I try to live a life of adventure that takes me to interesting places, where I get to meet amazing people and have new experiences. For the past four plus years this has mostly meant living full time out of overland adventuremobiles and exploring the far corners of North America, with the occasional international flight to spice things up. Early in my full time travels I got the opportunity to join other overland travelers in Mexico for a grand adventure, which kicked off with a week of volunteer work with the Muskoka Foundation in central Mexico. The Foundation’s slogan is “Do Good As You Go,” promoting overland travelers to give back to the communities that they travel through. The interactions with, and insights into, the communities you’re traveling through gained from a volunteer experience like this one will have a profound impact on how you view the world around you.
For this particular volunteer experience I knew very little about what I’d be doing, except that it would be at a boys orphanage in Irapuato, about an hours drive away from base camp in Guanajuato. A group of about nine overland travelers volunteered for this weeklong experience, most of which hadn’t met before. Luckily, this group instantly bonded over a shared passion for travel and the exciting volunteer experience ahead. Muskoka gathered the volunteers for a big group dinner the night before our first day on site and outlined some expectations, and what we might expect to experience at the orphanage.
The first day at the Abrrigal de Irapuato was filled with quality time with the kids, about ten of them ranging from 5-16 years old, which involved a tour of the orphanage grounds, showing the kids our overland vehicles, playing soccer and sharing a meal together. Myself and a few other volunteers didn’t speak much Spanish, so communication was tough. We quickly discovered that photography is a universal language. The kids loved seeing photos of themselves, and were amazingly good photographers, even though none of them have ever owned a camera. While we didn’t get any physical projects done this first day, we did provide a quality fun interaction with adults that many of these kids don’t necessarily get on a regular basis. This orphanage is government run, and while it provides shelter, food and some adult supervision, it also has obstacles to overcome as you’d expect from any underfunded and loosely managed facility that takes in kids with tough upbringings.
Besides quality time with the kids, we as a group also needed to get acquainted with the location, situation, and possible opportunities to leave a lasting impact. Muskoka gave us quite a bit of freedom to tackle as much or as little as we wanted, while also guiding us towards things that they felt would leave a lasting impact. As a group we decided to go big and tackle a huge amount of work, which we only had four on site days to complete. Our biggest project was completely overhauling the kids outdoor play area, as there was quite a bit of unsafe, rusty and sharp, playground equipment. We also committed to refurbishing the kids living quarters—two large dormitory style rooms—by repainting, creating custom bedding, and reorganizing the space to create more personal areas that the kids could take pride and ownership in.
Our group broke into teams, and over the four days of on site work managed to tackle all of these projects with great success. The key was working well as a team, as well as putting in long busy days. We kept material and tool costs to a minimum through creativity, like using donated materials for the bedding and sourcing free used tires from a shop down the street to integrate into the playground. We also reused as much of the playground equipment as we could, while making sure that it was now a safe environment for the kids to play. We also brought the kids into the projects, letting them make as many of the decisions on colors, materials, and styles as possible. This created a sense of accomplishment and ownership of the new spaces, which hopefully leads to the kids taking care of their home more in the future.
Our group also felt that it was important to spend more quality time with these boys, outside of just working on projects, and the only other time we had available was one of the evenings. We shared a meal, watched movies in Spanish, played games, and had a tent camp out on the orphanage grounds. The boys especially were impressed with our roof top tent setup. We also left one final gift for the boys, framed portraits of each of them to hang on the orphanage walls. Hopefully the combination of our efforts created a sense of home and personal space for these boys.
Our group was also lucky enough to get to spend an afternoon at the girls orphanage, the Buen Pastor, in Guanajuato. It was a stark contrast to the boys home, as it was run by the church: very organized, super clean, and required its residents to spend the weekends outside the orphanage, preferably with their families. We got a grand tour of the church run facility and spent some time just interacting with the kids. Again photography was the barrier braking language of choice, and again the kids had an amazing eye for taking great images. We also got to play some games with the girls and show them pictures from our travels, hopefully broadening their worldview. While we didn’t build, fix, or transform anything physical at the girl’s orphanage, we did leave a positive impact on the girls in the form of a greater understanding of the outside world and more positive adult interactions, which can be lacking for many of these kids.
Besides the interactions with all the kids, we also got to have amazing experiences with the other volunteers, local aid workers and other members of the local communities. These experiences are what truly give a window into the local culture that you just can’t get from rolling through an area in your adventuremobile. Besides sharing meals, working through language barriers, nights on the town, and private house parties we also got to explore amazing local areas that we might not have found on our own. One of the most impressive on this trip was an afternoon picnic high in the mountains above Guanajuato, in an area called “La Calderon.” The views of the city and the surrounding countryside were spectacular from this unique moonscape like mountaintop. What’s not to like about an afternoon of off-roading, hiking, bouldering, and picnicking with friends in an amazing new place? Many of the volunteers and local aid workers are now life long friends.
I encourage you to “do good as you go,” whether that be through a formal organization like the Muskoka Foundation or through self organized volunteer projects. The experiences will enrich both you and the communities that you’re traveling through. Keep living a life of adventure and strive to reach deeper into the communities and places you visit.