I learned a new word this week - voluntourism. Apparently I'm not the only one who enjoys taking a trip for the purpose of volunteering. I've gone to Mexico three times to serve on Lions in Sight eye clinic teams. As a matter of fact, my husband and I go together, and it is such a rewarding experience.
I really enjoy meeting people on these trips. The hosts give you their best, and they treat us like family. We get to see life from their perspective, much more so than if we were tourists. We visit places that tourists are unlikely to see.
The first clinic I did was in Cabo San Lucas, but we never once set foot on the beach. Basically, go about a mile or so north of the tourist zone, and you will see extreme poverty. We set up a clinic in an empty warehouse. They brought people to us from the desert by the busload. The docs would do the exams, and the technicians (us) would dispense the eyeglasses.
The second one was in a place called Union de Tula, in Jalisco. This clinic was a little different... the patients had a little money. The local Lions had to charge about $5 US for each patient, to cover the expenses of the clinic. A great deal, by our standards... $5 and you get an eye exam and at least one pair of glasses. But for some people in Mexico, an extra $5 takes months to earn, and when the choice is to feed your family or to get glasses, guess where that $5 goes. Very sad.
The third clinic that we did in January was the best yet. We were in the Yucatan in a place called Valladolid, which is between Cancun and Merida. I actually worked without a translator, even though my Spanish is pretty awful. Customs would not let us bring in the doctor's bag with the examining equipment until late in the day, so finding the right pair of glasses involved a lot of trial and error. The Mayan people were so nice... very open and friendly. I made friends with one little girl.
We were in Valladolid during a special festival, and at 10:00 PM, all the women put on their traditional Mayan dresses with their special brand of embroidery. They go out dancing, without the men... all generations of women. They seemed like they enjoy it, and look forward to it. I never did figure out what the festival was all about.