Gone are the days when voluntourism remains separate from wellness vacations, as travellers begin to realize that the two are inextricably intertwined. In an increasingly globalized world, travellers now yearn for opportunities to engage with the communities they visit while simultaneously becoming more aware of the excess of humanitarian crises that call for international assistance. Recognizing the power of uniting people with the common motivation to help others, The Assemblage, a New York City-based co-working and co-living community has begun offering mission-based journeys that enable travellers to tap into their own potential through exercising their empathy and compassion. We joined them on their latest journey to Mexico to learn how helping others might just be the next best recipe for wellness.
Less than 24 hours after a group of creatives and entrepreneurs from across the United States convened for the first time in the historic quarter of Mexico City, they were off to Miztli School equipped with a bag of toys, balloons and paint, ready to begin a full day of service. Through the help of Glasswing International, an organization that empowers local communities to implement their own development projects, The Assemblage group worked with the students to renovate the learning spaces of this 30-year-old school. Jessica, an 18-year-old professor at the school, and her 14-year-old student, Leslie, peered from a window on the top floor of the school, smiling as they watched the volunteers paint murals, plant a garden, and build a playground with some of the youngest school children. As the day progressed, it became clear that the reward was not only felt by the school, but by the visitors too, as everyone involved became noticeably more energized as they witnessed the space transform into an inspiring learning environment. “Knowing that this school is going to bring a smile to these kids makes all the difference in the world,” Michael Chen, a New York City-based entrepreneur said as the day ended with a special performance, piñata competition and countless extended hugs.
Any social impact trip would not be complete without experiences that deepen the travelers understanding of the cultural and environmental dynamics of the communities in which they serve. Thus, The Assemblage partnered with Umbral Axochialt, a NGO dedicated to the rehabilitation of Xochimilco; a uniquely fertile agricultural region in the heart of Mexico City. After a boat ride along the peaceful Xochimilco river, travelers met with Benicio don Nicho, a local farmer who believes the degradation of the region has largely been due to farmers abandoning their plots and giving up their Chinampas farming traditions. “Most of what we perceive as garbage is not garbage,” he says. “There are ways to live off the land that preserve it.” Endowed with this deepened understanding of Mexico City’s struggle to protect the rural economy in the face of rapid urbanization, it was time for the group to escape the city to the tranquil countryside.
The ideal environment for moments in between acts of service to reflect and turn inward? Tepoztlan, a sacred valley considered to be a healing hotspot due to the unique mineral properties in the soil. The group spent the second half of their journey at Hostal de La Luz, a wellness resort offering chakra therapy treatments, vegetable-forward cuisine and a meditation labyrinth overlooking the lush valley. What set this journey apart from the traditional impact trip was the rare opportunity to feel, in every sense of the word, the benefits of connecting with others through service. Each day involved intense meditation, breath-work and sound healing sessions designed to challenge participants to confront their deepest forms of self. These sessions took the un-layering of the ego instigated by service one step further by forcing participants to be vulnerable in the presence of others. The group rose from each meditation renewed and grounded, with a greater sense of unity and openness.
While meditation sessions exercised our mental and emotional ability to turn inward, the Temazcal experience presented the ultimate physical challenge to unlocking one’s full potential. A local shaman, Jose, led the group through forty minutes of breathing and chanting synchronized with the beat of his drum inside the traditional sweat lodge that reached up to fifty degrees Celsius. After rubbing down the body with fresh aloe, each participant was projected out a slide, depicted as the throat of a dragon, exiting its mouth into a chilling pool of freezing water. “We want to run away from the Temazcal, not because of the temperature but because of our thoughts. Let’s liberate sensations and our thoughts.” Jose told us prior to entering. “The Temazcal is a representation of a mother’s womb. We enter to be reborn. You resist the heat and after, you are born again.” An experience that is a far cry from the typical sauna session one might expect of a wellness resort, it was only through this kind of intense physical spiritual work that the real reward of mental clarity, emotional confidence and connection came to fruition.
On the first day, Peggy Chan, one of the volunteers said, “We can’t give unless we take care of ourselves. You have to fill your own glass before you can serve other people.” On the last day, the group led an art class at Tashirat Foundation Orphanage, where the owner echoed a similar sentiment, “You have to be able to help yourself in order to help other people.” The group came full circle as they toured the orphanage that has, over the last twenty years, grown into a series of homes for twenty-eight children who have been excluded from state-run adoption programs. Unlike government-funded orphanages with inconsistent dorms and rotating staff, Tashirat Foundation takes a holistic approach, placing each child in their own home with their own host mother. Just as The Assemblage believes in rethinking ways of engaging with the world, their travellers get the opportunity to work with organizations that similarly defy traditional structures, demonstrating that this kind of impact trip goes beyond benefiting the individual participant, to encouraging knowledge-sharing and the promotion of innovation at a global scale.
After a closing meditation watching the morning sun rise over the rolling hills of Tepoztlan, the travelers returned to their respective homes, equipped with a new sense of clarity, intention and confidence. It was in that moment that words shared on the first day by Juanita Galvis, the Head of Social Impact Advocacy and Impact Travel at The Assemblage, took new significance, illuminating that a journey like this is as much about healing one’s self and fellow travelers as it is about helping the service project beneficiaries. “We have the superpower of helping others, even if we need help. When we connect in a vulnerable way, we help each other to heal our emotional wounds. Each day I remind myself of the quote, ‘one person can’t change the world, but you can change the world for one person’.” By inviting travellers to serve others, confront their deepest vulnerabilities and support others in doing so, The Assemblage offers a new kind of wellness vacation; one that goes beyond a temporary solution of fleeting relaxation to a more permanent resolution, that of personal transformation.
Article and photography by Anna Haines