This past July I had such a thoroughly satisfying experience living, volunteering, and traveling with Venture with Impact in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, that I can only describe it as perfect. Having been through a divorce barely a year earlier, I had many needs from this trip. The Big Three—I needed to recover from an emotionally painful and exhausting 2018. I needed to prove to myself that I was going to continue having global adventures, even without a partner, and I needed to start meeting personal goals that I had been putting off for years.
Not only was I able to focus on all of my goals, but I left with some takeaway surprises too. Venture with Impact is a social impact travel organization that helps people see the world while working remotely and giving back to the local community using their professional skills. While I chose not to work during my time in Mexico, I did learn how easy it would be if I wanted to do that in the future. And how appealing of an option I find it!
My priority for the trip was getting to volunteer with a microfinance organization, a cause that I’ve been financially supporting for most of my career, and one I’ve wanted to get more actively involved in. When planning for the trip, VWI founder Ann Davis called me to talk about my interests and skillset. She then reviewed my resume to set me up with an ideal volunteer opportunity—both for me and the partner organization, Apoyo a Gente Emprendedora (Support for Enterprising People). In my work life, I manage a PR firm. While I know publicity, on a daily basis, I think about strategy, systems, and spreadsheets. In San Miguel de Allende, I got the chance to get back to writing stories and pitching the press—in Spanish—both fun and challenging for me! While I spent a fair bit of time in front of my laptop on the rather sweet rooftop deck of my temporary home, I especially enjoyed taking field trips with the Apoyo staff to nearby rural communities. There I met and interviewed women entrepreneurs—in organic farming, shop keeping, beekeeping, and baking. My fellow VWI travelers and I enjoyed a dessert tasting one day with the entrepreneurs at Mi Dulce Alegría Cooperativa. Having owned my own company for fifteen years, I related with them a lot, even as I struggled to come up with the right words in Spanish to connect more deeply and record their advice for other women like themselves. I fell in love with the organization, staff, and entrepreneurs, and hope to keep volunteering for them.
A benefit of all these interviews and struggles was significantly improving my Spanish, a language I had learned for many years in school and then lost. Before leaving for Mexico, Ann suggested several great ways to practice another language and the one I really took to was italki.com, where I spoke several nights a week on Skype with either an engineering student from Mexico or a language teacher from Venezuela. Roberto was a fun and engaging conversationalist who would type out new words I didn’t understand. Luisely challenged me by sending me three page articles in Spanish to read on topics like stereotyping, globalization, and success and failure so we could talk about the articles. When I stopped thinking, “OMG, what do you want me to do?” and just did the work, I gained new vocabulary, learned to think in Spanish, and gained the ability to actually have conversations beyond ordering food and asking directions to the bathroom. I’m looking forward to making appointments with my italki tutors so that I can tell them all about my trip! That repeated practice gave me the confidence to use as much Spanish as possible while on my Venture with Impact excursion, instead of giving into the urge to give up and speak English in a city where many people knew at least a little English. It also helped me with listening comprehension, something that had always been hard for me. I left San Miguel feeling like my goal of Spanish fluency was within reach and worth continuing to pursue when I got home.
I also left exhilerated because I was able to pursue my favorite hobby in life (next to travel)—dancing—on a daily basis. After 4-5 hours of volunteer work every day, I took private and group salsa, cumbia, and bachata lessons. I came home feeling like I actually mastered dances that I had been trying to learn for years—both because of the frequency, and because of the instructor, Fernando Luna Munoz at Sabor y Ritmo, who I consider to be the best dance instructor I’ve ever had. Getting back to something I love doing so much, something I feel is core to who I am was a key part of this trip. I commemorated it with a painting by Roberto Fuentevilla, who created it for me based on a similar painting of his I saw in a gallery.
I can’t miss the chance to say that I also got the vacation I sorely needed. I had fun! Lots of it. I’ve always thought a beach vacation was rejuvenating only to the point where it becomes too much time for the mind to wander. I much prefer having new experiences to take me away from my normal routine. In addition to taking care of practical matters like helping with housing and SIM cards, Ann arranged for us to make the most of San Miguel de Allende. We got to spend time hanging out as friends with a local guide, Jimena, who gave us pointers about Mexican culture, but also where to find the best pozole and octopus tortas in San Miguel. Ann arranged trips for us to La Gruta hot springs and Tres Raices Winery. I could have also gone an architectural and historic tour of San Miguel and the pyramids at Canada de la Virgen, but I opted out in favor of some time alone. I was just enjoying every day life—morning yoga on my rooftop deck, bubble baths in my blue tiled tub, and night caps at sunset at a new rooftop bar with a book or new friends each night.
This brings me to the lagniappe, or the extra perk from my Venture with Impact travels. I learned a couple new models of travel. I learned that I loved traveling alone, something I wasn’t convinced I would. Traveling with Venture with Impact was a great in-between experience where I got to be with people half of the time—either with fellow VWI travelers, or with Apoyo staff and entrepreneurs—and alone and exploring the rest of the time. It was good to see that I felt safe, trusted myself and my instincts, and could enjoy doing what I felt like at the moment. And, like I always heard would happen, I did meet more people!
I also loved the VWI model of travel—most definitely not the classic escapist vacation, but one of intention, where I got to live an alternate reality for a while, pursuing meaningful personal goals that I don’t always have time for at home. There was a very nice easy rhythm to each day, distilled down to just a few priorities that I had set with Ann’s help making them happen.
Travel and volunteering overseas is often an adventure pursued by young people and retired people—but I think more of us in the middle should make it a priority. At 50 years old, I’ve been in my professional career for over 25 years and retirement is still 15 years away. I can’t wait another decade or more! Can you? One could argue that at the height of our career experience we both need this type of undertaking the most—and that we have the most to give. At least that’s what I’m going to keep telling myself, and I’m going to start planning for Chiang Mai with Venture with Impact in 2020.