Woo-Hoo! Spring Break in Paradise!

Woo-Hoo! Spring Break in Paradise!

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Like elementary school and college students alike, my countdown to spring break begins at Christmas. Because I work and live at a boarding school, essentially on-call 24/7, I get two weeks off. These sacred two weeks are a chance for me to unwind, unplug, and undo the stresses that build up through the winter. Any ordinary winter, that would mean skiing. Everyday. This winter has left something to do be desired here in the Rockies, mainly snow. Gray days that normally produce storms have come and gone, leaving our mountains bare. In the last week we've received a good base at the ski areas, but there persists a feeling of cabin fever and let-down from the winter that never came.

So, off to SPRING BREAK IN MEXICO! WOOHOO!

But actually, I try to be pretty deliberate about how I travel and do not usually fly to destinations on a whim.  Most of our adventures are within 3 hours of our home in western Colorado; mountain biking, climbing, floating rivers, soaking in hot springs, or skiing.  My spring break falls in what we call the shoulder season, so not many of our usual activities are accessible. So, beach-time here we come!

On a similar trip last year we discovered white sand beaches, a small but vibrant community, and the perfect place to relax and unwind. We've decided to return to the quaint paradise of San Pancho.  Aside from the ocean and out-of-this-world tequila drinks, this vibrant little community boasts impressive restaurants and fresh taco stands, inexpensive AirBnB options, a festive live music scene, and whale watching adventures. It's a 3 hour direct flight from Denver, but somehow not super touristy (yet) which means the crowds, noise, pollution, and high prices are left in the bustling streets of nearby Sayulita. Shhhhhh, don't tell!

It's not the cheapest choice for spring break, but frugality needs to strike a balance with experiencing different cultures, practicing a second language, and a change of pace. Sometimes that means taking a flight, which we're doing on saved airline miles, to south of the border. On a walk through the neighborhood where we were staying we stumbled across entreamigos, an inspiring community-led project that perfectly embodies the Green & Green ethos. 

The Green & Green vacation is not simply about ways to go-cheap, or offset our carbon footprint from flying 3,500 miles by planting trees. It's about being intentional and deliberate about where we spend our money and our time. It's flipping SPRING BREAK- WOOHOO! on its head by venturing outside the tiki-bar and into the community. Last year we shared a home with locals, frequented the nearby textile vendors, and learned about the people who live and work in the community.

All of this was done on a budget, of course. We booked our flights on saved miles and rented a quaint beach bungalow for $40/night. The total cost of our week long trip for two to paradise is less than $500; travel, lodging, and food. Not chump change, but not exactly breaking the bank either. Surprising to us, our favorite part was not sun tanning or drinking margaritas the size of my head; it was the community.

Our first morning we awoke to the cawing of birds and aromas from the chocolateria next door.  Across the street we found "entreamigos." From the outside, it appears to be a warehouse, but on the tour inside we were struck in awe. It was once a milk-processing facility that laid abandoned for nearly forty years. The 16,000 sq/ft repurposed space was transformed into a community center that resembles a mix of McGuyver and Santa's workshop. Entreamigos is a lot of things; a machine shop with workspaces, art classrooms, technology and computer center, secondhand clothing and recycled crafts store, library, sports field, café, children's play space, performing arts stage, outdoor cinema, and recycling center. This volunteer-run organization hosts youth leadership conferences, environmental education classes, eco-design workshops, children's art initiatives, academic scholarships, youth entrepreneur programs, and even its own community currency.

The entreamigos model is accessible and inclusive. Many people in the community come to learn, work, make items to sell in the gift-shop to earn extra money, and kids attend the after school program.  Mr. G&G loved the ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and that the organization was born out of and directly serves the needs of the community. I valued the educational opportunities, community engagement, and promotion of ecological practices. They model resourcefulness in many ways, from the involvement of local people, to their programs, and even the physical design of the space. 

For example, the tropical heat can be stifling - a challenge local schools have faced, as air conditioning is cost-prohibitive in rural Nayarit. If it's too hot - the average temperature is a humid 85°F - children don't go to school. Architects and permaculture designers approached the problem with a simple solution using the predictable coastal winds. They constructed a living wall art installation in the central courtyard. As ocean breezes pass through the plants, the evapotranspiration (aka plant sweat) cools the air before it flows into the open-air workshop spaces. This passive design saves the organization money, reduces their ecological footprint, and creates a naturally inviting passage between outdoor and indoor environments. 

All waste generated in the building's renovations was repurposed, and 80% of the building supplies were sourced from recycled materials. This saved the community money and reduced impact on the environment. Everything the slim organization runs is efficient, transparent, and is approached with a systems-thinking mindset. Sure, they could have tried to raise $30,000 to install air conditioning, windows, and artificial lighting on an unreliable energy grid, forcing the enclosure of indoor classrooms from the natural world outside. Instead they recognized the ample natural resources around them, namely sunlight, vegetation, and gentle breezes, and created a comfortable and usable space without draining energy from an inefficient and nonrenewable energy grid.

I think that many of our communities here in the U.S. could benefit from the model entreamigos has developed. If we committed to that level of community engagement, maybe young people could feel part of something bigger than themselves and could be prepared for a life of learning. Localized efforts to provide their youth accessible education, encourage creative problem-solving, implement ecological designs that fit with the available resources, and encourage people's sense of belonging to their community could have a powerful impact on our biggest problems at home. 

In lieu of feeling hopeless at home, some choose volunteer-abroad programs. Gap years are becoming a rite of passage, but some evidence suggests backpacking and contributing to communities with your dollars might enact more positive change. Overall I'm wary of romanticized voluntourism for several reasons. I'm not claiming my help at this small community center will cure blindness, but I am willing and able to contribute within my scope of expertise. Everyone has some way they can impact change, and it's important to assess your skill set beforehand. As a general guideline, never pay to volunteer. Impactful, free opportunities abound!

Many communities could use your skills, so network in your field to find a project that best fits the needs of the community and skills you can realistically offer. I'm planning to gather school materials and monetary donations, (click here if you want to help) and volunteer by teaching science demonstrations and selling recycled crafts to visitors. It's not rocket science (though we may make bottle rockets), but it's fun and fulfilling nonetheless.

Helping others energizes my hope in humanity and shifts my priorities in life. Doing good is self-serving in this way, but it's a win-win. Shared experiences can break down barriers, something we all agree needs to happen, but potent experiences do not necessarily need to result in extravagant expenses. I love discovering resourceful initiatives that connect social engagement, ingenuity, and environmental education. If you know of any others please share in the comments section so we can spread the word! Here's to spring break 2018!

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