Sacred Valley children
A very special Christmas spirit - Guadalajara, Mexico and Cusco, Peru
Many people, volunteering overseas, will spend this Christmas being welcomed into somebody else’s family whilst getting the opportunity to glimpse the celebrations of another culture. Fran Harris spoke to Tessa Okell who spent Christmases in Mexico and Peru with Projects Abroad.
Tessa travelled to Mexico at the end of June 2007 with Projects Abroad (chosen because of the way that the organisation looked after her sister’s friend who was involved in a car accident in Ghana: “I knew I’d be in safe hands”) and had three placements in two towns - the large city of Guadalajara and, the smaller, Ciudad Guzman.
She used drama to teach English to a group of 3-13 year olds and then worked as a teaching assistant and in a boy’s home. Mexico was “very different and I felt very welcome. I was eating things that I hadn’t tried before, living with another family and, after my time at University, getting used to work and the responsibilities that brings”. Memorable moments included “seeing the final performance of the youngest group with them singing and performing in English for the first time. I was also deeply affected by hearing the boys’ experiences in Guadalajara and how difficult their lives had been. It was humbling.”
Tessa came back from Mexico in October but was soon lured back to travel, improve her Spanish and spend Christmas with her Mexican boyfriend’s family. What was it like? “The main festivities are on Christmas Eve. There’s a big meal about eleven at night and lots of drinking. Late on Christmas Day, there is another meal and it’s then that presents are exchanged....Christmas in Mexico is less commercial and very family focussed. The shops and TV adverts aren’t constantly trying to sell you things...It’s also very charitable”.
Last Christmas saw Tessa back in South America working, in the Sacred Valley near Cusco in Peru, taking care of volunteers, who had travelled to work in care projects; in kindergartens; as teachers or restoring Inca ruins, as Projects Abroad’s assistant country Manager. I asked how Christmas in rural Peru compared with her Mexican experience “It was colder! And even less commercial.
I spent Christmas with my boss’ family and had turkey (Peruvians native to the Sacred Valley also sometimes mark occasions by eating Guinea Pig as a delicacy).... I also witnessed our host families sharing Christmas with the volunteers, people in the most basic accommodation gathered together as a family and had a special meal."
The New Year brought catastrophic flooding and mud slides to the Sacred Valley. Tessa and I talked about the way the floods were reported in the UK (less than a fortnight had passed since the Haiti earthquake meaning minimal press coverage focussed on a few stranded Machu Pichu tourists) compared to the devastation that she witnessed “It was very distressing for the local people. Houses along the river were wiped out and crops were destroyed. The valley was devastated. People were living in shelters, temporary tents, until I left in September. They didn’t have much to begin with and what they had was destroyed.” Projects Abroad, and other agencies, gave clothes, food and basic necessities. Medical students from Peru were on hand to assist with providing medicine and inoculations. “We gave fresh food instead of tins (oranges; limes; carrots and potatoes) and everything from giving Wellington boots and school stationary to providing psychological workshops.“
Back in the UK, Tessa’s experiences volunteering abroad have coloured her decisions about her future. She is currently volunteering for ActionAid and the Red Cross and aspires to a job with an NGO that works towards Women’s Empowerment.
- Tessa volunteered with Projects Abroad