What I Learned from Mexico

I’ve shared a bit about my time in Mexico, and this is the final post. If you want to read the other posts about my Oaxaca trip, then here they are:

If you read all of those, then you’ve basically got my experience in Mexico in a nutshell. To wrap it all up, I want to share the top three things I learned while I studied in Mexico.

No. 1: Language

Really, I did learn a lot about Spanish and speaking a foreign language. It wasn’t just the verbs and all that, but it was also how to try. I had always gone through language classes thinking that conjugation and spelling were the most important parts.

In reality, the most important thing is listening (which is harder than you might think!) and trying your best to respond. I didn’t always use proper grammar and sometimes I didn’t know the vocabulary, but I was always able to communicate the general idea of what I was trying to say.

No. 2: Travel sometimes sucks, so laugh

I cannot even begin to explain how many times we were caught out in thunderstorms, nor can I explain how uncomfortable it was to be sick and try to have a good attitude about it.

Even though I was not happy at all to be sick or soaking wet in a storm, it happens. Travel is not always glamorous. Sometimes it just sucks. Laughing at the fact that you had five shots in your rear end makes it suck less.

No. 3: Experience over material stuff

In the past, I have been notorious for packing everything under the sun in order to cover every single, “What if?” Now, I have learned that the more stuff you have, the more you have to carry around and deal with. To be honest, I could have taken a lot less clothes and such. I didn’t really need two whole suitcases for just three weeks.

I should have been more creative with less so that I could enjoy myself more. But it’s not just packing, it’s also purchases. Did I really need to buy something everywhere I went? No, and I didn’t. It was enough for me to enjoy the day, take a few pictures, and buy a few gifts for family here and there.

Ultimately, I learned a lot about living in another country, no matter how brief my stay was. In reality, three weeks is not enough to get to know a place completely foreign to you. I feel like I just scratched the surface.

I was so thankful for this time abroad, especially for the generous scholarship I received. I hope many more people (especially students!) enjoy this lovely country and the city of Oaxaca in the future.

Cheers!

My Last Week in Mexico

The “How I survived the health care system in Mexico” story, along with some of my final memories in Mexico City.

This post is a part of looking back at my time in Oaxaca.

My last week in Mexico was pretty crazy. Monday started out all right. We had a great night exploring the city. I was a bit tired, but that was it. However, by Tuesday I was not doing well at all. I ended up going to a doctor and being sent home to bed. Which I didn’t really want to do. After that, it all blurred together.

I managed to get some kind of bacterial infection. Maybe from something I ate, drank or even from our Sunday swim. I will never know for sure, but what I do know is that I could not eat for a week. I ended up spending days laying in bed, sleeping and watching Netflix movies when I couldn’t sleep.

I went to the doctor, the emergency room in Oaxaca twice, and the emergency room in Mexico City. Not because I was dying, but because of my treatment. They gave me pills at first, but they were no use because I couldn’t keep anything down. So then they took me to the hospital and gave me two shots in my rear end: one to keep food and water in my body, and another to fight whatever the illness was.

When the first shot that was meant to make it possible for me to retain my water and meager food intake did not work, they send me back to the emergency room for more shots. Then they told me to get another the next day (when we would be laid over in Mexico City) just to make sure I got better. Then they had me on a pill regimen of other stuff to make sure I was better, and a powder to mix with water and drink that helped boost my immune system.

So let me tell you about that pharmacy. When the doctor wrote prescriptions, I went and got them filled. But these prescriptions were not just pills, they also included the shots. The way they do it there, I had to purchase my own injection fluid and my own syringes, which for a small fee I could pay the hospital to administer with the accompaniment of my written directions from the ER doctor.

To sum up this story, I survived the health care system in Mexico. It wasn’t super expensive, and they got me better by the end of the week. Not that I wasn’t exhausted, because I totally was. At least I was well enough to get out and stroll around for our Mexico City bonus phase!

La Cuidad de México was our one-day stop before we came back to the States. Although I didn’t get to say goodbye to Oaxaca in the way that I wanted, I was able to go to a market one last time (though that walk home was pure hell on my tired body), and eat my first full meal since becoming sick, which was also my last non-breakfast meal in Oaxaca. I believe my host mom was really happy about this, as she made me a really nice and mild soup.

The flight to Mexico City was uneventful, so I’ll skip over the boring matters of settling into a hotel room and what not.

One of the first places we visited was the Monumento a Los Niños Héroes, or Heroic Cadets or Boy Soldiers Monument. The monument is dedicated to six teenage military cadets who died for Mexico’s honor in the Mexican-American war. If you’re interested in history, it’s worth looking the six boys up.

Monumento

After spending some time at the monument, we went up to Chapultepec Castle. There’s more history here, but I’ll keep it short and say this castle has passed through many hands. It was first an important site for the Aztec people (a cave here was believed to be one of two entrances to the underworld; the other is at Mitla).

In the 1800’s Emperor Maximilian I and Empress Carlota lived here with their children. Now, as the National History Museum, you can see what parts of the castle looked like during their lifetime, along with other fascinating exhibits.

Chapultepec Castle

We also went to the Museo Nacional de Antropología, or National Anthropology Museum. I hung out with my professor and we took a slow stroll through some exhibits. It was also super exciting, because I finally got to see a Mayan calendar. Life-long dream fulfilled.

Mayan Calendar

To conclude our short stay in Mexico City, we spent the evening at El Palacio de Bellas Artes, or the Palace of Fine Arts. We saw  a range of dances, from modern to contemporary, from indigenous dances to dances of modern states. I had a lovely evening here and was glad that it was the way that I spent my last in Mexico.

Palacio de Bellas Artes

I have to say, overall, I wasn’t a huge fan of the city, especially since I found it hard to get away from the smell of pollution and the loud, busy streets (my hometown is less than 300 people after all!). However, I think that when it comes to Mexico, Oaxaca stole my heart.

Cheers!

Hierve el Agua

This post is a part of looking back at my trip to Oaxaca.

My last excursion in Mexico was at the end of two very full weeks. We put on our swim suits and packed into a van that took us to Hierve el Agua. I read about the natural destination before we got there. It is basically a spring on the side of the mountain. The minerals in the water coming out of the spring have taken years to create petrified waterfalls on the mountains. This information is interesting to know, but doesn’t prepare you for the view.

I remember listening to “Bleed American” by Jimmy Eat World as we headed out. I was quite sleepy by time we arrived, but still awake thanks to both my musical distraction and actively trying not to give in to motion sickness.

We hopped out of the van, our guide gave us some information about the site, and we were off. The view from the side of the mountain was stunning. There are actually two petrified waterfalls on the side of the mountain: the one on which we stood and another nearby that can be seen in my photos.

Hierve el Agua

The water bubbled up and over the smooth stone, creating small pools, and bigger ones, that seemed like something out of a sci-fi movie. The two biggest pools were even large enough to swim in, which I did after taking quite a few photos.

Standing at HeA

People who know me might know that (even though I live on the lake) I’m not a huge fan of water and swimming. I like to look, but getting in is something else all together. But this time, I did get in the water. It was freezing, but perfect for the Mexican heat.

I can honestly say that being in the water and looking to the end of the pool and seeing only mountains and sky beyond the natural edge of the water is one of the most amazing views in the world.

HeA View

Hierve el Agua is an impressive natural wonder, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a nice relaxing swim in the mountains of Mexico.

Cheers!

When a Tree Was a Cactus

This post is a part of looking back at my time in Oaxaca.

On our second weekend of excursions we visited Yagul. Well… Not all of Yagul. It was a city, and the archaeological site we visited was basically just the city centre, though I suppose there is always more to see if you have the time.

A few things about this day really caught my attention. First of all, it wasn’t quite so hot. It was warm, but only just so with clouds and a light breeze. Second, for the first time in my life I thought, “This desert is gorgeous.” Not that I’ve had a lot of experience with deserts. I just never really got the beauty of this version of Mexico until I took in the flora and mountain background. Third, cactuses grow into trees.

Okay, that last point sounds somewhat outlandish, but it’s true! Cactuses can grow into trees with trunks that have the appearance of rough, brown bark. Their leaves look like giant, thorny paddles. And there were a lot of them at Yagul which, to me, just felt weird.

Cactus Trees

Anyway… The city center in Yagul was made out of these stone walls, which reminded me a lot of the stones that we have in the Ozarks. The paths even made me feel like I was walking some familiar paths back in Missouri.

Yagul

Just like Monte Albán, there was a ball court. Also like both Monte Albán and Mitla, there were tunnels that went under the city, although we didn’t get to go in these.

However, perhaps one of my favorite parts of this day was going up the hill by this city. We climbed it partially. There were fragments of broken pottery still littering the ground, exposed years later by the storms that visited the area basically every afternoon (seriously, we were learning the art of avoiding them, although we were soaked more than once).

When our group got up halfway, we stopped at a lookout point. Below us was the valley, with Yagul city centre to the right, and farms all around. Mountains under a cloudy but quieting sky completed the look for me. It may sound weird, but I love it when the clouds are gray and moody like that.

Yagul Pano

So that was my grand visit to Yagul. It may not seem that exciting, but it was the most relaxed of the excursions we took. (Yes, “relaxed” and “excursion” just appeared together in the same sentence.)

Cheers!

Getting My Second Wind in Oaxaca

This post is a part of looking back at my 2014 Oaxaca trip.

My second week in Oaxaca tends to be what I remember when I think about my time there. This was the week that I felt most comfortable, that I finally was getting the hang interacting with locals in Spanish, and that I spent the most time exploring.

One evening that I really appreciated was when my roommate and I took a walk around the city. We found a gorgeous fountain with some statues of Oaxacan figures, including the large circular male headdress that I saw in almost every informational blurb about their culture.

Fountain

Many evenings we walked the streets and talked to vendors, in between getting caught in rain storms of course. One of my favorite was this woman.

Metal Bugs

She spoke no English, but her work is amazing. She made all of these bugs from colored wire and other crafty bits. At first I didn’t want to buy one because I thought, “This will never survive the flight to the US.” Then, she offered me a container that she had made from the bottom of a soda bottle to protect it. I love dragonflies, so I bought one. She seemed very excited when I asked if I could take her picture.

The third and most significant thing that I remember about that week was a visit to a woman’s home that my professor arranged. We brought our own food and she cooked a traditional meal for us. She didn’t have much. Chickens roamed the yard and her kitchen was outdoors. She had built her own kiln in her yard, which she used to make pottery to support her family.

Oaxacan Dinner

Oh, and her grandson. That was what hit me the hardest: seeing her grandson, a young boy the same age as my host mom’s grandson. My host family lives in a large house, with cool stone floors, all the modern conveniences that Americans have, and even a maid. That boy certainly never wants for anything.

But this boy… This boy had none of these luxuries. His clothes didn’t fit right. I’m not sure what kind of education he received, but I’m guessing he goes to a disadvantaged school, as this wasn’t the city center. I don’t think his family had a lot of food. These boys lived not even an hour away from each other, but they seemed to be worlds apart. I think that these boys will never leave my mind.

I wanted to go into policy before this, but this is one experience that will always be a driving force for why I want to work on policy and help change the systems that make these boys’ lives, and that of their families, so different.

That’ll make you think about your developed-nation privilege for a while.

Cheers!

Mitla y El Tule

One week had officially passed since our arrival in Mexico when we went to Mitla. Mitla is a Zapotec archeological site. While Monte Albán was a city full of markets and political leaders, Mitla was an important religious center.

Walking up you could already see the incredible mosaics. What was really neat was to notice that the designs are made up of small stones that are not held together with any sort of cement or mortar.

Mitla

If you looked close enough, you could even see some of the original red paint that used to adorn the stone designs.

One thing I really enjoyed about Mitla was the tunnels, of which a few were open for you to crawl into. I went down to check them out, but the lighting left me with sub-par photos. Therefore, you’ll just have to settle for a picture of me coming out of a tunnel.

Mitla Tunnel

Next, we went off to see the beautiful massive Montezuma cypress tree known as “El Tule.” El Tule is the widest tree in the world, and has a pretty awesome estimated age of more than 2,000 years old, according to the book sculpture at the tree.

El Tule

The tree itself is protected by a fenced off area. Furthermore, there are gardens with plenty of sprinklers around the area to keep pumping water into the ground for the tree’s extensive root system. During your walk around the tree, you might be interested in looking for some shapes in the trunk. One of the easiest to spot is the lion.

Tule Lion

Forget looking for shapes in the clouds; El Tule is obviously better.

Cheers!

Monte Albán y Atzompa

On my first Saturday in Mexico, we went on an excursion to Monte Albán, an ancient city, and Atzompa, a nearby town with a thriving market.

At Monte Albán, the first thing I did was purchase a hat. A big awkward one, just to protect myself from the sun. I burn easily, and being up in high places in Mexico is a good way to get sunburnt for a normal person. I am not normal; I burn incredibly easily. A hat is required for Lynnae.

MA Hat

Our guide showed us around the mountain top city, which was once the capital of the Zapotec empire. We were given stunning views. The moment I saw this one, I knew I wanted to climb the pyramid structure at the other end:

MA Pano

As the speaking part of the tour ended, my roommate and I took off up those steps and enjoyed another spectacular view. The area down below used to be the city’s market place, where inhabitants mingled, traded goods, and celebrated religious events. In addition to the buildings and platforms you can see, there are also tunnels under the city that people used to get around.

MA Top

For sports fans, there is a Mesoamerican ball game court in the city as well. You may have heard in your history classes that in some places, the winners of the ball game won the right to be sacrificed to the gods, but there is no evidence of that having ever occurred at Monte Albán.

After we finally came back down the steps, we checked out some of the other archaeological wonders in the city. My favorite part was definitely the carvings that we found lined up. I was always fascinated by Central and South American ancient carvings, but seeing some in person was surreal.

Carvings at MA

At the end, we went to the market at Atzompa. There were so many things to buy, including alebrijes, mezcal bottles with actual hooves on them, and pottery, not to mention food! My roommate bought a rather large selection of delicious conchas, which are a type of Mexican sweet bread. They go fabulously with Oaxacan hot chocolate!

Atzompa

And that’s my Monte Albán experience in a nutshell. For anyone planning to go in the future, my advice is to bring sunscreen, a big hat, and cold water.

Cheers!

Exploring the City: Oaxaca

Much of my first week in Oaxaca was spent exploring the city. Oaxaca has many beautiful parks, pedestrian streets and historic buildings.

Catedral de Oaxaca (Cathedral of Oaxaca)
Catedral de Oaxaca (Cathedral of Oaxaca)
Iglesia de Guadelupe (Church of Guadelupe)
Iglesia de Guadelupe (Church of Guadelupe)

On the second day, we wandered through a side door into a church with gorgeous decoration on the inside.

Santo Domingo Gold

Santo Domingo Look Up

When we came out the other side I was amazed at how gorgeous the exterior of the church is. I asked a local (in Spanish!) which church it was, and he said that it was Santo Domingo! The Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is one of the most famous and oldest churches in Oaxaca. This Catholic church was built from 1570 to 1666. While it was used by the military in the past, today it is fully restored.

Santo Domingo
The front of Santo Domingo.

Santo Domingo was my favorite church in Oaxaca. We took in a lot of Oaxaca that first week. Though it was a good week of trying new food, getting caught in late afternoon storms, and visiting the Friday market at Parque Lleno, it wasn’t until the second week that I started to talk to more locals. After that, I started to feel I was getting to really know the city.

I’ll leave you all with this short post today. News of my next big trip will come soon, since I finally got the letter in the mail!

Cheers!

Looking Back: My First Day Abroad

Monday, April 21, 2014: My first full day in Oaxaca, Mexico.

My roommate and I woke up and went downstairs for breakfast where we were encountered by another girl who was living in the house. Over papaya and granola (no yogurt for me) we learned that she was from New Zealand, a student at a Maori immersion school studying abroad for a semester. In the next few weeks we became friends, and I got to experience a little of her culture.

After breakfast, our host family drove us to the school, Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca. We began our time at the Spanish language school with a language test. At the conclusion of this test, I was placed in B1 (levels range A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 with C2 being the most advanced level). After the exam we were released to our classes.

My weekdays began to follow a schedule:

  • 9am-12pm: Spanish class
  • 12pm-1pm: Group conversation hour
  • Lunch break
  • 3pm-5pm: Cultural workshop (excluding Friday)
  • 5pm-6pm: Intercambio (excluding Friday)
  • Free time!

In Spanish class, we spoke and the teacher tailored the lessons to areas in which we were deficient. If she noticed we were deficient in reflexive verbs, she went over it and made us practice. My Spanish got much better in the short time I studied at ICO because of this teaching method.

During our group conversation we just spoke, and if we stumbled around the words and grammar, it wasn’t a big deal. The idea was to practice speaking, not to be perfect. I really liked this and the first day already I felt that I had been missing this in my Spanish classes of previous years.

Since it was the first day, we were then briefed on life in Oaxaca. It went a little like this…

Free tea and coffee available in the cafeteria daily. (This is the original source of my tea habit, which solidified in Northern Ireland.)

No toilet paper in the toilets because the Mexican plumbing system can’t handle it; throw it in trash cans instead. (Not as gross as it seems.)

The difference in food may upset your system for a few days. (It did.) Don’t drink the water or even use it to brush your teeth. (I didn’t. But I will add, be wary of swimming in it, too.) No raw food or fresh produce that was washed in said water, unless it was processed by your host family. (Even though the strawberries and sliced mangoes look lovely at the market.)

It’s illegal to participate in demonstrations, so don’t get involved. (Saw one, stayed away.) And of course, we received the usual “how to not die in a city / stay away from these areas” talk. (Heeded; survived.)

With that out of the way, we went on home for lunch. A little note on meals in Mexico: breakfast and dinner are usually pretty small, with lunch being the biggest meal of the day. Breakfast is eaten about 8am or 9am, as you would in the States. Lunch is at about 2pm. Dinner was the most difficult for me to adjust to, being eaten at 8pm. Cereal and fruit were normal dinners for us after exploring the city.

As I said, we had cultural classes in the afternoon after we got back to school. I decided to take the cooking class, even though I don’t consider myself an excellent chef. For the first cooking class, our instructor took us to both a chocolate shop and local market in the city center.

The chocolate shop, Mayordormo, had cocoa beans, machines to grind the beans and make chocolate right in front of you, and a variety of chocolates for eating and drinking! Anyone visiting Oaxaca should try the Oaxacan chocolate. It’s definitely different from that of the States, but it tastes a lot more rich and natural to me.

Freshly ground cocoa at Mayordomo.
Freshly ground cocoa at Mayordomo.

Mercado 20 de Noviembre is a market I went back to again and again. It has vendors selling clothing, pottery, alebrijes, jewelry, and a variety of food. On a typical day in May, the food section sells fresh bread, fruits and juices, mezcal (a type of alcohol), different meats, and chapulines (toasted grasshoppers).

Mercado 20 de Noviembre

As our cultural class ended, we walked back to the school and met our intercambios (language exchange partners) for the first time. The language exchange was one of my favorite things, because we took turns in English and Spanish. My partner told me about her university, and I really enjoyed learning more about her life in Oaxaca.

After our school day was officially over, my roommate and I decided to make a trip to the grocery store, supplying us with most of what we would need over the next three weeks.

Their grocery store was not so different. You could buy batteries, shampoo, and food, just like in the States. A lot of their things were even the same brands as ours, such as Lays, Oreos, and Fruit Loops. One thing to note is that they had a lot more fresh produce, meats, and bakery products compared to processed foods. After seeing this, I wrote in my journal, “No wonder the locals seem healthier than most Americans I know, not to mention a lot of them also walk everywhere.”

My roommate and I walked home to a lovely sunset. After getting everything in our room completely settled and chatting for a while, I got ready for bed. I remember that night after my first day-long experience of Oaxaca. I thought about all the amazing cultural differences and similarities I had seen as I drifted off to sleep, listening to the sound of some strange creature outside my window.

Thinking about this day, I often wonder what others’ first full day abroad was like.

Cheers!

The Shock before the Culture

The clouds were massive and building around us. With each new gust of wind, the plane shook violently. The flight attendant brought our snacks by, and I wondered how she managed to stay standing.

With each bump the flight took, I began to feel sicker and sicker. It was only about an hour long flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca, but it seemed to take ages with all this turbulence. At long last, we landed. I was never so happy to have my feet on the ground again.

We walked into the small airport where our host families were awaiting us. My roommate and I were introduced to our host mamá. La Señora gave us each a hug with accompanying besos (kisses) on our cheeks, which I was not ready for! As a side note, I think that any culture which uses kisses in greeting will be something that will startle me, no matter how many times I am told to accept it.

Our host mamá and her son had come to get us. The sun was setting on this new-to-me country as her son loaded our bags into the back of the truck. Then we were driven from the edge of the city to the home of Señora.

On the ride, our mamá asked us questions to which I couldn’t respond. All of a sudden, after several years of Spanish class, the foreign language I tried so hard to decode was entirely foreign to me again. I understood not a word and couldn’t formulate a proper sentence to answer. While my roommate chatted away in Spanish (she had been to Mexico before), I looked out the window.

I saw some people walking barefoot in the street, and little half-broken buildings. Meat was cooking outdoors at some restaurants. As we drove, I began to see familiar things: KFC, Sam’s Club, Office Depot. The longer we drove, the nicer the clothes of the people on the streets. I was acutely aware of how much more wealth could be seen the further we drove.

I remember thinking, “I am in Mexico. I am in Mexico. Oh, what kind of place did I come to? Everything is moving too fast…” And then we were home, at my host mamá‘s house at least. As we got out of the truck, one of the dogs came up, smelled me, and let me pet it. That was the only time one of those dogs was so nice to me.

My host family’s home was inside walls and solid gates. Their lawn was meticulously groomed and almost as green as the Emerald Isle. Their flowers were resplendent in their beauty, especially their Birds of Paradise which effortlessly flourished. But I didn’t see any of that. My eyes went to the sidewalk, to the smooth orange-red ceramic tiled floor, to the stairs as we followed our host mom… She showed us our room we would share, and its adjoining bathroom. We met another American living across the hall.

Then I excused myself. I went into our bathroom and sat down on the delightfully cool floor. “What was I thinking? What am I doing here?” And then I was sick. Mexico had spun me around and turned my world upsidedown in no time at all. And I hadn’t even started to experience the full extent of the culture.

After a while my roommate and I were called downstairs to dinner: cereal (dinners are small meals in Mexico). Then, we went to prepare for the next morning’s class. As I went to sleep in Mexico for the first time, I felt confused, uncomfortable, and unsure that I made the right decision in coming. The lesson here: give it time and experience the culture, not the window’s view.

Cheers!