Working abroad may prove a bit of a culture shock but that's all part of the fun, as Zoë Flood found out in Central America

Mexico. The land south of the border, where vaceros ride into flaming sunsets, where cacti cast long shadows on the dusty ground and where the tequila runs like water.

Mexico. The land south of the border, where vaceros ride into flaming sunsets, where cacti cast long shadows on the dusty ground and where the tequila runs like water.

What had possessed me, a fresh-faced, middle-class white girl with not a word of Spanish to her name, to commit three months of my life to a country with which I had no connection and to people I had never met? I have yet to find the answer to that question, but the why matters little now and I can only congratulate myself on the wisdom of my decision.

My opinion was somewhat different last September when I apprehensively (it was only two weeks after 11 September, forgive my nerves) boarded the flight to Mexico City, accompanied by 15 other volunteers whom I had never met. We were all bravely stepping forth under the banner of Outreach International, a small company that at the time had projects established only in and around Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

Our grasp of our destination (not to mention our Spanish) was dubious to say the least. We had all felt a calling to Mexico, yet no one really knew what to expect from the place. My one encounter with Puerto Vallarta had occurred whilst watching the film Blow, which is about American drug-dealer George Jung.

As we travelled for 13 hours over-land from Mexico City, jet-lag usefully dulled my senses to the overwhelming sights and sounds, with aggressive streams of VW Beetles careering past the window and a kamikaze bus-driver speeding along the winding mountain roads.

A short reprieve was granted, with the other volunteers and myself remaining in Puerto Vallarta for an acclimatisation week. This consisted of a desperate attempt at learning Spanish in our daily classes and some British-style partying in a brash American tourist resort. Puerto Vallarta is to the USA what the Costa del Sol is to Britain.

Just when we had grown accustomed to all the new faces and congratulated ourselves on how easily we'd adapted, the real Mexico – and what I had come for – began. Leaving home for the first time with a group of strangers was not easy, but nothing could compare to my feeling of sheer incredulity when my friend Roxanne and I were dropped off at the house where I would live for the next three months.

We were to be English teachers in a tiny village high up in the mountains, where 300 people worked the fields, kept cattle and lived their lives, at least two hours drive from civilisation. El Refugio, meaning "refuge" in Spanish, is just that: a mountainous haven that brought my expectations about life's necessities crashing down.

The villagers were not wanting, but life was certainly basic. Eight of us lived in a four-roomed house that was to my surprise proudly equipped with a television and a stereo, yet had no glass in the windows. The success of the tourist industry in Vallarta had not quite extended to providing the house with a flush toilet and two rather temperamental taps met all our water needs.

One of the Western hallmarks that had made it through the pot-holes and dust to the village was Special K (others included Coca-Cola, Britney Spears and Manchester United – yes, it is a worry) and we breakfasted on this most mornings. The Western diet stopped there, however, and dinner was usually greeted with an internal sigh and an "Oh, beans and tortillas again then". No points for guessing the Mexican staple. I really cannot fault my mama's superb cooking however; we were plied daily with fresh, home-cooked food in quantities that would defeat even the most dedicated eaters.

The food that was heaped on to our plates was evidence of the amazing generosity that was shown to us throughout our stay. It astonished me that the people who have so little are those who give the most. Our host family and our many friends welcomed us with an unmatchable enthusiasm and love, and at every party we were showered with Corona and attention.

Not forgetting that we were there for a purpose, Roxanne and I daily made our tentative way through the dirt and cowpats to the village school, a modern building complete with a science laboratory and twenty computers, incongruities in the dusty surroundings.

Our primary job was to teach the pupils of the secundaria but we also gave regular lessons to the older students of the prepa. Attempting to discipline 25 over-enthusiastic 11-year-olds with my basic command of Spanish and teaching students older than myself the complexities of English grammar was a daunting task to say the least.

When planning my "year out", I had been determined to avoid the clichéd activity of "teaching English in a developing country". Yet, for a variety of reasons, this is exactly what I did and I would not change any part of it. I cannot imagine a more fulfilling and enjoyable way to spend three months of my life.

Leaving the village and the beautiful people who had coloured our lives was as painful as one would have expected. Our departure was in not a flurry, but a flood of tears, and I was overwhelmed by how readily our male friends showed their emotion. Seeing my host brother cry hit me straight in the heart – for people for whom a trip to Vallarta is an event, our return to the ranchos in the hills seemed an unlikely prospect.

At the end of a further spell of travelling however, I was able to return to Mexico. A mere five months had passed since my departure yet I was desperate to see my familia adoptiva and to breathe the warm Mexican air again. Nerves did momentarily betray me – would I be shattering my idealised memories? I need not have feared anything, for I was immediately enveloped by love from my Mexican friends, confirming that I could now consider this small corner of the world as home.