A Journey Westward: Community and conservation in Oaxaca, Mexico

May 14, 2024
a tree and tall walls with a small archway inside Oaxaca botanical gardens

Oaxaca Botanical Gardens. Photo: Charlie Marchant, Flickr.

When I was chosen for the mature scholarship award for E.I.L. I struggled to hear the news over traffic, my phone’s terrible speaker and reception. Laden down with groceries, trying to act calm enough that I would not concern passersby, while still having to yell down the phone. 


While preparing for the trip I met those who also would go to Mexico, learned about my project and other work undertaken by E.I.L. Some people would be going to Vietnam, Guatemala, Denmark, the U.S.A., either participating in educational exchanges or working on projects helping with childcare or rescuing sea turtles.


My trip began in Mexico City, my first glimpse of it through a sleep deprived brain. I was worried about not being able to handle the heat, but I can confirm that the heat is nice there, unlike Ireland where it has murderous intent. My first proper look at the city was the next day. We saw the vendors selling fruit, drinks and ice cream. Valeria, our guide showed us a historic building placed so that you can see the sprawl of Mexico city. Skyscrapers were distinct and hazy.


Then it was on to Oaxaca for two weeks for a language school. I met my host family who were very lovely throughout my stay, and on my way to their home I learned that there was traffic disruption due to a pride parade. Well, this was an opportunity I thought. Google Maps told me it was not far away, but all I managed to find was an ice cream. My room reminded me of my gran’s home. Textured plaster and brown wooden inbuilt storage. It was a lovely home designed by the father of my host family who was an architect. As I went to sleep, I did not know it, but the pride parade was actually going to come to me. While I stayed in Mexico, I met so many people, made some friends, all who were so lovely, and so many were queer that I honestly was questioning statistical probability.


Before leaving for Mexico, I had planned for the sun, travel sickness, and petty silly human conflicts that come from being in the same place as someone else for a long period of time. I had been forewarned about scorpions, but despite this I was not prepared for the tarantula. 


Towards the end of my trip, as I was drying dishes, I found the tarantula. My host family had a fake rubber spider, not too big and not too convincing. When I saw the tarantula, I swiftly presumed that it was the rubber replica. It was a good four seconds before I realised that it was in fact a real tarantula that was sitting beside me in the kitchen.


It was eventually released into the Ecological Park where I was volunteering. This was objected to by the son of the park manager who wished it to join the three snakes, armadillo, and Opossum currently in residence in the house.


Before the trip, I was expecting to feel the cultural divide much more strongly than I did. Instead I was reminded much more of how similar humans are. We may do things differently but we all have needs to be met and ways of meeting them. We may not all face the same struggles but we all feel the same heartache. Many of my opinions were reinforced, such as the importance of community and connection.

We succeed when we work with others and support each other. This is exactly the objective of my scholarship. It wished to expand and change my way of thinking. My experience has been expanded in the most fantastic way possible, alongside my respect for the importance of community.

many tall cacti next to a rectangle pond in Oaxaca botanical gardens

Oaxaca Botanical Gardens. Photoe: Charlie Marchant, Flickr.

It was an amazing privilege to see one of the world’s most bio-diverse countries. I saw all manner of animals and plants, from the agaves to the hummingbirds and fireflies. I got to visit sites where agriculture developed and corn was first domesticated. I saw vultures, red tailed hawks and a baby pit viper. I got to see my first pyramid, something I thought may never happen,and they most certainly lived up to the hype. They are able to make one feel so insignificant yet solid in that insignificance. A giant that reminds you of your own size.


All of these experiences and the prompting for this scholarship is the desire to help create and strengthen international relationships and understanding.To be a practical and more abstract advocate of those who we are distant from. A reminder that the distance is a very small one in certain circumstances. 

From planning and aiding projects utilizing the Sustainable Development Goals, to simply distracting a toddler so someone can take a phone call. Helping others is a great or as small a project as you shape it, and it is how we are able to form bonds and empathy.

It would be remiss of me to not touch upon the death of Jesús Ociel Baena, a non-binary Mexican activist and magistrate who was murdered in November 2023. The courage and example they demonstrated in becoming a magistrate and fighting for their rights and those of others. But even more importantly the support, love and curiosity from friends and family should be honored.


I did not imagine it would be possible for me to go to Mexico, I did not imagine I would figure out my identity and how understanding it would solve so many issues and create new challenges. None of the experiences I had could have taken place without the kindness and generosity of those I met. I would not have seen half of the wonders I saw if they had not the courage and capacity to share them. So my journey westward concluded and I returned home, hopefully to continue developing community through commonality and differences.


EIL Explore provides scholarships for Irish participants to travel abroad. To learn more about EIL Scholarships and see if you are eligible for one, follow this link