Cuetzalan was buzzing with life on the Saturday our group arrived. We had left Puebla early in the day, and the meandrous three-hour bus ride through the Sierra Norte left us all ready for an active walk. And our wish was granted: Hotel Taselotzin where we were staying was at the top of a steep mountain, and the only way to town was by foot! As we joyfully came down the hill to the marketplace, we realized that the way back uphill was going to be just as steep. However, we quickly turned our attention to the sights: the beautiful town with its sloping cobble streets and rustic homes in a valley surrounded by tree-covered mountains. We took many breaks to soak in the scenery… and catch our breath.
Closer to town, we were enchanted by the strong indigenous presence and the locals’ welcoming looks. As we made our way to the market, an abundance of fruits and vegetables delighted our eyes, and the streets were filled with smells of freshly fried tacos and vendors of everything. In the main plaza, in front of the town’s main church, the voladores were just about to start their show. We paused to watch and witnessed the magic of an old ritual: six indigenous men dressed in their traditional costumes climbed to the top of a very tall tree trunk and took their positions on top of a wooden wheel, with one man dancing to the rhythm of a flute on top of the trunk, no ropes attached. The others all came soaring down hanging on ropes and turning circles around the tree. It was touching to share that moment with clapping locals and for us, it set the tone for a beautiful experience.
We shared more joyful moments visiting natural caves, the pyramids of Yohualichan and Cascada de las Brisas, a waterfall in the jungle surrounding the town. However, our most memorable moments were in Xiloxochico, where our group worked for a week alongside local Nahua people to start building a new two-room science lab for high school students in the village. Doña Victoria, our contact and a very prominent figure with the Nahua Women’s Cooperative in Xilo, facilitated the meetings and, along with the school’s principle and staff, arranged for our group of students and teachers from the U.S. to work side by side with the Nahua students and their parents on this project. We dug the land together, mixed cement and carried stones under the 90-degree, high-altitude sun. The end of the workdays found us all dirty and tired, Americans and Mexicans alike, but happy.
Throughout the days we exchanged smiles and found common language in games of soccer and basketball. Doña Victoria ensured that, as with every Xperitas group in the decade she has been hosting us, the project was just one of many forms of connection and that the Nahua and U.S. students had enough moments to mix together, talk – even in the absence of a common language – and play.
One day, she led us for a long uphill walk in the woods under a warm rain to the village of Xilo for a carnival, where the whole town had gathered in celebration. We ended that beautiful day with a dinner at her sister’s home, and it was wonderful to meet the whole family. We had many meals in locals’ homes during our project, and these moments made all the difference in truly knowing where we had been. By the end of the trip the students had made lifelong friends, and many vowed to return to the village one day. On the morning of our departure, one of the Mexican boys who had befriended our students over a soccer game in Cuetzalan came to Hotel Taselotzin to say goodbye. It was moving to see the start of a friendship, and as the bus left, the students continued to talk about him and about his Facebook page with great joy.
On the way back to Puebla, I looked around the bus, thinking of what this experience might mean for each of our students. Six brave, curious boys and four delightful, strong young women will long remember the trip they took in high school with their math teacher and school counselor. It will hopefully be a milestone, one that opens doors to more cultural exchanges both at home and abroad. It all started with Mr. Grant and Mr. Flanders, who applied and gracefully accepted the Global Learners Grant from Xperitas, thus setting their students on a journey of discoveries of cultures, human connections and learning of self. And it only happened with the great participation of curious minds like our great Maria, Christina, Malia, Guadaloupe, Reid, Keon, Kahue, Tucker, Vince and Davian. And of course, it wouldn’t have been what it was without our great trip leader who guided us all in this discovery, the one and only Steve Karrigan. I feel so fortunate to have participated in this amazing program!