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Sara's Story: Volunteering Abroad for a Year

Part One: First stop - Guadalajara, Mexico

By Sara Macdonald | 06th December, 2021
Updated on 21st January, 2022

Here at Projects Abroad we love to share the stories of our volunteers. Read below to see part one of Sara's epic volunteer journey. She travelled with Projects Abroad for almost an entire year in 2019 and 2020. Sara joined a variety of projects in Mexico, Peru, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia!   

First stop - Guadalajara, Mexico

Oh my God! It's only 15 years until I'm 80. This ghastly, gnawing thought drills through my brain as I stand talking to one of my favourite people, Babs, whose words of wisdom given with humour has sustained me for the longest time as I acclimatised to working in the sheltered housing unit in which she lives. This job has taught me a lot and the biggest lesson of all - live your life whilst you can!

Coinciding with these thoughts comes news that several close friends, some younger, some older have been diagnosed with serious health problems. My own mortality faces me with a bleakness that could easily turn to fear. What to do? 

If you have an idea, Sara, you'd better get on and do it, says Babs, bringing me back to the conversation I'd drifted from. Hmm, was about all the answer I could muster. 

However something lit inside and I started to let my mind dream of places and things I thought impossible to do. I began searching the Internet, looking at beautiful sandy beaches, tropical waters, exotic wildlife and thinking yes this is the life for me!

My landlord then gave me notice to leave my house, and despite my dreams, despair flooded through me. My youngest son still had another year at University, could I leave him? He was miles away anyway and we hardly saw much of each other, so would it matter? We Skyped and I outlined my plan … , “Mum you've got to go, don't worry about me, I'll be fine.”  I was excited but also feeling that I hadn't quite completed my parental duties. But the lure of learning to dive in Thailand was a big draw. 

I started to plan; a few weeks wouldn't do, even a few months seemed not long enough. So I decided on a year and called it my OgAP (old age pensioners gap year) - because yes, I had reached the age of 65 and was entitled to receive my pension. 

Holly, the dear girl at Projects Abroad in Brighton, took my call. (Projects Abroad is a company organising volunteering experiences all over the world for anyone interested in stepping out and experiencing living and working in a new country. Projects vary from business and medical to conservation and teaching). Holly was patient and encouraging and by the time we had gone through most of the countries of the world that I wanted to visit, was more excited than me. Finally the decision was made I would go to Guadalajara in Mexico for six weeks, followed by 12 weeks at Taricaya Eco Reserve, Peru. This I happily decided would enable me to pick up the rudiments of Spanish. I downloaded the Duolingo Spanish course and attempted to commit to memory a few simple introductory phrases in readiness to meet my first host family. 

Sri Lanka became the third stop, my father was born in the Hill Country on a tea plantation managed by his parents. Both my grandfather and father had died before I could retain memories of them, so this country has always held a mystery for me. I chose to teach young monks English for my project stay of 12 weeks, feeling that it would be an extraordinary and very wonderful privilege. 

Two days later I'm back on the phone to Holly, “won't it be monsoon time when I go? “, the conversation continued, did it matter, wouldn't that just add to the experience? I wasn't going for a holiday, three months is a long time, surely it can't rain the whole time! She listened patiently until I decided I should just grab the opportunity and stop being a weed. 

Thailand for Christmas, learning to dive, being part of a marine conservation project - blue waters, sunshine, beach, it sounded blissful. Uh oh, trouble with the visa, you have to leave after 8 weeks even for just 24 hours before your return. So what should have been my last Project before flying home became the penultimate - 6 weeks in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. And a rather delicious ending, a month back in Krabi before springtime in England.

But who could have predicted what I returned too! Covid-19 took hold whilst I was in Cambodia; the cruise ship, Westerdam had moored in Sihanoukville and the first cases of the virus worldwide were taking their toll on the death rates with this virulent disease. Coronavirus had taken the world in its grip and everything and everybody shut down and isolated themselves from infection. Daily news brought horrific tales of people dying, with hospitals over-run with virus casualties, it was a global pandemic, the proportions of which no one had any experience to control.

However, I left England on 12 May 2019, excited, hopeful and slightly nervous.

I didn’t know what to expect, who I was likely to meet or really what I was going to be doing. I just knew I needed to challenge myself and create a new outlook on this next stage in my life. I had encouraged and facilitated my two sons to travel, make friends with as diverse a group as they could and embrace life with joy and openness. I think I overdid it at times as my eldest went as far as possible ending up in Fiji, but the experience he had there forged a confidence and understanding of community that no educational course ever could. My youngest strode out to Brazil and then China, working as a translator and English teacher. Both returned home with wonderful stories and excitement about the world. I began to feel left behind. So it was my empty nest, feeling a bit of a travel fraud, lack of challenge and a stagnancy in my work that combined to propel me to the decision of my OgAP.

I was hoping to meet lots of new people, experience new things and perhaps discover something about myself that previously I had been unaware. Growing up amongst an extraordinary, loving, chaotic and unusual family group, which perhaps later I may describe more fully, had formed a behaviour in me to listen and watch, use cutting humour with love to make a point and to include the strugglers and stragglers of life. I have to admit I was a little nervous about being the old one in a group of teen/20 somethings and it was only really with the sounds of “you are so brave”, “I could never do that” ringing in my ears from my colleagues that made me really think about what I was about to do.

I had chosen to volunteer in countries that I had not been to before and to join projects that were as diverse as possible from one another. 

Sara on her way to the airport

I stood mute, my eldest son by my side, as I waited for the Gatwick Express at Victoria Station. I wasn’t scared, I suppose numb and incredulous better describes my feelings. Jody ran through a few last minute things he thought I needed to know and with a fond hug, I turned to walk down the platform to the train. I had a large suitcase and a carry-on bag, both crammed with clothes and half of Boots dispensary – a great deal of which was never used. At the airport I heaved the suitcase on to the check-in belt to be met with a stony stare from the clerk, ‘your bag is overweight madam, there will be a £70.00 surcharge’ – what a great start to my adventure, I paid up mumbling to myself, with the dawning realisation I really was on my own. 

Arrival in Mexico

The flight was long and uneventful, landing at Los Angeles with a few hours to wait before departing for Guadalajara. Eduardo from Projects Abroad was waiting for me and before driving me to my host family, helped me get money from the ATM and buy a local SIM card.

Lesli’s home is in a quiet northern suburb, near to a road which circles the city. This was to prove extremely useful to me. The homes all had bars on the windows and gated fences surrounding their properties, reminiscent of South African suburbs, which made me feel a little anxious. However in the whole time I was there I never felt uncomfortable or in danger; quite the opposite as I wondered at the mangoes and avocadoes ripening on the roadside trees and marvelled at the glorious flowering shrubs alive with hummingbirds and geckos. Lesli is a treat, she has been hosting volunteers for years and is able to be warmly welcoming whilst setting out the house rules. Her aged little dog, Guera, bravely assisting by her side. Lesli speaks extremely good English and as we chatted found we already had much in common. 

A mural by José Clemente Orozco

Lucas arrived the next morning to show me Guadalajara, buy bus tickets and generally help me to acclimatise to my new surroundings. He is particularly interested in history and Mexican culture so was pleased to show me the powerful, political murals painted by José Clemente Orozco which decorate the main stairwell of the Palacio de Gobierno and the Instituto Cultural Cabanas, a building once used as an orphanage and hospital. I stood mouth agape as he described the meanings of these paintings. They are huge and ugly and strangely moving. I know little of Mexican history or its art and I hoped this was just the beginning of my understanding and learning.

Guadalajara is plastered with mostly fantastic street art, sculptures, graffiti and very well crafted murals. They add to the vibrancy and colour of the streets, many of which are paved for pedestrians. Otherwise there are narrow roads crammed with cars and fast moving buses.

I have never experienced such unnerving bus journeys as the first few days in Guadalajara. Filled with people, all carrying rucksacks, you really do need two hands to hold on fast, music blares from the sound system, flags, flowers and pictures of saints adorn the interior, religious or not, the need to cross oneself as the journey begins becomes an act to consider. I learned to love these journeys although it took me far longer to memorise the landmarks surrounding my bus stops, partly because it was so difficult to get a clear view to the windows and then the speed with which we passed them. Having gone round ‘the loop’ a couple of times, not only had I seen quite a lot of the city but my internal mapping system began to kick in.  However, it was not entirely accurate and one of the other volunteers, a fabulous girl called Lila, spent many a happy moment teasing me about my hopeless sense of direction.

There were four of us volunteering in Guadalajara: Lila, Soma and Gianluca, all on different projects and living with host families across the city. Gianluca, a very attractive, talkative Italian was off out making new friends at every opportunity, so “the girls” bonded more closely on shopping trips and sight-seeing. It was fortunate for Lila and I as Soma was on a two week medical assignment and was desperate to pack in as much as possible during her free time.  So this unlikely trio of me and two young girls from Guadalope and the US, set off to wander the many bright and exotic markets dotted throughout the city. Lila speaks French, Spanish and English and by the time she had been pushed in front of us to garner directions, bargain prices or order food was more than proficient in all three. We had such a laugh together and the initial concern about age difference became redundant. I rarely joined them for evening drinks or partying but that was more to do with me budgeting and being nervous of not finding my way home in the dark!

Lila, Soma and I set out one Saturday on an open top bus, which took us to Tlaquepaque, Tonala and Zapopan, the three main markets of Guadalajara. Tlaquepaque is vibrant and bright, packed with restaurants, bars, shops, street art, galleries and people. It is an extraordinary sight and full of chatter and music. We stopped in an open yard for lunch, lured in by the sound of the musicians. 


But, of course, I was not in Guadalajara to visit museums and sight-see, I was there to work in a Project helping migrants fleeing from the atrocities raging in Central America.


I ring the bell high on the wall, outside an imposing black steel gate with razor wire atop. A little barred hatch door opens, eventually, and I am assessed - friend or foe?!!  A loud buzzing and a click notifies me that I may enter. The lobby is filled with white chairs and a large group of tired but patient young men sit waiting. They have been waiting their whole lives, by the look of them. I say Buenos dias and am met with an attention I did not expect and a cheerful Buenos dias in response. 

I walk through to the voluntarios office where we meet for a debriefing of the previous shift and an allocation of duties. Of course I understand none of it, but sometimes as my ear adjusts to the sounds of a language I do not know, I can decipher words and perhaps get a sense of the topic. As I listen I understand perro and chico - two words I know as dog and small - but they are said too often to make sense.

 Later Cristian, a kind boy on social service secondment translates for me - he is at university studying aeronautical engineering and wants to work on a space programme - pero, only with one 'R', means 'but' and chico an endearment - maybe 'the lads' ?!!

Volunteers sort clothes at the migrant center

Mariana looks at me suddenly and speaks quickly in Spanish whilst I looked terrified and blank, this causes a lot of laughter from the other volunteers, someone takes pity on me and translates I should go to work in the Roperia. 

La Roperia is the wardrobe and supplies area, a large room full of shelving piled high with donated clothes - all of which have to be sorted and folded on almost a daily basis. Wash kits need to be made up - little bottles filled with shampoo, toothpaste and body lotion, plus a new toothbrush, soap and a razor.

The place is very dirty, dust from old clothes and the fact the Centre is housed in an industrial building made of steel and roofing of plastic sheeting. 

The men who have had their Entrevista - introduction interview to assess their need - begin to queue at the entrance. I can help, as long as the men answer yes or no to my one word questions! 

Volunteers prepare and distribute food to migrants

It is now about 11.00 - Mexicans are known for their relaxed time keeping - and it is time for desayuno, a cooked meal usually rice, beans, vegetables possibly mixed with some meat and of course chilli salsa. Some days tacos too. The menu depends on the food donations that come from various kindly locals or nearby restaurants. 

Before the food is served, the migrants form a circle round the tables and a member of the permanent staff explains the house rules. They ask for any migrant who is prepared to wash the floors, clean the bathrooms, kitchen or wash the dishes. These migrant volunteers are put at the front of the food queue. It is explained to them that they need to be respectful to each other, and the staff, and need to co-operate with the running of the centre. 

The in-transit migrants may stay for up to two nights and three days and the ones seeking asylum in Mexico, for two or three months. The refugees are given legal advice and help to find work and accommodation. 

They are all, without exception, in my experience, the most delightful group of people, smiling and happy despite their circumstances. They are hopeful and halfway on their desired journey by the time they reach Guadalajara - perhaps that's why.

I worked at the Centre each morning. The most distressing job was Entrevista – each migrant was interviewed at length and their stories were of drugs, fear, unemployment and desperation. Many leaving families behind with the hope that their fortunes could be made in the US, and their loved ones would join them later.

There was a constant and ever increasing number of young men and families with small children lined up at the door each morning. The people requiring the Centre’s support had nothing. They had travelled for hours walking in the heat, which was intense, or waiting to ride the cargo trains that snaked their way through Mexican countryside. It is a dangerous and hazardous way to travel and not for the faint-hearted. One young man arrived with a badly cut head and face having been recently released from an ICU unit; he had fallen from the roof of the train. He was not entirely sure what had happened to him but felt he had also been attacked before being taken unconscious to the hospital.

The inhumanity of The Wall and the desperation of the refugee camps around the world hit home on a daily basis. Thank goodness for the other side, which is human kindness.

This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. To find out more about what you can expect from this project we encourage you to speak to one of our friendly staff.

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