Wednesday, and the troops are off on an adventure and in for a well-deserved treat. Students and staff will spend the evening at the Ermita de Silencio, a hermitage nestled amongst the pines across from Popocatépetl, our neighboring volcano. Frank Lloyd Wright couldn’t have done it better. Curved stone stairways follow the contours of mountain streams and lead to open terraces and the arched doorways of the dormitories. Candles in the halls cast a quiet glow on sparsely furnished bedrooms. And at dawn the sun reaches through stained glass, bathing the dining room and chapel in saturated reds, blues, and yellows. The aesthetic unity of the place is unprecedented, but it is extraordinary because of its unassuming beauty—the kind that envelops you without you noticing and makes you feel as if everything has always belonged exactly as it is. I could go on, but suffice to say: the groups are in for a very special experience!
They have all earned it too. After orientations Monday morning at our partnering organizations Calpulli de Los Niños and IECDEVI- Institute for the Blind, we divided into teams. A small group went to help the sustainable farm at Calpulli. Wielding machetes, we cut dried corn stalks which will later be used to feed the dairy cows. Another group stationed at IECDEVI set up a net around the institute’s trampoline and moved furniture into a new classroom. The rest of the Michigan State/Virginia Tech crew went out to our primary site in Tecuanípan where they continued work on the after-school classroom and composting toilet. By Tuesday afternoon the bamboo roof on the toilet was complete, and the top layer of mud was drying. Hot wind blew dust from the construction site into people’s eyes, but everyone persevered; digging, sifting dirt, cutting bamboo.
In addition, Michigan Staters got a chance to join our after-school program. We paired each child with a university student to make paper planes. After an aircraft tournament (which the wind ended up winning), the after-school regulars taught everyone one of our favorite games which trains individual self-control. In groups of four, each student takes a turn trying to make the others laugh. Whoever breaks into giggles first gets a point, and the person with the least points wins! We have a few champions from Tecuanípan, and they were tough competition for the university students. We ended the day with a lively game of Duck, Duck, Goose before the Americans were brought to their family homestays.
This morning the students and their Mexican hosts got to share a bit about their evenings together. Whether it was the food, welcoming atmosphere, or curious, overexcited children, everyone came away with an anecdote which illustrated the importance of intercultural exchange. Spending the night with a local family broadens students’ understanding of the type of people their volunteer work affects, and, as some of the mothers explained, paints a more complete picture of the Mexican way of life. In turn, families in rural communities (who often hear stories from relatives in the States) learn that American youth have far more to offer than parties in Cancún.