The musings and misadventures of a girl unprepared

Monday, 29 September 2014

Mexican Independence, English Teaching and the Caribbean

It's midday and I just caught myself sat on my bed, only half dressed - despite being up for several hours - and eating nutella straight out of the jar with my fingers, so I decided it's probably about time I do something productive with my day. My productive activity of choice just happens to be writing this, because although this is kiiiind of a form of procrastination from my actual work, I like to view it as constructive procrastination... in that one day Lonely Planet will see my blog and give me my dream job and I will no longer have care about translating satirical newspaper articles about political correctness into Spanish. A girl can dream, eh?

Anyway, the last couple of weeks have been rather crazy here. Two weeks ago we had Mexican Independence day, with more parties to attend and more alcohol to consume than humanly possible. Despite the official date of Independence Day being 16th September, it would appear that just one day of merriment is nowhere near enough for Mexicans, with festivities spanning pretty much the entire week. Too hungover to attend any of the official celebrations (oopsy), I just attended parties of various friends throughout the extended weekend, salsa-ing my heart out as per usual and taking full advantage of the free booze.

Party number two of three for Independence Day. Edgar (in the big hat) has never looked so Mexican.

However, my favourite part about the whole weekend was seeing just how proud Mexicans are, simply of being Mexican. National pride is a relatively alien concept to me, as us Brits tend to be disliked on a pretty international scale for so many things. So the idea of having a day to celebrate how awesome it is just to be British would be completely ridiculous. It'd be like that year that we entered that awful patriotic song in the Eurovision Song Contest with the Union Jack plastered all over the stage and then were given 'nil point' by literally every single country. Also I'm very aware we never had to gain independence and we were the ones running around conquering everyone like we owned the bloody planet... so not cool.

As it was such a mad weekend, I decided to take some time off from any liver-destroying and bank-draining antics and focus on school work and the like...

Don't laugh, I'm being serious.

As well as attempting to start working hard, Franzi and I had the genius idea of advertising ourselves as language teachers for German and English, as we really want to get some travelling done after this term ends and as it stands we might not be able to have the cash to do that.

So we postered like crazy all over campus (no rules against that here, it's awesome), only realising after we'd finished that Franzi had actually provided her name, facebook and phone number to four entire faculties. I swear to God if you put our brains together, maybe we'd just about make one logical person. Or all the stupid stuff would form together and we'd never actually get anywhere in life. Who knows?

But despite this minor setback, it worked! For the first time in my life I'm self-employed (how fancy does that sound?) and so far it's turning out to be really successful. As much as I love hanging out with my friends and meeting people at parties, it actually feels really good to now be doing something productive with my free time. As fun and carefree as student life can be, it's sometimes really positive to have some structure to your days, especially when you only have a three day timetable like I do. It can become dangerously tempting to waste all of your time off on tumblr or catching up on the latest gossip (guilty!) rather than using your time to benefit yourself or the lives of other people around you, and personally, I've found that the more productive you try to be, the easier it becomes. I think I've wrote this before, but life really is about getting the balance between structure and free time just right.

I've also just realised that all this must sound rather amusing after the way this post started off. I promise, I have already left the house and taught two classes today after a rather difficult weekend, so I was just having a bit of me time with my one and only true love i.e. food, before getting back to actually making something of my day. Like I said, balance is important, and for me that balance includes a bit of self-care in the form of an entire jar of Nutella. That OK with you?

The last two weeks also saw the departure of my gorgeous friend Shelly back to Taiwan after her two month trip out here. I met Shelly along with the rest of the London exchange crew back in my first year of university when I was living in those really international student halls. I feel like she fell in love with Mexico just as much as I am doing, and I'm just so glad I got to see her again after such a long time.

At a Cuban salsa club in La Roma, showing the boys how it's done.

Aside from a lot of hanging out at uni a lot, accidentally attending the wrong class for SEVEN weeks (because I'm a super genius) and an accidental party that trashed my bedroom, I haven't got much else to report. I really do want to start doing some more cultural things in the city soon, because I am really settled in now and there is so much to do here. We were actually planning a trip to Puebla last week, a nearby city that is supposed to be stunning, but unfortunately those plans fell through for various reasons. Fingers crossed we'll be able to get organising it for another time though.

After our weekly Wednesday afternoon lunch in Arquitectura. I'm happy because I'm full of chilaquiles (and I suppose the company was alright too)

However, despite our failed Mexican travel plans, in three days time I'll be jetting of to Martinique, to visit my lovely friend Imogen who I study German with at King's. The lucky so and so is studying abroad in the French Caribbean for the first part of her year away, so I'm off to soak up some rays and climb a volcano, and you know, make sure she's doing alright out there. And the trip actually couldn't have come at a better time, as I've recently really been missing home and familiar faces, so it'll be nice to be able to word vomit at someone in the worst English accent ever, without worrying about being misunderstood. Not that I'm not having the time of my life out here, but sometimes things happen when you are away from home and you just need to be back in a familiar setting for a little while. I'm just lucky enough for that familiarish setting to be incredibly near a beach. I also have a day's layover in Puerto Rico on the way, a place I haven't visited since I was about 10 years old, so it'll be interesting to see if I actually remember any of it.

Friday, 12 September 2014

San Cristóbal de las Casas

I know, I can't believe it either, but I'm FINALLY getting around to writing about what happened during my time in San Cristóbal de las Casas. It's going to take more than one post (I did live there for over a month!) so bear with me, and I hope you find it as interesting to read about as I did living it.

If you were following my adventures all those months ago in July (oopsy), you may recall that my last actual travel post was Camping in the Clouds and I'd basically just arrived in San Cris before heading off to camp in the jungle for a few days. Well you'll be happy to know that I didn't die from those ridiculous bug bites I'd received from whatever nasties decided to gnaw at my poor leg, nor did the exhaustion entirely stop me from putting my tourist hat on (though I was a tad lazy for the first two weeks...).

I did a lot of pottering about the city by myself in the following days, as both Adriana and Manu have jobs and the like, To be honest I thoroughly enjoyed this down time as Greg and I had been doing some really fast, hardcore travelling through the country for a month, and it was nice to just take a breather for a few days. Thus began my love affair with Jack Kerouac and Chiapas' finest hot chocolate, because seriously, no one does hot chocolate like the Mexicans. I tried a LOT of it while I was there, but if you're ever in town I'd recommend Oh La La, which is a French bakery and also does A-MAY-ZING chocolate eclairs, or another place, that is slightly more pricey but worth every penny, called something like Xocolates and can be found in a mini shopping centre thing just off Guadalupe. The whole cafe is dedicated to hot chocolate, meaning you can have it made just the way you like it, down to the flavour, sweetness and type of milk they use.

Source: Murdo McDermid.

'I stumbled after as usual as I've been doing all my life after people that interest me, because the only people that interest me are the mas ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing... but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night...'
- Jack Kerouac, On The Road

As well as chilling in the days, I tended to use the nights to party with the locals and couchsurfing friends, resulting in one fateful mezcal story (which unfortunately isn't blog appropriate) and ridiculous amounts of dancing. It was here I actually discovered just how much I adore salsa dancing, and I still can't get over the novelty of being asked to dance rather than simply having someone come up behind me and grind on me/touch me inappropriately. It's nice to be able to go out at night without having to punch someone in the mouth for being a total perv.

Most of our nights where spent in a bar called Revolución (ironically situated directly across from a Burger King), which is probably the most popular in the city and has a different music themed night every day of the week. However, I should probably note that as much fun as it can be, it's one of those places where you always see the same people, which tends to result in a lot of drama and the inability to escape your antics from the previous nights. One of those 'everybody knows everybody's business' kind of places. But fun, nevertheless.

Outside Revo after the unlucky Mexico vs Holland World Cup match.

I was also lucky enough to be in the city for the festival of San Juan Chamula, which is a festival in the indigenous town of the same name, situated in the hills next to San Cris. It was quite a surreal experience, not only because my friend Justin and I where clearly the only blonde people around, but also because the language spoken in the town was Tzotzil, not Spanish, so even my other Spanish-speaking Mexican friends stood out. We were surrounded by people in their traditional dress (which unfortunately I couldn't take any pictures of at the time because cameras weren't allowed), with loud music blasting from the huge stage at the front which reminded me of something between Mexican folk and a German Oompah ensemble.

The church was another other-worldly experience. Due to the Spanish Conquest and the subsequent 'conversions' to Christianity that took place, the religious practices of the people have taken on a compromise combining Christian practices with those of the traditional Mayan religion. There were giant statues of saints bordering a spacious hall, all of which were ornately decorated with colourful fabrics and tinsel, whilst the floor was littered with hay and candles. Seriously, there were candles everywhere (healthy and safety alert!). The local people were kneeling by various saints with their little lines of candles, praying and utter rituals, which involved pouring sweet drinks such as Coke and others I didn't recognise around their candle-altars. Some swayed and others seemed to be blessing family members, and we even saw one sacrifice a chicken.

Perhaps it was the copious amounts of Pox we had been drinking or the sugar high I was getting from the delicious, delicious churros I was gorging on, but the whole scene was utterly enchanting, despite being somewhat bizarre. It felt very strange to be an onlooker to all this; I didn't feel right treating other's personal, religious beliefs and a spectacle to be leered at, especially by some white, privileged tourist without the foggiest idea about what was actually going on. Finding the line between intrigue and accidental disrespect for another culture can often be quite difficult. So feeling enlightened, yet a bit awkward, we decided to leave and head back to San Cris to leave the locals to do their thing in peace.

To give you an idea of the traditional dress, these are a few of the street sellers from San Cris who's picture Murdo took with permission. Apparently in some of the communities it is believed that by having your picture taken can be dangerous because the camera can steal your soul through your eyes, which means that you can even be arrested for taking a picture in some areas. So respect local customs and don't go wielding your camera like a lunatic unless you know what the deal is.

In amongst the chilling and the hot chocolate and the partying, I also had the opportunity to help Adriana out in teaching some of her English classes in the local area: one in a rural community about one and a half hours drive away through the hills and another in the prison of a neighbouring town. And surprisingly, the two experiences weren't all that different. Whilst I've previously taught in a school back home, I have never come across a group of children so eager to learn and grateful for their lessons as I did in the village. We just did a simple English lesson about family (which, if you know my rather complicated, modern family, is always an interesting one!) but they were all so enthusiastic and excited to learn, unlike a lot of the kids back home. It was a lovely to share just a few hours with such a delightful group of children and the time flew by.

The main difference between that class and the one in the prison, mainly just lay in the age of the pupils. It is a male-only prison and the class is of course free and completely voluntary, yet so many people showed up! We taught a little about the differences between British English and American English, as well as attempting to explain the UK, Great Britain and England (no, they are not all the same thing). The guys were so lovely and full of questions, it made it really difficult for me to believe that these were actually 'criminals', locked up for one reason or another. It was one of those perspective changing situations, and I was really sad to have to say goodbye to the class, knowing it's likely that I won't be able to return for a very long time, if at all.

Finally, I got to meet so many awesome people in my first two weeks of stay. I spent a lot of time with Adriana's flatmate Brenda, and consequently ended up meeting a lot of the couchsurfers she had staying over. This further resulted in meeting random people in the street during meal times, because a lot of the tables would be situated outside of a restaurant, and well, the world is just a small place and everyone seems to know everyone in San Cris. So our unlikely band of 'hitch-hikers' spent a lot of time together dreaming up all sorts of ridiculous plans, playing cards and munching on cheap empanadas. And to my surprise, these hypothetical ideas of hitch-hiking became reality, and I ended up joining an Italian guy called Mirko in hitch-hiking to Palenque and escaping San Cris for a little while. But that's its own blog post entirely. 

Monday, 8 September 2014

22 Reasons I Have Fallen in Love with Mexico

Happy Birthday to meeeee (only five days late, this week has been a mad one!) I can't believe it's already come around again, seems like only yesterday that I was writing 21 Reasons to Love Being Alive and dressing up as Alice in Wonderland like the big kid I am. And now I'm on the other side of the world in Mexico, celebrating my first birthday abroad, which has been filled with extraordinary amounts of cerveza, drunk tacos, incredible friends and merriment, as well as a failed attempt at making skittles vodka (please don't try that at home kids... not without a recipe at least).

In other news, my laptop has FINALLY arrived so that means more blogging! YAY!

*tumble weed*

Well, at least I'm excited. I've challenged myself to try and start writing twice a week now rather than just once, because really, how often does one get to live in Mexico on government funds, with barely a care in the world and only three days of actual responsibility? Plus I have sooooo much to catch you all up on. I mean I still can't believe I haven't written anything about San Cristobal or living here in DF (that's Mexico City, FYI). However after such a lovely lovely lovely birthday week, I'm feeling all the Mexican love and it seems only right to dedicate my birthday post to the country and the people who made it so great. Then I'll get round to more travel things, I promise :D

So here it goes, 22 reasons I have fallen in love with the amazing country that is Mexico...

1. It's one of the most beautiful countries I've ever visited, with an incredibly diverse landscape.

2. Tacos are the best drunk/hangover food ever.

3. It's literally impossible to get bored.

The landscape, the history, the culture, the food, the people... combine it all and there is honestly never a dull moment. By the time I leave Mexico I will have been here nearly a year and there is no way I'll have experienced there is to experience, eaten everything there is to eat or visited everywhere there is to visit. Which, on the plus side, gives me another excuse to come back (not that I'm actually lacking in those).

4. The weather (I'm English, of COURSE that's important).

Los Mochis, all of the heat, EW.

After 2 weeks of intense sunshine, I nearly cried of joy when it rained in Guadalajara.

I've endured highs of 40 degrees and torrential downpours. Of course I'm usually happier in the rain, but as I'm always game for trying something new, it's been really cool to experience the extremes in weather that I would never be able to at home. Even if that does mean that my shoulders now look a different race to the rest of my body, and that due to the rainy season, I nearly drown on my way back from class everyday. 

5. All of the swimming.

Swimming in Hierve el Agua, in a natural infinity pool on the edge of a cliff in the mountains. Say WHAAAAT.

6. The questionable levels of health and safety, making everything just that little bit more exciting.

The first line of the sign reads, 'Use the door', which considering the side of the wall was covered in large, rusty nails AND we'd been drinking all day, would have been sensible. But then again it was locked, so I mean, we didn't have a choice... right?

7. There are over 60 recognised languages spoken here. So much language geeking.

8. They love the gays almost as much as I do.

This was taken at Guadalajara Pride. I'm very aware that the level of homophobia varies from state to state and generation to generation, but here in Mexico City I've met nothing but positivity and love for diversity. There are even adverts on the underground for equal rights for the LGBT community and posters supporting transgender people. It's incredible and to be honest we could learn a thing or two from this back home.

9. No matter what the weather, there is never a grey day.

10. The warmness of the people.

I'm a very tactile and huggy sort of person, so it's wonderful to come to a country where this is completely the norm. I love that I greet my friends with a kiss whenever I see them and holding hands with someone isn't automatically misconstrued as something more than just friendly touch. Maybe is because it's one of my 'love languages' or maybe it's because the people back home are just a lot less open to platonic physical closeness, but this is one of the elements of this country that I will miss the most when I leave.

11. But seriously though, the food.

Empanadas and chilaquiles and sopes and posole and tacos and beans and quesadillas and enfrijoles and that weird cheese from Oaxaca and MOLE ROJO and all the pollo and homemade guacamole and gorditas and enchiladas and pastor and just all the food love.

12. Happiness isn't determined by your bank balance, but what you do with what you have.

This is the class that Adriana teaches in one of the rural communities in the hills around San Cris. The areas and villages that these children and their families come from are far from the wealthiest, and yet they were some of the happiest and smilyest people I've met. I could give countless examples, but out here, it's the simple things that make people happy, and despite the many elements of development that still need to take place within society, I've met very few Mexicans who aren't happy with what they've got or don't know how to make the most out of a difficult situation.

13. The rich and diverse culture.

I'm a little ashamed to say I knew next to nothing about Mexican culture or history before I came here, aside from the fact that everyone owns a sombrero and speaks like Speedy Gonzalez. But there is an impossible amount to experience here, from the familiar capitalist culture of the big cities (of course with a Mexican twist) to indigenous communities that are scattered throughout the entire country, which all have their own traditions and languages and ways of life.

14. Chiapas, or more specifically, San Cris, completely stole my heart.

It's now a running joke that all my stories and all the people I have met here come from San Cris, because I spent so much time there and just can't seem to stop going on about it. I will be writing about it soon, but until then just know that it is a must visit. So add it to your bucket list and if you're ever in the town, stop by Casa Caracol and give my best to Juan.

15. Waterfalls.

16. 'Mañana, mañana' and 'horita'.

Stress? Worry? Rush? I think I've forgotten the meaning of the words. The above roughly translates to, 'There's always tomorrow' and, 'I'll do that/be there in a little while, but really what I mean is somewhere between 10 minutes and 2 days. Your guess is as good as mine to be honest.'

17. Meal times are for more than just eating.

Although I'm still finding it difficult to get used to the HUGE breakfast thing they've got going on here, I love how meal times are used as a social time with family and friends. The culture of wolf-it-down-as-quick-as-humanly-possible just simply doesn't exist. Where as back home, social food consuming time is usually reserved for special occasions and the like, here every meal is a sit down, hang out, phones away ordeal and can last hours with no-one itching to rush off or find something better to do.

18. A cawama (about 1 litre of beer) costs £1. ONE ENGLISH POUND. My liver hates me.

19. Riding in the back of pick-up trucks.

...on roads with 100ft drops on either side, with no seat belts. Ok that was just once, but everyother time I've done it it's be entirely invigorating, especially after a day of hitch-hiking in the scorching heat.

20. Mexicans are literally the most welcoming people in the world.

I have never visited another country and felt so immediately at home and welcome. I can't count the amount of people that have told me, 'Our doors our open whenever you want', 'If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask' and, 'You're always welcome here'. In the above picture my friend Shelly is adding to a wall in a hostel I lived in for some time, which simply states 'My house is your house' in lots of different languages, painted on by the people who have stayed there.

21. The incredible people I have met/had the opportunity to revisit.

I could compliment you all until the cows come home, but really I just want to say thank-you for everything and I'm so glad that the adventure is far from over.

22. I have learned so much about myself.

Looking back over the last three and a half months, it's crazy to think that for one reason or another, I nearly didn't do my year abroad. I mean everything was pretty much planned out; I was to go straight to fourth year, I'd picked out all my modules, I knew where I was going to live and life seemed stable and good and safe. And now, I suppose due to my 'fuck it, let's just go for it' attitude, I'm now here. Like I actually LIVE in Mexico. I have done and seen so so much and have met some of the most beautiful people to have ever existed, and the best part is, it's only just beginning. University only started a month ago, and when I think back over everything I've done since arriving in Mexico, it seems unreal.

I feel so incredibly lucky to have been give this opportunity and without sounding too big-headed, am so unbelievably proud of myself for taking it. Travel is about so much more than just looking at some pretty views and getting shit-faced at party hostels (though both of those can be great fun), it's about discovering more of what the world has to offer and in turn, uncovering parts of yourself that you had no idea existed. Every time I travel and meet new people, I can feel myself not only become more knowledgeable and worldly, but also a much stronger and well-rounded person. The more I see, the more I want to see and Mexico has been one of the countries that has driven my thirst for life to a whole new level.