I get by with a little help from my friends :)

Between cramped bus rides, hours spent in the lounge at UPAEP, “American” nights of pizza and ice cream, salsa dance classes, nights out (to test our new salsa moves), trips to el zócalo (downtown), numerous churros (hands down, my favorite food in Mexico), a trip to “Africa,” and a hike up the fifth-tallest mountain in Mexico…I couldn’t be more thankful for the great memories and the great friendships I’m forming here in Mexico.  With a group of 19 students, I couldn’t be happier with how well everyone gets along, and I feel like I get to know someone on a new level each day, which is wonderful.  Past students have told us how strong the friendships we form here will be, and I am blessed to see these friendships forming as the weeks progress.  Andrew kept saying this on our hike, and I need to repeat it: I really love our group.

We have a group of inspired young students, eager to for new adventure, new experiences, and new knowledge.  I learn something new from every person every day, not necessarily in class, but even when we are just sitting around and talking.  Everyone always has great stories or sarcastic comments (shots fired!) to share; everyone also has a different perspective to share.  The mix of personalities makes for fun, dynamic conversations that always leave me smiling.  Having my group of Domers here in Puebla…that’s what makes it feel like home to me, especially when homesickness hits and all I want is to be back at ND.

Some of the great experiences from the past week have really given us all a chance to get to know each other even better.  Some highlights include:

1. Africam Safari, about 45 minutes outside of Puebla.  This drive-through park is filled with nearly every animal you could imagine, not just African ones!  From rhinos, hippos, and elephants to emus, flamencos, and crocodiles, plus a tiger (!), we drove within feet of at least a hundred different species! (I’m not great at estimating, and my Dad would probably think I’m exaggerating, but I swear I’m not!). At the end of the drive-through portion of the safari, we had 2 hours to wander through the “Adventure Zone,” which is almost like a little zoo full of monkeys, crocodiles, birds, kangaroos, lemurs, and my favorite, a butterfly room!  It was so beautiful in there, and a butterfly landed on my face! A photographer with a more legitimate camera than mine captured several pictures of it, so I’m hoping that I’ll get those emailed to me soon.  Here are some pictures to show off the animals we saw and the beautiful butterfly room 🙂

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

2. Classes started at UPAEP!  The start of classes certainly contributed to my feelings of homesickness–I’ve been lucky enough to have all of my core classes with the same group of 40-some people for the last 2 years, and I definitely miss the comfort of knowing everyone in my class, having my go-to study partner, and generally knowing what I’ll need to do to get a good grade in the class.  Now I’m at a new university, with completely different classes (I’m going from taking 3 science/math classes a semester to all social science courses!), not to mention that the classes are in Spanish, it’s intimidating to talk in class in front of native speakers, I don’t know my way around the school, there’s a different grading scale (1-10, not A-F), computer issues are…more abundant, and resolved much less efficiently (to put it gently), and methods of university-wide communication are vastly different than those at Notre Dame.  The first few days, I will admit that I generally approached these differences with a negative attitude; as Erica said (and I agree), school is one area where we’re used to knowing the rules of the game, and we’re used to school being run in a particular way.  School is a part of our lives that has always been dependable.  In Mexico, they have different rules of the game, different ways of running a university, and I had been relying on school, at the very least, to be something that was the same in Mexico.  However, at the end of a week, I have adjusted to the differences at UPAEP, am growing to be more comfortable speaking in class, and am genuinely enjoying what we’re learning in each class.

My four courses are Psychology of the Mexican People, History of Mexican Film, Public Health, and the Dialogue between Science and Religion.  While Psychology of the Mexican People is with a variety of students, my History of Mexican Film course (which basically involves watching movies during the week and discussing them in class…not too bad!) is almost all film majors, and my Public Health course is almost all medical students, which means that I should really be able to learn a lot from the students in both.  My Dialogues class is almost all ND students, as it counts towards one of our required philosophy courses, but our professor is goofy and interesting, which should make it pretty great for someone like me who isn’t a huge fan of philosophy!  In addition to these 4 courses, I will be doing 8 hours of rotations at local hospitals, but that won’t begin for another week.  I am excited for this semester because I think that all my courses will be interesting and fun, but ultimately they are all courses that will really help me as a doctor to understand Mexican patients and work with them to improve their health.

3. We officially started our salsa dancing classes! In the garage of Andrew and Anthony’s house, we stuffed 20+ people to learn some beginner salsa steps; our instructor will come each week for the semester.  While I wasn’t initially as terrible as I imagined (I was actually keeping in step!), we had over 2x as many girls as guys, which meant I had to be a boy when we partnered up.  After that, I had my steps confused for the rest of the night!  It was a blast, though, regardless of my skill level, and I can’t wait for next week’s class.

4. We walked to the mall and had a super-American night, and it was exactly what I needed.  While I love Mexican food, a lot of us were just craving pizza, so that’s exactly what we got–a giant rectangular pizza from Pizza Hut, with a nice pan crust and gooey cheese and veggies on top.  After a valiant effort to find frozen yogurt, we settled for McFlurries (which I was 100% okay with, I’ll never complain about soft-served and oreos).  It’s been a while since my stomach’s been so happy with my food choices.

We didn’t even need to feel guilty about all the pizza and ice cream, because the next day we hiked…

5. La Malinche, the fifth highest peak in Mexico at 14,600 feet above sea level!  The hike started at 3,000 feet, with a nice, wooded dirt trail with a gentle incline that reminded me of some of my favorite running paths back in Pennsylvania.  However, as soon as we hit the tree line, the shade was gone, the dirt turned into sand and small rocks, and the incline increased dramatically…to the point where we were basically on all fours, with our feet slipping back every time we pushed off to take another step.  Yes, that sounds dramatic, but it was difficult!  It was also deceiving once we were out of the trees…the peak looked so close, and yet that final stretch up to the peak took longer than the hike up to the tree line!  Between the lack of oxygen, the lack of traction, and the incline, I was pretty exhausted, although I would take that hike up any day over the hike down–I literally slid down on my butt for a significant portion of it (sliding into a cactus plant and obtaining some nice bruises in the process) because standing up on that steep of an incline scared me so much!  There were points where we were climbing down rock, and I just couldn’t wait to hit the tree line and be on a nice dirt path again.

However, I wouldn’t have given up that feeling at the peak to avoid the bruises and the inevitable soreness that I’ll wake up to. I literally felt as if I was at the top of the world; we had a perfect 360 degree view of everything around us.  We were above the clouds, and when we looked down we saw fields stretching in every direction out the base of the mountain, and mountains in the distance rising out of the fields and passing through the clouds.  On the other side of the peak, we saw a steep, terrifying, beautiful, breathtaking cliff straight down to a stream running through the rocks.  Overhead, there was a circular rainbow around the sun.  I cannot fully describe the feeling of being up there, where nothing around you is higher than you are, and pictures cannot possibly capture how amazing it was up there.  If you ever want to marvel at what God has created…go up 14,600 feet, be in the sky above the clouds, and marvel at how our earth has come to be.

My roommate, Erica, and I, above the clouds but still with a ways to go!

My roommate, Erica, and I, above the clouds but still with a ways to go!

We thought that this was the peak we were trying to make it to...little did we know we'd end up much higher than that!  We couldn't even see the peak yet because of the clouds!

We thought that this was the peak we were trying to make it to…little did we know we’d end up much higher than that! We couldn’t even see the peak yet because of the clouds!

When the dirt turned into sand and rocks--it was a little more difficult to climb!

When the dirt turned into sand and rocks–it was a little more difficult to climb!

A view from the walk up to the peak.

Getting close to the top!

EN LA CIMA! We made it to the top!

EN LA CIMA! We made it to the top!

Pictures of people taking pictures...they were brave enough to do a jumping photo!

Pictures of people taking pictures…they were brave enough to do a jumping photo!

Looking down at the path that came up to the peak.

Looking down at the path that came up to the peak.

The final few steps up :)

The final few steps up 🙂

And then the descent begins...

And then the descent begins…

After seeing this on our way down, I decided to put away my camera and focus on making it down safely!

After seeing this on our way down, I decided to put away my camera and focus on making it down safely!

I also cannot overstate what a great bonding experience this hike was for our group.  8 hours of walking with the same group of 5 or 6 people, encouraging each other, helping each other, and experiencing the wonder of nature together…it’s an incredible way to get to know each other, to learn to trust each other, to have great conversations and to have a lot of fun.

Tomorrow, we are going into el zócalo again for mass at La Capilla de Rosario and a relaxing afternoon wandering through the marketplace.  I plan to try as much free food as I can!  Then it’s back to classes on Monday, which I really can’t complain about, as I enjoy them so much and have so much free time to relax, do work, and…swim!  It’s been a while (since fifth grade, actually), since I’ve swam as a workout, but since there’s only one safe, traffic-free place for me to run here, I’m excited to have an alternative to running, and I’ve really been enjoying myself!

Next Saturday, we’re going to an orphanage outside of the city of Puebla that serves over 250 children in the area surrounding it.  I’ll be sure to post a lot more about it next week, but I am both nervous and excited for the experience.  I’m excited because we have a fun day planned, with crafts and activities, new soccer gear, jump ropes and hula hoops, and some yummy snacks.  I’m nervous because I realize that this will most likely be poverty unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the States, and I’m not sure how I’ll react to that.  There is no running water where these children live, and most of them live in shacks.  They do not go to school.  While I know that what we’re doing will bring the children joy, I worry that what we do will not make a lasting impact in their lives.  I hope it will, and I hope it will inspire us to continue to serve the most vulnerable and destitute people in our world.  I cannot wait to visit these children, to bring to them some of my favorite crafts (from my mom’s classroom!), to talk to them, to learn what they love, to see them smile as they eat and drink and get a bath and play.  I cannot wait to learn from them; often, children are some of the most resilient people, and these children have faced more than a child should ever have to face.  I cannot wait to experience the joy of these children, to learn from them, and to carry them with me in my heart.

Until then, thanks for reading my blog (super long this time, I know!), and I’m sending my love back to the States!  Adios!

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