Seeing Life In A New Light:: Something You Can't Learn In The Classroom

April 7, 2009
By Jeffrey Mattson BRONZE, Bay Village, Ohio
Jeffrey Mattson BRONZE, Bay Village, Ohio
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

Many Americans thought twice about their Spring Break destinations this year due to our nation’s suffering economy. Also, the problems below the 2,000 mile long border of the United States prevented many people from going to the usual hot spots in Mexico. The media has made it clear that Mexico is currently facing issues with warring drug traffickers and an increase of violent behavior toward American tourists. The few who still aspired to vacation in Mexico more than likely found their way to places such as Cancun, Tijuana, or along the coast where they were able to soak up the rays and enjoy a relaxing time. I was one of the few who ignored all the warnings and hesitations about visiting Mexico, but I would like to think my stay in Mexico was spent with a slightly more purposeful meaning. A combined group of high school students, faculty members, and various alumni from Culver Academies, located in Indiana, decided to spend our break with a mission of generosity: rather than sipping fancy fruit drinks on the beach with our friends. Don’t get the wrong impression though, because our Spring Break was full of lasting memories and was miles away from miserable.

Our destination was Amecemeca, Mexico (quite the mouthful), a fairly small town outside of Mexico City with an estimated population of about 45,000 inhabitants. The most notorious aspect of Amecameca is the close proximity to the nearby volcanoes Popocateptle and Iztaccihuatl-- translated as “Smoking Mountain” and “White Woman”-- which are said to be connected to many local legends. The majority of the people living in Amecameca can be characterized as hardworking, mainly lower-class, and extremely devout Catholics. Our group decided to help a few families in the area through the Habitat for Humanity program: the worldwide, nonprofit organization that believes in eliminating poverty and strengthening the community. During our ten day stay, we worked alongside local volunteers and with the families of the future homes that we set out to build. We worked on three different worksites and for many of us, building a home was a first time experience that required learning new skills tremendously foreign to our everyday lives. A few of the new skills we walked away with included brick laying, cement mixing, and roofing. Although the work day generally started at nine in the morning and lasted until five in the evening, we all looked forward to siesta. Siesta is a Mexican tradition that occurs sometime around one in the afternoon and it includes a big lunch and a short nap, and well-needed might I add! The end of the day often resembled a nice “farmer’s tan” and a thick layer of dust, mixed with dry cement covering our hands and clothes; but, like I said before, don’t feel sorry for us because we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Our trip was more than just building houses all day. We spent some time at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. During our tour, we transcended back in time to the days of the Aztec and Maya civilizations. We saw a replica of Tenochtitlan and learned how this incredible city-state was located on an island in Lake Texcoco. One of the more popular exhibits was the Aztec calendar, also known as the Sun Stone; the remarkable sight was also extremely accurate with a 365 day calendar cycle. Other notables included giant head stones from the Olmec civilization, ancient artifacts from the Mayans, and pyramidal models from Teotihuacán. The museum holds the largest collection of Pre-Hispanic Mexican art and the relics were truly able to portray how advanced the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica really were. Our group also ventured to the Mexican state of Puebla, where we were able to walk inside the Puebla Cathedral. Construction of the wonderful architecture started in 1575 and was finally completed in 1690. A few blocks from the cathedral was the Puebla market, full of small Mexican stands and shops that mainly sold hand made crafts and clothing. We tried to learn the art of haggling as we negotiated prices with the Mexican vendors. I have to admit, most of us did well, as we walked away with interesting souvenirs and keepsakes very reasonably priced. Finally, we visited Mano Amiga Puebla, one of the well-known schools for children in preschool and up to the third grade. The name Mano Amiga is translated as “helping hands” and some of the realities of the young children attending the school are beyond comprehensible. Most of the children come from dilapidated homes with inadequate needs and often, suffer from severe family issues. For example, some of the children have a history of abusive parents or no parents at all; and in other cases, the children suffer from harsh medical problems that go untreated. Still, the children presented every one of us with a personal drawing and gave us a warm welcoming that made us feel very honored to be their guests. They seemed full of hope and optimism even when their backs were against the ropes; I wish them all a bright and successful future and pray that they find happiness in such challenging conditions.

The real joy and meat of the trip happened on the different worksites where we learned a whole new meaning to the phrase “I had a long day”. Everybody had a job to do, and if you were finished you would find somebody else who needed help: very few moments were spent standing around. Masonry proved to be more complicated than the Mexican volunteers made it appear. Building a straight wall was a task that required a delicate combination of precision, concentration, and attention to detail. The worst part was when one of the supervisors came around and said something along the lines of, “No es bien!” which meant those bricks needed to come down and you had to start over. Laying brick may have been frustrating at times, however, the most strenuous task was, without a doubt, roofing! This full morning activity lasted about five hours and total group effort was necessary to complete the job before lunch. I felt like I was in training to be a Navy Seal, especially because we were not familiar with the high altitude and low oxygen level. While one group shoveled the wet, heavy cement into seven gallon buckets, the other group had to haul those buckets to the roof. I am talking about lugging an approximately 70 pound bucket of cement to a roof 15 feet above ground level. Don’t get too excited yet, because I haven’t even told you the best part… In order to get on the roof, we had to balance that bucket as we walked up a steep incline that very few would consider a sufficient ramp. This so called “ramp” was homemade with pieces of scrap wood: it wobbled, it squeaked, and it was about a foot wide so every time you went on it, you felt as if it were going to break or you were going to fall off. Luckily, around your 200th bucket you were so tired you forgot what you were actually doing because it became second nature, and even if you did fall off, you were hoping you hit the ground hard enough so you couldn’t limp away from the accident. (The idea of staging a fall to get out of work probably crossed everyone’s mind at least once.) All joking aside…roofing really “cemented” our group together and we developed incredible trust and teamwork. Also, a new level of respect was gained for those individuals who perform this acrobatic balancing act on a daily basis.

Aside form the hard work, hot and dry weather, and the dirty smell we became accustomed to, the greatest obstacle we faced was the language barrier that we worked so hard to overcome. Believe it or not, English was the THIRD most spoken language on the worksites. Spanish is obviously the first, but surprisingly, Korean was more common than English because many of the students in our group were from South Korea. With that said, it is not a shock that we found ourselves lost in translation numerous times. Since most of us had never built a house before, we needed some instruction from the Mexicans who knew what to do. At first, communication remained very primitive and could be found in two forms: 1. Short phrases of “Spanglish” and 2. Hand motions accompanied by body language. Thankfully I had four years of Spanish class under my belt, but unfortunately the last time I took Spanish was a year ago. Somehow I was able to remember enough to get by and I usually found myself as the interpreter. The good news is the whole group greatly improved our Spanish skills and we were able to hold a simple conversation by the time we left. But just in case, we always remembered the most recognized language in the world is a simple smile, because it never failed to communicate a positive message.

In between pouring cement and laying bricks, something much more profound was learned. I am not talking about a new skill or a different Spanish vocabulary word. I am referring to something that cannot be taught but only learned through living and experiencing life. Obviously, a group of students, faculty members, and alumni who are affiliated with a prestigious college prep school live very different lives from the people of Amecameca we worked alongside. However, the amazing thing is how little we taught them and how very much they taught us. Personally, I discovered some valuable principles that I hope to integrate into my own life and way of living. The people of Amecameca showed me how to give and not to count the cost. To toil and not to seek for rest. To labor and not to ask for reward. These characteristics of life go beyond the importance of physics, calculus, or any other class subject. Some say life is the greatest education of all and I certainly agree that I learned a thing or two about life on my trip. For that alone, I should be thanking those I worked alongside, instead of them thanking me for spending time to help them build a home. As soon as I came to this realization, my reason for going to Mexico dramatically changed. Originally I planned on going so I could help those in need and those who are less fortunate than me; however, I found out no matter how much I gave them, it was not equal to how much I received. You may call that cliché or corny, but maybe the simple truisms we put to practice are the best educators of life.

Now that the moral of the story has been revealed, I am able to go on with the happy ending to a fairy tale story. After work on the last day, a closing ceremony was held to credit all the individuals who gave up their time and put in their best effort. Everybody was able to notice the immense progress made to the future homes and the experience seemed to outweigh a vacation at the beach. The families expressed so much gratitude and appreciation to everyone involved and we all sat down for a last meal together and celebrated in true Mexican fashion. A mariachi band came to play songs that prompted a very celebratory and festive mood after the heartfelt emotions we shared to kickoff the night. We all danced our unique and poor renditions of the Salsa and the Tango, but we enjoyed ourselves anyways. The toughest part of the trip was saying goodbye to all our new co-workers and friends. Everywhere you looked; people were hugging, taking pictures, and exchanging addresses. People were talking about coming back again and staying in touch throughout the year. This trip certainly made a lasting impact on me, the whole group from Culver Academies, and many individuals in the Amecameca community who were involved in the experience. So next time you take a trip, I challenge you to take one that will impact the rest of your life and possibly shape you as a person. Take a trip that simply cannot be explained by photographs, stories, or other objects; but rather, one that is only understood by those who have lived it and felt the emotions that came from it.

The author's comments:
-Dedicated to the Culver Academies Mexico Mission Trip 2009, Habitat for Humanity,and all the individuals in Amecameca who truly made this experience worth telling

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