I used to associate the word "tour" with dull museums, superficial trips in other countries, and sunburned tourists scratching their heads or gasping with delight. But this idea completely changed during the two months I recently spent in Oaxaca, Mexico, studying Spanish and teaching English as a volunteer for a microfinance organization.
What I'd originally heard about Fundacion en Via was that they gave tours for a fee and had something or other to do with microfinance. Not at all something I (a high school junior) would usually get excited about.
Although I was initially unenthusiastic about getting up early on a Saturday morning to pile into a van with about a dozen English-speaking tourists, I soon found that everything the engaging, friendly tour guide told us had me wanting to know more.
We were going to visit six women who were borrowers through Fundacion en Via; each had taken out an interest-free microloan (equivalent to about $100) to start or expand her own business, all funded through these tours.
Our guide told us about how there are many entrepreneurial women in poverty in rural Oaxaca with good ideas about how to run small businesses, but who lack the financial resources to do so, as local banks charge higher than 70 percent interest rates.
We arrived shortly in Teotitlan, a mountainside village in which it is said that no house is without a loom, the vivid colors of the beautiful weavings never fade, and where more than one hundred women combined their work ethic, ideas and Fundacion en Via's financial support to better their lives and the lives of their families.
Hope shone from the face of each woman we visited. One woman told us about how she could now afford to buy enough wool and dyes to make her weavings; another about how she owned the best hair salon in town because she now had the funding to buy the latest products; another of how she was honoring her grandfather's memory by using what he had taught her about medicinal plants to build up her own business.
It was the most touching and inspiring experience I had ever had, and I knew that I wanted to get involved. I looked into volunteering and learned that Fundacion en Via also offers English classes in the communities it serves. I assessed my proficiency in the English language, decided I was up to par, and joined other volunteer teachers that very week.
Each trip to the small, indigenous Zapotec village outside of Oaxaca City began with a 10-minute walk, a stuffy 45-minute ride on an old local bus, a haphazard dash across a four-lane highway, and a squished taxi ride. It was worth every uncomfortable moment.
Kids and adults alike would flock to Teotitlan's town square, be sorted into groups by age and level of proficiency, and somehow manage to (mostly) pay attention to us teachers even after a full day of school.
I took the 7- to 11-year-olds, who always had more energy than I can ever remember having, so we would laugh and blunder our way through "Simon Says" and "Duck, Duck, Goose," with them learning English and me learning so much more from them. They challenged me and made me put all of my effort into those hours, laughed and pointed if I messed up my Spanish, threatened to get completely out of control many times, and helped me to come to peace with the fact that no matter what I did, if a soccer ball was released within sight of my students, they would immediately be out juggling and passing, and that was that. Lesson over.
The biggest gift they gave me, though, was the feeling that I was making a legitimate difference in a place it was very needed. Fundacion en Via is tiny - it has only three employees, and 10 or 20 volunteers at any given time - and yet is directly benefiting the lives of 250 women and their families, and I was privileged enough to be involved. I hope to return and volunteer with them to further their mission, to be humbled every day by those amazing women, and to once again be inspired.
WINDOW ON MY WORLD
Window On My World is an occasional essay in Monday's Bellingham Herald that allows Whatcom County residents to share their passion for what they do, an idea or cause they support. Send your Window On My World, which must be no more than 700 words, to Julie.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maya Norton, a member of the Bellingham High School class of 2014, visited Oaxaca, Mexico, January-February, 2013. Go to envia.org for more information about the organization.