Chance encounters

In Oaxaca we decided to book a few tours. It was our way of resting and kicking back awhile. Having a guide explain the history of the sights was a bonus, but little did we expect it would be such an education in human behaviour and for so many strange reasons! We discovered that a bunch of strangers could set out in the morning on a tour and return ‘best of friends’ after spending a day together, rattling around on a bus. We were brought together by shared experiences and we had not bargained for these to be quite so bizarre.

Our tour guide was exceptional, a Zapotec native who animatedly brought to life the Zapotec culture and history at the sites we visited. He was very strict about timing, making sure we knew what time to be back at the bus, after each particular point of interest. I was disappointed to be ushered back to the bus quite so quickly, then perplexed to discover no bus driver in sight! We waited for what seemed a very long time, during which the tour guide went looking for the driver. Eventually the driver came running, half clothed, shoes in hand and with a pitiful explanation of why he was ‘late’. We accepted his story of ‘helping a friend’ but when this happened at each of the following stops we soon concluded with much giggling amongst ourselves that he must have a ‘friend-in-need-nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ at each attraction!

At lunch we were served Mezcal and this may be what turned the situation into something entirely more bizarre…our tour guide became more animated with each passing hour, soon not even caring about the missing driver. His renditions of the sights became increasingly grandiose and flamboyant, his change in behaviour quite insane. The tour ended abruptly with the guide shouting farewell, then jumping out of the bus and leaving, but not before he remembered to collect gratuities prior to leaving us in such style…

As we neared Oaxaca, we noticed tuk-tuks upturned and burned out, the streets becoming clogged with traffic and chaos. Our driver informed us that there was a protest and suggested we get out of the bus for our own safety. Google maps got us safely home on foot, but not before the heavens opened and we were drenched in monsoonal showers! The inadequate drainage was quite something to experience as the streets quickly turned into raging rivers. Dealing with a flooded apartment we discovered our riding gear and helmets were drenched. We eventually got to bed just before midnight but if we thought the day’s events were over, we were in for a surprise…

It was just before midnight and I was reading as Paul dosed off for the night. The bed started shaking and I wondered what Paul was up to. It then sounded like a train was approaching and rattling the room, but within seconds the vibration became violent as the 8 magnitude earthquake struck. Neither of us had experienced an earthquake before, but we quickly realised what was happening. It’s hard to describe the events adequately but I felt such panic as the rumbling grew louder, more violent and seemingly without end. In the days to follow we were humbled to see the devastation and grateful for our safety. We were supposed to be at the coast but had delayed our trip by a day, to meet Peppo in Oaxaca. Had we been in that coastal town who knows what we may have experienced, as it was one of the towns hardest hit. Because of tsunami warnings we changed our travel plans and headed inland towards Chiapas instead.

I spent some time with Peppo, who administers the Oaxaca Street Children Grassroots foundation. It was an inspirational encounter, seeing his passion for his work, meeting some of the children and learning about the remarkable impact of the organisation. It was founded in 1996 by Harold and Jodi Bauman, an American couple. Whilst on vacation in Oaxaca, Jodi was moved by a chance encounter with a child begging in the streets, instead of being in school. She had a vision that giving that child a few pesos would grant care for a moment, whilst giving that child an education would grant care for a lifetime. Initially they supported a family by enrolling their children in school, then each year expanded their support, spending more time in Oaxaca and eventually moving there and starting the Grassroots Organisation. Today the organisation supports around 650 children a year, aged 4 to 25, which means that each year some youngsters are graduating with degrees from University!

As we’ve travelled through Chiappas I have been shocked and deeply disturbed by observing such rampant child labour – children are out on the streets selling tourist keepsakes in towns like San Cristobal, begging or singing for pesos ‘till late at night. It’s obvious they aren’t attending school, because they’re out working. I’d been told of the beauty of Chiappas, but not the plight of its children. It’s confronting to see what appeared to be 10-year old boys digging trenches and young girls of 7 or 8 selling trinkets or begging. As we’ve travelled towards Palenque, the children have appeared more desperate, setting up road blocks to extort money from travellers. Our tour guide explained why these road blocks exist – children out making money instead of being in school is part of the native culture, values which we find hard to understand. Young girls are married off early, ensuring the cycle continues.

It will take some time to process what I believe would be a valuable response to what I’ve seen, but for now I wrestle with mixed emotions of anger, shame and compassion. Having seen what a remarkable difference one woman could make after a chance encounter in Oaxaca, it has certainly got me thinking…

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