Words and photographs by Nicola Coakley
I found Fundación En Vía after graduating from university last year. My studies were focused on economics and global politics, and I was looking for an opportunity to learn more about the world of microfinance and NGOs. After endless amounts of internet research, I kept coming back to En Vía. I was drawn to its unique model that combines microfinance with tourism and fascinated by the communities outside of Oaxaca in which it operates.
In order to prepare for my move, I continued with my career as a nanny until I had saved enough money to set off and volunteer. I spent three months in Oaxaca last year teaching English in the communities of Tlacochahuaya and Teotitlán del Valle. I began my quest to learn Spanish and quickly fell in love with Oaxaca and the work En Vía was doing.
I returned home to accumulate more savings in order to continue with travel and volunteer work, and after a series of serendipitous events, I ended up back in Oaxaca volunteering with En Vía.
I have now been volunteering with the organization for four months and I plan to stay for the foreseeable future. My work involves teaching English, working as a tour guide, plus helping out in the office and with loan charging. A day in the life of a “fingers in many tlayudas” volunteer is wonderfully untypical – littered with navigational mishaps and language barriers, and full of opportunities to learn and exchange.
Countless experiences have reminded me how lucky I am to work with a dynamic team of staff and volunteers, along with an incredible group of local women, in order to create meaningful change in Oaxaca. That said, one day in particular does stand out to me.
A few weeks ago, while standing on the Tlacolula bus – sweaty and juggling bags of handmade tortillas and barbacoa de pollo, trying not to spill my styrofoam cup of bitter Nescafe, I had a moment of clarity when I realized how lucky I was to consider this part of my daily “routine.”
I had spent the morning with our volunteer photographer, Maddalena, in San Miguel del Valle taking some photos for En Vía and attending a first communion party for Carlitos, the son of one of our borrowers, Cecilia. Upon arrival at the fiesta, we were immediately presented with a large bowl of steaming atole, a mug of Oaxacan hot chocolate, and the largest roll of bread that I have seen in my life. Feeling full and happy, we then learned the entire process of making tlayuda tortillas – from grinding the corn into masa at the local molino, to pressing the large, thin tortillas by hand and cooking them on a comal. I should add that much of this process is more difficult than it looks, and that we were fortunate to have such patient teachers who put up with our numerous ripped and burnt tortilla mishaps. After employing a mix of exchanges in Zapotec, Spanish, Italian and English, each of us finally made one successful tortilla that could pass for a tlayuda.
We enjoyed our fresh tlayudas and barbacoa de pollo with family and friends at the party, then ran to get the bus armed with a generous amount of leftovers to take home. We made our way via collectivo, bus, and moto-taxi to Tlacochahuaya, where we spent the afternoon in the beautiful courtyard of the municipal building teaching English and leading a scavenger hunt for our students. While this day does stand out to me as being particularly special, what is more striking is that it was not really an atypical day volunteering with En Vía.
Many people here have said to me that there is something about Oaxaca that pulls you in and entices you to stay. While I certainly agree, I would argue that there is really something about En Vía. To be a part of a great organization and work with such impressive, inspiring individuals is something special.
Por fin, my only advice to anyone considering volunteering with En Vía would be to do it – and to save a little extra as you’ll probably want to stay longer than you planned.