Mexican Christmas/long overdue post

Hello blog it’s been way too long, over 2 months in fact. Shameful. The last two months have possibly been the two most unusual months of my life, in that I’ve done none of the things I usually do in December and January like go home for Christmas and have the family over for New Years. It was so, so nice to catch up with everyone from Southampton again over the Christmas holidays and find out how everyone’s adjusting (/learning to cope with) to the Mexican way of life.

We decided to explore two of Mexico’s southern states, Oaxaca and Chiapas, over 4 weeks. I can honestly say it was the best travelling experience of my life, a beautiful country with amazing company; I’ll try and summarise some of the best bits:

We started off with an 8 hour bus from D.F. to Oaxaca City, Oaxaca which turned out to be a very European/Spanish feeling city (though still very Mexican of course) with tall, colourful architecture, beautiful artisan markets along with delicious coffee and chocolate. The perfect place to spend a few days ‘Mexican tat shopping’ as we’ve called it (clay skulls, colourful rugs and Mexican shirts) and soaking up the atmosphere in the lively main plaza:

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Indigenous woman
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Colourful markets
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Streets of Oaxaca City

From Oaxaca City we also visited the very special spot known as ‘Hierve el Agua’, a waterfall formed from calcium.. I think, with swimmable pools and stunning views of mountain scenery. Getting there was a journey and a half in a very legitimate looking (not) Mexican bus up a steep, twisty dirt track; cliff edge stuff:

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Pools at Hierve el Agua
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The legit bus to the top

I also experienced my first Mexican ruin site, Monte Alban, which was just like stepping into one of my favourite films, Eldorado:

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View from the top of a ruin at Monte Alban

Our next destination was Puerto Escondido, still in the state of Oaxaca, which is a resort type place on the coast. For me this was my least favourite place we visited. I had high hopes of picturesque, empty beaches but I guess due to high season everywhere was rammed with tourists and there was very little Mexican about the place; except maybe for all the pelicans, the occasional cowboy and the sweltering heat. However we still had a ‘different’ Christmas Eve/very early Christmas day with a beach all to ourselves and it was even warm enough to go swimming in the middle of the night which resulted in nearly loosing all our clothes as the tide snuck in on us. The hostel we stayed at even put on a Christmas buffet which was some of the best food we ate on the trip:

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Our Christmassy hostel
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Best moment no doubt was seeing humpback whales and swimming with dolphins on this early morning boat trip

I was very glad to escape the heat of Puerto and move onto our next stop in the capital of Chiapas: Tuxtla. Not the prettiest of cities but certainly 100% Mexican with a crazy fruit market next to our hostel and a lively marimba concert held every night in the main plaza with couples of all ages making the salsa look annoyingly easy, indigenous families selling their crafts and shoe shiners as young as 10:

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Shoe shining
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Dancing to marimba

The good thing about Tuxtla was the amazing day trips you could make from there. Cañon del Sumidero was incredibly impressive, I expected a boat trip up a nice-ish river but it wasn’t until our driver started pointing out all the crocodiles, monkeys, iguanas and pelicans that I had to remind myself (again) that we’re not in Europe anymore:

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On a boat up Cañón del Sumidero, sadly the water was actually quite polluted

We also spent New Years Day clambering down 700 and something steps to a beautiful waterfall that was almost deserted except for a few crazy Mexican families carrying down their cooking stoves and tortillas:

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Thinks she’s a model or something

Our next destination in Chiapas was San Cristóbol de las Casas and probably my favourite stop of the trip. A smaller city, European feeling similar to Oaxaca, but with a strong indigenous population and for some reason a load of vegan restaurants which meant I could finally try some Mexican enchiladas:

In the outlying towns we were also able to visit an indigenous church (sadly no photos allowed) but imagine a church with no seats, floor covered in a thick layer of pine needles and the most candles you’ve ever seen, and also una ‘escuela zapatista’ (zapatista school) which focuses on teaching skills, such as cooking and carpentry, to its students who are mostly from indigenous families:

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‘We have rights’- Zapatista artwork
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Sewing room – Zapatista school
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Art room – Zapatista school

After a chilly San Cristóbal we had another long bus journey to Palenque, which is a hot and humid jungle spot, where we pitched up in a little jungle cabin – crazy how much the climate can change in just a few hours. The main attractions of Palenque are the jungle ruin sight:

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Makes me quite jealous of those Mayans

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And waterfalls Misol-ha and Agua Azul:

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A rainy Misol-Ha
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Agua Azul
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Company at breakfast on our last day in Palenque,  shortly afterwards he bit someone’s finger

That (sadly) concluded our Christmas travels and it was back to an incredibly cold and wet Toluca, already looking forwards to doing it all again in the summer. Luckily for me I was only half way through my university Christmas break and still had all of January free soooo  pretty last minute my madre flew out for a quick visit.

We met in Cancun (a 2 hour flight from Toluca) then caught a bus to Tulum where we based ourselves in an airbnb near some cenotes (natural pool type things) for a week.

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Sea still looking turquoise on a cloudy day
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Chichen Itza ruins in Merida
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Coastal ruins in Tulum – pretty ruined out by this point, sorry Mexico…

 

Despite having wonderful experiences all over Mexico, the distance from home is something that plays on my mind a lot and thinking about going back to England is something I also do a lot. So, I was incredibly thankful of this brief catch-up from home – mum to the rescue, she’s a superstar.

I (eventually) started back at work in February and things have been pretty quite so far. Spent my 21st weekend in Mexico City, sipping beer on canal boats and doing some cheeky shopping and since then have started getting on with the YARP and booking flights to Cancun again for Alice’s 21st and the end of YARP deadline in May – 2 perfect excuses to celebrate.

The end – PHEW.

 

 

 

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What I eat in a day: Vegan on a budget, easy, HCLF and YUM

Breakfast: 

If I could marry any food it would be bananas, probably eat at least 3-4 a day and that’s a minimum, my record to beat is around 15 (oops..) after which I unfortunately died of potassium poisoning and that concludes this blog.

***

Of course not, you’d have to eat around 300 bananas in 30 seconds for that (http://thebananagirl.com/potassium-overdose-on-30-bananas-a-day-2.php – check this out, yay potassium!) There are a billion reasons why bananas are the best, here are some of my favourites:

  1. Bananas help overcome depression due to high levels of tryptophan, which is converted into serotonin — the happy-mood brain neurotransmitter
  2. Protect against muscle cramps during workouts and night time leg cramps by eating a banana
  3. Counteract calcium loss during urination and build strong bones by supplementing with a banana
  4. Bananas reduce swelling,protect against type 2 diabetes, aid weight loss, strengthen the nervous system, and help with the production of white blood cells, all due to high levels of vitamin B-6.
  5. High in potassium and low in salt, bananas lower blood pressure and protect against heart attack and stroke.
  6. Constipated? High fiber in bananas can help you there.
  7. Eating bananas will help prevent kidney cancer, protects the eyes against macular degeneration and builds strong bones by increasing calcium absorption
  8. Bananas make you smarter and help with learning by making you more alert. Eat a banana before an exam to benefit from the high levels of potassium.
  9. Bananas are high in antioxidants, providing protection from free radicals and chronic disease.
  10. Bananas are delicious…

Wow so many, smash them in people – determined to beat my record now.

A fun way to eat bananas in the morning:

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Banana Nice-cream plus extras
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Super simple, just blend frozen bananas (I used 4), added cinnamon and a tiny bit of water
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Blend until creamyyyy

I suggest then putting the nice-cream in a bowl in the freezer whilst you chop your toppings so you don’t get a cold, soupy liquid.

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Usual breakfast chaos…
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I topped mine with grapefruit, dates and non-frozen banana and it was divine

It’s not as quick as toast and jam BUT if you have a bit of extra time in the mornings this is so easy to make and so worth it.

Lunch:

I had a super lazy lunch day which involved none of my own cooking so all credits go to the market just around the corner:

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Deliciously fresh corn tortilla wraps – to die for omg
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Filled with beans and seriously spicy potatoes

Doesn’t get much simpler/lazier but a delicious midday snack.

Tea/dinner/supper/whatever you call it, don’t hate me: 

The second food I’d marry is sweet potatoes (very close second place after bananas)

http://nutritionfacts.org/2015/11/19/sweet-potato-proteins-vs-cancer/ – When your fave food fights cancer, yes.

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This (appetising?) looking jug is a mix of sweet potatoes, cauliflower, lentils, onion with garlic, ginger, cumin and a bit of veg stock (no oil!)
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Thick warm soups are definitely the best in Winter, de acuerdo? Added a super spicy chilli sauce and pepper for that kick ya know. Also got some tomato, lettuce and a lime for dressing
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Using my lettuce as a spoon because who has time for cutlery, crunchy lettuce, spicy warm soup is COMFORT food – so filling

So a full day of vegan eating that was super tasty and cheap to make, bring on tomorrow’s deliciousness

Hasta luego!

 

 

Have I lost the plot?

Most people look at me like I’ve lost the plot when I tell them I’ve given up meat, fish and dairy products BUT hear me out people. The last thing I want to do is preach to people that ‘my diet is better than yours’. No, no, no. I’m no expert and don’t claim to be, but I’ve felt so much better in the short time since switching to being vegan that it feels wrong to me not to share it.

In June this year I decided to go vegan after months of religiously watching vegan activists and bloggers on YouTube (Freelee, Durian Rider, BonnyRebecca, Niomi Smart and Tami are all amazing and I’ve put all the links to their channels below). My first thoughts were how amazing to be so passionate about living an incredibly healthy, environmentally friendly and ethical lifestyle but it looks way too hard for a broke, lazy-ish student like myself. Nevertheless, throughout my second year of uni I did masses of research online into veganism and I gradually found myself saying no to watching films and sometimes even going out (yep that was hard to admit) just so I could spend my evenings learning more and more about the benefits of this lifestyle, and yeah I’d say it’s a lifestyle more than a diet. ‘Diet’ to me sounds more like a restrictive, miserable food prison. I have absolutely no regrets and can’t believe it took me so long to actually do it.

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Of course it’s not just fruit but YUM right

(Just some of the boring food I’ve had to make as a vegan)

I’ve felt so many benefits already and I’ve only just dipped my toe in the water. For me the most noticeable thing has been my energy levels… They are so much higher! I’m not in any way saying that I could run or cycle miles and miles without feeling tired, it’s not a fitness thing (yet, work in progress 😉 ) , it’s more that I’m a lot more up for giving it a go. I’ll be sat down and realise I’m swinging my leg, the kitchen turns into a dance floor pretty much everyday, I’ll race my brothers to car and I never wake up with that horrible tired, sluggish feeling that stopped me getting out of bed and had me glugging back coffee and tea all day. I’ve always been an early riser but definitely not a very willing one!

My ability to concentrate also feels really different. I’m a lot more able to focus on something I’m reading and absorb it rather than resting my head on the keyboard hoping it all goes in through my ear towards my brain and stays there somehow. Brain is clearly loving all this glucose.

I know that a lot of people switch to veganism for weight loss reasons so I guess it’s worth me mentioning that too. At first that might have been my main motive but it’s definitely been pushed right to the back of my mind now – I’ve come to realise there are tons of other great reasons to go vegan and now all I want to do is tell everyone else so they can benefit too. Yes, a healthy weight is so important but isn’t living ethically and economically important too? Personally I haven’t noticed much weight difference since making the switch, though I don’t ever weigh myself; not because I have a phobia or anything, I just don’t own a weighing scale and can’t be bothered to buy one. I used to think a healthy lifestyle meant eating ‘healthy’ foods in really small amounts. If I’d eaten below the daily recommended amount of 2000 calories (didn’t happen often mind) I went to bed feeling really proud of myself. I just think this goes to show how negative the media and our society makes our relationship with food and healthy living; effectively I was pleased when I hadn’t given my body what it needed to keep me going… sounds healthy… the beauty of veganism is it’s much harder to eat badly so you don’t have to restrict.

So where am I taking it now? Well even though I’ve still got my Spanish degree to finish off, I’ve decided to enrol onto a Vegetarian and Vegan Nutritional Therapy course (here’s the link if you’re interested – http://www.bsygroup.co.uk/index.php/course/vegetarian-vegan-nutritional-therapy). I’m not saying that you need to do anything like this if you’re thinking about going vegan, far from it when there’s masses of information and amazing documentaries online (which I’ll also link below). I was just so interested in all the nutritional benefits that I fancied getting a qualification so that in the future I’d have the option to give other people advice plus ‘keeping all the doors open’ and stuff. I also want to be able to answer all the annoying questions about protein and calcium and convince people that fruit and veg actually have more than just vitamin C in them…

Do I miss anything about eating meat, fish and dairy? Nope. To be honest I can’t believe I ever ate them in the first place.

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If these were dogs would you call RSPCA? Pigs are just as smart as dogs
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‘Worthless’ male chicks being ground up alive
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Name another animal that drinks milk their whole lives, would you put human breast-milk on your cereal?

 

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We consume meat and dairy products containing hormones, antibiotics and pesticides yet all we worry about is protein…

Plus there’s the environment to think about:

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Wanna reduce your carbon footprint?
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And people say shorter showers save water…

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Here’s the links I was talking about:

 

YouTubers:

https://www.youtube.com/user/Freelea – Freelee has AMAZING videos about her Raw Til 4 lifestyle, celebrity diets and the Fruit Festival in Thailand plus her vegan conversion story is awesome

 

https://www.youtube.com/user/durianriders – Durian Rider’s has some seriously good videos about cycling, motivation, diet and fitness (if you lack motivation seriously watch them)

 

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBo67oEmXRatmYoyxsC9x5g – Tami is a fitness instructor, she has great tips on working out and ‘What I eat in a day’ videos – her channel is really honest and real, I love it

 

https://www.youtube.com/user/niomismart – Niomi is a beauty blogger but she has some really great and EASY vegan cooking videos as well

 

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOu3SAozsyQyKE2wD IJtdQ – Bonny is seriously inspirational, she has ‘What I eat in day’ videos and vlogs of the Thai fruit festival

 

https://www.youtube.com/user/NutritionFactsOrg – All the facts you need

 

Documentaries/Lectures:

 COWSPIRACY – I think this is now available on Netflix but I watched it free online

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FORKS OVER KNIVES

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEuRMm-a6mo – This is a lecture by Dr Colin Campbell on his ‘China Study’ soooo interesting and informative, I highly, highly recommend even if you’re not interested in going vegan

 

 

 

 

 

December Update!

So it’s now December and I’m just over two months into my year in Mexico, I wouldn’t say the time is flying by but it definitely doesn’t feel like your usual Christmas build up. Bright blue skies and 25C here today which makes all the Christmas trees and snowflake window decorations look especially odd and out of place… I just can’t feel festive without the cold! Trying to blend in with the loco locals wearing layers of jumpers coats right now is one of the many challenges faced by an extranjera in Mexico.

Since my last post the most exciting events have been Corona Capital Festival and Metepec’s Festival de Globos (hot air balloons):

9 out of the 11 of us headed back to Mexico City for a weekend of electronic, and mostly British music, at Corona Capital Festival. Before even getting to the festival, the 4 of us not living in D.F. this year  successfully managed to check into possibly one of the world’s sketchiest hotels… It was a long drive out of town into what was definitely not the safest part of the city, our concerned taxi driver even offered to take us to another hotel when he realised where he’d taken us. Checking in at the creepy black reception desk (you could only hear not see the receptionist) it dawned on us why the hotel had been so cheap.. Rooms on offer were a jacuzzi room, a room with a dance pole, king sized beds etc. So yep turns out it was one of those sex hotels. It got even better in the rooms themselves which were complete with condom price lists, a TV with pretty much only porn channels, the biggest beds you’ve ever seen and a saucy black tinted mirror that covered the entire wall. In the end it was a laugh but I wouldn’t recommend leaving booking your hotel hours before you plan to arrive in future.

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The festival itself felt just like an English summer (despite being at the end of November), including the line up: Muse, Calvin Harris, Fatboy Slim, Circa Waves to name a few
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We really embraced Mexican culture whilst there…
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Loving The Bloody Beetroots

Definitely looking forward to the music festivals to come in Mexico, had a great atmosphere – awesome since the party scene is slightly lacking in Toluca.

Back in Toluca Alice and I grabbed tickets for Metepec’s Festival Globos and the Noche Luminosa which (after MUCH struggling trying to find tickets) turned out to be a really cool event of about 40 hot air balloons being lit up at night, a live band and plenty of good food trucks:

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Still setting up

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Seriously beautiful, with music blaring and flashing lights was a pretty triply event

Because it’s Mexico, there was no sign of any health and safety so you could walk right up to the balloons and toast your marshmallows in the flames if you really wanted.

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Very Mexican looking Catrina balloon
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Told you there were good food trucks

Luckily I have a super long Christmas break which starts next Friday until February (!!!!). My work has defiantly been getting me down over the last few weeks. It lacks purpose and direction and I’ve also been battling for weeks trying to get them to pay me; still haven’t received a peso of my monthly salary despite now being owed 3 months worth which has been more than frustrating. The students are all incredibly lovely and friendly however trying to get any kind of attendance to workshops, which the assistants spend a considerable amount of time planning, is proving an almost impossible task which has also made it difficult to make many solid friendships here so far. The English teachers have so far also been very reluctant to involve/use the assistants which, to me, makes us seem like a bit of a wasted resource!

So, even though I’m having so many amazing new experiences, the journey so far has been very up and down and I’m still feeling pretty homesick and missing uni life in Southampton. Thankfully a few other students from Southampton and I have some much needed travel plans over Christmas, involving Oaxaca and Chiapas states, so hopefully some exciting blogs to come and a better start to the next semester!

Hasta luego chic@s!

Exploring Metepec, the world’s TOUGHEST job and Dia de los Muertos!

It hasn’t taken me long to realise that Toluca isn’t exactly a hotspot for student nightlife, which is hard to come to terms with when you’re British and pelted with choices daily in Southampton. HOWEVER there is a decent social scene in Metepec which is around a 15 minute taxi from Toluca (costs about 50 pesos which is just under £2, sweet!) There are plenty of bars and pubs (including an Irish pub with a big London bus parked outside if you’re feeling homesick) and drinks are usually pretty cheap too, especially cerveza (beer). Take care ordering cerveza though, Mexicans like to destroy them with tomato juice and chilli BUT you can order it in litres.

As we’re fast approaching the big Día de los Muertos festival there’s lots of events taking place in the centre of Metepec. Including muchos market stalls, some with very traditional looking handmade crafts and others with illegal DVDs, so a good variety.

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I didn’t take many pictures of the actual stalls (terrible blogger) but you can see it’s pretty popular
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We were lucky to catch this Aztec ofrenda (offering) of the fruit laid down on the street
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Ofrenda close up, lucky gods!
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Church in Metepec
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With a view

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I find the obsession with London buses kind of sad

The market in Metepec (called La Feria) is even more crowed in the evening and into the night. There’s a great street food section if you get peckish and a temporary stage hosting some very famous Mexican singers, so I’m told.

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Feeling too tall after watching a concert

As far as clubs go we’ve tried out Juan y Lola which was very latino… everyone in Mexico can dance extremely well and it makes me feel a little bit ashamed of my own two feet. Not sure if the salsa type club is really my scene. I need to work on ordering drinks as well; my vodka lemonade ended up half coke, half lemonade which was kind of disappointing…

After my first few weeks working in the Facultad, it looks like the real challenge is going to be persuading students to come to my workshops. So far I’ve had a workshop with 2 attendees, another with over 100 (turns out lots of people wanted to know about student life in the UK) and zero attendance to anything else. At the moment I feel like my job is to smile and tell anyone who comes into the office what my favourite Mexican food is; I lied in the title, it’s a very doss job but not very satisfying thus far. No one is keeping tabs on me, asking to see lesson plans or checking I’m actually doing my hours; I’m 100%  certain that if I didn’t show up for the rest of the year it would go completely unnoticed. Of course, I’m too honest for that… but I guess it will come in handy for some extra long weekends away once in a while.

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS:

Before the actual weekend we had even MORE build up for the festival in Toluca:

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Ready for the Facultad Jalawey (Halloween) party, Catrina style
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Entrance to the Alfeñique Festival, Toluca
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(At least) 7m skeletons OR what you look like after being vegan for 12 months (thank you mum)
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LOADS of beautiful ofrendas
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All that fruit will be eaten by the dead who come back to visit their families this time every year

And now for the actual weekend…

Alice and I were super duper lucky being invited to spend the Dia de Muertos weekend with our friend and her family in the smaller town of Tlantizapan (try pronouncing that one) about 3-4 hours away from Toluca in the state of Morelos.

It was stiflingly hot, the climate seems to change here every hour you drive. I forget what a bubble of high altitude ‘cold’ (it’s November, 21 degrees and people are wearing coats) we’re in in Toluca. Luckily we spent Saturday cooling off in Las Estacas natural park:

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Like a scene from The Jungle Book, the water was crystal clear and COLD
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The river was full of some amazingly tropical looking fish though sadly not a minnow in sight
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They even had floating ofrendas for Dia de Muertos

Itzel’s family were so very welcoming, we had wonderful food and I even had my feet cleaned by her 5 year old cousin before going out to a riverbank party that evening. Sounds weird but he needed a suitable punishment for soaking me in a water-fight.

The next day we explored the little town centre, it felt sooo Mexican with cowboys on horseback, the boiling hot sun and being greeted by pretty much everyone we passed:

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Jealous of all the colourful houses
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If all churches looked like that, I’d go
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This church was particularly special because it still had bullet marks from Mexican independence conflicts
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We were given a rooftop tour by a friendly local, first time on a church roof
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And the views were amazing, I still can’t believe this was taken in November…

In the evening the streets were packed with trick or treaters (we learnt this wasn’t down to US Halloween influence but in fact a family tradition here in Tlantizapan). However you can’t just ask for sweets like in the UK, you actually have to have a trick which, here, was a traditional song. There were also guitar players and bands knocking on doors.

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Some great costumes too

Monday was the most special day of the weekend. We were given homemade ‘pan de muertos’ (bread of the dead) for breakfast, which is a sweet bread similar to brioche or hot cross buns made only for Dia de Muertos, and then headed down to the pantheon (graveyard) to decorate the graves of family members.

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It was so so special to be involved. The graveyard wasn’t a somber place at all. There was live music, tons of colour, burning incense and locals chatting. This needs to happen in the UK
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The orange flowers (cemopoaltxochil) are traditional for Dia de Muertos

Magic, so blessed.

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Ending the weekend on a high with refreshing mango and chilli goodness

Stop staring at me por favor

So it’s been about a week and a half since I arrived in Toluca but I wanted to do an honest post about how it’s going and what it’s like to be half way round the world all on your lonesome. Sure there are loads of people here in Toluca, not just people but great people, and I’m living with 6 other lovely housemates but it is MUCHO to get used to.

It’s taking a while to finalise my work timetable which means I haven’t started at the Facultad yet or met any students. So my time here so far has been pretty lonely. I think I’ve spent too much time in my room but not having solid friends to rely on can turn you into a bit of a recluse; it’s all too tempting to spend all day trying to find out where else you can watch the Bake Off final other than BBC IPlayer (which is blocked) and staring at your photos from uni on the wall. There’s only so many times you can explore the town centre being a tourist and people watching with your camera.

Trying to get settled in your second language is certainly challenging; the Spanish spoken here in Mexico is very different to Spain so I’m also trying to change my accent and slang vocab to get by. Showing your real personality through a second language is also tough. It’s hard to be funny (got a whole new sense of humour to learn) and timing is definitely an issue. I can listen to a conversation but offering any timely contribution is a problem because converting your English thought into Spanish and then producing a syntactically perfect sentence can take a painfully long time (for me at least) and by then it’s too late. Being able to understand far more than you can say is beyond frustrating but of course that’s why I’m here.

I’m getting very relaxed vibes from the little time I’ve spent at work. But it’s so relaxed that I’m not getting much guidance at all, which is difficult when you have zero experience planning and delivering decent classes and everyone around you seems to know what they’re doing. It’s not that the staff aren’t welcoming, everyone I’ve met has been wonderful, I’m just a fish out of water.

Another thing to get used to is looking foreign and consequently getting a lot of attention and funny looks. Walking to work or the market or into town is impossible without getting beeped at and cat called a dozen times before you get there (particularly by taxi and lorry drivers). I’ve found this pretty uncomfortable and it’s definitely put me off walking to places on my own, something I’ve never thought twice about until now. It hasn’t stopped me altogether but I’m considering a balaclava.

I almost feel guilty about having these low points because everyone says your year abroad will be the best year of your life; so should I be having the time of my life all the time? The way I see it my year abroad is just another year of my life, only it’s unlike any other I’ve had. So far I’m having just as many ups and downs as I would at home except (for me) they just seem much more extreme. Extreme highs from being exposed to an amazing new culture and extreme lows when it all gets a bit too much.

In other news Toluca is setting up for:

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The Alfeñique Festival

I took a trip to Los Portales earlier to check out the MANY MANY stalls set up selling themed treats:

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Los Portales with a temporary makeover

If you have a sweet tooth this may make you very hungry and jealous. Sorry.

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Chocolate calaveras (skulls)
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The red stuff is probably chilli
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The bite-sized sugar ones are cute
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They come in many flavours
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I do like the ones in sombreros
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‘For my beautiful fatty’
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If skulls don’t appeal to you, you can opt for sugar fruits
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My favourite vegan treat is ‘camotes’ which are sweet potatoes soaked in a syrup, they make a great dessert
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Mexicans to sweets are like bees to honey

I also joined a gym and went to my first Mexican ‘body pump’ class. It was great. Packed with people, although I had no trouble seeing the instructor because I’m about a foot taller than everyone else in the class (Mexicans being short comes in handy). Another plus is all the new gym vocab. Now I can tell students they need to put 110% into this task, no excuses, get on with it, no breaks and be sure they’ve understood.

Hasta luego!

Valle de Bravo – Worth a stop

After a rocky start to our time in Toluca Alice and I decided that it was already definitely time for a weekend away from home. Whilst exploring Toluca’s town centre last week, we stumbled across another plaza with numerous sweet stalls (despite all the chilli and hot sauce Mexicans also have a VERY sweet tooth – I thought the UK was bad but I think we counted 3-4 aisles of the supermarket totally dedicated to sweets). We got chatting to one of the vendors who recommended that we visit Valle de Bravo, which is just over an hour and a half away from Toluca by bus, so we went for it.

Posada (lodging? hostel type thing) booked we turned up at the bus station, pretty hungover from disgusting mezcal shots complete with caterpillars the night before:

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I guess you have to try them once but be warned they are painful

Hoping for the best we bagged a bus for 60 pesos one way (about £2). As there are no trains here the bus system seems pretty good – no seat belts is always a plus in my book and if you’ve forgotten your lunch then have no fear because I can guarantee that at every stop or traffic light out of Toluca locals selling Mexican refreshments will be jumping on and off to tempt you. I have to mention the scenery en route as well, it was very green and lush! Not dry like I’d imagined.

My first thought on Valle de Bravo was that it suddenly felt much more Mexican than Toluca. Being a much smaller town, all cobbled streets, it had a more indigenous air about it. People’s skin was a lot darker and their clothing more traditional, especially the women. Many had children tied to their backs with large scarves and wore traditional Mexican dress and headscarves, beautiful. There were also far more traditional trades and crafts on offer; shoe shiners all over the main plaza and LOTS more street vendors with very small stalls.

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Red booths waiting for shoes to shine
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A local selling fruit from his wheelbarrow

The Plaza de Independencia (main plaza) had a lot of atmosphere, particularly into the evening. Overlooked by a lovely church complete with amazingly orange-flowered trees and street performers it was the perfect place to spend the evening soaking up the culture.

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Plaza de Independencia by day
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By night with the addition of street performers

By this time the Plaza was full of families with young children plus groups of teenagers and felt very safe.

On Sunday, after being advised by our hosts at the posada, we headed down to what Valle de Bravo is perhaps best known for – Lago Avandaro (lake). It didn’t disappoint, the views were something else!

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From shore

If you’re into adventure/outdoors type activities then this is also the place for you to head! Just wonder down to the shore and you’ll find numerous companies offering boat trips, horse riding, quad-biking, cycling AND paragliding…

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About to take off, that view!
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In flight

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Never thought within 2 weeks of landing in Mexico I could say I’ve been paragliding but looks like a year abroad is full of surprises. I forgot to mention that there wasn’t enough room for all the pilots plus us in the van to drive up to the take off point, so naturally the pilots sat on the roof – anything goes apparently!

As if that wasn’t enough adrenaline for one day we were also talked into taking a quad bike up to find some waterfalls near the lake:

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The brave one drove

The Mexican roads didn’t feel the safest but at least they gave us helmets I guess.

Almost at the cascadas (waterfalls) and I was tempted by another offer to horseback the last stretch. Anyone who knows me will know I’m slightly obsessed so  of course I said si.

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Another view that didn’t disappoint

Before it all got a bit much we grabbed some street food before heading back to the bus station to take us home to Toluca:

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Corn with chilli and lime
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Pineapple with chilli sauce and lime.. not sure to be honest

Now being back in Toluca it feels like a whirlwind, back to reality now. Highly highly recommend Valle de Bravo – especially if you’re in Mexico next year. I’m definitely going back, there’s a few more waterfalls to visit and boat trips to be had.

Pitching up so very far away in Toluca

I’ll admit driving through Toluca for the first time on Friday I felt disappointed; it’s a pretty rundown looking place, the air’s quite polluted and smoggy and once again traffic was horrendous because of yet more protests. Getting to my accommodation was a hassle for one reason or another and once safely inside my very bare, cell-like room with a great view of some barbed wire I felt so far away from home and very alone (and cold due to lack of bedding). I’m sure most people have that moment, has to be done, and it’s not great.

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The barbed wire

I suppose I was expecting a more European feeling place as that’s all I’ve ever known. Didn’t occur to me that a distance of 6,852 miles would make a difference. Once again totally wrong, duh. I hate the thought of it however maybe coming from such a developed country had turned me into a bit of a snob. Maybe not a snob but it’s a wakeup call seeing somewhere that is much less developed than Europe. When one thinks of Mexico it’s normally all the tourist hotspots, playas, pyramids etc BUT these first few days in Toluca have made me realise that it is actually just as valuable to have an authentic Mexican experience and not just a good view. I’m living in a city where there are absolutely no other tourists which, I’m coming to realise, is pretty awesome. A year abroad isn’t a holiday (I’ve got a nice 3-day weekend and time off for travelling elsewhere), I’m here to work with and meet real people, learn about their culture and try and leave my own behind for a year. Much easier said than done; coming away makes you realise how annoyingly English you are.

There’s still a lot to do before being completely settled. Yesterday Alice and I set out on a mission to get a Mexican phone contract; turns out neither of us had a clue about phone contract Spanish vocab… I’m pretty sure one guy realised this as he left mid conversation and didn’t return despite our knocking persistently on the shop window. Very frustrating but I’m coming to terms with the fact it’s not all going to be plain sailing.

ANYWAY I hope you’re dying to know what Toluca has to offer because you’re about to find out.

In case you didn’t know, we’re about an hours drive from the D.F. (Mexico City), have a seriously high altitude of 8,730 ft (Southampton is only 64 ft above sea level for comparison) which means I’ve been struggling to breathe since arriving. There’s around 500,000 Mexicans living here, similar to Bristol? And apparently everyone’s really keen on their football so I’m fitting right in along with my pale skin and red hair.

The town centre (called ‘Los Portales’) has a few biggish squares which look extra pretty at night once lit up, Sunday is the best day to go for atmosphere as there’s a market with stalls selling crafts, food and PLENTY of chorizo. We still haven’t worked out why the chorizo here is green? There were also hip hop street performers, some weird looking clowns and a live singer reeling off some, apparently very popular, latino pop songs.

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Los Portales by night ft some giant glowing skeletons
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Wishing the UK was this colourful in the town centre
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Could just be Toluca but every other car is a Beetle…

There’s also a fair few green parks with nice views of the city, it’s a relief to feel like you’re not just breathing in car fumes all the time:

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A picnic hut in the park
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And a very Mexican picnic
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With the view

Probably my favourite place so far is Mercado Morelos which is a 5 minute walk from home and here is why:

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Most things will cost you between 10-40 pesos (when 100 pesos is about £4 you’re away – try everything)

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Was very confusing to see this fruit labelled ‘Tuna” but it’s actually fruit from a cactus and it’s muy rico
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Any ideas? Any at all?

You can also buy fresh tortillas (so very fresh that if you don’t plan on eating them that day they’ll be gone by tomorrow) and super spicy salsa which I’m putting on everything. There’s also a meat section if the sight of whole pig’s heads and dead chickens being plucked floats your boat. Oh and peanut butter comes in bags.

I had my first day at the UAEM Facultad de Lenguas on Tuesday; must’ve said mucho gusto (nice to meet you) a bazillian times and definitely can’t remember anything except for the fact I have an office. Can we all just laugh at that for a sec. I think my role is to organise extra curricular/cultural classes which are optional for students to attend but really I have no idea what’s going on and am just glad I’ve haggled Fridays off (I think – who knows).

ADIOS!

PS.

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It most definitely is not always sunny in Mexico
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Living in that purple house 5 minutes from work

4 days in Mexico City


It hasn’t quite been a week since I arrived in Mexico but there’s already plenty to say about this place.

First impression is that Mexico is the country of contrasts. Wealthy but impoverished. Patriotic and passionately Mexican but politically corrupt, a heartbroken population following tragic current affairs. Naively I thought Mexico would be a bigger version of Spain, I mean they speak the same language right? I stand completely corrected and am so happy for it. In my very short experience so far Mexicans have to be one of the warmest and welcoming races on the planet. To me it’s bizarre buying bus tickets, ordering a coffee or asking for directions and not being coldly greeted by rude/unhelpful Spanish speaking folk. Not saying all Spanish people are rude (though in my experience I’d happily go with most are when it comes to public services) but Mexicans are more than happy to help you out beyond what you asked. Today I’ve been driven round Toluca finding pillows and blankets for my very bare room and invited to lunch by a Mexican family not even hosting me. Kindness of strangers, they saved the day.

I’ve never seen anywhere as big as Mexico City. When you come from an English town with one main high street it’s massive. Good luck seeing any kind of end to the sprawling buildings, skyscrapers and congested 5 lane wide roads when you fly over, very daunting. The morning after our arrival made me realise how much the perception that Mexico is a dangerous place had been drilled into me in the build up to leaving the UK. Talking myself into a stroll around the block took a lot, it’s weird having to tell yourself, no, you won’t be kidnapped the second you step outside. Was happy to find this gold mine though:

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7 bananas for 18 pesos (71p)? Si señora.

Exploring Mexico City these first four days has been awesome. I wouldn’t recommend it for a chilled city break. Even crossing the road is pretty risky; traffic lights don’t seem to mean anything, unless all Mexicans are colour blind? Could also be down to the fact you don’t have to pass a test to drive here, just buy your license and you’re away!

You can sense the political instability of the place. There’s anti-government graffiti everywhere and a lot of banners with the same. Seems like protests are a pretty common thing here. You’ll be sure to see plenty of armed police where you wouldn’t expect to, en route to Toluca from Mexico all the toll checks are guarded by a row of them… definitely not in Europe anymore.

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‘Nos faltan 43. Fue el estado’ – We’re missing 43. It was the state. (43 students missing went from Iguala it’s unclear whether or not they’re still alive)

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1810 – the year Mexico became independent from Spain.

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Food and drink here is better than in the UK. Hard to avoid spice if that isn’t your thing but most of the time they give you a side of salsa picante (spicy) so it’s up to you how much you want your head blown off. As well as restaurants there’s also all the street food. It’s mostly stalls but you see a lot of people just parking up their cars, cooking food in the boot and selling it to passers by. Awesome plus super cheap.

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Don’t judge. This is no ordinary burnt sweetcorn. It’s rubbed in lemon and lime juice then covered in a load of chilli. 20 pesos (79p).

We were lucky enough to be recommended this drink by a real live Mexican (gracias Hugo). A mango margarita, the dodgey looking red rim is chilli of course. Deeelicious. Better than it looks.

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Still not sure about all the tequila. Today I was told it’s sometimes taken in shots before meals to get your stomach ready for digestion… umm no.

Was sad to leave everyone in Mexico City on Friday and go our separate ways for the year. Especially when you turn up in Toluca to a room with no bedding, heating (yeah it is cold!) and a broken loo. I’ve spent my first morning here watching YouTube videos on how to fix toilets… yay. But seriously thanks to whoever put the effort into those.

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Being tourists on the Turibus in Mexico City.

Hasta luego!

Bienvenidos

Bienvenidos and thanks for checking out my blog!

Not sure how this has crept up already but I’m about to start the third and penultimate year of my Spanish degree which, for me, means spending nine months in Mexico… So far the response from friends and family on hearing this has been a real comfort! “You don’t wanna go there. It’s not safe. It’s a long flight. Have you thought about Spain?” I feel completely at ease with my decision and sure I’ll breeze through the year. Not. 

Turning a deaf ear to the above, on September 28th I’ll be flying out to Mexico City then heading an hour(ish) west to Toluca which is, according to Wikipedia, the highest city in Mexico and also the fifth largest population wise.  I’ll be working as an English assistant at the Universidad Autonóma Del Estado de México (UAEM) as well as, at some point, getting round to completing the dreaded YARP (Year Abroad Research Project – 6,000 words in Spanish, help).

My blogging will most likely be sporadic/spontaneous so bare with me… but if you fancy sticking around to see how I fare, I’ll bring you back a sombrero.

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