En Via

Volunteer Work Leads to a Soulful Home in Oaxaca, Mexico

A little girl dances during the Danza de la Pluma performance in Teotitlán del Valle.
A little girl dances during the Danza de la Pluma performance in Teotitlán del Valle.

Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland

“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”
– Pascal Mercier

Trumpet music wraps around me as I am swept into a dancing crowd that is celebrating a marriage union in front of Santo Domingo church. A cheerful man in a straw hat hands me a plastic glass of mezcal cocktail – it’s contents spilling over the sides as we shuffle our feet to the accelerating melodies. This day in early October marks the final hours of an impromptu weeklong foray to Oaxaca that I tacked onto my annual business trip to Mexico City. During the past week, I have felt a rumbling in my core, and I am currently mourning my impending departure from this stunning locale.

Vibrant street art in the city center.
An example of the amazingly vibrant street art in the city center.

The last five years of my life as an international marketing and development professional have moved me through the world like a migrating barnacle goose. My life generally revolves around airports and hotels – so much so, that I vacated my Vancouver apartment over four years ago to experiment with nomadic life, with a focus around saving money and simple living.

My travels have led to new friendships and experiences, along with a deeper understanding of the realities for women in various pockets. While this arrangement has been enriching, I am now craving a home, a steady community, and more flexibility and meaning in my work, particularly around the support and empowerment of my sisters across the world.

With this in mind, one of the most impactful aspects of my trip to Oaxaca was my participation in a tour of the surrounding pueblos with the Fundación En Vía non-profit group. Together with the guides, our group learned about microfinance, the En Vía interest-free microloan program for women, along with stories from individual borrowers. While the food, culture and people of this area all spoke to me, it was this tour that really solidified my decision to quit my job and move to Oaxaca.

A Fundación En Vía borrower demonstrates her skills for her microloan-funded business.
A Fundación En Vía borrower in San Miguel del Valle demonstrates her sewing skills.

Five months later, my previous position is wrapped up and I am en route to the En Vía office in Oaxaca for my first day of orientation – a new resident of this city that moved me so deeply.

For the next six months, my volunteer work revolves around leading responsible tourism outings that exist to fund interest-free loans for women to start and grow their own businesses. In addition to this, I also research, photograph and write a weekly piece for the En Vía blog. Throughout this time, I meet with dozens of women borrowers and their families, learn about their livelihoods, glean insight around the region, along with specifics around artisan works and processes, which is a specific area of interest of mine. My efforts also allow me to interact with travelers from all over the world who are both engaged and enthusiastic about the details of the program.

Ehren Seeland meeting with backstrap textile artists to learn about their process.
Ehren Seeland meeting with textile artists to learn about their process and support their business.

These aspects aside, the major benefits of my collaborations with En Vía include applying my efforts to a project that I feel positively supports women and their families, allows me to give back to a city that has welcomed me so warmly, and also offers a built-in social network, which is a crucial base to have in a new location. I have gained intimate insight into the region and a populace that I likely would not have been privy to so quickly on my own. The guide work also provides the opportunity to practice and expand my Spanish vocabulary, and the blog work helps to keep my writing and research skills fresh with these ongoing pieces.

Amazing custom rug on the standing foot pedal loom of a borrower family workshop.
Amazing custom tapete being woven on a standing foot pedal loom in a borrower family workshop.

During that last day of my inaugural October trip to Oaxaca, I cried when I went to retrieve my suitcase to head back to the airport. Not a sobbing kind of cry, but the quiet type that you feel in your heart when you’re leaving your family or a close friend. In that moment, I left a piece of myself in the city and vowed to return. With my return, I have found a long-term home, new people to love and care for, flexibility in my personal and professional schedule, increased creativity, and the opportunity to focus on and develop my passion projects. Though there are definitely challenges that exist as a part of my new country and culture, I feel incredibly alive.

A family member described it best when they said that this decision was soul saving for me – and I would have to agree. In making this big life change, I have found both the piece of my heart and my soul that I left behind on that last day in early October.

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