I was a bit of a black sheep in the context of this trip – I am a student of the Haslam College of Business. As an accounting major, I was graciously permitted to intrude upon this TCE adventure. It immediately caught my attention when I heard about it, as service is a huge part of my life. I’ve volunteered at dozens of organizations and served hundreds of hours. But I’d never had a chance to serve the world at large like this. In fact, I would consider myself to be a little on the sheltered side in regards to travel. I’ve never extended far beyond my little realm of northeast Tennessee. Prior to this trip, I’d never traveled more than 600 miles from my hometown. In fact, the first leg of the flights to Cancun was my first flight ever. Talk about a rush! It was a trip of firsts, and I’m so happy I made the decision to reach out all those months ago to ask for permission to attend.
Mexico, or at least all the parts I could see, was absolutely stunning. Flying into Cancun, I took notice of how different the Yucatán looked from the United States from the air. The world was much more wooded here. Urban sprawl didn’t scar the forest with highways, parking lots, and suburbs. The ocean was pristine and crystal blue. The fruits we ate were insanely fresh. Everything, even the cities, felt more organic and natural. Cancun, however, was the exception to this. To me, it sort of felt like a Latin American version of Orlando, Florida. It was the first place I noticed how much tourism impacts the area. It was sobering to see the way in which Mexican culture must bend to more Euro-centric and American visitors because tourism is a major fuel of the Yucatán.
Our service project took place in a village by the name of Yaxunah. This was a small community undergoing a process of beautification to promote prosperity as well as attract tourists. We were given a tour of their recently-built community center, and our guide explained to us the importance of the preservation of their Mayan heritage. We then split up into small groups to tackle various projects throughout the village. The first day we were there, my group was led to a small plot of land to be cleared. This was adjacent to an animal pen for sheep and pigs, and the goal of clearing the land was to extend these animal pens to make space for more critters. I got to use a machete! Jordan was the most productive machete-wielder of the group, but the rest of us did our best to put a dent in the thick brush. Our second day on the site consisted of rebuilding and securing a wall around a family’s yard. These walls helped define each plot of land and keep the area clean. Several groups worked on several different walls throughout our service. It was a new experience to work alongside non-English speaking people, and that fact presented a unique challenge to overcome as we worked.
We participated in several sightseeing trips throughout our stay on the peninsula. We visited the beautiful, rich cities of Merida and Valladolid. These towns felt much more authentically Mexican than Cancun, although there was still a huge presence of bilingual citizens to cater to us as tourists. I loved experiencing these cities. We ate a ridiculous amount of delicious food. The most memorable thing I tried on this trip was a flavored, sweetened water made with hibiscus flowers called Jamaica. I had this drink with every meal with which it was available. We visited several archeological sites, including Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Kabah. Kabah was my personal favorite of the three because we were some of the only visitors at the site. It was much less crowded than Chichén Itzá or Uxmal, making it feel very peaceful and relaxed. Our tour guide at Kabah was also the most personable of the ones we had. He spoke the Mayan language and even taught us a few things about it, such as pronunciation and vocabulary. He was also hilarious, cracking jokes in a mixture of English and Spanish. Our sweet trip coordinator, Ana Maria, was embarrassed to translate a few of his naughtier jokes. We were all enamored with his personality.
Overall, this trip couldn’t have been any better to me. Everything went perfectly with the flexibility of Ana Maria, Judith, and our group as a whole. I’m so thankful that we were all so cohesive and patient together. I’m very happy that I made the decision to be the odd duck business major on this TCE trip. It allowed me to step outside my little bubble in the States and experience a place much different from what I know here. It’s something I will never be able to forget.