The women filed one by one into the dirt courtyard, taking seats on a long log bench after greeting each other quietly in Zapotec. They wore traditional full aprons over their everyday dresses; most had ribboned braids and dusty sandals. There was an electric air of anticipation, as though something important were about to happen.
It was. These women in the town of Teotitán del Valle, in the mountains of south-central Mexico, were gathered this summer evening to receive loans from Fundación En Vía, a non-profit microfinance organization based in the nearby city of Oaxaca. The small loans they were to receive – just 1300 Mexican pesos (about US$100) or approximately what an upscale American couple might pay for an evening out – meant they could turn their business dreams into reality: buy yarn and dye to weave rugs, ingredients to make bread, corn to feed chickens or seedlings to grow into a fruit orchard.
Microfinance the En Vía Way
Microfinancing is a brilliantly simple idea: making small loans to those with no resources so that they can work their way out of the crushing cycle of poverty. En Vía employs a model that has proved successful around the world: prospective loan receivers define their goals and put together a business plan; a series of interest-free loans of increasing value are then disbursed once the borrowers prove they are able to fund their projects and repay the money. To them, the initial $100 represents several weeks’ work and is nothing they could acquire on their own, even if there were a bank in town.
After the first loan, En Vía recipients have one week to buy supplies to put their plan into action. Repayments are 130 pesos a week (about $10) for 10 weeks, successful completion of which makes local entrepreneurs eligible to apply for a second loan of 2,000 pesos. A third loan pushes the amount to 3,000 pesos. En Vía collects seed money for these loans through twice-weekly tours to Teotitlán; 100% of tour participants’ $50 fees goes into the loan pot. It’s responsible tourism that makes a real difference in people’s lives, both for the women who receive the loans and for the travelers who have the privilege of entering their world.
From Vacationing to Volunteering
I first took a tour in November 2009, when a three-week vacation to Oaxaca turned into a love affair with the local culture and my new home shortly thereafter. As a student at the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca (ICO), the language school that sponsors En Vía, I began to tag along on trips to Teotitlán. One September day, En Vía’s Managing Director, Emily Berens, mentioned that they needed more tutors for the free English classes offered to the Teotitlán community twice a week. It took me about two seconds to commit to at least a month of volunteer teaching.
Though I’d never taught, I felt as immediately at home with the students as I had upon landing in Oaxaca: this is where I belonged more than anywhere else, even though I’d never been here before. At first, the students, all adult women, were shy about pronouncing the strange English words. But when we used role-playing games as vendors and buyers in a pretend rug store, they began to bargain – hard – and coyly offer discounts for multiple purchases. We practiced the number 100. “Do you have 100 husbands? A hundred houses? A hundred cousins?”
I’m hooked on my volunteer teaching, even though the 10-plus hours a week cuts deeply into the Web consulting work that supports my life in Mexico. Every bit of the experience is part of the adventure, though. Just getting to Teotitlán can be a challenge: one 45-minute ride by bus or collectivo (a taxi with as many people as you can cram into it) takes us to the highway, which we hesitantly cross. Another collectivo or mototaxi (taxi scooter) transports us several more miles up the hill to town. Locals often greet us as we walk to the classrooms in the municipal center, which also houses the town jail. One week, two detainees doing time for drunk and disorderly conduct belted out the movie theme from Bad Boys to drown out our song choice of “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”
We’ve also had to get used to vehicle blockades as part of political protests. One day the protesters blocked the highway halfway to Teotitlán. Our bus lurched onto a dirt road, where traffic had been re-routed, and it became clear we weren’t going to make it to the village any time soon. We got off the bus – in the middle of a cornfield – and climbed into the back of an empty cattle truck. On the way back to Oaxaca, our three university student tutors waved to everyone on the highway, like corn queens on a parade float. We insisted the driver accept a few pesos for his trouble and walked around the next political blockade.
Getting Back What You Put In
Tutoring is the highlight of my week, no small thing in this expatriate’s new life of adventure, travel and the best mid-life crisis ever. With my students, I laugh and talk about husbands, boyfriends, parents and kids. The students try to cheat each other with the play money we use to ‘buy’ goods. I’m learning a few words of Zapotec as they learn English. They correct my Spanish, a work in progress.
Sure, plenty of American expats live in Mexico because the cost of living is about half what it is in the US. But because my days are spent among local people who need what I have to offer – the gift of time to teach my native language – I feel I am giving and gaining much more.
I have a window to a world where dignity and respect are earned by hard work, not material possessions; where financial security means not just being able to put food on the table, but daring to dream of sending a child to college one day. I live in a world where I’m able to help make that difference.