It’s Part 4 of the never-ending “Average Day in San Pancho” series! These posts attempt to answer the “What the heck do you do all day?” question by walking through a typical day here in multi-hour chunks. Here are the previous entries in case you missed them:
4:00PM – 6:00PM: Volunteering at EntreAmigos
After finishing my Spanish lesson, I take a 200 foot walk to EntreAmigos (translation: “between friends”), an uber-popular community center along Avenue Tercer Mundo. Calling it a “community center,” however, dramatically undersells the place. It’s the lifeblood of the town, a nonprofit organization that implemented and operates the town’s recycling effort, sponsors children and adult schooling, incubates local entrepreneurial businesses, manages a free library, serves as an after-school program for children, and offers academic tutoring – including English classes – for all levels. It also houses a warehouse where local women produce handmade goods to sell in the center’s two gift shops. EntreAmigos employs 40 people and annually injects upwards of 4 million pesos into the local economy, making it one of the largest economic forces in town (only tourism and the local hospital, I believe, generate more activity). So, while everyone calls it a community center, it’s really much, much more.
My initial EntreAmigos experience came when I stopped in to inquire about volunteering needs. I talked to Christian, an incredibly nice guy who works the information desk and handles gift shop transactions (and recently graduated from college in Puerto Vallarta, thanks to a scholarship from EntreAmigos). After a couple emails, I soon had meetings set up with the Director of Volunteering, Marianna, and the Founder and CEO, Nicole.
First I met Marianna, an extremely personable and hilarious mother of two with overwhelming passion for San Pancho and EntreAmigos. Even when she’s muy cansada (very tired) from taking care of her kids and the countless animals she rescues (she admittedly can’t see an abandoned animal in need and NOT rescue it), she's always smiling and joking around with the giddiness of a little kid.
One time when I was working in the center’s gift shop helping a customer, she came up to the side and gave me a huge smile, exaggerating it by craning her neck, standing up on her tiptoes, and smiling wider and wider and wider until I finally erupted in laughter right in the middle of the transaction. The customer gave both of us a confused look as Marianna, having accomplished her goal, gleefully offered, “Hola, Keith!! Need any help?” Between laughs, I told her I was fine and returned to the customer, apologizing for the good-humored disruption.
Marianna, unlike most people here, speaks very good English, because during her childhood, her mother worked for US-based Delta Airlines. Sometimes she needs help with a word, however, and combining this with her matter-of-fact attitude produces hilarious results. When I originally asked about her pets, she explained she currently cared for two dogs and a kitten. Then she elaborated, saying she had been fostering three cats, but one had ran away and the other, well...“How do you say it?” (Marianna didn't know the word.)
Me: “Umm I don’t know what you’re trying to say. Adopted? Got sick?”
Marianna: “No . . . ‘ate’-n . . . eaten - yes! That’s it! She got eaten.”
Me: “WHAT?!?!? ARE YOU SERIOUS?!?!? OH MY GOSH!!”
Marianna (again, unfazed and matter-of-factly): “Yes. A stray dog ate her. It was really sad.”
You don’t say.
A Hero of Compassion
Like Marianna, Nicole is extremely friendly and passionate. She has impressive business savvy and perseverance, which she used to transform her once roadside arts-and-crafts table into the bustling organization EntreAmigos is today. You might think she’s a local, but she actually hails from California. Having lived in San Pancho for 15 years, she’s become part of the community, and everyone raves about her. Others have noticed, too, including the Dalai Lama, who recognized her with a 2014 Unsung Hero of Compassion Award.
Welcome to EntreAmigos!
When I told Nicole about my desire to volunteer, she mentioned Christian needed someone to staff the “Galeria,” the main gift shop in EntreAmigos, when he was not there. At first glance, the job seemed easy enough – sell items, clean the retail space from time to time, and put out new products as needed. Because the Galeria desk lies at the entrance of EntreAmigos, however, it also serves as an information kiosk.
Now, imagine you’re a Mexican tourist visiting San Pancho for a week - a somewhat common occurrence, much like Americans going to the beach for vacation. As you drive or walk into town on the main road, Avenue Tercer Mundo, you immediately come across a large building where you see children playing (some using 30-foot-long poles to pick mangos from trees), signs welcoming you inside, and warm, affirming smiles from the adults standing around.
Naturally, you stroll in, but what do you see? A tall, bald white guy, goofily smiling back at you. What’s more, when you approach him, you get a “Buenas tardes,” and think “Okay, well at least this out-of-place gringo speaks Spanish,” and proceed to ask your question or start a conversation in Spanish. That’s when you’re met with a blank stare, nervous laugh, and a “Mande?” “Repitelo por favor, mas despacio,” or a “Lo siento, no hablo mucho espanol.” That’s the EntreAmigos information desk for you!
When I relayed my soon-to-be-proven-true concerns about being the face of EntreAmigos, Nicole just laughed and told me not to worry. Worrying, in fact, isn’t something Mexicans do very often. For instance, I was told Mexicans don’t have allergies because parents let their kids run around in the dirt, eat mangos from the ground, and so on. Another time, during an English tutoring session I was having with a local woman at a playground, her 5-year-old ran off. “Ah, wait! Donde esta Enrique?!” (Where is Enrique?!) I asked. She called for him, but when he didn’t answer, she just laughed, didn’t move a muscle, and said he probably ran home. “Es muy seguro aqui,” (it's very safe here) she explained.
After working out my schedule with Christian – he needed someone to work the desk from 4:00 – 6:00 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays – I came in on my first day, eager to learn the ins and outs of the job. The job training started a little after 4:00 p.m. and, five minutes later, concluded. Although Christian speaks more English than most, I understood about 5% of how I was actually supposed to process transactions or prepare finished items for placement in the gift shop. Fortunately, Christian and I worked out a system whereby he’d leave me notes of tasks he needed me to do each day.
Turns out Nicole was right; I got the hang of the job pretty quickly, and the random people who stroll in mostly express a combination of surprise and amusement when I try to help them out. In fact, some people don’t even want to buy anything or ask about EntreAmigos.
One time, a small Mexican man wielding a machete and pineapple approached me with a “Hola, amigo.” “Hola, buenas tardes!” came my spoken reply (unspoken: please don’t kill me with that huge machete). The man then used the machete to chop a piece of pineapple off and handed it to me, gesturing to his mouth to let me know I could eat it. “Ah, muchas gracias!” I said as I ate the refreshing piña, and he gave a “De nada” and casually sauntered off.
Three Tiny Troublemakers
Another time, I arrived at work and found a note from Christian that I didn’t quite understand. After getting help from a Spanish-speaking colleague, I learned that my task for the day was to fill up ten small bags with rice and place them in a box behind the counter. The rice bags later would be placed in t-shirt storage boxes, to suck up the humidity during the hot summer months.
I was excited that my day’s task would most likely take all of 10 minutes; I had my laptop with me and the EntreAmigos internet was actually working, so I was ready to surf the web and catch up on emails for most of my 2-hour shift. (Lest you think I was slacking, Nicole encouraged me to bring my laptop or read during work to stave off boredom). Sure enough, I poured the small bag of rice into the 9 tiny sacks in less than 5 minutes. As I was just about to start the tenth and final one, three little girls (probably around seven years old) approached the desk giggling, each standing on tiptoes, peering over the counter to see what I was doing.
“Pongo arroz en las bolsas” (I put rice in the bags) I said, though in the time it took me to slowly think of the words and say them, the girls had skittered behind the desk with me. Two of them started inspecting the rice bags I had completed, while the third nudged me aside and took the original bag of rice. “Ah, tu vas a ayudarme?” (Ah, are you going to help me?) I asked, and the girl responded with a quick “Si!” As I opened up the empty tenth bag, the girl slowly started to pour in the rice from her larger bag. “Bueno, bueno!” I encouraged her, “tu estas bien . . . ahhh, too much, TOO MUCH!!!” Before I knew it, the little girl had poured out the entire bag of rice, overfilling the tenth bag by a wide margin. “Oh my gosh, there’s rice EVERYWHERE!” I commented, smiling and shaking my head as the little girls laughed hysterically and scampered off. I spent the next thirty minutes sweeping up the rice, and fortunately still had an hour and twenty-five minutes left to surf the web.
I enjoy volunteering at EntreAmigos, with its various surprises, and getting to meet a variety of people that come through its doors. My fellow staff members at EntreAmigos are extremely nice to me. I hang out with a couple of them after work, and tutor others in English . . . but since those activities occur after 6 p.m., I’ll cover them in a future post in the Average Day series. Adios!
Check out EntreAmigos' website here.