by Mari Pintkowski (updated August 2015)
Many travelers pass through the Riviera Maya and dream of a life in this verdant, natural world—a life that is tranquil and simple. Few turn that dream into a reality.
For those that do, once you have settled and are able to look beyond your own basic needs, you notice that locals look upon you as the “rich gringo.” This is not the image you imagined having in your new world, but nonetheless, as you look closer, you will see there is some truth to this label. Yes, you have a big heart, and maybe you have time on your hands, extra money (compared to your neighbor) or skills you want to share. Before you dive in and are disappointed with your first attempt at “giving,” read on and I will share a few tips and stories from my pueblo, Macario Gomez.
Ten years ago when my husband and I built our home/B&B in a small pueblo along the Coba Road near the fast-growing city of Tulum, we experienced all of this first hand. The new library was completed in Tulum, and as a past-early childhood teacher, I felt I could contribute by exposing young children to the English language by reading stories from my book collection or theirs. Because my Spanish was weak, it was hard to really comprehend just why they turned me away—perhaps because I lived outside Tulum proper, or perhaps because I could not explain why I wanted to read to the children. I was never quite sure, so I decided that I had better learn a little more Spanish before I attempted to be part of my new world.
My husband and I wanted to help in some way at the little schools in Macario Gómez, so I ran the idea past an English-speaking neighbor who had children. She told me not to donate money or supplies to this school as the teacher at the time (he has since passed on) would keep it for himself. By this time, we were a bit discouraged and decided just to put together a special Christmas for our one worker and his large family. We bought flip flops in every size, backpacks and lunch boxes filled with art supplies and stuffed animals for the 10 or more children. We found some things I thought the women would enjoy, and then filled two large laundry-type baskets with food we knew they would use, along with some special items. We finally hit on something, and felt good about our efforts when the whole family came to LSM for holiday refreshments and gift-giving. When this was over, the children piled into our old Suburban with all the presents and Lou, feeling a bit like Santa Claus himself, gave them a ride back to their home.
A friend, Trudy Johnson, who was a past teacher in the States told me a story about setting up an art table in the park for the local children every Sunday. She eventually gave up and was discouraged by the lack of gratitude and respect for the materials.
Another neighbor from Maine, Wendy Brackett, noticed the meridian strip of plants in Macario Gómez along the Coba Road was not nearly as tidy and beautiful as in the next pueblo. She single-handedly started weeding and planting until the town authorities, fearful for her safety, offered to take over the project. Wendy then put her efforts and generous spirit into teaching the young children English in the pueblo schools.
My next story has to do with a young man from Australia, Ross Harding's, vision to teach children all over the world about sustainable energy. He had raised money from a previous fundraising event to purchase a set of solar panels and wanted to donate to it to the primary school in Macario. He involved many people in the project that took over a year to come to fruition. The panels were installed, and a huge mural was painted by Christopher Houweling Voigt on the outdoor pavement in front of the school to remind the children of energy options other than the obvious.
A success story in the works is going on right at this moment in Macario Gómez. Erika Whittmann, who owns and operates Selva Casa Orquideas, a small B&B in the center of town, has observed that many of the children in the pueblo wander aimlessly after school and on weekends, going around killing birds with their slingshots or watching TV. She has seen the spark in their eyes when she invites them in to read a book or engage in an art project. Erika has a dream to open an after-school center/ library in the pueblo where children can come and engage with each other and a trained adult in a safe, healthy and enriching environment. A not-for-profit is being set up in the U.S. and she has created a page on Facebook called Help the Children of Macario Gomez. She has had overwhelming response in the form of donations of books, games and art materials for the center. A space has yet to be confirmed and a teacher is being interviewed to supervise and teach the children English, arts and crafts and other topics that might emerge. This is a live project that you can be involved in at this very moment. Check out the Facebook page and I will add more details and photos as the dream becomes a reality.
If you are wondering how to get started, I have some tips that may help.
- Keep an open mind and be ready if the opportunity presents itself.
- Make friends with a local family.
- Know the community; their customs, values and language. Find a liaison in the community to work with you.
- Do some research ahead of time to see what else has been done successfully in the community and what was not well received in the past.
- Share something you are passionate about, like planting a garden, teaching a language, creating art. Be prepared to provide all the materials. Your enthusiasm will go a long way.
- Test the waters by starting small: one family, one classroom, one garden, etc.
- Let the project evolve and follow the lead of the children or adults you are working with.
- Know when to say no when more is requested than you are willing to do.
- Don't expect a verbal thank you or praise for your generosity. Remember that you are doing this for them, not for you.
- Try to follow up over time, so the children, especially, learn it is not a one-time gift.
- Make contact slowly and do your project in baby steps. Every little bit helps.
- When the time comes, make sure there is some type of closure.
If you have a negative experience, don’t give up completely. Just wait, and perhaps there will be a better opportunity down the line.
As a caring person, maybe you have a concern: for instance, seeing bicycles, not only ridden for pleasure, but also as the sole means of transportation, navigate on a busy road. You think a bike path would prevent injuries and even death as well as enhance tourism for the riders who use the road to get to and from Tulum and places in between. The important question to consider is whether YOU can do something about this or other situation you perceive to be a problem. If it is beyond your reach, can you find someone in the community that is better connected than yourself? Can you help facilitate the project in some way? You have to start with a concern that really bothers you and work out a program to deal with it.
Ask yourself do you:
- Possess a high level of motivation and discipline?
- Possess willingness to invest time and energy and, possibly, financial resources?
- Know the chain of command in the community where this will take place?
- Know how to mobilize people and resources to advance the project?
- Have the ability to keep an eye on the goals from start to finish?
- Possess the patience to handle frustrations and stumbling blocks?
- Speak sufficient Spanish to get your idea across, or have someone else in mind that believes in your vision and can be spokesman for the project?
- Possess the willingness to put the project above your personal ego needs?
- Have a sense of humor and know how to laugh?
- Know when to back down and let others take over?
Some of these ideas are taken from a book entitled Creative Leadership for Community Problem Solving by Doris Bardon and Murray Laurie.
In the end, remember, we are all on the same path, no matter what language we speak. Share your stories with your friends and neighbors and keep in mind, "The magic of stories is often an important road for traveling through reality and imagination, for encountering culture and life, for knowing and interpreting the world around us." The Circle of Words, Reggio Emilia Early Childhood Centers 2008
Mari Pintkowski and her husband operate their highly rated B&B, www.laselvamariposa.com, located in Macario Gómez in Tulum. Read more of Mari’s stories found on Sac-Be or her books on www.amazon.com.