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Zoe Guiney – Mexico

Name: Zoe Guiney

Host Country: Mexico

Host District:

Host Club:

Sponsor Club: Columbus

School: Granville High School

¡Hola, me llamo Zoe! Hi, my name is Zoe! I’m 18 years old and have just graduated from Granville High School. I am very excited to be spending a gap year doing a Rotary Youth Exchange in Mexico before I head off to college at Oberlin! In early August, I will travel to La Paz, the capital of Southern Baja California. I am very lucky to have wonderful parents who have always encouraged me to obtain new experiences and have been extremely supportive of my decision to spend the year abroad. I’ve been able to travel a fair amount with my family but I first had the opportunity to live abroad when I was 10 and we spent the year in France. Living and attending school in another country was extremely challenging, but it gave me a whole new perspective on the world and made me eager to see more of it. Here in Granville, I have been very involved with theater as well as social justice and activism. I also love literature, languages, and art and am so excited to learn more about these subjects in Mexico. I cannot wait to be on exchange: to learn more about the world and create bonds with people from all over. Thank you so much to Rotary for this incredible opportunity; I am extremely grateful!

September 1

I have now been in Mexico for 4 weeks and so many wonderful things have happened! On august 7th, I arrived in my beautiful host city of La Paz with 6 other exchange students from around the world. We were all greeted warmly by rotarians and host families alike. Everyone has been very eager to welcome me to their city and share their culture with me. Likewise, I am extremely eager to continue to learn about and experience this beautiful place. La Paz is truly stunning. Everywhere I look I see the ocean, the mountains, or the cactus (which are huge!). Last week, I began school here. I’m going to a small Catholic school that is very different from High School back in the states. My class is only 11 people and we stay in one classroom the whole day while the teachers come to us. My first class is English (it’s required) and I am happy to say that I’m acing it! Probably one of my favorite parts about being here is the food! I know Mexican food is common enough in Ohio but the real deal is so different from anything I’ve ever had back in the states. One of my favorite things here is picking up tortillas from the tortilleria for my family before lunch. A tortilleria is basically a bakery that only makes tortillas, which are absolutely essential to Mexican cuisine. In Mexico, the biggest meal of the day and the family meal is lunch, not dinner, and it is served mid-afternoon. I love being in the kitchen before lunch with my host family, learning how to prepare new Mexican dishes. I’m proud to say that I’m handling the spiciness quite well and the other day, I actually won a jalapeño eating contest against some of my Mexican friends! One of my favorite Spanish words I’ve learned so far is “enchilar” which doesn’t have a direct translation in English. Basically, it means to be in the state of experiencing spiciness and I think it’s existence as a word speaks a lot to Mexican culture! I love sharing with all my friends and family here about what life is like back in Ohio and how it’s different from La Paz. People are so interested to learn about my life back home and I’ve actually had a couple friends even ask me to help them apply to colleges in Ohio. It’s so wonderful to be able to share my home with others, especially as they have been so welcoming of me into theirs. I cannot believe it’s already been 4 weeks and cannot wait to see what else this experience has in store for me. Thank you so much for all your support of me during this exciting time, and allowing me to pursue this adventure. I could not be more grateful!

 

October 1

Wow, I can’t believe I’ve already been in Mexico for 2 months! Time really is going by fast here.
 
 This past month has been crazy busy in La Paz. September is the Mexican month of independence and my host family took me to Tijuana for independence day to visit my host siblings who live there. The celebration is called “el grito” which translates to “the cry” and it commemorates the pronouncement of the Mexican Revolution in 1810. We celebrated the grito by going to a huge party with lots of singing and dancing and a live Mariachi band! It was wonderful to see all the excitement and pride for Mexico.
 
However, my favorite part of the trip was the drive there and back. Tijuana from La Paz is about a 2 days drive, around 12 hours driving a day and it covers almost all the Baja peninsula. I have never seen a more stunning landscape in my life! Outside of the cities, the land is very sparsely populated and there are seemingly endless stretches of open desert, or the coastline, or mountains.
 
I have never seen so many cactus before! My host family laughs at me because I get excited every time I see one and cactus are about as common here as trees in Ohio. On the other hand, trees are about as common here as Cactus in Ohio and I’m sure many here would be shocked to see our forests and woods! At one point on the drive, we stopped at a place where the cactus were something like 20 feet tall. It was astonishing. My host dad told me that these cactus only grow about a centimeter a year. It amazes me to think all the years these plants have been alive!
 In the same area, my host family pointed out to me these giant piles of rocks as big as small mountains. No one knows how these rocks got here as they don’t match the surrounding geology. Some believe aliens are responsible. I’m not so sure about that explanation but it truly is mind-blowing to see these incredible formations! 
School is going well here although it is quite different from high school in the states. I’m attending a Catholic school and, not being Catholic myself, everything is very new to me. Catholicism is definitely the dominant religion in Mexico, and going to Catholic school is giving me a real insight into Mexican culture.
 
 Funnily enough, during the first few weeks of school, a boy in my class asked me to run as his vice-president for their equivalent of basically a student council. Trying to have a “say yes” attitude about everything here I of course agreed and miraculously, we won the election! So even though, I am not 100% confident with the language and therefore realistically probably not the most effective choice for vice-president, I now get to represent my school and help to plan activities for the entire High School! I am very excited to have this opportunity and am eager to find more ways to become involved in my community here. As always, thank you for your continued support and for allowing me to have this incredible experience! I can’t wait to see what happens next!
November 1 

Three months have come and gone and I’m having trouble believing I’m already more than a quarter into my exchange. One thing that’s funny about living somewhere with a warm climate all year, is that the absence of seasons makes it difficult for me to judge time and I’m always shocked when I realize the actual date!

Lately in mexico we’ve been celebrating  Dia de Los Muertos (the day of the dead). This is a Mexican holiday that has both Catholic and Prehispanic origins. Falling on November 1st and 2nd, Dia de los Muertos honors loved ones who have died as their spirits return to Earth to visit. Some traditions associated with Day of the Dead are to create altars honoring loved one’s who have passed away, dressing up in traditional skeleton makeup (called Catrin and Catrinas), eating pan de muertos (bread of the dead), and going to the graveyards to clean the tombs. The holiday would seem quite sombre but it’s actually quite joyous as it focuses on death as a part of life, and celebrates those who have passed on.
On Thursday, my school hosted a “Kermes” in the evening to celebrate day of the dead. A Kermes is an open air party of sorts. For the kermes we had both a Catrina completion and altar making competition. For the Catrina competition, each class entered a boy and girl who would dress up in the traditional skeleton makeup and impersonate important Mexican figures who have passed away in a sort of pageant. My class entered me and another exchange student to participate. Together we were the Catrina and Catrin of Maria Felix and Jorge Negrete, a very famous Mexican movie star couple. We had so much fun learning about the tradition and dressing up. Miraculously, we actually won the competition too! I think everyone was pretty excited to see the exchange students participate in the festivities and we were certainly excite dot represent our class as well!
Tomorrow, my host family and I will go to the cemetery to attend to the graves of their relatives who have passed away, as is the tradition on Dia de Los Muertos. I am so honored that I’ve been able to see and celebrate this uniquely Mexican tradition first hand and that everyone has been so welcoming and eager to share this important part of Mexican culture with me. I feel I am learning so much right now.
The other day I also got to go swimming with the whale sharks, a species of non-violent sharks native to baja california. This was truly a breath-taking experience that I will never forget. Only about a mile out from the boardwalk, we went snorkeling in the ocean and there the whale sharks were-ginormous, and only a few feet away from us! The biggest we saw was about 20 meters long and it swam right next to us. I have never been so close to such a huge creature, especially never in the wild and I am still awed by this experience. Being around those incredible animals really made me realize how much there is to discover and how little we really are in this amazing world!
The more time I spend here, the more I fall in love the city, the people, and the culture. I feel so honored to have this experience and humbled by the support and encouragement both from here, and back home. As always, thank you so much for giving me this incredible opportunity, it truly is shaping up to be the experience of a lifetime!
December 1

Well I’m four months into my exchange and still learning more each day! Being in La Paz right now is really pleasant because “winter” has set in making it around 70 degrees and sunny everyday. Everyone here is complaining about the cold which really cracks me up. I think they would be very shocked to experience the weather in Ohio!

Probably one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences so far has been celebrating Thanksgiving here in Mexico. All though there is a lot of US influence in this region of Mexico and there is certainly awareness of the holiday, “Dia de Accion de Gracias”, as it is called in Spanish, is not traditionally celebrated here. Therefore I wanted to do something special for my host family and friends to share with them a bit of American culture.

The day before Thanksgiving I had a friend over to make pumpkin pies using my grandma’s recipe. Together, we went grocery shopping and made the pies from scratch. Despite Mexican pumpkins being a little different than the ones back home, the pies came out well and on Thursday I shared them with my host family. It meant a lot to be able to share with people here what Thanksgiving means to me and to Americans everywhere. Although it is of course difficult to be away from family during the holidays, I am so lucky that I was able to share this tradition with my exchange family. Plus the pies were such a hit that I think I’ll think I’ll make them again soon!

Right now, everyone here is eagerly anticipating Christmas. I have never been anywhere warm for the holidays before and it is so funny to see palm trees and cactus decorated with Christmas lights. In school, we are preparing for a Christmas performance in which the whole school will be participating. My class, led by the English teacher, will be singing Christmas carols. It’s a bit surreal to hear my classmates trying to learn “Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in English but I love their enthusiasm. Still, I am very eager to learn the Mexican traditions surrounding Christmas. Already I’m loving “buñuelos” which are a sweet Mexican fritter served only around Christmas time.

This month I had the incredible opportunity to help out on a project that my hosting club puts on every year. The club hosts doctors from the US who run a free prosthetics clinic for the city. Prosthetics are extremely expensive and many people who could benefit the most from a prosthetic limb simply cannot afford them. That my hosting rotary club here can help to provide people with prosthetics who could otherwise not obtain them is really quite remarkable. I was able to visit the prosthetics clinic for a day, to help clean and organize, and to see first-hand rotary making an immediate difference in people’s lives. Seeing the process necessary to make a person walk again is honestly humbling.

It’s been really wonderful to learn more about rotary’s impact in the world in addition to learning about an entirely new culture. Definitely the best part of exchange is forming meaningful relationships with people around the world and I feel so lucky that through Rotary, I am able to form meaningful relationships with my beautiful host city.

I am so excited to continue learning. As always, Thank you for giving me this life-changing experience!

January 1

I’m about half way through my exchange and I’ve learned and experienced so much! I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to experience the holiday season here. Mexico is an incredibly festive place.

My city of La Paz, is coastal and in a region of Mexico that is technically desert. Therefore, of course, a “white Christmas” is not really feasible here. However, this idea of white Christmas is still pretty powerful here and the people of La Paz put an incredible amount of effort into transforming their city into a winter wonderland. 

At various places throughout the city, they’ve erected huge, practically life sized nativity scenes and in other areas, they’ve created reproductions of Santa’s workshop and sleigh, complete with fake snow. One thing that cracks me up is that even without pines, Christmas lights are a big deal and it’s quite commonplace to see someone has carefully draped a cactus or other desert plant with Christmas decorations.

Catholicism has a big influence on the holiday traditions here too. December 12th is the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. On this day, Mexicans celebrate the belief that on this day, the Virgin appeared to an indigenous Mexican man named Juan Diego. To honor the virgin, my school held a “peregrinacion” or pilgrimage in honor of the virgin. The entire school, kindergarteners through high school seniors, marched from our school to a sanctuary about 10 blocks away where mass was then held. It was a festive, almost parade-like event with everyone singing songs and some of the younger kids even dressed up as Mary and Juan Diego. It was really interesting to see this Mexican tradition.

One of the big differences in how Christmas is celebrated here versus in the States is that here, the principal festivities are held on the 24th not on the 25th. In Spanish, Christmas eve is called “Noche Buena” and the big family meal is held on this day. In this part of Mexico, the traditional Christmas dinner is much like American food, turkey and stuffing, ham, etc. These foods are not commonly eaten here though, so it’s a big deal that we eat them on Christmas. Other traditional Christmas foods include tamales, puzzle (a hominy soup), and sweet fruit punch.

Also on the 24th, I had the amazing experience of distributing gifts and Christmas meals to an impoverished neighborhood in La Paz with my hosting rotary club. This was really an eye-opening experience because although poverty is a huge problem in Mexico, it is kept fairly out of sight in my city. This neighborhood is both without electricity and running water. Many of the houses are homemade and contain huge families. The families were very excited and grateful to receive the the food and the children were ecstatic when one of the rotarians dressed as santa claus gave them each a toy. It was an incredibly humbling experience and i’m so grateful to rotary for allowing me to participate in the community in such a positive way.

As always, thank you for this incredible opportunity. I am learning so much and can’t wait to learn what is next to come! 

 

February 1

I am now 6 months into the exchange and I’m so excited and proud of all the experiences I’ve had.

Earlier this month I had the incredible opportunity to go on a four-day backpacking trip with a rotary family and the other exchange students in my city. We went to the Sierra de La Laguna, a mountain range in Southern Baja California. It’s a unique ecosystem, the only one like it in the world, and it’s home to many species of plants and animals that don’t live anywhere else. The first day was a 9-hour hike up the mountain to the valley where we would set up camp. The hike was long and grueling; I’ve never done something so physically demanding in my life. At the end of the day I felt so accomplished for making it.

The following days we hiked to a beautiful waterfall after which the mountain range is named and swam in the freezing water which was so cold it felt as if it burned, and the to the highest point of the mountain range which is also the highest point in all the state. This was amazing and from the top we could see either side of the Baja Peninsula, both the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean at the same time. It was stunning and I’m so happy I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful place.

This month I also visited Los Cabos on a day trip with my host family. Going to Cabo is a bit of a surreal experience because it is so much a tourist destination that there are honestly more people from the States than Mexicans there and it doesn’t necessarily feel like a Mexican city. With my host family I went on a boat tour to see the incredible rock formations on the coast and to see the whales that come to Cabo from Alaska to have their babies in the warmer water. They were such beautiful creature, it was wonderful to see them in their natural environment.

I also had the exciting opportunity this month with my host mom to see a performance of traditional folkloric dance from Chihuahua, the state where my host family comes from. The dances from Chihuahua are called polkas and are lively and vibrant. It was so much fun to see something so unique to Mexico, and particularly the culture of my host family. My host dad used to be a folkloric dancer so learning about this has been a great way to bond with my family.

Christmas break is finishing up right now, and soon I’ll be going back to school, but first my hosting rotary club is taking us to a town in the North of the state where we’ll get to see even more whales! I’m very excited.

March 1

7 months into my exchange and I’m still having so many incredible experiences!

At the beginning of the month I travelled with a few there exchange students in my city to Guerrero Negro, a town in the North of the state that is known for whale-watching. A rotarian owns a hotel in this town and was kind enough to invite us to stay for a few days. It was amazing. The gray whales swim down South from Alaska to have their babies in the warmer waters here. 

Our first day in Guerrero Negro we went out on the ocean in motorboats to get up close to the whales. At first the whales were shy and kept their distance from the boats, but they were genuinely interested in us and with time came right up to the edges of the boats where we were able to touch them. There was one mother whale who came right up to the edge of the boat with her baby and both of them let us reach out and pet their barnacle covered skin. It was truly incredible to realize that these enormous sea creatures are as interested in us as we are of them.

The past couple of days my city has been celebrating Carnaval. La Paz is known for their five-day Carnaval celebration which can best be compared to fourth of July celebrations back home. For nearly a week, the town transformed the boardwalk into a bright and colorful street fair. There were many performers, live bands, street food, and carnival rides. It was packed with more people than I thought lived here and everyone would stay late into the night. Tuesday was the last day of festivities, meaning of course that all schools delayed classes two hours so that people could sleep in after the night of festivities. It was so fun to go to Carnaval and see the blend of cultures and activities. 

I was also given the opportunity and district 6690 in some rotary events this month. Primarily, the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards held a conference for the youth in my city this month and the other exchange students and me were asked to speak about our experiences in the Rotary Youth Exchange program and to get other kids interested in Exchange. It was a nice way to reflect on my experience abroad and to speak to kids who are potentially in the position I was in a few years ago, considering exchange. One of the greatest things about rotary is that it rings together passionate individuals, dedicated to learning and changing the world.

Thank you for your continued support of my incredible Mexican adventure; I only have 4 months left, but I know they’ll be great!

 

April 1

I have now been in Mexico for 8 months and can’t believe how lucky I am.

This month was really special because I got to visit the Island of Espiritu Santo twice, which was a truly magical experience. Espiritu Santo is an island in the La Paz bay that is a protected wildlife area. There is no development on the island and the only people who live their are descendants of the indigenous people who were there long before the Spanish came to the Peninsula, and make use of the island’s natural resources. The island is home to many incredible rock formations and lots of flora and fauna, some of it endemic.

The best part of visiting the island however, was swimming with the sea lions. The island is home to a colony of about 400 sea lions who, as long as you don’t trespass on their rocks, are non-aggressive and very playful. I was able to go snorkeling in the water where they hang out and what of the came up to me and kept nuzzling my forehead. It was amazing! I feel so lucky to have been able to interact with this beautiful species and am so appreciative of the incredible biodiversity and ecology of the island.

I was also super excited to have my family from Ohio visit me this month. It was so much fun showing them all I’ve learned about Baja California Sur and exploring the state with them. My favorite was going with them to the Cactus Sanctuary, a beautiful park in the desert home to many different species of cactus, many of which have been growing for hundreds of years. the biggest of them, which was about 5 meters tall, is though to be around 500 years old. Being in Baja, with its dramatic landscape and incredible wildlife, has really taught me so much about the natural world.

This month my hosting rotary club again held a free prosthetics clinic for the community, hosting American doctors who volunteered their time to come in and create prosthetics for people in need. the rotary exchange students are always invited to come to the clinic and learn about how it works, but by chance when I visited, they happened to need some extra help translating between the Spanish-speaking patients and English-speaking doctors. So, I was actually able to help out and work at the clinic by doing translations. It was wonderful to be involved in such a beneficial service to the community.

Now more than ever I am aware of how little time I have left in Mexico but I am determined to continue to make the most of it. As always, thank you!

 

May 1

I have now been in Mexico for 9 months and have very little of my exchange left. However this last leg of my exchange had been especially exciting and meaningful!

In early April I switched host families again, which was difficult because I really loved my last host family but is going well because the new family is really lovely.

In Mexico there is no spring break, but they do get to two weeks to celebrate Holy Week and Easter. My host family took me to Culiacan, Mazatlan, and Obregon City to celebrate with their family. This was wonderful because I was able to leave the Baja peninsula for the first time and because it really allowed me to get to know my new host family better. I really felt a part of the family.

My favorite part of this visit was going to the family beach house which is located in the middle of nowhere in the state of Sinaloa. The nature there is truly stunning and the ocean is very unlike the calm waters I have grown accustomed to in la Paz. It was such a treat to get to know a completely new part of Mexico.

I just finished up attending the district conference of my hosting district here in Mexico. This was really neat because I got to meet all 60 of the exchange students here in my district as well as the Rotarians who sponsor us. As well as participating in the conference, we were able to do some community service, volunteering a local community centers and after school programs.

Today is the first day of the ruta maya trip which takes me throughout the south-eastern part of Mexico, a very different region than Baja California. Today we are in Mexico City and are going to visit the ancient Aztec pyramids. I am so excited to get to know the history of this beautiful country!

Thank you for your continued support an making this incredible experience possible for me. I can’t wait to see what my last two months entail!

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