I find, when I travel, that the people I meet are often as memorable as the sights I see. That was certainly the case on my recent trip to the Riviera Nayarit. After wandering through the hippie chic, beach town of San Pancho (officially named San Francisco) I wandered into Entre Amigos, a vibrant community center (more on that below), where I met the director, ex-Californian Nicole Swedlow.
Ms. Swedlow moved here with her then toddlers in 2005. Worried about the lack of educational opportunities for the youngsters of the town, Swedlow started dragging her kitchen table out into the street and teaching what she knew: computer skills, English, arts and crafts that she learned in the girl scouts, you name it. Soon others, both outsiders and locals, joined her and by 2009 Swedlow had been offerred the use of the abandoned milk processing plant, to create a community center.
Today, Entre Amigos (http://entreamigos.org.mx) is the beating, bustling heart of the community and a welcoming place for all comers. In one corner is a toddler play area, in another a library, in the back is a place for recycling goods (often into the artful products sold in the gift store here, pictured above with Ms. Swedlow). Daily classes, four-or-so a day, are slotted into other areas of the site, and they they range from bee-keeping to art to, recently, how to make your own skateboard, taught by Evan Strong, a visitor to San Pancho, who won the gold medal in snowboarding at the last Para-Olympics. Strong is one of just many of the outsiders who’ve simply decided to pitch in and teach a class. Most notably, one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil, who has a vacation home in the area, created a massive gym and has funded classes in circus arts here for several years. One of the highpoints of the season is when the town’s troupe of 8 to 18 year old performers put on their yearly circus show.
But even if you come to town at a time when no performances are going on, I strongly recommend visiting Entre Amigos, as it offers visitors something pretty rare nowadays: a venue in which to interact with locals in an organic, meaningful fashion. For families, that might mean simply bringing their children here so that they can play with local children. For adults who want to make a contribution, Swedlow can arrange day-long to weeklong service projects for anyone interested. These can range from painting the dining hall of the local elementary school, to sharing skills with an interested local (or group of locals). Those who want to help out, but not with their time, are encouraged to bring used clothes that are in good condition; these are resold in the on-site thrift store, San Pancho’s only clothing store.
Recently, Ms. Swedlow was awarded the “Unsung Heroes of Compassion” award, which is given out by the Dalai Lama to 50 people from around the world every five years. So with that in mind, let me highlight the last and perhaps, most potent reason to visit San Pancho: to meet a truly remarkable person and see how much transformation can occur in a relatively short amount of time. You’ll leave feeling better about the world.
(Photo by the author)