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How to build a school in Mexico – for free


I wracked my brain all yesterday trying to produce something. But every word I penned in my notebook was later crossed out. How does one sum up such an action-packed, emotion-charged ten days in Mexico? Nothing was good enough. My phrases were forced. Sleeping on it was the only idea that made sense to me. Frustrated, I eventually turned in, leaving behind crumpled pages as my only creation.

From left: Megan, me, Hailey, Ashley, and Jess. Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza, México. 01/14/2019.

Struggling to get out of bed this morning reminds me of how I struggled to get out of bed on those shivery sunups at Hotel Taselotzin. I am so warm and comfortable under the covers. I need coffee nonetheless. I hesitantly swing my legs over the edge. I slowly proceed to the kitchen. It’s weird not to see Doña Viky, our motherly Nahua guide, clanging away by the sink. I reach for Mr. Coffee and fill my Puebla cup. I enter the dinette hoping to find my wife Alyssa. Unfortunately, her bags aren’t on the floor near the doorway. She has already left for work.

Grabbing a chair, emptiness fills the room. It’s strange not to see the fourteen Carroll University students’ groggy mugs at the table with me. Part of me still expects them to drowsily file in. The silence is salient. There are no laughs, no ridiculous stories from the night before, and no Misael or Efraín offering to take my plate every couple of minutes. There’s no sweet bread to halve, fresh fruit to pass, or tortillas to take in. Chino will not be pulling up in his covered pickup, and we will not be strategizing on how to keep Chivo from scoring more soccer goals on us. I really relish that routine.

Cascada Las Brisas. Río Tecolutla, Cuetzalan, Puebla. 01/13/2019.

As I continue to chew on my old day-to-day, I stare out the window. The plumes coming from the neighbor’s chimney conjure up the incense enveloping the ceremony to honor Viky’s mom on the second anniversary of her death. The smoke also transports me to the steamy confines of the hotel’s Temazcal. A sweat lodge would feel great right now. Perhaps it would alleviate this thorn in my side. Blankly peering through the glass, the blank pages of my journal begin to bite at me like the unyielding flies at Bachillerato José Vasconcelos—the high school at which we volunteered in Xiloxochico (She-low-show-cheek-oh). I take one more swig of caffeine. Huh, no Taselotzin grounds at the bottom. I head downstairs for some motivation.

Our team at Cascada Las Brisas. Río Tecolutla, Cuetzalan, Puebla. 01/13/2019.

Looking around my office, I am instantly reminded of my daze in the Sierra Norte. The heart-shaped “Nelson” keychain—a parting gift from the local high schoolers—dangles in front of me. The Nahuatl textbook given to me by Viky’s brother, Valentín, rests next to a pile of pesos atop my desk. The card the Carroll undergrads signed for me is proudly pegged on my bulletin board. Turning to the bookshelf, I lock eyes with the tiny figurine that my teeth discovered in the rosca de reyes we were served on our first morning in Xiloxochico. His unimpassioned expression mirrors mine. He’s got about as many thoughts as I do when it comes to finishing this entry.

Uninspired still, I pace from pillar to post across my study. I mull over what to write. Walking back and forth does jog my memory though. This repetitive motion stirs up the labor we performed over and over again in the small village. I recall the relentless rebar carrying and cutting on Tuesday morning. Digging further into my memory, I recollect the ceaseless shoveling, not to mention the perpetual pails the group lugged from the lunchroom to the cement mixer on the opposite end of the playground. The bruises along my right arm also make me think about the boundless buckets of heavy concrete shouldered to the roof of the future chemistry lab. The Carroll crew undoubtedly worked hard. And they most definitely played hard. Their enthusiasm was exceptional.

Bachillerato José Vasconcelos. Xiloxochico, Cuetzalan, Puebla. 01/11/2019.

Enthusiastic, in fact, would be the term I’d use to describe this team … if I could choose only one. The students arrived with open minds, took advantage of opportunities, and lived in the moment. Nothing demonstrated this quality more, however, than when nearly all of them rushed into the polar pool at Cascada Las Brisas. Most visitors desire dry land due to the frigidness of the lagoon in January. What this squad did at the falls was fitting nevertheless. They leaned into this adventure, attacking every occasion as they did the freezing water. I beam with pride.

Leading programs like this is truly rewarding for me. The chance to make more progress on projects is invariably appealing, the scenery is ever amazing, and the food always fantastic. But, for me, the flavor really comes from the relationships I build with people—host community and group members equally. Not only do I get to take people to places they have never seen before (or may never see again), but I also get to share possibly once-in-a-lifetime experiences with individuals who I’d probably never meet outside of these circumstances.

On the other hand, it’s tough on me once these trips end because of these personal connections. We are abruptly smacked by an intense situation which we must navigate together. We become fast friends, time flies by, and then the dance is quickly over. The separation is swift. And I am suddenly left at my laptop without an adequate manner in which to express my gratitude for this journey, without a proper way to sign off. If I could only find the words…

Tyrel Nelson
Xperitas Team Leader
Xiloxochico, Cuetzalan, Mexico

Our team with the Voladores de Cuetzalan. Plaza de la Iglesia. 01/13//2019.

*For more information on how to join an Xperitas Community Partnership Program visit their website here.

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