Visiting Peace Corps Friends

Getting to know the other Peace Corps volunteers who are serving in Mexico has been a great pleasure.  Our group, which started last September, included 13 volunteers.  However, a number of volunteers from other years are still here in Mexico, either finishing their two years of service or having extended to continue their work here.  During our two years here, we want to visit many of these volunteers in their sites to learn more about their work.  Last month we traveled to two different locations with this goal in mind. 

SIERRA GORDA/JALPAN.  Our first trip was to the Sierra Gorda region, which is about a 3-hour drive east of Querétaro on very winding roads.  Charlie and I went with another Peace Corps volunteer, Roy, and his Mexican girlfriend, Frida, using a local travel agency for the trip.  Over the course of 3 days and 2 nights we saw the five Franciscan missions built by Father Junípero Serra in the 1750s with the help of the indigenous Indians, and a surrealist garden built by the English artist Sir Edward James in the mid-20th century.  Photos of these sites are included above.  The missions are very impressive.  Each has a distinct, elaborate façade that contains a mixture of Catholic saints and indigenous touches.  In contrast, the interiors are very simple.  All of these missions continue to be used by the local communities for their religious activities.  By the way, this is the same Father Serra, who founded many of the missions in California.  The surrealist garden, called Las Pozas, has waterfalls, orchids, tropical birds and concrete buildings of unusual shapes that reminded me of the Emerald City of Oz.  No less eccentric was the creator of this garden – Sir Edward James, who was born to British millionaires, but moved to Mexico to grow orchids.

On this trip, we stayed two nights in Jalpan, which is the largest town in the Sierra Gorda with a population of about 9,000.  Three Peace Corps volunteers (Avram, Sally and Rick) live there and work for SEMARNAT, the Mexican government agency responsible for environmental issues.  This region includes a large nature reserve, in which these volunteers work, providing environmental education, biological research, trail clearing, and assistance in the field.   The four of us spend a delightful evening at the home of Sally and Rick, volunteers from northern California, along with Avram and a local SEMARNAT employee, enjoying delicious food and warm conversation.

MATEHUALA/REAL DE CATORCE.   For our second trip we headed by bus to Matehuala, about 5 hours north of Querétaro.  There we met up with five Peace Corps volunteers.  Yekatarina, who is serving up in Saltillo (close to the U.S. border), came down by bus to meet us there.  Four other volunteers (Ben, Jeffy, Nathan and Katy) work in the Matehuala area, which consists of desert terrain and several poor communities. 

On Saturday we drove out to the rural community where Jeffy lives.  With only 300 people living in difficult conditions and limited running water, Jeffy has made this community her home.  Her house is as simple as theirs, with one room that serves as the kitchen, dining room and bedroom.  Her bathroom is outside with no roof.  She is working with the youth of this community to help them develop small businesses.  One young man makes lamps out of onyx, found in local mines, and sells them to tourists traveling to Real de Catorce.  Jeffy also plans to plant trees in the community and develop a community garden.

That evening we had dinner at Katy and Nathan´s house in Matehuala eating pizza and chocolate chip cookies that Nathan had baked earlier that day.  The front of their house is quite unique – both its design (quite modern) and the paint colors (shades of orange, purple, green).  A photo of the house is included above.  Their work takes them out to some of the rural communities as well, where they will be helping the residents with health issues, including purifying their drinking water.  They are also locating and identifying various desert plants in a nature reserve outside of town.  

On Sunday we headed by bus to Real de Catorce, an old mining town whose heyday was in the late 19th century, when it had a population of 15,000, with some of Mexico´s richest silver mines and shops selling European luxury goods.  When the price of silver plummeted after 1900, it was largely abandoned.  However, more recently, several movies have been filmed here, including The Mexican (featuring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts) and some scenes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (staring Humphrey Bogart).  Today, much of the town is in ruins, but restored buildings bring back some of its former charm.  To get to this town, which is about 1 hour from Matehuala, you travel on cobblestone roads, drive through former communities that supported Real (now also in ruins), and go through a one-way tunnel for about 2.5 kilometers.  Getting there is half the fun!

We plan to visit more Peace Corps volunteers in the next couple of months, so watch here for those stories.

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