set up a home. The children screamed in delight as they chased our car and I was taken aback by the traditional garb the villagers were clothed in. I felt like I had traveled two hundred years back in time. With a sinking heart I realized that a bag of clothes and toiletries, the supplies we’d brought with us, were not enough to rescue these people from poverty. They had no electricity, running water, or communication to the outside world. Their drinking water was collected in huge black bins from the rain. It only rains six months out of the year in Chiapas. The men all lined up to take a peek at the American girls, especially my friend Teresa, who has strawberry-blonde hair, a rare characteristic in southern Mexico. The women shyly looked at us from a distance as they bounced their babies on their hips, but smiled timidly as we waved to them. I think it would be appropriate to say that three fourths of the village’s population consisted of children. They were everywhere, smiling, laughing, and joking around. Most likely none of these children would attend school, or even leave the tiny village.

After we had passed out the supplies and had taken the last picture I felt I had grown closer to these people and at the same time I felt like we were living on separate planets. I wondered why I had been born in Salt Lake City, Utah to a middle class family instead of deep in the jungle in Chiapas, Mexico. The village was branded into my head even after we arrived back in the United States. Our two cultures were so different, yet we were all human beings. The reality of seeing people living in such poverty taught me that in the real world most people couldn’t vacation in Cancun Mexico once a year. Most people are struggling to make ends meet or find clean drinking water. I can almost guarantee this will not be my last traveling experience for a humanitarian effort and I made a promise to myself to see Chiapas again and make a change there.

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This article has 1 comment.

Samaiya said...
on Feb. 22 2009 at 2:53 am
I'm so glad you got to see a little of the real world outside the U.S. That's an opportunity that not many North-Americans have: a life-changing experience that makes them appreciate their own blessings more fully, and love life deeper. I live in Colombia, and have done several mission trips to the jungle regions. Contact me if you're interested in coming here; there's a lot of work to be done.


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