Kate, Outbound to Mexico

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September 27, 2017

Hola de Puebla, México! I have now been on my Rotary Youth Exchange here in México for almost two months, and my last month has been quite interesting to say the least. Living as an exchange student is experiencing life in a year with both ups and downs. For any future exchange students, I think it’s important to go into exchange with realistic expectations. I’ve already shared some of the positives that I’ve experienced, so here I am going to also share a few unusual challenges that I have faced. These difficulties are not easy, but they are ultimately what can make us stronger and more resilient.

I experienced my first earthquake on Friday, September 8 just after midnight. An 8.2 earthquake had registered off México’s southern coast, the most powerful earthquake to hit México in a century. I was writing my first journal when I suddenly felt my desk and chair shaking. I hollered, “¿Qué pasa?” (What is happening?) to my host mom, and she told me to come downstairs. When I stood up, the floor was swaying underneath my feet, but I ran downstairs, and my host mom and I went to go stand outside. I was frightened but the earthquake was over fairly quickly. School was canceled the next day in all of Puebla as well as in México City and 10 other states, so the foundations could be double-checked. My host family and I are okay; our house was not damaged, and Puebla was not very affected as a city. The southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca suffered more damage, and tragically dozens were killed by the earthquake.

I have asthma, and just like back in Atlanta, if I get sick, my asthma flares up. For a few days, I had a cold and had been using the medicines I had brought with me from home. Unfortunately I got worse and needed to go to the emergency room on Sunday (September 10), just two days after the first earthquake. I was expecting that I would get a breathing treatment in the ER and be sent home. To be on the safe side, the doctor decided to keep me for 24 hours for observation and so I could receive stronger IV medicines. On the day I was admitted, I was very proud that I could give my fairly long and complex medical history completely in Spanish since I had learned the Spanish words before exchange. (Tip: If you have allergies, dietary restrictions, religious constraints, or medical conditions, learn how to explain them briefly in your target language before you leave.) My 24 hour observation turned into a 4 days and 3 nights hospital stay. As much I knew that was the probably the wise thing, I was still frustrated from being sick and in the hospital. But, I was still grateful for the quality of care that I was receiving. I was in a private room on the pediatric wing of a very modern hospital under the direct care of a fantastic pulmonologist and attentive nurses the whole time. My host family also took amazing care of me too. I was not a huge fan of the hospital food, so my host family brought me a pepperoni pizza, cereal, and my favorite cookies. My host mom stayed overnight with me even though the little couch was so uncomfortable, I coughed all night, and the machines beeped constantly, just because she didn't want me to be alone. I felt terrible for putting my host family through this experience.

Being in a foreign country, sick, and in the hospital were probably some of the most difficult weeks of my life. Missing your family is a normal part of your exchange, and never did I want my family with me more than those days in the hospital. During the other times I have been hospitalized back in Atlanta, I didn't do anything but sleep and try to get better. I could be weak while Mom and Dad managed everything. But this time, I had to be the director. I had to talk with the doctor and nurses about my asthma in Spanish, try to get the necessary papers to submit to insurance, update my family back home, and in the end, pay the bill (Side note: my entire hospital and doctor bill only came to approximately $1800 USD!). I don't know how I kept functioning except for the fact that I had to, so I did. This hospitalization showed me that I am stronger than I thought and also reminded me that it is okay to ask for help and rely on others. I also feel like my Spanish improved because I didn't have any other option.

On Wednesday (September 13), I was released from the hospital, but the doctor told me that I could not leave the house for the week so my lungs could continue healing. I was disappointed, but I recognized that it was (again) the wise thing to do, and I was still very grateful to be leaving the hospital. When I went to the pharmacy to find the medicines I needed, the pharmacist told me that one of my medications was administered by needle injection at home. I was a little freaked out (okay, maybe more than a little), but my host grandmother did a great job both times with the injections. During my four days of house arrest, I slept, worked on my blog, and watched lots of Netflix. It felt so good to be home in my own bed, with better food and Wifi, and the freedom to walk around without the IV pole. Friday, September 15 is when we celebrate Mexican Independence, but I was still under doctor’s orders to remain at home. I was really disappointed to miss the party at school and the festivities downtown, but I guess that just means I have to come back one day to México to celebrate!

I experienced my second earthquake at about 1:00 PM Central Time, Tuesday, September 19 (the anniversary of the terrible 1985 earthquake that devastated México City). This earthquake had a magnitude of 7.1, and the epicenter was in the town of Raboso, Puebla, about 35 miles from my city of Puebla. This earthquake felt much stronger than the one on September 8, and as soon as I felt the shaking, I immediately ran downstairs and out into the backyard. I was scared and very worried about my host family who were not home with me at the time. Cell phone service went down for a while, and since it happened in early afternoon, people were at school and work. People could not reach their family members; traffic lights stopped working, so the streets were jammed with traffic. My host family came made it home a little while later, and thankfully we are all safe. In our house, only a couple of photo frames fell off the wall and broke. In the cities of Puebla and Cholula, the damage was worse than the earthquake on September 8th, as several older buildings were heavily damaged, and several church steeples fell. The earthquake affected México City more as whole buildings collapsed and tragically more than 300 lives were lost, and there are still people missing.

After an earthquake, government inspectors have to survey building foundations for structural integrity. School was canceled again for all of Puebla and México City from Wednesday to Friday, to check the schools and so students could help with the relief efforts. On Wednesday, the day after the earthquake, my host mom and I went to a makeshift collection center to donate supplies and volunteer for a while. Dozens of people were working together around a small truck and a couple of folding tables while more volunteers unloaded the endless stream of cars full of donations. We sorted the contributions and prepared bags of the different supplies ready to be handed out to families in need. I loved seeing how ordinary people were organizing relief efforts and how the community was rallying together to aid affected communities.

On Thursday morning, my friends and I met at school, which also was a collection center, to volunteer together. We brought donations, as did so many other students, and together, we had filled a whole room with bags of clothes, nonperishable foods, and other necessities. We sorted, counted, and then re-boxed the donations to take to a central collection center at one of Puebla’s convention centers. Next, some other students, teachers, and I went to drop off the supplies and serve some more. When we arrived, I could not believe my eyes. Hundreds of people stood in a line to form a human chain that stretched from the road, across the plaza, inside the building, and all the way to the back of this huge room. Cars would pull up to the curb, and volunteers would unload them. The human chain then passed every donation, from cases of water to packages of medicine, down the chain until it reached the end. We first served by processing donated boxes of cookies, counting cookies and then marking the boxes for distribution. We then helped break down pallets of rice, lentils, and beans, re-grouping and bagging 10 individual-sized bags. Lastly, we grouped cases of diapers and bagged them together to be delivered to families in need. We left a few hours later, and I was so grateful for the opportunity to help in any small way I could with some amazing people.

The sheer volume of donations and volunteers working together at this collection center absolutely amazed me. It was like an instant Costco warehouse of donations. There were rows and rows of cases of water stacked at least 5 feet high, and the piles of sorted clothing formed a sea of small hills. While hundreds of volunteers processed the donations, other people walked around, handing out donated waters, fruit, and tortas (very similar to a sandwich) to us volunteers. It was so incredible to witness people of all backgrounds and ages uniting to serve our community. High school students volunteering with their teachers. College students working alongside business professionals. Young children serving with their parents. We all had a common goal, which was to bring aid to those most affected by the earthquake. And together, as a community and country, we accomplished so much. Relief efforts were mobilized immediately, and supplies were delivered to those in need in less than 24 hours.

On Friday, some of us Rotary Youth Exchange students, our host families, and local Rotarians worked together to unload a small truck that Rotarians from another area had sent full of donations. We formed a human chain and quickly sorted the cases of water and bags of supplies. When we finished, my friends from Germany and Indonesia, our host families, and I tried to go serve somewhere else, but in some cases, collection sites already had too many volunteers and were turning people away. What an amazing “problem” to have. We were able to help load a truck at a local university before heading home, my arms tired, but my heart full. Despite such a tragic natural disaster, I was moved to see an entire country working together to help our communities recover.

I hope this blog post didn’t freak you out, but I wanted to show that life happens, no matter where you are. And you persevere and do what you need to do. In spite of 2 major earthquakes and a hospitalization, I have never wished I could return to the United States and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. I absolutely love my life here in Mexico and the people I have grown to love. I knew that there would be ups and downs during my exchange, and for me, the positives far outweigh the negative. We have the choice to see the blessings in every experience and challenge. Although, it would be okay (for me, my host family, and my family in the U.S.!) if there are no more illnesses or natural disasters for the remainder of my exchange. Thank you for reading, and ¡hasta luego!