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Travel and the Art of Giving Back

When my boyfriend and I landed in Mexico City, we were surprised to see fewer homeless people than on the streets of San Francisco. After settling into our hotel in Zona Rosa, the tourist district, we called back to a friend in the States. He enlightened us, explaining that Mexico City was known for its street children. Armed with a wireless connection, I sat on the floor in the hallway of our hotel, did some Internet research and found Casa Ananda, an organization helping to get the street children—or chabos—off the street. In that moment, I knew we couldn’t leave Mexico City without realizing why we weren’t seeing the chabos, we couldn’t leave without trying to help. We called Casa Ananda and my boyfriend left a message in near-perfect Spanish, but we didn’t hear back. Three days later we sat at breakfast when the phone rang at our hotel. It was for my boyfriend, and as I translated his responses to the person on the other end, I knew we were staying.

We had been feeling disappointed about leaving Mexico City without volunteering. But life has a way of working out, especially during travel. When you want to go beyond the sightseeing and create an intention to give back to the community, things fall into place. The translation was that Casa Ananda needed our help fixing up a new house they had rented for the children just two days before.

Dada, a Filipino-turned Mexican, had started Casa Ananda six years before when he watched a thirteen-year-old girl scrounge through a garbage can. “I only knew dogs to do that,” he said. After that, he knew he had to help change the lives of these children left to the street.

Dada educated us on how this new house we were fixing up was going to be a center for learning and growth. How the chabos who were committed to changing their lives would have access to computers and classes, to the Internet and so in turn, to the world. He told us about his initial failed attempts at helping fifty street children. They would come to his home where he operated a soup kitchen, until his neighbors threatened to sue. Then he found this house, where the neighbors and landlord wanted to be involved, and then he found us.

I was curious to see how the chabos lived, so Dada toured us around the city and pointed out the kids in the subway stations that we had somehow previously missed. Dressed in torn clothes covered in dirt, two ten-year-old boys rode pieces of cardboard down the subway stairs. They laughed from a drug-filled abyss that I recognized in their glassy eyes. In the side street parks, chabos had built encampments with blue tarps and string. I had to cover my mouth to block out the rancid smell of their addiction, drain cleaner, which they inhaled on a daily basis to dull the pain of living without a home. I spent the next week in the squat position scrubbing floors. My boyfriend, a woodworker, fixed doors with less than ideal tools that he bought off the street.

In the evenings, we spent the night at Casa de Los Amigos, a Quaker hostel two doors down from Casa Ananda. The hostel was spacious, immaculate, and it had a kitchen and common room. It was also a fraction of the price of any of Mexico City’s hotels. Travelers from around the world gathered over a home-cooked breakfast and traded travel stories. We’d wished we had found Casa de los Amigos earlier, but knew it was because we had to find Casa Ananda first.

On the last day of our service at Casa Ananda, Casa de los Amigos had their charla cultural—cultural interchange—where locals came to practice their English and speak about current affairs. My group talked about obesity and dating. I explained that not all Americans were fat, and that I liked living in San Francisco because it was healthy. An older Mexican man asked me, “But do you date obese men?” I was stumped.

As Dada, my boyfriend and I walked to meet the group for a meal at the corner restaurant, the same old man who had asked me the obesity question joined us. He asked us what we had done while in Mexico City. We explained how much we had loved our time spent at both Casas, how our ten days spent in Mexico City had been the best of our six weeks driving Mexico’s roads, and that we hadn’t needed another beach to help us relax; we had needed the art of giving back. He hoisted a backpack over his shoulder to make his way home.

“Do you come back to Mexico City next year then?” he asked with a smile that felt more suited for a young boy than a seventy-year-old man. We said that we hoped to in the future.

He smiled again. “Good, I’ll be right here waiting for you.”


Photo: Casa Ananda in Mexico City by Amanda Coggin/