Cure Whatever Ails You

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

We are feelin’ no pain!  

Mexico with Global Volunteers

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.

Getting Ready

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.

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Fortunately, there are only two floors! Still, you can get quite a workout climbing up those stone steps multiple times a day.

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:img_3604

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

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Yep–it all fits, with room to spare. for any last minute toss ins, like scarfs and jewelry.

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 stores carry just about everything, including products that you would never in a million years buy!
The stores carry just about everything, including products that you would never in a million years buy!

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!

USB slots , with the C adapter extended.
USB slots , with the C adapter extended.

Arrival 

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.

Money

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.

The Project

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.

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One of the photos on my iPad used for a beginning lesson.

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.

backpack and carry on
backpack and carry on

Free Time

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.

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Wonder if I’ll run into my dance partner again?

That’s all I can think of.  I hope it is helpful, especially for my travel buddies Sally, Jeanne and Kristy.

 

 

 

Santa Anna Slept Here

Yes, THAT Santa Anna.  The one who inspired the classic phrase, “Remember the Alamo”.  The one who, when he lost a foot and part of his leg in battle, gave it an elaborate military funeral.

Fun fact for those of you planning a trip to Springfield, Illinois.  After his foot’s funeral, Santa Anna had a cork prosthetic leg made.  That very leg was captured during the Mexican-American War and is currently on display in the Illinois military museum.   If you are anything like me, you are probably wondering just HOW Santa Anna’s leg happened to be separated from his body.  Well, thanks to wikipedia, I can tell you, and the truth isn’t anyway NEAR as interesting as what my mind conjured up.  From the military museum’s website:

In 1847, Illinois soldiers “came upon General Santa Anna’s abandoned carriage and found gold worth $18,000, a roast chicken lunch, and his artificial leg. They turned in the gold, ate the chicken and kept the artificial leg as a souvenir. 

So, why am I telling you all this?  Well, it just so happens that Santa Anna and I have something in common.  No, I do not have an artificial leg on display in a museum.  At least not yet.  We BOTH have slept at the Hotel Hidalgo.  But just to be clear, not at the same time.

Built in 1825, the Hidalgo Hotel was the first, and by definition, the best, hotel in Querétaro.  During the war, “the refinement of the hotel made it a favorite choice” for Santa Anna.  His stay ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe, “which gave more than half of Mexico’s territory to the USA.”  (Actually, they didn’t GIVE it to us; we paid $15 million for it.  More expensive than Manhattan or Seward’s ice box?  I’ll let you be the judge.)

How do I know all this? I’d like to be able to claim that my attentiveness in history class and my truly amazing memory are responsible, but anyone that knows me would never swallow THAT tall tale.  Nope, the source of my hotel knowledge came from this mural in its entry.

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As one might expect of a hotel almost 200 years old, it has its quirks. For example, the size of the showers would lead you to believe that they were not a common feature back then.
As with people, each room has its strengths and drawbacks. But with the right attitude, these quirks can become rather endearing. Plus, the staff is wonderful, the rooms are very clean, it costs less than $40 per night, and the location is absolutely ideal.

If, however,  you prefer to sleep in a convent, or in the house of a dead Marquesa, those options are also available.  Those of you who have been reading along may recall the snarky comment I made a while back about La Casa de la Marquesa probably paying Google to show up on its maps. Little did I know that the Casa, like the Hotel Hidalgo, is a historical site with its very own legend.  And you, dear reader, will soon read all about it.

It seems that Don Juan Antonio, the Marques, although a married man, had a yen for a nun, Sister Marcella Nasturtium.  The good sister, despite remaining true to her vow of chastity, was still able to persuade the Marques to build an aqueduct to bring fresh water into the city, and to build the most beautiful house in Querétaro, which he then gave to his wife.
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Lobby of the Casa de la Marquesa
Lobby of the Casa de la Marquesa

One more hotel story then I’ll end this post. It seems that being a nun in the days of old was not a bad gig, if you managed to be born to the right family. One rich man built a convent for his daughter that was the grandest in a city filled with grand convents. The Convent of Santa Clara had its own orchards and gardens, and the rents it collected allowed the nuns to live in private houses with their own servants. Wow.

Fountain outside the convent
Fountain outside the convent
Hotel detail.  What do you expect?  It WAS a convent?
Hotel detail. What do you expect? It WAS a convent!

Courtyard inside the convent/hotel
Courtyard inside the convent/hotel

And to think that YOU could sleep in ANY of these buildings! Is this not a cool city?!!

You Call This Work?

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
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 for teachers. It is NOT easy being 100% focused for several hours straight.

Because the demand is so great, we never work with a student more than once. Initially, I wasn’t sure I’d like getting a new group every hour, but the students are wonderful, and the time absolutely flies by. You don’t even notice how tired you are until the cab ride home.

One of my groups
One of my groups.  I LOVED working with these wonderful young women!
Group size varies. Sometimes we might each have 2 to 4 students. Other times we might have 10 to 12.

It is difficult to do much preparation, because you don’t know what you will be getting until you arrive in the classroom and start talking with the students.  Some have prepared questions to ask us; others are shy, needing encouragement and gentle coaxing to get them to talk.

Pam, our leader explained that the goal was not necessarily to teach specific words or grammatical points, but to build students’ confidence.  What a relief–I can do that!  Once again, I discovered that patience, a sense of humor and enthusiasm were my most important tools.  Oh yeah, that, plus a small white board, index cards and my iPad have been getting me through the day.

Before I left home, I raced around my house, camera in hand, taking photos of various objects that I could show on my iPad, as my back up plan. Good thing. For beginning students, it came in handy. For example, I used visuals like this, to have them practice asking each other, “what is this?”, then take turns answering.

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In the midst of my pointing out objects on my iPad, I heard a chorus of “awwwwwww”.   Mystified that cutlery could inspire such a reaction, I flipped my iPad around to find I had inadvertently switched the photo from my kitchen table to my sister’s granddaughter. image
The students wanted to know all about “the baby”, so we talked about Bonnie–what was her name, where was she when the photo was taken, what was she wearing, what was she holding?  Little Bonnie is now quite famous here in Querétaro. One student (bless his heart) wanted to know if she was MY baby.  That led to a discussion about grandchildren, my sister, her daughter, all the other members of my family tree and my age!

Occasionally some of us have a break between classes.  That’s the perfect time to head for the cafeteria for informal discussions.  Today, I met an older student who is employed by the Swedish company Ericcson and attending school.  He confessed to being a bit reluctant to approach me until he saw me smile at him and nod my head.  His English was excellent–he just needed a little confidence. I felt like the Wizard of Oz!

Ericsson isn’t the only major employer in the areas. Other companies include Samsung and Daewoo from South Korea, Bombardier(Canada), Nestle(Switzerland) Siemens(Germany), Santander (Spain) and Kellogs, P&G, Bose from the good Ol USA.  Querétaro is definitely an international city.

Ericsson has invested heavily in UTEC.  Volunteers that had been here before mentioned that the campus had been spiffed up, buildings had been repainted, thanks to the generosity of Ericsson. They also donated the language lab, which is the building behind this sign.

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What I really like, however, is the banner BEHIND the building, and not only because it is in English.

“An Everyone Everywhere World”, in which everyone gets the chance to fulfill their potential. What a beautiful sentiment. What a wonderful world that would be!
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And what an amazing way to spend two weeks! Who knew work could be so much fun?

Ready for My Close Up

Okay, gang, so here’s the background:

Every day, one of the Global Volunteers writes a journal entry, accompanied by a thought for the day.  These are read aloud when our group meets–either in the morning at breakfast or in the evening before dinner.  As I was the first to arrive in Querétaro, our leader asked me to do the first entry.  Well, guess what–it made it on to the Global Volunteers website, accompanied by photos taken yesterday while I was working at school.

Yes, I know that some of you think I spend all my time cruising the ‘calles’  (that’s ‘streets’ for those of you that don’t share my oh so vast knowledge of the Spanish language; I’m easily as fluent as the average Mexican two year old) but no, I actually DO do something that vaguely resembles work.  Here’s proof:

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I tried to imbed a link to the site into this post, but my iPad is cranky this morning, so instead, a copy of my journal entry follows.

However, I  encourage you to wander on over to GlobalVolunteers.org to check out all the wonderful opportunities for personal growth that this organization offers.  I’m kinda hoping that when you see how much fun and how worthwhile the projects are, some of you will be inspired to sign on.  Who knows, maybe we’ll  be together on a future trip!

Journal entry for Sunday, February 8, 2015

Thought for the Day
“Before you try to change the world, let the world change you.”

Volunteers arriving yesterday were greeted by a fiesta going full blast in Hotel Hidalgo’s courtyard. A father of 15 was celebrating his 90th birthday, with 80 of his direct descendants. Perhaps the secret to a long life is to know how to party hearty? Not a bad way to kick off our time in Mexico–with music, dancing and very happy people.

The "birthday boy" is wearing a white hat, and waiting for his guests to arrive.
The “birthday boy” is wearing a white suit.  He’s waiting for his guests to arrive.

Our leader, Pam, has a dedicated group of followers who enjoy serving with her. This is the 7th time Bill has volunteered in Mexico, followed by Roger who is on his 4th tour of duty. Eunice, Mary#1, Joe and Mary #2 will be serving here for the 3rd time. You don’t have to be with Pam for very long to figure out why she inspires such loyalty.

Although this will be the first time in Mexico for Shannon, Leslie and me(Shelley), we have all served in other countries. Lorraine is our “official newbie” and we are all delighted that she has joined the team.

During breakfast in the hotel, we introduced ourselves, then got a well organized and thorough orientation from Pam. Mary and Joe very thoughtfully had obtained brochures and maps IN ENGLISH for all of us. Although Querétaro is a tourist destination, most of the visitors are from other parts of Mexico, so there is not an abundance of English materials. Thanks to Mary and Joe, we can easily view the many appealing options the area offers for our free time.

Carolina, the head of the language department at U. Tech, joined us after breakfast. A warm, inspirational woman, who speaks beautiful English, Carolina shared information about the school and described the positive impact GV has had on the students.

Our meeting concluded with GV’s traditional team building exercises. First, we described fourteen characteristics of an effective team. If our ability to quickly identify those characteristics is any indication, this team will be highly effective indeed. Next, Pam asked us to think about why we signed on for this particular project. In other words, what were our goals. We each wrote three goals on separate index cards, took turns reading them aloud, then Pam grouped similar goals into categories. These were:
Help students
Cultural exchange
Personal growth

After a wonderful lunch, we were free to settle in, explore or rest until we meet for dinner at 7 PM.