So, what EXACTLY do Global Volunteers do in Querétaro, Mexico? As with all other GV projects, the volunteers do whatever our host asks us to do. And boy oh boy, are we well utilized here!
Five out of our group of eleven volunteers At the Universidad Tecnológica de Querétaro (UTEQ), we spend four to five hours a day talking with highly motivated, enthusiastic students. Our schedule varies from day to day, to ensure that the early morning and late afternoon students also get an opportunity to interact with us. For example, on Tuesdays, we catch our cab for UTEQ at 7:20 AM for an 8 AM class and are finished teaching at noon. On Wednesday, we start teaching at 5:00 PM and are done at 9:00 PM. On the remaining days, our start times range from 9 AM to 12 PM. I’m here to tell Ya–I have even more respect…
I know that you are all on the edge of your loungers (please don’t tip over) just DYING to hear all about Queretaro and our work assignments. I promise you will. But first, breaking news.
My dear friend Sally came down with a killer cold a few days ago. Not to be outdone, I decided I wanted one of those too. So, here we be, dos Amigas in need of a cure.
Ginny from Worcester (pronounced Woos-TAH) heard me coughing and sneezing. She insisted that we IMMEDIATELY adopt her fool proof cure. She guaranteed that a hot toddy would get Sally and me on the road to recovery. (Or was that alcoholism? I forget. One of those. Or both.) So what if it is only 10 AM?
Being an obedient Catholic school girl, and wanting to protect the rest of the group from our germs, I immediately sprang into action. Despite being somewhat competitive, even I had to admit Sally won the sickness award. So off I went to the market. My sweet young fruit seller was glad to see me, despite my tiny order of only two lemons. I normally am good for a couple of kilos of bananas. He pointed me in the right direction for miel (Spanish for honey.)
Past the CDs and stuffed animals, beyond the floral displays, beyond the fruit and boots.
NUMEROUS Mexicans stopped what they were doing to help me. What a gracious, welcoming culture!
I left with lemons, honey and a bottle of what my Grammy would call medicine, except she pronounced it “med-SIN”). My black medical bag was now complete.
Take a look. The white plastic bag contained a cup half full of honey, scooped from a huge barrel. The big cup was from Woolworths. (They are getting to know me there. The cashier that kissed me last time asked me in English “you sick”?)
Did our “med-SIN” work? Well, take a look at Sally and you tell me.
On our first day at UTEQ, Julio, our coordinator greeted us with “Welcome to Flexico”. We were way ahead of him. We had already demonstrated our ability to ‘go with the flow’ on the day before. You see, although the National Holiday (February 5) fell on a Sunday, Mexico, like the USA, celebrated it on Monday. We were all ready, willing and eager to work on Monday morning, but we had to cool our jets and practice patience, because school was closed.
Some were under the impression that we were commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 2-15-1917 signing of Mexico’s constitution, but WE knew the holiday was REALLY to rejoice in the Patriot’s unprecedented overtime win on Super Bowl Sunday.
Either way, we ALL were celebrating an historic event!
Pam arranged for a Super Bowl party in La Llave, the hotel’s restaurant. We gathered there to watch TV, stuff ourselves with Mexican AND American snacks and hoist more than a few beers and margaritas.
My sisters and cousins would have definitely approved of Susan’s attire!
What to do with our unexpected free day? Pam and the University very thoughtfully arranged transportation for us to visit San Miguel de Allende, which is about an hour and a half from Queretaro. We spent a very pleasant day in this lovely colonial town, wandering through the narrow streets, poking into little shops and galleries. Check out the staircase in this pottery shop.
Kristy was fascinated by the exquisite carved doors, so Monday’s quest was to find a photo book either of the doors of San Miguel or of all of Mexico. Despite chalking up some pretty impressive numbers on Fitbits, we ultimately had to resort to Amazon.com to get what Kristy wanted.
Something tells me that she might be making her OWN book. She sure took a lot of door photos.
Here is proof of Kristy’s door obsession. She took this photo of me, sitting outside, trying to unobtrusively polish off a granola bar. Doesn’t look like I succeeded with the unobtrusive part.
Although San Miguel was lovely, I don’t understand why anyone would prefer it over either Queretaro or Guanajuato. We had originally planned to spend the weekend in San Miguel, but after Monday, decided that one day was sufficient, so we cancelled our hotel reservations for the following weekend. Still, to do the city justice, here are a few more photos.
Sally was determined that we all experience the heavenly delight of jicama tacos, so we embarked on yet another quest to find the one restaurant that makes this exotic dish. A very kind young Mexican man overheard us struggling to find the restaurant, stopped what he was doing, then in perfect English gave us directions. Unfortunately I didn’t take a photo of the restaurant’s name, but did get a shot of the beautiful mural on the back wall. So, if you happen to be in San Miguel, and you spot this mural, be sure to order those tacos!
Art is everywhere, so although the uneven sidewalks make it prudent to watch where you are going, it is important to occasionally stop and look up at the top of buildings.
I’ve decided that this violinist is none other than St Michael the Archangel. After all, we ARE in San Miguel. I especially liked it because it reminded me of my very own violin maker. I’m not commenting on the angel part, but his name IS Michael.
As with most colonial towns in Mexico, churches and religious art are everywhere.
Look at the indigent person, so very grateful that the Spanish padre arrived to take his gold and save his soul.
I’ll end with a little contemporary humor from our lunch spot, a panoramic view of the city and a group shot, just in case the featured photo doesn’t post.
Global Volunteers are exhorted to “expect the unexpected”. That was good advice indeed, because we certainly didn’t expect to see the federales and military in riot gear a block away from our hotel when we arrived!
We learned the streets were blocked in anticipation of their president’s visit the following day. February 5th commemorates the day the Mexican constitution was signed and is a national holiday. This year was the 100th anniversary of that momentous occasion, and since it was signed in Queretaro, what better place for the president to visit?
Although initially the sight of all the guns was disconcerting, we had nothing to worry about. Everyone was peaceful and friendly. My “broken” Spanish was sufficient to get us across the barriers to the ATM in the restricted area, not once, not twice, but three times. (I escorted several of my fellow volunteers — and after the second time, I didn’t need to explain. They saw me coming and smiled as they opened the gate.). It was just a minor challenge to our getting settled and was easily overcome.
Remember in the last post I said that the Hidalgo is an older hotel? And that you can buy just about anything in Queretaro? Well, both are true statements. The “authenticity” of the hotel means that some purchases might make your stay more comfortable. Fortunately there ARE stores nearby.
We all decided jumbo towels were a great solution for unheated bathrooms. And you can never have too many hangers.
Some objects were a little more challenging to find.
The one hook in Sally’s bathroom is strategically placed, right over the toilet. What could possibly go wrong with THAT? It only took ONE day to convince Sally that she needed another option for her towel. So, we embarked on a ‘find the hook that can be placed over the top of the door’ quest. Sounds simple enough, right? It wasn’t. Our search for a “gancho de ropa sobre la puerta” took FOUR determined women TWO whole days!
We hit Woolworth’s, del Sol, several sewing shops, the open air market. We even resorted to showing random passers-by a picture of what we wanted, downloaded from the Internet.
Leave it to first time volunteer, Kristy.
She not only convinced us to check out Waldo Mart, but she was also able to locate exactly what we needed amid the hodgepodge of goods. And yes, you did read that right. Much to our amusement, we discovered the Mexican version of a dollar store, really is called Waldo Mart.
How perfect are these?
The Hidalgo is in an ideal location, in the historic district with restaurants, museums, beautiful gardens and squares close by. It has lots of charm, but what it DOESN’T have are rooms with lots of light.
This time, Woolworth’s came to the rescue.
For about $10, Sally and I were able to buy small lamps. (Light bulbs, we discovered, are sold in the pharmacy down the street ). It might not look like much, but that little lamp makes a huge difference!
I just set it atop my closet and it illuminated my desk (and dressing) area perfectly.
The Mexican workers have been very helpful, friendly and oh so patient with my Spanish. I speak like a toddler, but like a toddler, I keep trying, without embarrassment. I THINK i said to the cashier “I only know some words. But I try to learn. Please speak slowly.” But then again, I might have said something else, because after my little speech she didn’t say anything. She just reached over, hugged me and kissed my cheek.
Our shopping was not limited to dry goods.
Because the University offers classes from 7 AM till 9 PM, our schedule varies. Some days we make our breakfasts and bag lunches at the hotel, and go out for dinner. When the classes are in the evening, we eat those two meals out, and pack our dinner. I volunteered to be the fruit purchaser, recruiting my three amigos to be my helpers.
Because WordPress is being a bit balky, I need to end this post and what better way than with some shots from the market?
With so many fantastic places to visit, it is highly unusual for me to return somewhere, but that is exactly what I am doing next week.
I visited Querétaro in February, 2015 as a member of a Global Volunteers’ team. Was it the work, the city, the food, the students, or our wonderful leader, Pam, that is drawing me back? Short answer–all of the above. What will make THIS trip even more special is that my cousin Kristy and two friends that I met on other Global Volunteer projects (Jeanne and Sally) will be joining me.
At first, I was going to just write an email to my travel buddies, sharing what I remembered from my prior experience, but then I thought why not blog so that the information is available to anyone contemplating volunteering?
In getting ready for the trip, I also realized just how much I had forgotten–and how helpful it was for ME to go back and look at my old posts to see what I was wearing, which luggage I took etc. When the space between my ears fails me, which happens quite frequently these days, I am glad to have an electronic memory to supplement the “organic” one.
The Hotel Hidalgo was once the finest lodging in Queretaro. It was so grand that in 1848, Santa Anna stayed there prior to signing the Treaty of Guadalupe with the USA. As one might expect of a hotel built in 1825, there is no elevator. There is also no staff to carry your luggage up the 31 stone steps to your room. (Yes, I DID count them the last time I was there).
I actually LIKE having a built in stair master. It’s a great way to work off all the excellent Mexican food I’m looking forward to eating.
It is always wise to travel light, and this trip is no exception. The good news is there is a laundry right around the corner from the hotel. You drop off your clothes one day and pick them up the next evening. The bad news is you may experience all three seasons in ONE day. So, the tried and true travel advice works here: Dress in layers. One clear advantage of being older–your days of making a fashion statement are a VERY distant memory. Clothing is chosen for comfort and utility.
In case you’re wondering what I am bringing, here’s a visual:
I will wear the heavy tan sweater and blue fleece on the plane, but everything else goes in my bag: Hair dryer (they are not supplied by the hotel), toiletries, long underwear (can double as pajamas when the one pair I’m bringing is at the laundry), 5 pants, 4 long sleeved cotton shirts, 1 long sleeved knit top, 3 short sleeved shirts, 1 long skirt, 1 windbreaker with hood, enough underwear for 8 days, hat, small purse, and travel meds (Airborne, Neosporin, motrin), 1 pair of sandals. I will wear sneakers on the plane.
My routine (as you can see) is to lay everything out on the bed, then determine whether I can get it all into my carry on. Total weight: a manageable 24 pounds
My backpack will hold my iPhone, iPad, chargers, money, credit card, passport, index cards, tissues, hand sanitizer, erasable markers for white boards (Pam tells me she has a good supply from volunteers leaving them behind, so no need to bring more), pens, notebook, facecloths (used to erase the white board), tea bags (water coolers on each floor of the Hidalgo dispense both hot and cold water) water bottle, and snacks for the flight.
There is no heat, so the rooms get a bit cool at night and in the morning. You can request an extra blanket for sleeping, but you need something warm for when you get out of the shower. A bathrobe is too bulky to pack, so I buy an inexpensive one in Queretaro, and leave it behind when I head home. That’s one of the advantages of being in a city. You can buy just about anything you need at either Del Sol or Woolworth’s (Yes, Woolworth DOES still exist. Just not in the USA). For me, the problem is I am WAY bigger than the average Mexican. This time around, I’m going to try shopping in the men’s department!
The high altitude dries your skin, but lotion is available everywhere, so I didn’t bother packing it in my toiletries bag. There is no need for insect repellant. I never saw a bug the two weeks I was there. A hat is important, because the sun is strong.
The hotel uses the same kind of plug and the same current as the USA, so no need for an adapter and converter. Even so, I’m bringing my trusty little gadget that I bought at Staples, because most rooms only have one electrical outlet. Notice the two USB ports, plus one regular plug? This little treasure allows me to charge iPhone, iPad and camera all from one socket!
If you are arriving at the start of the program, Pam will arrange for your transportation. I like to go in a day or two early, so I handle my own transportation to the hotel. It was 350 pesos to get to the historical center, (about $17 US). There is a booth in Queretaro airport, just outside immigrations and customs that helps with getting a taxi. I recently learned that Queretaro now has Uber service, but I think I’ll stick with the taxi to get to the hotel.
You don’t need to bring much money with you. There are ATMs at the airport and in town, so it is easy to use your debit card to get pesos. For those that want to exchange dollars, there is an office around the corner from our hotel, but ATMs are so abundant, I find it more convenient to just tap into my checking account.
Because the program fee covers room, board and transportation, you only need cash for shopping or if you plan on traveling on the weekend. Even then, credit cards are widely accepted.
Pam, our terrific leader, contacts all volunteers in advance of the trip. She explains that we will not be working with the same group of students every day. Instead, when we arrived at the school, we go off with whatever teacher we are assigned to. The students could be beginners, intermediate or advanced. Some teachers will tell you what they want you to work on–others will tell you to do whatever you want. This is where an iPad comes in handy. Last time, I took photos of common household objects so we could practice “what is this”, “this is a —“. For the more advanced students, we were able to talk about what was important to them: dating, family, work, food, entertainment, travel.
Because there are also evening classes, our hours vary. Some days we start early and end early, with a nice break before we get back together for dinner. Other days we have our mornings off, but pack food for dinner and arrive back at the hotel around 9 PM. I thoroughly enjoyed the varied schedule. It gave us a chance to experience the city of Queretaro, although I have to tell you — not much is going on before 10 AM!
I bring my backpack to school every day. It holds my meal (lunch or dinner), extra layers of clothing, teaching aids, hand sanitizer and toilet paper (there are no paper products in the ladies’ room) and water bottle. It also serves as my luggage for my weekend excursion.
Global Volunteers have their weekends free. You can book trips on the Primera Plus bus at the travel agency around the corner from the hotel (in 2015, it was open from 10-2 and 4-7). Last time, we took the 8 AM bus on Saturday to Guanajuato, returning on Sunday’s 3:30 bus.
This time, Jeanne, Sally and I plan to visit San Miguel de Allende on the weekend between our two work weeks. Pam, the GV team leader, warned us that we needed advance reservations in San Miguel if we wanted to stay in the town center at a reasonably priced hotel. Good thing she did! There weren’t a lot of choices left when we made our reservations a few weeks ago. Once again, we will head out early Saturday morning and be back in time for dancing in the town square on Sunday night. Maybe Uber will be a good choice for getting between the bus station and hotel.
That’s all I can think of. I hope it is helpful, especially for my travel buddies Sally, Jeanne and Kristy.