Ethical Travel ~ Benny's Story
Photo: Hotel workers in Morelia, Mexico. Credit: Obed Hernández @yabbath
At this time of year, when many families decide to escape the winter weather and take a relaxing vacation to the warmer climates of Mexico and other countries, it is our hope that they will consider the concept of “ethical travel”.
Story contributed by Ina Timmer.
About 20 years ago, Dave and I first went to Mexico, driving down the Baja to Cabo San Lucas. We all know Cabo San Lucas as a tourist mecca, a paradise of beautiful beaches, golden sand and crystal blue water. Resorts are clustered on the beachfront and expensive shops with silver, colourful pottery and fabrics from mainland Mexico dot the town. The tequila flows and the music pounds and the Mexican food is plenty and delicious.
Most tourists are not aware of what goes on behind the scenes, or what the living conditions are like for some of the Mexican locals—those who are providing them with services. While managing a small resort for 18 months, we learned a lot about the “real” Cabo, and were fortunate to befriend some wonderful Mexicans who shared their stories with us.
Playa Grande Resort, Cabo San Lucas
Managing the staff at the resort was a learning curve for all of us—they spoke no English and I spoke no Spanish. In spite of the language barrier, I quickly grew very fond of the maids, Benny and Maria; the maintenance man, Carlos; the gardener, Lionel; and Jose, the night watchman. I also learned a lot of cleaning terms including: limpio (cleansed), muy sucio (very dirty) and barrer el piso (sweep the floor). As we worked more and more closely together, the domestic workers began to trust me and invite me to their homes in the barrio. I became especially close to one of the maids, Benny.
Benny came to Cabo from the interior of Mexico, leaving an abusive family, and then an abusive relationship. Owning nothing and unable to read, she courageously made her way to Cabo to look for work, and was very fortunate to meet our friends Mike and Sherry, the owners of the resort. They hired her to clean the rooms and do the laundry, and paid her fairly for it. She saved every penny she earned and over the next few years, she was able to buy a small lot in the barrio, on which she began to build her house, piece by piece, room by room, always paying cash. When she invited me for a visit, the walls were up and a few windows were in and she was so proud of what she was accomplishing by herself. By most standards, it may have seemed very humble, but to Benny, it was her palace and her fortress.
A Mexican barrio, fifteen minutes from downtown Cabo San Lucas
Getting to know Benny led to my learning more about the barrio and how the ‘unseen others’ live. It’s easy to take for granted the servers and cleaners who make our lives comfortable and relaxing, and many people don’t think twice about them, or what their lives might be like outside of the resort.
Benny is one of thousands of Mexican women, supporting children and families and trying to make ends meet on very little pay. The lives of women in developing countries can be extremely difficult. In Mexico, minimum wage standards are less then $5 US/day, but in reality, very few make that. Benny was rich in comparison to some women we met as we delved deeper into the barrio. We met a woman with six children, living under blue tarps, with no running water, no toilet facilities, no furniture and a circle of rocks that enclosed the fire she cooked on. And she was one of many living that way.
Fortunately for this particular family, a good friend of ours, Randy, and some other generous souls, helped build them a house. But they are one family out of thousands.
So what can we do? We can’t build a house for everyone nor solve all their problems. But we can be aware of those who need help, where we live and where we travel.
Our niece, Robin, and her family are travelling around Thailand and Laos. They stop long enough in each place to learn about the people who live there and to help out and give of themselves, whether by volunteering to clean up beaches, teaching English to young people or simply learning and participating in the culture, as well as identifying and supporting the organizations that are working in these places to make a difference in the lives of the locals. (Please stay tuned, and follow our Facebook page for more about Robin’s journey.)
What can you do?
There are many things we can do. Even the simplest things can help:
- Learn the language—using even the most basic vocabulary is a sign of respect
- Tip fairly, and in the local currency
- Leave little gifts and thank you notes for housekeepers
- Say hello and greet people, whether it’s the gardener, the pool boy, the prep-cook or the night watchman
- Make positive guest comments to the hotel or business, or send an email and mention the name of the particular person who made your trip special
- Support local restaurants and businesses as much as possible
- Keep in touch—offer to friend them on Facebook if you’ve made a connection and learn more about them and their culture
Before you go, take the time to learn about the country you are visiting and find out how you can give back and make a positive impact on the lives of the locals who make your vacation possible.
Organizations that are making a difference in Mexico:
The Secret Life of the Mexican Worker, Everything Playa Del Carmen
10 of the Best Ethical Travel Companies, The Guardian
How to Make Your Next Trip More Responsible, Epicure & Culture
“Children and youth born into Mexico's poorest barrios often lead invisible lives, like ghosts caught between two worlds.”