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Chris comes to Mexico!

3 months ago, I left the US for a 4 and a half month stay in Mexico, with a mix of excitement and tristeza. While I could make a list of 100 things that I miss about the US in no time, I knew as I was leaving that one of the hardest things would be being away from my life at ND. While I’d of course miss my family, I’ve grown accustomed to going a semester without seeing them; however, being away from ND, away from classes and meals and late-night talks with my best friends, that would be hard. Además, I had left my sophomore year at ND at one of the happiest points in my life, with an incredible group of friends who I could count on for anything and, especially, having grown close to one of the greatest guys I’ve ever known and being lucky enough to call him my boyfriend. Leaving my routine and my level of comfort at ND behind was one thing; leaving my new-found best friend, as we were just beginning to realize how much we meant to each other, was another. Knowing that classes would get started in the Bend without me, and I would miss a semester of football games, dinner dates, and movie nights with Chris made me sad, and made me long to be back home.

However, as it always does, life went on.

I adjusted to life in Mexico. I came to peace with what I was missing at ND, since what I was experiencing in here in Mexico was too incredible to waste. As we were told during international orientation, it does no use to spend your time abroad being sad about not being home, because then you’re head’s at home, your body’s in Mexico, and you’re floating in between instead of enjoying one place. So, I put my energy into enjoying my time here instead of longing to be back there, and time passed. Quickly.

And, before I knew it, it was ND’s fall break and Chris was here with me!!!!!!

Exactly two weeks ago, Chris and I were enjoying our first day in Mexico together, poking through el centro of Puebla (easily the most magical on Sundays). Exactly one week ago, Chris was arriving back in the US, and I found myself feeling surprisingly happy, instead of the sadness I felt after our goodbye 3 months ago. I was happy because we had just had the most perfect week imaginable together, full of adventure and relaxation and fun. Here’s a recap (mostly in pictures) of the wonderful week I spent with Chris:

Sunday was spent in el centro, where we shopped, listened to music, tried lots of food, and enjoyed the beautiful sights of Puebla’s downtown.

Chris in front of the fountain tin el Zócalo

Chris in front of the fountain tin el Zócalo

Our delicious churros--cinnamon, glazed and cajeta (similar to caramel)

Monday morning was spent in El Gran Pirámide de Cholula, the widest pyramid in the world, where we climbed through the tunnels that ran inside the pyramid and then made it to the top, where La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios lies and we were able to have a 360 view of Cholula and Puebla spread out around us. Monday afternoon was spent at classes at UPAEP, where Chris went to lunch with the guys and found out that he looooved tacos al pastor and quesadillas al pastor
(the meat is shaved off a huge block much like gyro meat), a pleasant surprise because I was nervous about Chris liking the food here!

A view from inside the pyramid!

A view from inside the pyramid!

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Looking down at Cholula from the top of the pyramid

Looking down at Cholula from the top of the pyramid

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were spent in Mexico City, one of my favorite trips yet in Mexico! Tuesday was spent mostly in transit to el Distrito Federal (DF); lots of rain kept us from exploring a nearby town that night, instead opting to try out a restaurant and bar nearby.

Chris in front of El Angel de la Independencía in DF

Chris in front of El Angel de la Independencía in DF

Wednesday was a busy day, beginning with an early breakfast at a delicious cafe complete with a huuuge cup of mango-strawberry juice and crepes (one of my new obsessions); we following this up with a long trip to Teotihuacan (the Aztec ruin site about an hour from DF) and then a trip to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, which is within Mexico City. I have wanted to visit this site for a while, since Mexicans have a deep faith in La Virgen de Guadalupe. We saw the cloth that La Virgen appeared on and the basilica that was initially built in her honor, and it was so special to be in a place with so many Mexicans worshipping so fervently. (Here‘s a short blurb on her appearance and the basilica for those of you who aren’t familiar). We tried to finish up our day with a visit to Xochimilco, a nearby town with “floating gardens” and boats on the water (the remnants of the lake that Mexico City is built on), but ended up caught in rush hour metro traffic and arrived there after 2 hours of travel to find everything shut down. It was a disappointment (at the end of an extremely long day), but a funny story to tell (although not funny at the time!).

Photos from Teotihuacan:

Excited to be at the ruins!!!

Excited to be at the ruins!!!

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Making our way to the Pyramid of the Sun

Making our way to the Pyramid of the Sun

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In front of the Pyramid of the Sun

In front of the Pyramid of the Sun

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View from the Pyramid of the Sun with the Pyramid of the Moon in the background

View from the Pyramid of the Sun with the Pyramid of the Moon in the background

On that stretch where we became expert hagglers and we're more or less attacked by merchants any time we showed any interest...

On that stretch where we became expert hagglers and we’re more or less attacked by merchants any time we showed any interest…

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Photos from the Basilica of Guadalupe:

The New (left) and Old (right) Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe

The New (left) and Old (right) Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe

Inside the Old Basilica

Inside the Old Basilica

Inside the New Basilica. What a difference!

Inside the New Basilica. What a difference!

Looking up at the cloak with the image of the Virgin on it

Looking up at the cloak with the image of the Virgin on it

Thursday we went to Paso de Cortes, to a national park located between the active volcano Popo and the mujer durmida (sleeping lady) inactive volcano Itza (read the story about these volcanoes!). This beautiful (and cold) hike went through a huge field spread out between the two volcanoes (with paths too close to Popo blocked off because of the volcano’s activity), and we followed paths up until we reached the top of a hill, from which we had a clear, breathtaking view of Popo, Itza, and the field below us. It was incredible! We finished up the trip with some pan dulce (sweet bread) from a bakery in the town nearby, and then hopped on the bus back to Puebla.

To start off our hike: first we see paths blocked off because the volcano is too active, then we see that we're in a region where jaguars are a protected species...

To start off our hike: first we see paths blocked off because the volcano is too active, then we see that we’re in a region where jaguars are a protected species…

The beautiful beautiful beautiful view of lower mountains rising up out of the clouds. I can't believe we were up above the clouds looking at this!

The beautiful beautiful beautiful view of lower mountains rising up out of the clouds. I can’t believe we were up above the clouds looking at this!

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Popo spewing out his smoke

Popo spewing out his smoke

Looking out (over a rare species of flower that only grows at high altitudes) at Itza, la mujer durmida

Looking out (over a rare species of flower that only grows at high altitudes) at Itza, la mujer durmida

A panorama from the top of the hill, with Itza on the left, Popo on the right, and Paso de Cortes stretching through the middle

A panorama from the top of the hill, with Itza on the left, Popo on the right, and Paso de Cortes stretching through the middle

Chris and I after the hike with Popo in the background

Chris and I after the hike with Popo in the background

Friday and Saturday I had a conference required by our program, which was a bummer, but we still had fun after the conference was over! Saturday was our 6 month anniversary, so after the conference, we got dressed up and went for a fancy dinner at a nice Italian restaurant nearby, followed by a trip to the movies. Chris and I left for the airport at 3 am that morning, happy about our wonderful week together instead of upset that it was coming to an end. This week with Chris further affirmed for me how lucky I am to have him in my life, and was full of great memories to carry us through the next 3 months apart! Being with Chris made me incredibly excited for spring semester at ND, when we can be together every day, but also reminded me of how lucky I am to be here in Mexico and to be able to continue to experience new and exciting things nearly every day. With 1 and a half months left in Mexico, I am both excited for what’s to come and excited to be back in the US with my family and friends; I guess I can consider myself blessed to have so many things to look forward to, and to have 3 amazing places to call home: Puebla, Pennsylvania, and ND.

Blending

Saludos a todos!

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post, so this one will be catching up on my past 2 weekends prior to this one, with a later one to come about Chris’s visit and then Día de los Muertos and our upcoming trip to Cuetzalan!

Three weekends ago, we went to Mexico City for the weekend for a soccer game and music festival. The soccer game was incredibly fun–we were up in the nosebleeds (about 5 rows from the top), but when was the last time you went to a professional game for under 10 bucks?! The game was Mexico vs. Panama, a world cup qualifier, which meant that it was important for Mexico to win (both for the team and for our own safety…while we were quickly accepted by the Mexicans as fellow fans, we’d also be easy targets for airborne beer and food if Mexico lost!). Since I’ve been deprived of cheering my head off at ND games all semester, it was extra-exhilarating to be in a stadium of 100,000+ people all screaming for one team. While I feel at home here in Mexico, I am still very much aware of how much I stand out–with my accent, my clothing, with how I’m often walking around with a group of 5 other clearly-not-Mexicans, and with how I don’t put chili powder on my pineapple or mango (sorry, I just can’t!). However, at this game, in a huge crowd of green jerseys, I finally felt like another Mexican–if not ethnically, at least culturally. I was accepted by the other fans as another Mexican fan, one who sang (or, in my case, pretended to since I didn’t know the words) Mariachi songs during timeouts and who learned the cheers and understood the profanities that everyone around me was screaming. After an incredible, exciting win, we left the stadium high-fiving fellow Mexico fans and singing and cheering and smiling and buying cheap merchandise, and it was the sort of the high that I felt after the Stanford win last year! I had forgotten about how much fun that is!

We spent the next 2 days at a music festival called Corona Capital, complete with expensive tickets and a lot of bands that I didn’t know. While I can’t pretend that I went into it with the best attitude, I ended up having a great time! The day was a lot more fun than the night for me–the night was when the headliners played, so there were a lot more people (really, I don’t know where they all came from, but it was scary being in that huge of a crowd!), but during the day the venue was full of big open lawns with people spread out and listening to the music. I learned a lot of new bands that I liked, relaxed on the grass, danced at night, and had mind-blowing coconut donuts…it was a great weekend!

The highlight of these 3 days, however, was not any game or concert; instead, it was feeling like I was part of something bigger. I was not just a tourist dropping through the top destinations of a state; I was not hanging out in the international lounge at school; I was not the American who the doctors spoke super-slowly to in the hospital or who vendors struggle to sell products to in English until I tell them I speak Spanish. At the soccer game, I was part of the group because I was cheering for Mexico; at the concerts, I was just another 20-something year old listening to music in a crowd of Mexicans from all over. I didn’t get treated any differently than anyone else; for all anyone knew, I could have been from a European family in Mexico, or traveling to come to the concert, and it didn’t matter. For once, I could do what I wanted without standing out, and I felt like every other Mexican there. If I hadn’t gotten so sunburned, I probably could have blended in fully 🙂

“A semester of vacation with a little bit of school thrown in there”

That’s how my Mom described my study abroad experience in our most recent FaceTime.  While I’d like to claim that I’m working just as hard in school here as I am at ND, I’m not, and I really can’t complain about it. That’s not the purpose of study abroad, after all! If I wanted to be spending all my time in the library, I’d be back at ND. Here in Mexico, I’m learning through experience–experience in the hospital, experience with my Mexico classmates, and, most recently, experience through travel.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, October is our month of travel! (That’s why I haven’t blogged for a while, so the details will be a little vague…) After we got back from Puerto Escondido and had a week of recovery, we were off to Hidalgo, a state very close to Puebla, for a weekend of outdoorsy activities. Seeing as living in Puebla can be a little exhausting/claustrophobic/smelly for me–I’ve never considered myself to a city girl–I was more than happy to get out of the city for another weekend! This weekend is best described in pictures, so I’ll keep the words brief and let the pictures speak for themselves!

First, we went to a park to see the Prismas Basalticos, “tall columns of basalt rock that line a ravine through which water runs” (thanks Wikipedia). It was incredible–just huge black columns rising up all around us!

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After las Prismas, we went to El Parque Nacional “El Chico”, a national park much more familiar to me than La Malinche was.  Full of shaded, gently winding dirt paths, I was just itching to toss on my running shoes and go for a nice run. It felt so much like the paths I’m familiar with at home, and definitely better than running on the pothole-filled streets of Puebla. However, as we continued on our path, I realized that something set this path apart from the ones that wind their way along the endless Lehigh Valley streams…it led to a rocky top with a breathtaking view. We stood at the top and looked around us (amazed that we could find a view like this without the killer hike of Malinche), and I was just so happy that we had come to Hidalgo this weekend.  We then went to a lake that was part of the park, where Liz and I rode some horses around the lake while others went in paddle boats. We followed up the park with a visit to a pueblo mágico–basically a really small but charming town promoted by Mexico’s office of tourism–for some dinner and a quick walk along the one street with stores and restaurants.  Did I mention there was a cholera outbreak in Hidalgo this weekend? We ate an expensive restaurant just to be safe, and no problems yet! 🙂

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The view from the top of our hike

The view from the top of our hike

On Sunday, we went to Las Grutas de Tolantongo, easily the COOLEST thing I’ve done yet in Mexico! Hidden away in the mountains (literally–we drove halfway down a mountain towards the valley with a mountain on the other side of us, and there it was!), las grutas are a site where thermal springs coming from out of caves mix with the cool water of a stream. We stood under the warm water as it poured out of the ceiling into the cave, we ventured into a tunnel full of hot water and thick steam, and then we went for a “short walk” (or so it looked on the map–it took us 45 minutes to get there!) to the other side of the park, where man-made pools built along the cliff spilled warm water from one into the other, each pool looking out into the valley below.

About to enter the tunnel full of hot water!

About to enter the tunnel full of hot water!

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What we looked out at as we walked around the park

What we looked out at as we walked around the park

One more thing I forgot to mention about Hidalgo…I went ZIPLINING! Something we’ve been talking about doing since the summer, but I didn’t imagine we’d get to do it before our end-of-the-semester trip to Chiapas and the jungle. When I saw ziplining at las prismas, I jumped on the opportunity even though it wasn’t an incredible line, thinking I probably wouldn’t get this opportunity anytime again soon. Here’s the video of my first ever ziplining adventure…

Go figure, as soon as I paid (a whopping 50 pesos, under 5 bucks) for subpar ziplining, we found even better ziplining over the lake at the national park! Liz and I did it together, and on the way back we were attached and flew over the lake side by side!

My ziplining… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=996WByYvIhk

Liz’s ziplining… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HP2T2lsudzQ

And a beautiful photo of us ziplining together 🙂

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After our exciting weekend in Hidalgo, we went back to classes and rotations for the week, only to head off the following Thursday for another trip–this time to Coscopatepec, a small town in rural Veracruz, a state on the Atlantic cost right by us. This was an ND-coordinated trip, and therefore more culturally educational than our trip to Hidalgo the previous weekend. We stayed with a family in Veracruz (5 of us to a room, sleeping on blankets on the floor–is this where the $26,000 were paying to be here goes? Definitely a bonding experience though! And it was great to stay with a family, talk to the adults, and play with their adorable children!)  Thursday night, we went to a big festival in the town’s zócalo (town square) celebrating a battle that took place there 200 years ago, complete with a Mariachi band, Miss Coscopatepec, and fireworks!

Miss Coscomatepec--she was very close to having a wardrobe malfunction.

Miss Coscomatepec–she was very close to having a wardrobe malfunction.

Matt and Kristin with the sombreros they caught during the festival!

Matt and Kristin with the sombreros they caught during the festival!

Live entertainment in el zócalo!

Live entertainment in el zócalo!

Friday was our day of tours–we toured a panadería (old-fashioned bakery, where we learned how to make different types of bread and took some fresh bread home with us!), a house where they roast and grind coffee beans (I was so close to buying a few kilos to bring home, but I didn’t think it’d stay fresh that long), and a building where a man made us cigars by hand! Finally, we went to a farm where they taught us about making barbacoa, which is very popular in Hidalgo. Barbacoa is made from lamb, and literally the entire animal (head, trachea, tongue, liver, kidneys…) is smoked for 8 hours between agave leaves. While I was not a huge fan of the barbacoa, I’m definitely happy that I got to try it, since I want to try as much authentic food here as I can!

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Enjoying some pan–and some ND bread!

The lamb before being cooked--Liz and Nick were crazy enough to pick up the heads!!!

The lamb before being cooked–Liz and Nick were crazy enough to pick up the heads!!!

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On Saturday, we were told that we were going to climb Pico de Orizaba, the highest (and snow-capped) peak in Mexico at 18,491 feet above sea level. Needless to say, we were a little dubious about this, especially after how difficult La Malinche was at 14,000 feet without snow. That morning, we headed outside to hop in David’s van (he drives us on pretty much every trip), only to be told by our guide to get in the back of a covered flatbed truck. So, we all piled in, tired and cold, for what we did not know would be a 4 hour drive to the highest part of the mountain accessible by vehicle. Needless to say, I was a little irritable initially, as I am someone who likes to know plans and know what’s ahead of me. And, while it certainly was not as comfortable as David’s van, it was an incredibly fun and memorable experience. We drove in the van as the sun rose over the mountains, as we climbed up passing cornfields and small, isolated villages splattered along the road going up the mountain. We were given small plastic pumpkins full of candy to throw at the children as we drove by the villages–possibly one of the strangest things I’ve ever done, and the children literally swarmed down from their houses and ran mere feet from our truck with their hands out. (To clarify, I later found out that apparently throwing candy is a rite of passage to get through these villages–if you don’t the villagers block the road and don’t let you pass!) Once we got up high enough, we were out of the trees, with only small shrubs and a rare rose that grows at this altitude surrounding us. We finally got out of the truck (with some stiff legs and slightly bruised butts) at the furthest point the road reached, to be told we were only going to hike for thirty minutes. Most of us were pretty upset about it, but as our guide predicted, after a few minutes of walking at that altitude we were okay with turning around! We walked up a little bit, got a little close to where the glacier began, and then turned back around, since we neither had the training nor the equipment to summit. After a celebratory tequila shot, a sandwich, and lots of pictures, we squeezed back into the truck for the ride back down to Coscopatepec! Once we got onto paved road (it took quite a while), Andrew and I stood up in the front of the bed and faced forward, letting the wind (and some bugs) whip against us as if we were flying. Needless to say, while the day began in an unexpected way (20 of us are fitting in that?! For four hours?!), the day was bien padre–Mexicans’ favorite way to say that something was a beautiful, special, memorable (etc.) experience.

Piled into the truck at dawn--and a little chilly!

Piled into the truck at dawn–and a little chilly!

Kristin looking out at the view from a village on our way up

Kristin looking out at the view from a village on our way up

Our guide and the endless corn fields--the closest thing I'll get to an autumn hayride in Mexico!

Our guide and the endless corn fields–the closest thing I’ll get to an autumn hayride in Mexico!

One of the villages we passed on our way up

One of the villages we passed on our way up

Our guide with the peak of Pico behind him

Our guide with the peak of Pico behind him

After we finally got out of the truck!

After we finally got out of the truck!

Clara and I after getting out!

Clara and I after getting out!

Climbing into the clouds

Climbing into the clouds

The view from (close to) the top :)

The view from (close to) the top 🙂

Andrew and I chilling in the front on the way down

Andrew and I chilling in the front on the way down

After reading this post, I would say that my Mom’s statement was pretty accurate–this semester is a lot of vacation, and at times more about traveling than my classes.  However, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. This traveling is unlike anything I’ve ever done in my life, and who knows when else in my life I’ll have the opportunity to do this? I’m immensely blessed to be given this opportunity–the opportunity to enjoy a new culture, to adjust to it at my own pace, to adventure and explore nature, and to have very few cares other than enjoying myself. I’m lucky to be able to learn about the world beyond the United States, and to open my eyes to how much there is for me to explore. I’m lucky to have this time in my life to be selfish, and to do these things for myself, because opportunities to explore without huge responsibilities are few and far between.

I’m lucky to have this opportunity that is muy padre, and I cannot wait to continue to aprovechar de todo que México me ofrece (to take advantage of all that Mexico has to offer me).

Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido

After 6 full weeks in Puebla, with nothing more than a few day trips to break up our time, we were all very ready for a little traveling. That being said, our week-long trip to the state of Oaxaca could not have come at a better time!

Our first stop was Oaxaca, a quaint colonial city, known for it’s thriving artisan community and Zapotecan heritage. We left early Saturday morning for a 4-hour drive to Oaxaca, arriving first at Monte Albán, a socio-political and economic center of the Zapotecan culture for nearly 1000 years, from about 500 BC to 500 AD (credit to Wikipedia for that one). While I can’t say I remember all the history we learned on our tour, I do remember that they built the buildings a special way so that sound in the center (such as claps) echoed in harmony, and that the stairs were incredibly steep. If I had trouble climbing them, I can only imagine how difficult it was for shorter indigenous people 2000 years ago!

Juego de Pelota, a ball court

Juego de Pelota, a ball court

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If you look closely, you can see some of the group trying to make a pyramid on top of the pyramid!

If you look closely, you can see some of the group trying to make a pyramid on top of the pyramid!

Some of the group at the highest point of the ruins!

Some of the group at the highest point of the ruins!

 

After our afternoon at Monte Albán, we drove to an incredible buffet at an old hacienda that looked out at the valley below. We stuffed ourselves full of food, I unintentionally tried tripe (and promptly spit it out–I thought I got mushrooms until taking a bite!), and I tried every single dessert there to try to erase the tripe from my memory. Tres leches cake=delicious. Fried plantains=my favorite dessert in Mexico! (well, tied with churros). We then explored the rest of the property of the hacienda to walk off all of our food, danced to a mariachi band (probably embarrassing ourselves), and watched a pig get covered in butter and chased around as part of a Mexican tradition for Independence Day!

Matt and Erica posing at la hacienda for me!

Matt and Erica posing at la hacienda for me!

 

After this, we went to a museum in downtown Oaxaca that dealt with the history of the area, from it’s original Zapotecan inhabitants to Spanish takeover and the influence of Catholicism in the area. Quite appropriately, the museum was an old Catholic monastery, and it was beautiful! Since outdoor buildings aren’t very practical in most the United States, it was new and exciting for me to see a building like this, built totally open to the outside, with a big open courtyard in the center…very European, according to those in the group who had been to Europe.  I think I enjoyed the beauty of the building more than I actually enjoyed learning the history (many of you know that history hasn’t always been my favorite thing)!

A view of the courtyard inside the monastery

A view of the courtyard inside the monastery

Waiting for the others outside the monastery, looking at downtown Oaxaca

Waiting for the others outside the monastery, looking at downtown Oaxaca

 

The ingredients for chocolate-covered almonds

The ingredients for chocolate-covered almonds

 

 

Sunday was an even busier day that Saturday, beginning with lots of tours and ending with celebrating Mexican Independence Day in el zócalo, the central part of Oaxaca! We toured a chocolate factory, where they make chocolate by grinding up cocoa beans and cinnamon and then adding sugar.  A block of chocolate is formed by these 3 ingredients (and other variations) and then added to milk for hot chocolate!

 

 

 

 

All of the mezcal samples lined up!

All of the mezcal samples lined up!

"In the house of a king, the nectar of maguey cannot be missing." It sounds much more poetic in Spanish!

“In the house of a king, the nectar of maguey cannot be missing.” It sounds much more poetic in Spanish!

We also learned about how mezcal, a very popular liquor in Oaxaca. While both mezcal and tequila come from the agave/maguey plant, I definitely prefer mezcal, as it tingles in your mouth instead of burning down your throat. We got to try a bunch of different types of mezcal, some more aged than others, and some with a worm from the maguey plant in it!

We also went to a tapestry factory, where tapestries were woven using traditional Zapotecan techniques–the wool brushed, dyed with natural dies, spun into yarn, and then woven with a loom.  Everything was beautiful but much more expensive than what I can find in the market!

 

We visited el Arbol de Tule, the widest tree in the world, where our tour guide (who was under 10 years old) enthusiastically showed us all the figured discovered in the tree trunk (there were at least 50, but there were animals, butts, and even a president's eyebrows!).

We visited el Arbol de Tule, the widest tree in the world, where our tour guide (who was under 10 years old) enthusiastically showed us all the figures discovered in the tree trunk (there were at least 50, but there were animals, butts, and even a president’s eyebrows!).

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Finally, we went to Mitla, a more recent Zapotecan ruin site, and we were allowed to walk inside this one (I hit my head multiple times)! We went inside the building where priests lived, and even went underground to the tombs. We discovered why the stairs are so steep–so that when you walk down them, you have to walk sideways, so your back is neither to the priests in the building nor to the tombs at the bottom of the stairs, as a sign of respect. Nonetheless, it was still tiring to walk up those stairs!

An attempt at a panorama of Mitla

An attempt at a panorama of Mitla

Sarah and Clara with the walls of the ruins on their right and the Catholic Church in the background

Sarah and Clara with the walls of the ruins on their right and the Catholic Church in the background

 

Liz and Matt dancing at our dinner

Liz and Matt dancing at our dinner

One of the many interesting findings on the street.

One of the many interesting findings on the street.

 

When we got back, we had a little bit of downtime before heading to el zócalo to celebrate la Día de Independencia! Dressed up in red, white, and green, we ate a buffet dinner at a great restaurant right in the town square, with a balcony that looked out over the square to watch the festivities.  At 11 pm, the town mayor went out on the balcony of el palacio municpal for el grito, where everyone yelled “Vive México!” and fireworks went off. We then wandered through the crowds downtown until about 1 am, ready for a 5 am departure to Puerto Escondido!

The roads decorated for Independence Day.

The roads decorated for Independence Day.

 

At 5 am on Monday, we hopped on the bus for a 10-hour drive to Puerto Escondido, a beach/surfer town on the Pacific coast, to enjoy the water and work with Child and Family Health International (www.cfhi.org).  After popping some Dramamine and sleeping for the bulk of the windy trip, we checked into our beautiful outdoor hotel with a pool in the center, about 3 minutes from the beach. Almost immediately, we left for the beach, where we were met by some locals who lead us through some beachside caves to another hidden beach! We spent hours exploring, swimming, and playing volleyball, before heading back to the hotel for dinner and a talk on preventing tropical diseases, specifically dengue and chagas.

Jumping off and running into the water

Jumping off and running into the water

The girls on the beach--some of us did yoga poses, but not all!

The girls on the beach–some of us did yoga poses, but not all!

Erica standing in a rock arch she found!

Erica standing in a rock arch she found!

A view of the beautiful beach

A view of the beautiful beach

 

After our brigades, we stopped by the home of a community leader in public health, who cut us each a fresh coconut to drink out of and eat the flesh!

After our brigades, we stopped by the home of a community leader in public health, who cut us each a fresh coconut to drink out of and eat the flesh!

On Tuesday, we used what we had learned the night before to go on a health brigade with district public health workers. We visited a few houses each, looking for pools of water where mosquitos could lay eggs. While malaria has been almost fully eradicated in that region of Oaxaca, dengue is still a big problem, so public health workers try to control the mosquito population to control dengue. When we did find pools of water, we checked for larvae and pupae and emptied the water. Each house also has larger, more permanent pools of water–at least one was present in each house, used for bathing and doing dishes, while a few houses has additional ones for showers. In the permanent pools of water, we added a powder to the water that killed mosquito larvae without harming humans (as long as they didn’t drink a lot of it). The chemical was in a little bag with holes in it, so it was released gradually and generally lasts for about 2 months. Another (preferred) method of preventing mosquito larvae from surviving in the water was by having a few small fish, crabs, or crawfish in the water, which is more natural, less expensive, and doesn’t run out after 2 months! The first time I saw a crawfish crawling around in the dish water, I was alarmed, but we saw it in more and more places.

While learning about preventing dengue was certainly interesting, what interested me even more was the way in which these people lived. I have really only been exposed to urban poverty, where many people do not even have a home. On the other hand, while all the homes we visited had a decent amount of property, these people still most certainly lived in poverty. Their “houses” did not have 4 walls, let alone rooms; a few had curtains hung up to separate the sleeping quarters. Their roofs were mostly made of metal sheets, and their yards were filled with random animal coops, tires, buckets, boxes, and fallen fruit. It was interesting how, even though they did have a lot of property, there did not seem to be a sense of pride in their property–nothing was really in order. As we were walking home on Thursday during a thunderstorm, we walked by a house like this, with 2 walls, a plastic tarp up on the 3rd wall, and a metal roof, and could not imagine calling that my home. I could not imagine being stuck in that little hut during a thunderstorm, with water leaking in on you, bugs flying all around you, and nowhere to sit.  It seems that Mexico has a way of reminding me that, while it is abundant in natural beauty and resources, it is still a very poor country.

The group of us from ND, with the public health workers and few children from the neighborhood.

The group of us from ND, with the public health workers and few children from the neighborhood.

 

Some of the herbs laid out for us to learn about

Some of the herbs laid out for us to learn about

One of the paths in the rainforest

One of the paths in the rainforest

On Wednesday, we went to the botanical gardens about 15 minutes from the beach to learn about herbal medicine and traditional healing techniques. Since Puerto Escondido is a very rural community, with a lot of indigenous influence, the importance of this traditional healing cannot be overstated. The botanical garden was more or less a tropical rainforest preserve, and it was beautiful and lush and fresh! After spending so much time in the polluted air of Puebla, it was wonderful to be a fresh forest. At the end of our tour of the gardens, we were shown a bunch of different herbs and tried some nice hot herbal tea, which probably would have been better chilled but I was too thirsty to save it for later.

 

After the botanic gardens, we headed straight to the beach for surfing lessons! We went to a new beach this time, a secluded cove with only a small beach but lots of open water to swim around in. Because there were over 20 of us there to take surfing lessons, we each only got to ride 3 waves, but I’m happy to say I got up 2 of those times! For the rest of the afternoon, we swam around, ate at the beachside restaurant, and laid around. Since I’m not too good at sitting around when I’m at the beach, I spend most of my time in the water, swimming out to where the cove opened up to the ocean and taking lots of shots from the water (gotta love my waterproof camera!). It was my favorite afternoon in Puerto, and I went home that afternoon exhausted with salty lips, a thirsty mouth, and tan skin. I couldn’t have asked for a better day!

A look down at the beach as we walked up the stairs and back to the bus

A look down at the beach as we walked up the stairs and back to the bus

Some of the group hanging on the beach

Some of the group hanging on the beach

 

Megan, Kristin, and I on our last day in Puerto

Megan, Kristin, and I on our last day in Puerto

That evening, we went home and had a potluck dinner, with each suite cooking something to share with the group. My suite made a cake for our program coordinator’s birthday, and it was a hit! It was very nice to be able to cook for myself again. After the potluck dinner, we found out that one of our buses was having mechanical issues, and after quite a bit of deliberation, we decided to stay the extra day (instead of 2 extra days) while it got fixed. I cannot pretend that I was even the least bit upset by the change of plans–who could be upset about getting another day in paradise?! We had to pay about 30 dollars the next day for an extra night in the hotel, it was 100% worth it. I started off the next day with yoga on the beach with Clara, a leisurely breakfast, and a trip to a more commercial beach for the day. We staked out our spots at a beachside bar and spent the day swimming, enjoying margaritas, and eating fish tacos before walking back to the hotel along the beach for a relaxing night with the group. It was the perfect way to end the trip; while our other days had been jam-packed with activities, we were free to take Thursday at our own pace, and just enjoy our time talking, eating, swimming, and being together.

Clara, Monica and I went on a little adventure on our last day at the beach, climbing some rocks to look out on the water!

Clara, Monica and I went on a little adventure on our last day at the beach, climbing some rocks to look out on the water!

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We left Puerto Friday morning for the long, windy 14-hour drive back to Puebla, and we were on the bus sunup to sundown! Not my favorite trip, but for safety reasons we aren’t allowed to take buses overnight, so that was our only option. We’ve had Saturday and Sunday to re-orient ourselves and catch up on schoolwork–back to the “real world” tomorrow with classes! While I’m happy to be back in Puebla, this trip has definitely given me the “travel bug,” and I now realize how much more of Mexico I have to see in the next 3 months! Lucky for me, this trip was the beginning of a busy month of travel–we are going to the state of Hidalgo next weekend, going to climb a volcano the weekend after that, and going to a music festival in Mexico City the weekend after that!! I am also happy to say that, the following weekend, Chris is coming to visit me in Puebla for a week!!!! I am so excited to see him, and to share Mexico with him. We are planning on taking 2 day trips, as well as spending a lot of time in downtown Puebla. With such an exciting month ahead of me, I think that time will fly by, and before I know it I will have visited lots more of Mexico and will be spending time with Chris. Furthermore, we are now beginning to plan our trip for the end of the semester through Chiapas and the Yucatan, ending in Cancun! I can’t wait for what this month, and the rest of my semester in Mexico, has in store for me!

Video

‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here for four weeks!

The past 4 weeks have been full of transitions…transitioning to new food (and a new eating schedule), to living in a city, to taking public transportation, to leaving my room an hour before class (instead of 10 minutes before like I do at ND), to living with a family again, and to speaking Spanish all the time.

The past 4 weeks have also been challenging and, quite often, frustrating. Frustration at buses that have no apparent schedule, websites that are minimally helpful or nonexistent (church websites, African Safari website, La Malinche websites…), university websites that my password won’t log me into, syllabi that never get distributed, wifi that is too slow for Erica and I to simultaneously use Pinterest (did I say that? I mean to do homework…). And especially, especially, frustration when I am unable to adequately express myself in Spanish. I have been speaking, reading, and writing in English for my entire life, and I like to think that I am well-spoken, with a relatively robust vocabulary that allows me to express myself very precisely. While my vocabulary has expanded hugely over the past month, and I am able to converse with native speakers much more eloquently that I could before, I still have moments when I get stuck on one or two essential words and can’t say what I want to. For example, today Rocio was talking about how one part of the sidewalk is overgrown and has rats, and I tried to tell her a story of my mom and I finding rats in the pile of grass we used to have in our backyard from the lawn clippings. However, because I couldn’t say the word pile, or explain what I meant by lawn clippings, the story was lost. I tried describing it to Rocio multiple times, getting suggestions such as bag, trash can, box, and ground, before giving up.

That being said, the past 4 weeks have also been full of surprises, and I am surprising myself with how well I converse with native speakers (other than the few moments when I get 100% stuck and frustrated).  I am surprised by how willing I am to participate in a class full of Mexican students, with how well I can keep up with lectures, with how much easier reading papers in Spanish is becoming for me.  I surprise myself when I use the subjunctive without even thinking about it, or when I use a new saying enough that it becomes natural to me.  I surprise myself when I remember a new vocabulary word, and remembering it allows me to tell a story that I would otherwise have a hard time telling.

Not only have I surprised myself, but Mexico has surprised me equally.  It has surprised me with it’s magical little downtown, full of colorful buildings and cute little cafes and street musicians and artisan stands.  It has surprised me with the beauty that took my breath away at 14,000 feet above sea level (literally…try breathing at that altitude!).  It has surprised me with the kindness of the people I meet…my neighbors who always say hi or joke with me as I walk home soaking wet after a rainstorm, my professors and students who are patient as I stumble over my words and help me with my Spanish, peers who tell me about all the places I need to travel or the places in the city I need to visit, host families who open their homes and their hearts for us.  Mexico has surprised me with the deep faith in God I find around every corner…in stunning churches and charming little chapels, in pictures and statues and figurines of Jesus, Mary, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, in the prayers they say and in the places where people find God.  For example, as we were distributing food at the orphanage yesterday, Erica heard someone yell out, “and who do we have to thank this food for?” to which everyone replied “Dios! Gracias a Dios!”  It is little moments like these that ground me, that show me a pure pure faith in God, and that surprise me (although they shouldn’t) because, honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve seen people truly appreciate God’s hand in every aspect of their lives.  I tend to pray to God about “bigger” things, like school, my future, the safety and health of my family, and the important relationships in my life; however, living in Mexico has reminded to thank God–and truly mean it–for the little things too, like the food on my plate and the roof over my head.  For so many people here, these “little things” that I take for granted are what they spend their lives trying to secure.  Food is not a given; a sturdy home and a clean bed are not a given; and, when they can’t provide all that they need, they trust that God will come up with the rest.  As I am in a time of my life where it is so easy to get caught up in the “bigger” things (especially junior year…MCATs and medical school applications!), I think God brought me to Mexico because I needed to be reminded to see Him in every part of my life, and to appreciate the beautiful life He has given me.  Thank you, Mexico, for showing me this after only 4 weeks.  I cannot wait for what the next 3 months will teach me.

Yes, 4 weeks here have been quite a ride, full of transitions, challenges, frustrations, and surprises.  Perhaps most importantly, however, is that after 4 weeks, Mexico is finally beginning to feel like home.  While my first week was exciting and new, my second and third weeks were full of homesickness, especially as my friends moved back to ND.  I missed the US, the ease of living in a country I knew so well; I missed my family; I missed ND, with my Ryan sisters, classes with my best friends, and dinners and late nights with Chris; I missed the hype of football games and the calm of the grotto and the feeling of home.  However, sometime between classes and dinners and late-night tacos and morning runs and weekend trips, I settled into my life in Mexico.  While I still missed home, it was no longer accompanied by a longing to be out of this noisy, crowded, hot, unfamiliar country and back in the States.  I discovered my new home here, where the hype of football games is replaced by the hype of our Thursday nights in Cholula, where the calm of the grotto is replaced by the calm I finally found in church (after 3 weeks of feeling lost, confused, and overwhelmed in a huge cathedral with a terrible sound system, and finding a smaller, more intimate, and beautifully peaceful little iglesia), where I have an established schedule and have figured out how to use my breaks for working out, doing homework, and just enjoying my time with friends.  And, while I still would prefer buses with a schedule, teachers that tell you your homework more than a day in advance, and websites that work, these daily frustrations are no longer causing me to become angry at Mexico and wish I was in the US.  Nope, Mexico isn’t perfect, but I think I’m beginning to like it here.  And I think I’m finally starting to find my home away from home, other than my home under the Dome.