I am about to complete my first Kiva Fellowship in Mexico, which has certainly been a learning experience for me. The majority of my time was spent in the small city of Huatusco, Mexico onboarding a new Kiva partner. While the work was definitely interesting, there were many challenges along the way, both professional and personal.
I have been travelling alone in Latin America since October, and here was by far the loneliest place I have been, which came as a shock to me. I thought it would be much easier to meet friends and find activities in a smaller town vs. a bigger city because it would be easier to become a member of the community. Huatusco is very different from anyplace I’ve been. The people are incredibly kind and warm, but I have had trouble fitting in.
Many people here have had very little interaction with foreigners, especially those outside Latin America. The first challenge has been with my homestay, which was the only living option for me. Having lived on my own for about six years, it was difficult suddenly having an overprotective mother. While her intentions are good, I am expected to keep her aprised of my wherabouts, check-in when I make it to a travel destination, and I often am told that I am lucky that my boyfriend “lets me travel”. It’s not that if I disagree, or don’t check-in I get punished (as I would have when I was 14), but I feel like I am really upsetting the family, which is certainly not something I want to do.
I am frequently invited to family events with this host family. For instance I went to a wedding, a birthday party, and have been invited to several events as related to the current election (my host family volunteers for the PRI). At these events, however, I feel isolated being the only foreigner either treated as an outcast or a zoo animal.
Outside of staying with the family, I work in a very small office and have little interaction with women here. The women that I have interacted with are mothers, and rarely go out, so that leaves me with the guys. They don’t want me around because someone might think something, either ruining their game or getting them in trouble with their women. So that leaves me to largely fend for myself. With next to nothing to do here, I have focused mostly on my work, finding places to explore, reading and watching movies. Outside of the exploring, its not exactly what I was expecting from this experience, but I have certainly had a long time to reflect.
Working in at a different pace in a machismo culture
Suffice to say that I certainly expected my working environment to be different from what I am accustomed to. Having come from the fast-paced, always accountable environment at Goldman Sachs, it was the least I could expect. Here the 9 am meeting might start at 11 am, if the person shows that day. Getting back to you right away on something means that you might get a response in a few weeks. This did not surprise me.
Since I have been working at implementing credit at a place whose primary business is not financial services, there have been additional challenges. These include going back to basics, and really understanding the culture of the client in order to start something completely new from scratch. I was lucky to have the experience of working with a well-established Kiva partner for the first month of my fellowship, which gave me some perspective on micro-credit in Mexico. While I won’t go into detail, it was very interesting seeing the thought process behind the way the program was implemented, taking into consideration the existing organizational structure, the needs and the clients (in this case members of the cooperative), and the larger cultural framework.
That all being said there was quite a bit to accomplish in a short period of time. While the people I would work with day-to-day seemed to respect what I said, and were a pleasure to work with for the most part, it didn’t feel the same warm welcome from everyone. Before I go too far, I want to be clear that everyone was extremely kind and welcoming. What I am referring to is that I didn’t always feel that my words on a professional level were taken seriously, or even listened to all the time. I found myself having to go over things multiple times, which can certainly be frustrating. Was this because I am a woman, an outsider, or a combination? I’m not sure, but this certainly led to my frustration and sometimes isolation.
No fútbol for you
Being in a here was difficult at times when it came time to having fun. I think the only thing that I actively pursued from day one was a soccer team. My favorite hobby is playing soccer, which would be easy in a soccer-loving country like Mexico, right? When I traveled throughout the country I met women who actively participated in Sunday leagues, so I thought this would be easy in Huatusco. I didn’t even need a formal league, just a pick-up game.
I found myself begging to be a part of something, but constantly hit the gender wall. While I could certainly find many male pick-ups and leagues, I was told the women’s league just ended. It was going to pick-up in a few weeks. I never got in touch with this supposed league, nor have I gotten to play. This is probably the biggest dissapointment of my whole experience here.
All could be forgiven if I could just play some soccer.
It has not been easy here, but then again life isn’t easy. I am thankful for my experience, here. My spanish has improved tremendously, I know a ton about coffee production, and I’ve gained professional experience outside of financial services. I’ve also gotten to travel to parts of Mexico that I would never have visited otherwise known. There are no regrets here, just learning experiences. Just as I’ve said before, “If things were easy, I wouldn’t learn anything. Would I?”
I am so grateful for this experience and have enjoyed the professional experience so much that I am planning on continuing with my fellowship in Bogota, Colombia. More on that later.
p.s. I want to thank all of my friends who have kept me company through emails, gchat, facebook and the like. You have really helped a lonely traveler out!