“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!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHanging out in the hot tub :)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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).

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