“I believe experience is the ultimate teacher, and there is no substitute for it. I can learn about the great mysteries of life in classes, books, movies, and television programs, but until I leave my front door to go out and experience them, it is only academic, and I am only going halfway.
Such was the case with my recent trip to Puebla, Mexico, which I made from January 4-12 as part of the Boston College Arrupe International Immersion Program. This trip presented me with a wonderful experience so rich with blessings that it defies summary. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, this experience is worth 1,000 times 1,000. Nonetheless, I will share a few impressions from the trip, before they leak from my sieve of a memory and are buried beneath the weeks ahead.
I served as mentor on the trip with my co-mentor and fellow BC STM student Katie, offering what support we could to student leaders Meghan and Edwin, and walking on this journey with a symmetrical group of 12 BC undergraduates: 6 sophomores, 6 seniors; 6 male, 6 female. Yet, though my ostensible role was that of mentor, I soon found that they were my teachers, and in many ways were more advanced in wisdom and depth than I. I enjoyed sharing deep conversation on life while we worked, reflections at the end of the day, and laughter during games at night (Celebrity, Mafia, Assassin, etc, all of which were new to this old man).
It was a wonderful privilege to watch them grow, and witness their unique personalities and passions shine forth. They really stepped up to the plate and made sacrifices unheard of for most BC students. We met some really cool people in Mexico. We grew to love our hosts Miguel and Ina, staff of Community Links International, who coordinated our lodging, itinerary, transportation, and activities – in short, our entire experience. Miguel offered presentations on water conservation (click here for video on bottled water), materialism and consumption (click here for a video on “the story of stuff”) that really shook us up and taught us about the poverty and justice realities in Mexico. Ina and her husband Manuel offered their awesome home (made of all natural, recycled materials, complete with a dry composting outdoor toilet…best toilet ever!) as our home base from which we broke off into groups doing different activities during the day. Finally, and best of all, people from a nearby village welcomed us into their homes and into their lives.
For example, I stayed two nights in the home of Francisco and Nico, who were very patient with my complete lack of Spanish (total gringo) and let me play with their adorable kids Israel and Naphthalie. The best part was the second night, when my fellow trip member Pete and I enjoyed a community gathering of 40+ people praying the Rosary (great chants, flowers laid at the foot of a makeshift shrine of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) and sharing a homecooked meal together (Pete and I even got to help Francisco’s family serve their guests, though I made for a lousy waiter!). In short, we were blessed with good people every step of the way, and they touched our hearts more than they will ever know.
Finally, a word about some of the places we went and things we did. Since this was an intensive service immersion trip designed to promote solidarity with the people there, we not only walked with them, we worked with them. Our tasks were diverse: husking corn and picking the kernels off the cobs, pulling weeds in the cornfield (hard work!), mixing organic materials into a potent fertilizer (yours truly shoveled heaps of manure…perhaps in punishment for previous sins!), helping build a dry composting bathroom using “coping” (one of the many cool indigenous technologies we learned, mixing mud and straw into very strong bricks), and playing with the village kids at an afterschool program. Again, I was very impressed with the way my BC mates worked so hard and did everything asked of them.
These and other activities reached a wonderful crescendo near the end of the trip, when we shared corn tortillas (made from the corn we processed) with our village friends, and then played with the kids one last time. As the sun set on the day and on our trip, the blessings and lessons of our trip were sealed in our minds and hearts.
In closing, I look back at these impressions and consider their lasting lessons. I, the whitest of white boys, discovered how very difficult it was to be a stranger in a strange land, unable to speak the language – now I know how immigrants to the US feel, and it’s not easy.
I learned the hard way how hard the villagers worked every day, and indeed I would have fainted had I worked as they did much longer! I saw how much they cared for each other, for us, and for their land – it may sound cliche, but they knew a lot that we did not, and they seemed more fulfilled in spite of material poverty, scarcity of resources, and simple living than we did in our affluent, busy, techno-crazy First World lives. Finally, I realized that we owe it to them, and to our experience, to remember the people, remain in solidarity with them, and share it with people on this end.
To that end, though it only scratched the surface, I nonetheless hope this sketch was helpful, that it conveyed in some small way the richness of this experience; and that when our Arrupe group shares our Solidarity Project this spring, people take interest and experience in some small way the ‘falling in love’ that we did. ” Michael Quinn