Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Mayan Meanderings…

My first stop in the land of the mighty Maya was San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Chiapas is in the southeast of Mexico and borders with Guatemala. San Cristóbal is a favourite hangout of many travellers, a beautiful colonial town set in the midst of mountainous terrain, and a cultural capital for the state.

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The state is famous for its locally grown coffee and also traditional weaving. In Chiapas the weaving is done by the women usually using the backstrap loom (in contrast to Oaxaca where the men are the weavers and typically use a standing loom). Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest state and has one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico, most of whom are descended from the Maya.

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So who are the Maya? Well, they were one of the largest ancient civilisations of Mesoamerica, known for their written language, art, architecture, and astronomy. Have you seen Apocalypto? That’s them… Their domain stretched all the way from south-eastern México, through Belize and Guatemala, even to Honduras and El Salvador. They were also into human sacrifice like the Aztecs…

Anyway, in this part of the world, there are plenty of Maya archaeological sites, museums and the like and I was very keen to learn more. While in San Cristóbal, I decided to visit the Mayan Medicine Museum – all about the traditional remedies and healing methods practiced (and still in practice) by the Mayan people. To get there, you have to walk up the main street past the market, and keep walking. When you start to get out of the city centre into dusty streets and run down barrios, and think you’ve walked too far- then you are almost there.

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The museum was very interesting, but to someone trained in western evidence-based medicine many of the rituals and healing methods seem quite bizarre! The Midwife is one of the specialised Mayan practitioners who deals with child and maternal health and the actual birthing process. For a quick birth, a machete is waved over the mother’s stomach 3 times and soft drinks and live chickens are used in the ritual to pray for the baby’s soul. When the baby is born it is washed in egg to prevent bad health, and if it is a boy, the mother is not allowed to eat avocado or onions for 3 months, as this will apparently inflame the baby’s penis. The placenta is later buried under the house- face down if the parents want their next baby to be a boy, and face down for a girl.  The Bone-healer was another practitioner who had some interesting methods- they use whistling to frighten away bad spirits and ‘blowing’ to send the bad spirit away.

Interestingly, the reason soft drinks are used in the rituals now is mostly a matter of availability- traditionally healers spat a liquor called pox (pronounced ‘posh’) all over an unwell patient to ‘scare away bad spirits and bad winds and purify the person’, but now they use soft drinks as they are easier to obtain. The gas is also supposed to ‘help release evil by inducing belching’ (though how it induces belching when it is spat on you, I’m not so sure!).

There is of course a herbalist in Mayan medicine too, who knows all about the healing properties of various plants and where to find them. There is a big garden at the museum with examples of many of these. I guess with plant-based natural remedies which anecdotally work wonders, some probably do have a genuine effect but again there’s not the scientific evidence to support it. The list of conditions that were able to be treated was quite extensive however, ranging from diabetes, parasites and amoebas to hypertension, high cholesterol and ‘weakness’!

One guy I met in there actually bought the treatment for ‘Weakness’, admitting he was expecting an Incredible Hulk kind of effect, but was instead told to take 10 drops of ‘with exercise and a lot of fruit and vegetables’. Sound advice, though probably effective even without the mystery herbal liquid! If it does work though, he’ll have no idea what did the trick, as the label just lists ‘varias plantas’ (‘various plants’) as the ingredients!

Another interesting museum in San Cristóbal was Na Bolom, an indigenous culture museum that was the home of archaeologist Franz Blom and his wife Gertrude Duby, who was a photo journalist. Both were heavily involved with the indigenous population in Chiapas, seeking to preserve their history and traditional culture. Na Bolom is now a non-profit organisation which continues to run environmental and cultural projects with volunteers, despite Franz and Trudy both passing on. In this museum I learned that the boys in the rainforest learn to make their own (giant!) cigars and smoke tobacco from a super young age (like 5 or so)! Apparently it protects them from snakebites…

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In San Cristóbal, I also discovered I was wrong about Mexico City having the most slippery footpaths in the world… San Cristóbal definitely takes the cake! Cobbled streets with stones so worn they are shiny like marble mean even when it is dry, you can slip and then trip all in one highly ungraceful, arm-flailing moment. Despite this fact, the city was lovely to walk around, with its beautiful buildings, pedestrianised streets and café culture- the Chiapan coffee was the best yet of my whole time in Mexico!  You could also take a bit of a climb up to two churches perched on the top of two hills on the outskirts of town- Iglesia Guadalupe and Iglesia San Cristóbal- and enjoy the views over the top of the city and out to the mountains.

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Other highlights in San Cristóbal included finding the biggest bag of Cheetos I’ve ever seen, seeing the biggest waterfall I’ve ever seen at El Chiflon, checking out the beautiful Lagos de Montebello on a day trip, getting into the Santo Domingo museum for free on Sunday (the nice lady just telling me to write that I was Mexican in the log book… ‘Amanda Hill, Mexicana’ is not obvious is it?!), and visiting Las Grutas (some nearby caves) with Rich and Carla, a lovely couple from the US, and their grandson Zane.

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My next stop in Chiapas was Palenque, a town named after the nearby Mayan ruins. The 6 hour ride from San Cristóbal was a bit of an adventure- the road the whole way was so windy you’d get thrown from side to side and then every couple of minutes hit a speed hump and be jerked up and down. I have never been to a place with so many speed bumps! The road is dotted with signs warning ‘Tope’ (‘Bump’), but there is really nothing you can do to lessen the impact. These bumps are pretty intense, not the kind of soft, wide rise and fall we are used to in Australia, but more like a 20cm bar built straight up in the middle of the road!

Anyway, I eventually arrived in Palenque town, feeling as though I’d been thoroughly shaken. There is not much in the town itself, so I stayed in a spot in the jungle between there and the ruins called El Panchan. My cabaña was in a little joint called Jungle Palace. Palace probably gives you the wrong idea entirely, but it was fine for a few nights!

I had read mixed reviews for the place, most using the words ‘basic’, ‘rudimentary’ or ‘rustic’, but others complaining of their room flooding when the river rose with the rains, or their roof leaking in heavy rain… on inspection the palapa roof looked pretty thick and the flywire didn’t have any gaping holes, so I decided to take a chance as the only place that had unfailingly good reviews was out of my price range. At 100 pesos for my own room, Jungle Palace was a steal! It was nice to be by the bubbling brook in amongst the trees. I did take the precautions of keeping all of my things off the floor in case of flooding though…

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On my first full day, I had booked a tour out to Bonampak and Yaxchilan, two Mayan archaeological sites out towards the Guatemalan border. Yaxchilan actually looks like it should be in Guatemala, but the river claims it as Mexican… It was a few hours by minibus to Yaxchilan, with a stop on the way for breakfast at a mad little buffet restaurant packed with tourists from a stack of minibuses out front. On the bus I met Juan from Barcelona who was my buddy for the day. We were dropped at a dock next, as Yaxchilan is only accessible by boat. It was a nice cool half hour ride up river surrounded by dense jungle.

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Yaxchilan is buried amongst greenery on the riverside and was a beautiful site to visit. You wound through small trails to get to the buildings and there weren’t too many people there. The first building we came to was aptly named ‘The Labrinth’- you had to find your way through dark tunnels to the other side. Luckily I had brought my head torch (thanks for the tip Lonely Planet!) so we could have a bit more of a poke around in the tunnels. There were mostly dead ends, but we did see some bats and a huge spider. I have no idea what the function of a building like that would have been!

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Out on the other side you could see more residential area of the site around the square. Weirdly, the whole area smelled like chicken soup to me! Like the fake kind, the flavouring you’d get in your maggi noodles… I came to the conclusion it was a funny Mayan plant or I was hallucinating, but Juan smelled it to, so I’m going with plant!

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From the Gran Plaza we climbed the big acropolis which was incredible, and on our way out tackled the small acropolis, which turned out to be up a not-so-small hill! But both were worth the climb and had great views as they were so high up.

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Later we arrived at Bonampak, a much smaller site, but famous for its Templo de las Pinturas (Temple of the Paintings)- a small building with three rooms, each with its interior covered in frescoes. The paintings are still in remarkable condition considering their age, and you can still make out the scenes depicted (including a war scene, torture of prisoners by removing their fingernails, ritual bloodletting by tongue piercing and other interesting snippets of Mayan history).

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It was amazing, and well worth the trip. There I ran into Rich, Carla and Zane again from San Cristobal and we decided to meet up for dinner. Rich and Carla treated me to some tasty wood-fired pizza and we enjoyed some live music and after our long day. After dinner we had to say our goodbyes, but I’m hoping to go and visit them one day and see the beautiful properties they’ve built up in Washington state! They run a B&B up there, so if anyone is headed that direction in future, definitely take a look: http://www.wessonbarnloft.com/ or http://www.wessonbunkhouse.com/ 🙂

Whilst in Palenque, it’s often recommended to visit the nearby waterfalls, Agua Azul and Misol Ha, so I obliged. Our bus ride was accompanied by a Spanglish version of ‘Stand By Me’, that is, until it broke down… After the sound of something falling off the bus, the driver pulled over, had a walk around the van and told us the bus was broken and we had to wait for another one to come from Palenque. We surprisingly didn’t have to wait too long, and soon were off again to Misol Ha. We had a short stop there, just to have a walk around, but it was really cool. You can walk behind the waterfall which tumbles over a tall cliff into a deep pool below. This means you get really drenched, but probably worth it…

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It was a short drive from there to Agua Azul, where we had a couple of hours to play. Agua Azul means ‘blue water’, a reference to the blue-tinged pools. You can wander up alongside the stream to see a series of pools and falls as you go up. It’s really pretty. I jumped in for a quick dip in the cold water up the top, as the clouds were gathering, the thunder rumbling, and the local vendors packing up their wares which were all ominous signs! And sure enough, it started bucketing down, so I spent the last hour of my time there chatting in a café with two Danish girls.

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I was slightly nervous to see what awaited me in my cabaña after the torrential downpour, but was relieved to find it non-flooded! My bed could’ve had a few drops of water sneak through the palapa on it, but I couldn’t really tell since everything felt slightly damp from the thick humidity anyway! I classified this as a success. Not so successful was retrieving my backpack from the lockers and discovering some sneaky little critter had eaten right through the pack to get my snacks! It was picky however, as it only ate the apple and cinnamon bar- the entire thing was gone from its packet, with not a crumb left, while the strawberry and pineapple bars and a bag of raisins were left untouched in the same bag! Random…

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That night Juan got back from the Lancandon Jungle so we met up and watched a Mayan fire dance at one of the bars, accompanied by a Maya band. Not sure how traditional it was, but the music was really cool (I actually bought their CD) and the dancing with all the costumes and fire was great to watch. Afterwards they did some sort of Maya blessing to whoever wanted it so I went up and got copal scented smoke blown and wafted over my whole body (well I think it was a blessing…).

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On my last day in Palenque, I finally went to see the ruins that give the town its name. After sharing a bottle of wine the night before, Juan and I didn’t get started quite as early as we should have, so by the time we’d walked the few kilometres to the park entrance, we were bang on time to coincide with the hundreds of tour buses that flood the site with tourists. We had to wait in line at the entrance, and battle the hoardes when we first entered which was giving me some angst, but by the time we went up to explore El Palacio (The Palace), people had spread out and I relaxed and started to appreciate it more.

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Palenque is a huge site, but has some really beautiful buildings. The palace was incredible to poke around and the Grupo de las Cruces (Group of the Crosses) was great- a little cluster of temples built up on hills facing each other. There were great views from the tops.

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Some of the other residential groups tucked away in the jungle a bit further from the centre were also lovely- you had to walk down some small trails, cross the river and pass some pretty waterfalls to get to them. These were the areas that you could see how the jungle claims back the buildings with huge trees growing out of the stonework- really beautiful to see. In these parts the chicken soup smell was around too, strengthening my theory that it is from a plant!

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We spent several hours roaming around, and finally got to the museum which was a great accompaniment to the site visit. Here you can enter a replica of Pakal’s tomb- one of the most prominent kings of Palenque who was responsible for constructing many of the grand buildings. His sarcophagus is probably one of the most famous images in Chipas- an incredibly detailed representation of Pakal as the God of Maize, in the foetal position above a monster of the underworld (symbolising rebirth) supporting the sacred tree and surrounded by cosmological signs. A highlight was seeing the reconstruction of Pakal’s death mask, which is meant to be a very accurate representation of the king, delicately mosaicked in jade.

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On our walk back to El Panchan, we narrowly avoided being killed by a falling coconut (those things pack some serious force when they fall!) and heard the call of howler monkeys- they sound like a jaguar or a dinosaur or some other vicious beast, but are actually quite cute little black monkeys! Back at Jungle Palace, we changed and grabbed some food before heading to town on a packed-to-the-rafters collectivo (I couldn’t even move enough to get my wallet from my bag so had to borrow money from Juan for my fare!). Juan had a bus to Mexico City, and I had about 4 hours to kill before my night bus to Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán.

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Mérida was to be my base for exploring the nearby wonder of the world, Chichen Itza. I arrived there at about 5am, and successfully navigated my way from the bus station to my hostel on the Zócalo (main plaza). It helps that Mérida’s streets are logically numbered, with odd numbers running east-west and even numbers running north-south, those clever Spaniards!

I had a small siesta before heading out to see some of the city. Mérida is quite big, not as easy to traverse in entirety on foot as in San Cristobal but still nice to walk around. As it was Sunday, the Zócalo was buzzing, full of market stalls and locals walking, chatting and eating. There are also many smaller plazas dotted around the city, each with an associated church which were also very pretty, and again popular hangouts for the locals.

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Mérida has lots of free museums, so first I went to the city museum, about the pre-hispanic and then colonial eras of Mérida’s history, the Contemporary Art Museum, which had lots of great pieces from local artists, and the Anthropology Museum, which unfortunately was smaller and less exciting than I’d expected (and was the only place I had to pay to enter!). They had an exhibit on Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, as well as a really nice piece on traditional dances from all over Mexico represented by elaborate dolls. But that was pretty much it…

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The highlight of my day was visiting the Palacio del Gobierno (Governor’s Palace) which features many amazing murals by the local artist, Fernando Castro Pacheco. Most of these depict important historic events or people in the Caste War- the revolt of the Maya against the Spanish, and their subsequent half-century of struggle in the 1800s.

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The next day, I took a day tour to Chichen Itza. Unfortunately I was not feeling on top of the world- I think the salbutes I’d eaten the night before on the Zócalo weren’t quite right. The bus to Chichen Itza was entirely Spanish speaking, but to my relief, our driver spoke a lovely clear Spanish, and I was able to understand pretty much everything he told us on the way. We arrived at the site after a couple of hours, along with what seemed like half of Mexico and representatives from each country across the globe- the entrance hall was PACKED with people!

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Our guide asked me if I wanted an English tour, and I said I’d prefer this if possible, as I’d probably get a bit more out of it (and wouldn’t have to concentrate so much considering I wasn’t feeling very well…) My Spanish vocab doesn’t quite stretch to much about ancient civilisations… So I joined a tour with his buddy Hugo and a bunch of other white tourists and was told where to meet the others later.

First up was the most famous image of Chichen Itza- the huge El Castillo (The Castle), a pyramidal temple dedicated to Kukulkan (the feathered serpent- called Kukulkan by the Mayans, but the Aztecs called it Quetzalcoatl). If you face any side of the pyramid front on and clap, it returns a sound like the call of a quetzal- a bird worshipped by the Maya as a god of the air, and a symbol of goodness. It’s bright green feathers were highly valued and used to adorn the headdresses of Maya nobility. Anyway, the sound thing is pretty amazing, but because everyone knows about it and is intrigued by it, your visit to Chichen Itza is inevitably accompanied by incessant clapping!

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Other cool buildings on the gran plaza were the Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors), which has rows of columns decorated with carvings of important warriors, the Grupo de las Mil Columnas (Group of a Thousand Columns), thought to be a place of trade back in the day and the Plataforma de los Cráneos (Platform of the Skulls), decorated with many skull carvings and the place where skulls of enemies and sacrificed prisoners were displayed to frighten potential rebels.

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Chichen Itza also has a Gran Juego de Pelota (Great Ball Court), the largest court of any site in Mesoamerica which was really impressive. Unfortunately, it was around this point on the tour that I felt like I was about to faint and I realised it was pretty hot and I hadn’t eaten or drank much at all for the day. I had to excuse myself- poor Hugo was like, ‘But I’m almost finished!’ and I had to explain- it’s not that I’m over the tour, I am just going to pass out if I continue! So I proceeded to sit on the ground, force down two cookies and sip at my water until I stopped seeing stars.

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Feeling a little better, I walked out to a side group of buildings with what is thought to have been an observatory, named El Caracol (The Snail) after the spiral stairs inside the round building, and other buildings dubbed Las Monjas (The Nunnery) and La Iglesia (The Church) by the Spanish because of their structures and elaborate decoration- they weren’t actually used for this purpose. I was glad I made it there to have a look- the buildings were beautiful, but sadly I don’t think I was able to fully appreciate Chichen Itza as much as some other sites I’ve visited because much of my attention was focussed on staying upright and not being sick in public! I didn’t get time to go out to the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote), but apparently it is covered in algae and not very picturesque these days.

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I guess I should explain what a cenote is (pronounced sen-o-tee) at this point… Cenotes are basically are sinkholes in limestone which are filled with fresh water- the name comes from the Mayan word for ‘well’. They can be incredibly deep, and there are over 2000 in the Yucatan Peninsula! They are unique to this area because it is a limestone plain, so caves and caverns form where the water collects and creates these holes which either fill with rain water or expose the water table to the surface if deep enough. The Maya believed cenotes were the gateway to the underworld, and in some of them, sacrificial items/ people/ animals have been found.

After Chichen Itza, we visited a nearby cenote called Ik Kil which was incredible. Such a beautiful little place. The stone walls rise vertically from the crystal clear blue water which is apparently ~50m deep! I decided to go for a swim, and I think the water must have healing properties because I felt infinitely better! I even had enough energy to go for a couple of jumps of the tall ledges surrounding the cenote!

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So cured of my ailments by Mayan magic, I was ready to continue my adventures. From Mérida, it was off to the coast to rack up a bit more beach time… but there will surely be more Mayan meanderings to come as I visit other regions of their vast empire!

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A Week in Oaxaca

I arrived in Oaxaca (pronounced ‘Wa-ha-ka’) after pretty much a full day of travelling. From Zacapoaxtla I had to go back to Puebla and had a little wait there (which I didn’t mind as it gave me the opportunity to grab a taco arabe which I hadn’t managed to try during my initial visit- and it was delish!) and then I got on another bus to Oaxaca.

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Oaxaca is south-west of Mexico City and again the state and it’s capital have the same name. Like Puebla, it is a state also renowned for its food. Except here they have 7 main types of traditional moles (sauces)! They have the mole negro (black sauce, which I think was actually poached from Puebla), but they also have a mole verde (green), rojo (red), amarillo (yellow), and ones called coloradito (coloured), manchamanteles (tablecloth stainer) and chichilo (named after the chile used to make it). But there are hundreds more! Cacao is grown in Oaxaca and they make a distinctive spiced hot chocolate, and also have a unique stringy cheese (kinda like mozzarella) which is delicious!

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Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest states, though it isn’t immediately apparent in the city which is beautiful. The state has one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico. Many of these communities live outside of the capital in the valleys and mountains, and the isolation has allowed them to retain more of their traditional way of life, but at the same time has also restricted economic development. Agriculture is the primary industry in Oaxaca- corn is grown on just about every surface imaginable! Oaxaca is also famous for its textiles and pottery, with many of these indigenous families still practicing weaving and traditional methods of pottery making.

On my first evening I got straight into the food. I met Judo from Australia in reception of our hostel asking where to find some good local food and off we went for a wander. We ended up at a street stall selling tlayudas, sometimes called ‘The Oaxacan Pizza’. They are basically a big tortilla made crispy on the grill topped with beans, avocado, cheese, salsa and a meat of your choice. We chose chicken, which we were surprised to see came in drumstick form- a little tricky to eat! But amazing, and SO filling! I had been eyeing off a michoacana (ice-cream shop) on the corner, but there was no hope after that tlayuda!

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Later we met another Aussie called Peter who was rounding up a crew to go and see a jazz trio at a little bar nearby. Seven of us went and got to the bar around the time the music was meant to start, but of course they hadn’t even started setting up yet! It was about an hour before the music began. We then went to check out some other places since it was a Saturday, apparently the only night of the week that was really happening in Oaxaca. Café Central was charging us 50 pesos entry so we all decided not to go in, and instead ended up at Fandango, a grungy little bar where the beers were cheap but the toilets were definitely the mankiest I have seen in all of Mexico! Mystery liquid on the floor and missing a few desirables such as: a toilet seat, a flusher, toilet paper, soap, running water from the tap and paper towel…

The following day Judo and I and an Irishman whose name escapes me (terrible I know!) went to explore the city a bit. We first went to the biggest and most impressive church, Santo Domingo. In the plaza there were a bunch of election festivities taking place in lieu of the next week’s election. Marching bands, jumping castles, food stalls, it was all happening.

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We checked out the museum next door, which had an awesome display of some of the treasures found in one of the tombs at the nearby Zapotec archaeological site, Monte Alban- jewellery of gold and all kinds of precious stones.

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They had an array of other displays, pre-hispanic relics and also colonial pieces, the most memorable of which was this statue of Mary seemingly flipping the bird…

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We hit up the local food market for lunch, Mercado 20 de Noviembre, first walking through the smoke-filled meat corridor where all kinds of meats were hanging about and being grilled on the spot. It probably would have been super tasty, but we didn’t think we could handle sitting in the smoke for an extended period of time and instead settled for a little comedor (food vendor) in the market itself where we tried the mole coloradito- tasty!

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In the afternoon I went to the textile museum, which housed a number of classic Oaxacan pieces of weaving, as well as a very interesting exhibition called ‘The Decent Women of 58th Street’, which was on the prostitutes of Merida in Yucatan, Mexico. A social anthropologist called Christian Rasmussen had interviewed many of these women about their lives and experiences and written a book. He had also taken photos of each of them but had promised not to publish them, so got an illustrator to draw them and then another artist to embroider them in fabric. These pieces were all on display and were great. The book looked super interesting too, but was in Spanish, so I only read about one lady or I would have been there for days!

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The next day I went on a day tour to a few villages and sights outside of Oaxaca city. There were two Dutch girls, Lisanna and Aida, on the tour who together with me were the only non-Spanish speakers on the bus! Our guide Jorge translated everything for us which was good, as occasionally I miss things in the Spanish spiels. It was good to practice listening to the Spanish and then hearing the English translations to confirm if I’d interpreted things correctly though! Our first stop was Santa Maria del Tule to see El Arból de Tule (The Tree of Tule). This tree is meant to be the largest in the world by trunk width- apparently it is 14m at its widest point! It was quite impressive, but was fenced off, so I couldn’t get the tree hugging picture I’d been hoping for!

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We then went to a weaving village called Teotitlán del Valle, where we visited one family’s weaving business. In Oaxaca, the weaving is done by the men, while the women make and dye the threads using all natural colours, like cochineal from the bugs on the nopal cactus. The guys make weaving look easy, moving threads to and fro rapidly, but its amazingly intricate work, especially when making detailed designs like ‘The Tree of Life’. One small rug like this takes over a month to make.

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We got to have a go using the standing loom which was pretty tricky. You stand on these pedals and when you shift your weight from left to right the base strings alternate. You pass the coloured thread through these strings, switch pedals, loosen the thread and then push it down into the weave.

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Our next stop was a Mezcal factory. Mezcal is big here in Oaxaca, as a large variety of agave is grown here. Here we got to see all the steps in the process of making the liquor, from obtaining the fresh ‘pine cone’ from the centre of the agave plant, cooking it, pressing it, fermenting it then distilling it. I tried an 8 year old mezcal, which I could actually stand, as it lost a lot of the burn reminiscent of cheap tequila, and was much smoother, though still retained a mild tequila-ey taste…

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After trying a large assortment of Mezcals, we went to an archaeological site called Mitla. It was built by the Zapotecs but also has Mixtec influences, most likely from inter-marriage between the two cultures. The site was really different architecturally from any the Aztec sites I’d visited. Much smaller, but really beautiful. Mitla is extremely well preserved considering the seismically active region in which it was built. This is thought to be due to the design of the buildings which are built like inverse trapezoids. Something like 80% of the buildings on site are original with only a small proportion requiring restoration. The palace facades and inner walls still retain their original intricate mosaicked stone decorations which was amazing.

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Our last stop for the afternoon was Hierve del Agua (‘boiling water’), which was the one we’d been waiting for- it is actually a fossilised waterfall. I had no idea that was even possible, but apparently it is! The site still has a mineral spring which now feeds amazing blue pools of water perched up on a mountaintop. This spring is where the place gets its name, but though the spring bubbles like it’s ‘boiling’, the water is actually cold. This place was absolutely stunning and well worth the wait. Across on a nearby mountain was another fossilised waterfall, and the views across the valley were incredible.

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Despite visiting many ruins already, I decided I should also make a stop at Oaxaca’s premier archaeological site, Monte Alban during my visit. It is a large Zapotec city built on the top of a mountain about 20 minutes outside of Oaxaca. I had the same guide, Jorge, who had taken us out on the tour the previous day. Again I was in the minority- there were only 2 English speakers on the bus today! Monte Alban, unlike Mitla, had mostly been destroyed by earthquakes and the majority of what you can see now is restored. The site has a huge gran plaza (great square) surrounded by pyramidal style buildings, several tombs which unfortunately I didn’t get to visit as well as a small juego de pelota (ball court). Unlike the Aztecs and Maya, the Zapotecs didn’t practice human sacrifice in association with the ball game. There is no evidence at the site of human sacrifice at all, just some animal skeletons were found there. The views from the north and south platforms over the site and surrounding valleys were amazing.

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In the evening I checked out a free dancing performance at the cultural centre. It was done by local kids but was really good, and the costumes were fantastic. The town is getting all excited for the annual Guelaguetza festival at the end of July, and it was good to get a little taste of the festivities even though I will be gone by then!

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Something else I felt obliged to do whilst in Oaxaca was a cooking course. A cooking course had been on my list of things to do in Mexico since I arrived, and Oaxaca seemed like an ideal place to do it! I booked with La Cocina Oaxaqueña and was lucky to be in a small group with just two others, Lisa and Hosana from NZ. Our chef, Jerado, was lovely. He picked us up (ON TIME!) in his car and took as to a local market outside of the city centre. Here we bought the ingredients we needed for the day and Jerry introduced us to various fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices used in Oaxacan cooking. Once the shopping was done we headed back to the kitchen, which was at Jerry’s mother’s house. It was a beautiful place, set up with a spacious kitchen and dining table in the covered courtyard.

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We started with dessert (as you do) and we made a guava pudding. This basically consisted of cooking the de-seeded guavas in butter and sugar then blending that amazing mixture with cream, pouring it into bowls and whacking it in the fridge! Awesome. Next was stuffed zucchini flowers- in Melbourne, these tend to be more of a gourmet ingredient, but here in Oaxaca they are used pretty commonly, usually being thrown in the standard quesadilla. We stuffed the flowers with a ricotta-style cheese mixed with honey and pepper and onion, then they were fried (it’s the Mexican way).

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We also made a mole with almonds, a ‘simple’ one according to Jerry, as it didn’t have too many ingredients and steps. But still, you had to blanche the almonds, toast some sesame seeds then grind them together with some chicken stock in a mortar and pestle to a smooth paste. Separately, you grilled tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and parsley before blending those and then mixing the two pastes together. This might give an idea of the complexity of other moles which have more than 20 ingredients and who knows how many steps! Our last dish was tortilla soup, which is a tomato soup, but contains little squares of chewy Oaxacan cheese, tortilla chips and pieces of avocado. Que rico!

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Once all the cooking was complete, with rumbling tummies we sat down to our feast. It was amazing. And to top it all off, Jerry let us eat 2 desserts each! It was a fantastic course, and I’d absolutely recommend any foodies who are in Oaxaca in future to visit La Cocina Oaxaqueña- definitely a highlight for me.

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Since I practically had to roll home after the cooking course, it was a good thing I had booked myself in for a 3 day hike for the remainder of my time in Oaxaca! The hike was around an area called Los Pueblos Mancomunados (the commonwealth villages) in the Sierra Norte, which is to the north of Oaxaca. The region is very mountainous, and the villages are small and remote, with mostly indigenous populations.

I was lucky for this hike to have company- I was joined by two very friendly and stereotypically beer-adoring German guys, Mike and Sebastian. We had to leave the hostel in the dark (a bit after 6am) in order to walk to the second-class bus station to catch a 7am bus to a village called Cuajimoloyas. On arrival, after walking all the way though the quiet station to gate 37 where we’d been directed by the tour company to purchase our ticket to Cuaji, we were told by the dude at the desk that there were no more tickets. We asked when the next bus was, and he said 2pm! Not helpful considering we had to meet our guide at 9…

After a little while we discovered that we could still get on the 7am bus, but would have to stand. For this we didn’t need to buy tickets through the legit vendor, we just payed the driver.  And saved 10 pesos, woo! Unfortunately it was a 2 hour journey, and we’d all been hoping to sleep a bit. Lucky me scored a seat as there was one empty right next to where I was standing- I asked around, and no-one volunteered, so I jumped in- no use leaving it empty and giving up the beautiful views! The guy whose seat it was did jump on at a later stop, but told me to keep it. Ahhh, chivalry!

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We made it to Cuaji just before 9 and waited outside in the brisk mountain air for the office to open. When it did, we met our guide, Ivan (who was dressed in baggy jeans, skate shoes and a hoodie), and got given little picnic lunches to take with us. Cuajimoloyas sits at 3100m and has a population of 740. It didn’t take us long to leave the little throng of houses behind once we started moving towards the next village, Latuvi, 16km away. The sky was grey and cloudy and the air had a slight chill to it, pretty much a perfect temperature for hiking. On the way we practiced our Spanish quizzing Ivan about his village and family, and listened as he told us about the plants and the local area (all the guides only spoke Spanish).

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We began on wide open tracks through pine forest, but gradually climbed our way up to steeper single track into cloud forest. This part of the hike was probably one of the most beautiful of the whole 3 days. Trees and ferns emerged out of the mist as we progressed, bromeliads clung to high branches and gorgeous little orchids and wildflowers lined the trail.

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After a few hours of walking, we reached el mirador, the lookout, and halfway point for that day’s walk. There we met a most beautiful, but very malnourished dog. No-one knew whose it was or where it had come from- we were >2500m high and 8km from any village! I know you’re not meant to go round touching random animals in developing countries, but he was so sweet and placid I had to pat him, and even shared my muesli bar with him.

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We ate our picnic there- a delicious torta (roll) and a juice box as big as my head!- while enjoying the view and waiting for our next guide to meet us. Each of the villages has their own guides, so the work is shared between them. After leaving us, Ivan would walk the 8km back to Cuaji, while our next guide, Ismael, had left at the same time as us from Latuvi that morning to meet us at el mirador.

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Ismael didn’t speak quite as slowly or clearly as Ivan, but was super informative and kept giving us long-winded spiels about things we passed. The guys and I between us usually managed to get the main gist though! From el mirador, the walking was almost completely downhill (Latuvi sits at 2200m, 900m below Cuaji), with very few breaks for our poor knees! The views were a nice distraction- once the clouds had cleared we were treated to sweeping vistas over the mountains and valleys.

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We arrived in Latuvi ahead of schedule (the guides and the boys went a pretty cracking pace!), but were shown straight to our luxurious cabaña (cabin), which had a bathroom with hot water (YES!) and towels, full beds with mattresses, pillows and blankets and hammocks out the front. We also got fed hot meals AND hot chocolates at a little comedor across the road… De-LUXE! I could get used to this kinda hiking…

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Latuvi was the largest of the villages we would visit, with a population of 1150 people. After lunch, I walked with the boys to find a store, where they bought some beer (of course!). I went for a little siesta, and when I awoke, they had already been back to the store and were on their fourth beer each, both a little giggly, but insisting, ‘It’s the altitude!’ Despite us all laughing earlier at the 9.30pm bed time which was scheduled on our itineraries, we were all thoroughly exhausted and it ended up being pretty accurate!

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After 10 hours of sleep (!) we woke up for a breakfast of chicken and potato soup and hit the trail by 9. Ismael was our guide again. On the way out of town we passed his house, where his parents had left his backpack hanging on a tree and his bike lying by the path for him. He walked the bike along with us to use on his return journey (he would walk the entire 11km to La Neveria with us, then go all the way back to Latuvi that day!)

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We knew we would be doing a bit of climbing that day- we had to gain 400-500m of elevation to reach La Neveria at 2650m-  but Ismael said it was only ‘un poco subir’ (‘a little uphill’), so we thought at least it’d be gradual. The first few k’s were pretty easy going. We were feeling good so took a side walk to a waterfall which was really nice, but pretty steep both to get down then back up. Not long after that that however, the trail started to ascend, and it was a steady climb, up and up and up! We decided that ‘un poco’ when asking Mexican tour guides about climbing is like ‘un poco’ when asking Mexican chefs about spiciness- a gross understatement! Regular people need to multiply this by a factor of at least 10! It was a tough walk, as the pace was again pretty solid. But Ismael didn’t drink a drop of water the entire way! I hope his kidneys don’t pack up on him.

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After arriving in the tiny village of La Neveria (population 200), we said goodbye to Ismael, settled into our cabaña, had some lunch and then a siesta. It’s a tough life this hiking… I had set my alarm so I could go and test out the zipline they had up on the hill, but shortly after that went off (before I’d even moved in fact) it started pouring with rain. So I stayed put. It rained all afternoon, so we were trapped in our room- Sebastian fast asleep, Mike listening to music and me writing my journal. We had a rowdy Friday night, going for dinner and a drink then hitting the hay before 9.30 again!

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For our last day, we again had a new guide, Edgar. We thought it would be a relatively easy walk, just 8km, and with Benito Juarez sitting at 2800m, we only had to gain about 150m of elevation from La Neveria. Edgar also said we only had ‘un poco subir’ – we should have known! We ended up hiking all the way down into the valley to a waterfall (which was lovely) but then we obviously had to climb all the way out again! We were going up for what seemed like forever, one of those times where each turn in the path looks like the ‘top’, but all your hopes and dreams are dashed each time you round a corner!

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Edgar trekked all the way up in his jacket (though at least he drank a few sips of water occasionally), while I was overheating in my singlet, sweating and panting the whole way. He would stop to gather hongos (wild mushrooms) now and then, clean them up, place them in his little bag then run up the hill to catch up with us like it was a stroll in the park!

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We eventually reached the main road which wound and ascended more gently into Benito Juarez, and were told the kids in this area will walk an hour each way in the hills to and from school! When we arrived, we walked by a store and before I’d barely even entered; I heard the familiar order of ‘Dos Coronas por favor!’ (‘Two Coronas please!’). I went hardcore and got a coke. The shop owner let us sit out the back, which was basically her house and yard, beautifully decorated with flowers everywhere.

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Later at lunch, I chatted to a friendly guy from Oaxaca who was up in the village to do some walking with his wife/lady friend. Once we’d eaten, we said goodbye to him, and thought we’d get a head start walking the 4km back to the carretera (highway) to hopefully catch an earlier collectivo back to Oaxaca. We had been told this road was ‘plano’ (flat), but surprise, surprise; we were walking gradually uphill for most of the way!

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We reached the carretera around 2.30, relieved that we hadn’t walked all that way in the wrong direction, and sat by the roadside to wait for the collectivo. Two hours later, we were still waiting, and I had started throwing rocks at inanimate objects like the boys…

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A bit after 4.30, the friendly guy from lunch drove by. Surprised to see us, he asked if we had seen a collectivo- we had only seen one going the opposite direction the whole time! He told us to jump in and we heartily accepted. He was going to visit another town outside the city, but dropped us off much closer to town where we could get a taxi. The taxi driver said we had to wait for 2 more people as the taxi only goes when it’s full. This was a tiny sedan mind you- so the standard was 3 squished in the front and 3 in the back! We didn’t hesitate in telling him we’d pay the fare for 5 people if he’d please take us right away!

Finally we were back in Oaxaca, and exchanging photos and contact details. It was a great to get out of the city and see some of the stunning landscape and small communities nearby. And of course make some new friends along the way! We said our goodbyes, then off I walked to the station (my poor legs!) for my night bus to San Cristóbal in the neighbouring state of Chiapas.

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The Village People

After squashing myself and my pack onto a metro that was packed to the rafters at the random hour of midday, I got on a bus from Mexico City to Puebla and arrived in the midst of a torrential downpour. Apparently there was a hurricane or something off the coast of Veracruz which had brought some crazy weather! I forked out the 60 pesos (~$5) for a cab to town, and fortunately me and my things arrived mostly dry.

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Puebla is the name of both the state and it’s capital, situated to the east of Mexico City, D.F. Puebla means ‘village’ in Spanish, but these days Puebla town is definitely a city!

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My hostel, Santo Domingo, was nice, but pretty much empty. Once the rain had eased somewhat, I ducked out to see a bit of the town. Puebla is really, really pretty, even in the rain- the historic centre of the city is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site. And the rain doesn’t seem to bother the Poblanos, who were out in their masses, with entire families roaming around the wet streets.

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The Poblanos seem very proud of their city. It was founded in 1531, as a ‘perfect’ city- built to accommodate only Spaniards. It was also the site of the famous 5 de Mayo (5th of May) battle where the Mexican Army defeated the French invaders. This date is now an annual public holiday and of course a cause for massive celebration in Mexico. No one seems to mention the fact that the following year, the French actually came back and took the city, occupying it for the next 5 years!

Puebla is famous for its ceramics, which decorate many of the city’s buildings, and its food (which of course was a key reason I felt the need to visit…). Mole Poblano (or Mole Negro– ‘black sauce’), a complex sauce made of chilli and chocolate amongst a myriad of other ingredients is probably the most renowned dish from the region. It takes 3 days to make! There are also chalupas (little tortillas topped with salsa and shredded meat), cemitas (bap rolls, crispy on the outside and soft inside with any variety of fillings), tacos arabe (doner kebab style meat served in a Turkish flat bread, but still with the typical Mexican condiments of lime and spicy salsa) and chiles en nogada (green chillies stuffed with a blend of minced meat, dried fruit, nuts and spices, battered and fried, then topped with walnut cream, fresh parsley and pomegranate seeds- WOW).

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Anyway, on my first afternoon in town, I checked out the Santo Domingo church, which has an elaborately decorated Rosary Chapel covered in gold leaf. They call it ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World’ here (hmmm… probably not quite Puebla) but it is very nice. I also went to visit the Zócalo (main square) where a band was playing in a marquee and I saw signs that it was apparently the International Day of Music. I did not know that even existed, but I was glad to discover it does…

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The Zócalo is very picturesque and like the rest of town, was full of people. The huge cathedral on the south side of the square is also a source of Poblano pride as it apparently has the tallest towers of any church on the continent. I then made my way down to the Mercado de Sabores (Market of Flavours) where I tried the Mole Poblano with chicken. It didn’t disappoint and was delicious.

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Back at the hostel I was lucky to meet two really friendly travellers, Sharni from Australia and Justin from the US, who I’d inadvertently crossed paths with when they asked how much we paid for tickets to the Lucha Libre in Mexico City! We spent the rest of the evening in the Barrio del Artistas which was a beautiful part of town by night. We managed to stumble across a bar which had a live band playing and also had 2-for-1 cocktails ALL NIGHT! Naturally, we proceeded to down a number of sangrias and kalimochos (red wine and cola), while Sharni and I amused Justin with the range of words Australians shorten and add ‘o’ to the end of (servo, doco, convo, etc…)

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The next day Sharni and Justin left for Oaxaca, so me and my mild hangover went to explore a bit more on our own. Museo Amparo, a must-see according to the Lonely Planet, was my first stop. It was meant to house a massive collection of pre-hispanic artefacts, but unfortunately was under renovation and only one gallery was open, with a display of colonial art and furnishings. It was nice, but I was more interested in the pre-hispanic stuff- sadly, I didn’t get to see any except for a couple of token pieces in the ultra-modern new foyer. They did have a nice rooftop terrace though, so finished my brief visit with some nice views over the city streets.

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The highlight of my day was the San Pedro Museo de Arte, which had a whole lot of traditional Poblano folk art. There was an impressive display of ceramic works, as well as a really cool exhibition on puppet theatre where the puppets were on display together with explanations of the historic events or stories represented. On my way home for a siesta, I visited the ex-Santa Rosa Convent where you could see the big traditional cocina (kitchen) in which Mole Poblano apparently originated. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures in either, so you’re just going to have to believe me that it was cool…

That evening, the extreme foodie in me came out when I paid the equivalent of my night’s accommodation just to try chiles en nogada! As it is a seasonal dish, it’s not usually made until later in July/August. Asking at my hostel, I was told it wasn’t even available at this time of year, so when I was strolling by the Zócalo around dinnertime (which is amazing all lit up by the way) and I saw a restaurant advertising the famous dish, in I went! I had just enough cash in my wallet to pay for it and decided I would probably have to live off fruit for a couple of days to make up for my extravagance. When the meal came though, it was amazing, so I had no regrets forking out to try it at all! Too bad it’s only available in Puebla for a few months of the year… I would love to eat it again…

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The following day I was off to a village a couple of hours north of Puebla called Zacapoaxtla. One of Kirsty’s friends Ana in Ensenada had put me in touch with her cousin Noel who lives there and has a kindergarten where they said they’d love to have me come and help out. I was only able to spend a week, but was looking forward to going somewhere different.

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On the way out of town, a German guy and I had quite the adventure getting to the bus station. We walked from the hostel to the highway, then based on the old Mexico City principle of ‘need directions? Ask a cop…’ we thought we’d double check which side of the road to catch the collectivo. I thought it would be over the road (the road signs toward CAPU- the name of the bus station- were pointing that way) but the cop told us to catch it this side. As these collectivos sometimes follow strange routes, we listened to the cop. The collectivo we got on said CAPU on its windscreen, and when I boarded I asked the driver ‘How much to CAPU?’ (6 pesos) so on our way we went.

We didn’t turn around anywhere like I’d thought we would though, and we kept going and going and going straight down the road and quite clearly out of town. We thought we’d just have to ride til the end of the route, then turn around and go back. However when we were on a small road lined with houses and fields behind and were the only people remaining on the bus, the driver kicked us off! We said, ‘But we wanted to go to CAPU!’ and he said we had to catch another bus from here, which felt like the middle of rural Puebla.

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Luckily another collectivo came pretty much right away, so we got on, clearly asked if he was going to CAPU at least twice, to which he said ‘Sí, Sí’, so we payed again and sat on the infinitely more uncomfortable plastic seats with the door hanging open the whole way to go aaaaall the way back down the same route, back past the election rallies and the cop with the bad directions, back into civilisation and finally made it to CAPU about 2 hours later!

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It was another 2 hours on the bus to Zacapoaxtla, but the scenery was beautiful. When I arrived, I couldn’t see anyone resembling Noel at the bus station. Luckily there was a sign saying ‘Telefono Publico’ across the road (meaning the guy in the shop let me use his landline, then I payed him). I managed to meet the family shortly after: Noel, his wife Iris, and daughters, 17-year-old Joyce and 7-year-old Rebecca, and their friend Melissa who lives with them.

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Zacapoaxtla is beautiful, a little village with steep and narrow streets up in the mountains. Noel took me to see the town square then it was back to the house. Lots of the family were over- aunties, uncles, cousins, and we then had a Q&A session, with the family firing questions at me in Spanish and Joyce helping to translate! I always get stumped with questions about what the typical food in Australia is. Meat pies? BBQ? And it’s at this point that I usually disclose that, ‘Actually, we sometimes eat kangaroo…’ Which always is met with a shocked reaction, like ‘No way! But they’re so cute!’. So this started the family joking about making Canguro con mole (kangaroo in the traditional Poblano black sauce) and calling me ‘Mandy Cangura’!

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Later in the afternoon, I went with the girls to pick avocadoes in a nearby field. The trees were really tall, so rather than ‘picking’ they had brought a broom to hit them out of the tree. This was working ok until the avocadoes were higher up and Melissa decided to throw the broom at them which then got stuck in the tree! What followed would have made quite an amusing montage… Me, launching myself off the higher ground at the base of the tree trying to grab a low hanging branch to shake it down, Rebecca up on Melissa’s shoulders to try and reach it, then me up on Melissa’s shoulders to try and get it, and eventually me hurling large sticks at the branch and finally knocking the broom down. It’s always simpler in hindsight!

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Monday was my first day at kinder. When we arrived, I thought ‘Woah, these kids are tiny! Maybe kinder means something different in Mexico?’, but a little later I was told we were at the guardería that the family also run (which is like a crèche or childcare kind of thing). A bit before 9, we drove down to the actual kinder. Half of the kinder kids get dropped earlier at the guardería, and then are carted to the kinder too in the back of the family’s camioneta (van).

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In Mexico, the kids do 3 years of kinder, starting when they are 3 years old. In Australia, I guess this equates to an extra year, because the 4 and 5 year old classes are kind of like our kinder and prep I guess. After that they go to elementary school. I had arrived during an exciting week, as on Friday there would be a graduation ceremony for the 5-year-olds before they went off to school. On Monday morning I was asked to teach the 3- and 4-year-old classes a goodbye song in English so they could sing it to the 5-year-olds at their graduation. Pretty much right now. So I had to hit YouTube in a hurry, as the only thing I could think of was ‘So Long, Farewell’ from the Sound of Music, which was probably a little too complex!

Luckily I found a song, and decided to stick with just a verse of it which was mostly pretty simple. It went:

‘So long now (so long now)

Bye bye (Bye!)

See you later alligator

In a while crocodile

Good day!’

The recording was a bit fast, and I thought I could just sing it to them slower, but the teachers advised me it was better for them to listen to it with music a few times, so I just had to play the YouTube version off my phone which only lasted about 15 seconds over and over! But repetition was the key.

First I had to teach the 3-year-olds  who were pretty well behaved that day, aside from Madeline and Jason (often the naughty two!) who wouldn’t stop climbing all over me and hugging me. Jason was a pretty fast mover, declaring ‘Te quiero mucho!’ (‘I love you!’), planting a big kiss on my cheek and trying to hold my hand. Such a cutie, but of course a troublemaker!

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The 4-year-olds were a little more distracted, swamping me when I entered. They innocently asked me ‘Por qué hablas Inglés?’ (‘Why do you speak English?’) and after I’d managed to squeeze in a reply of ‘Porque todos habla Inglés en Australia!’ (‘Because everyone speaks English in Australia!’), they all started yelling out, ‘Como se dice… Raton? Rana? Ballena? … en Inglés?’ (‘How do you say… rat/ frog/ whale (and many other words) in English?’). So cute, but quite overwhelming! Eventually with Joyce’s help I translated a few words for them then got them to sit back down and sing the song!

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After day 1, the alligator and crocodile lines were proving at bit tricky but the rest were already pretty much down pat. With the 4-year-olds I was able to tell them what each bit of the song meant in Spanish. One little boy Alberto, once finding out that ‘crocodile’ meant ‘cocodrilo’, just got excited as soon as the ‘see you later’ part came along and would shout ‘CROCODILE!’ with a great big smile and start doing crocodile arms. Seems he is a bit of a croc fan- it was quite hilarious!

That night I got technical and downloaded a program called ‘Audacity’. With the assistance of several Help files and good old Google, I managed to record the part of the song we were using, slow it down and repeat it 5 times in one track so the kids could listen to it slower. The sound quality was not as good as the original, but for a non-tech savvy girl, I was pretty happy with what came out!

Most mornings followed this same outline- go to the guardería, then go to the kinder and spend 15-20 minutes with each class going over the song with varying levels of mayhem each time. The teachers would often do something else while I was in the classroom, and it was a little difficult to discipline the kids with my limited Spanish! I did learn to shout ‘Niños!’ (‘Children!’) with some conviction, and added to my vocabulary things like, ‘Sentarse’ (Sit down), ‘Venga aqui’ (‘Come here’), ‘Cuidado!’ (‘Careful!’) and ‘Ahora, escuchamos’ (now, we listen’). At times I did have to call the teachers for help, like one day when all the 3-year-olds were a nightmare, running all over the place, spilling drinks, going to their bags and eating their snacks in the middle of the song, fighting with each other and not listening to me at all!

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After teaching the song, I’d sometimes do a few odd things here and there, like drawing borders on the graduation certificates, and when I didn’t have much to do I decided to draw some Aussie animals for the classrooms (of course featuring a crocodile for Alberto’s room). At the end of each day (around lunchtime) the kids would all practice their dances for the graduation ceremony and we’d run through the song all together. In Mexican style, all through the week new things would get added to the ceremony, right up until the day before!

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On Tuesday we had an exciting afternoon preparing for a desfile (parade) to celebrate the anniversary of the kinder. After kinder we went back to the guardería where a room full of balloons awaited. Joyce and I set about making strings of different coloured balloons to decorate the cars for the parade.

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Then we had to help get the kids dressed- everyone had a costume, even the 1- and 2-year-olds from the guardería! After that, while Melissa busily did the girls’ hair into fancy up-dos, I was asked to paint the kids’ faces. Yep, even the 1- and 2-year-olds! Even little 2-year-old Max dressed as Superman. I didn’t think Superman needed a painted face, but Mexicans don’t do things by halves. It was all out for these kiddies!

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It was a little tricky painting such young ’uns, especially since they didn’t really get what was going on and kept wiggling around and touching their face. It was a bit more fun to paint the slightly older kids, who could tell you what they want and then hold still for a couple of minutes while you did it! Or on the other hand tell you if they don’t want it at all!

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But anyway, all of them looked adorable, and when they were ready, we loaded them up onto the bonnets of cars (yes, actually) and into the trailers of pick-up trucks decorated with balloons and sent them off behind the bomberos (firemen) who cleared the way through town with their truck, lights flashing.

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The whole town must have heard about it and people lined the streets to wait for the parade to come past. I was utterly freaked out to see a baby dressed as Winnie the Pooh riding on the roof of a car until I realised that someone was holding it up there through the sun roof! But thankfully no-one was injured falling off any moving vehicle and the kids all looked like they enjoyed it, grinning and waving at the crowds.

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That night, we had to go and sleep in the guardería. I didn’t really know what was going on, I was just told ‘Vamos! We’re going to the guardería to sleep!’ and I was like ‘Whaaaa?’ but packed my things and went. I must’ve tuned out in the car when everyone was speaking Spanish (at the end of a long day my concentration wanes… It takes a lot of brainpower for me to listen to and interpret a conversation at this stage!). Later I found out Wednesday is a market day in town and there is no parking in the morning, so the whole family drive down the night before and sleep in the guardería so they can get a park! There are a couple of rooms with beds there, but everything else needed to be packed up and relocated for the night- bedding, toiletries, change of clothes, the girls even brought a TV! And this happens every week… definitely an interesting experience!

On Wednesday afternoon I helped look after the kids during a church service that was held for the parents. Making paper planes and boats and various animals out of play-doh helped transcend the language barrier! Fun fact of the day for the Mexicans was learning I only had one last name! In Mexico, the children take the last name of both their mother and their father.

On the Thursday afternoon, I went with Joyce and her friends Mardennis and Brandon to a pueblo mágico (magic village) nearby called Cuetzalan. It is a beautiful little town, we got some lunch at a street vendor, I tried a local specialty called a tayoyo (kind of a pastry filled with a mix of green stuff- avocado, chili, herbs- I never found out what exactly!).

The highlight of the afternoon was seeing the voladores. It’s a traditional spectacle particular to Cuetzalan. In the main square in front of the cathedral is a massive tall pole. The 5 voladores start dancing around it, a couple playing a flute and a drum, and then they climb to the top of the pole.

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At the top is a very small platform where they all sit for a long time (enough time for me to walk all the way through the market to a café, buy a coffee and come back!), and then eventually, they attach themselves to ropes and volar (fly) back down in sweeping circles towards land, the ropes lengthening little by little. It is incredible to see, and worth the wait!

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On arriving back at the kinder, I was put to work decorating the stage for graduation. Naturally this was all being done the night before… (Mexico runs Mandy-style, where last minute is the typical way!) I drew and cut out fabric stars and letters for the background, staple-gunned them to the wall, and helped string up the grand finale- a piece of fabric with a slit down the middle taped together overhanging the stage and filled with balloons. Balloons are all the rage for these celebrations. There were hundreds of them!

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On the morning of the ceremony, after doing my usual run through of the song with the kids, my handwriting was again called upon for drawing letters to spell ‘BYE!’ for the kids to wear and writing names for the seats, intermittently being called out when they were up to rehearsing the goodbye song again. But everything got done!

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On the night itself, I was asked to do a short speech to the kids and parents, in English, with Joyce translating, about why it is important for the children to learn English. Last minute of course, but talking is not something I usually have a problem with so I managed to pull a few lines together! Iris is very passionate about the children learning English and would love to have more native English speakers come to work with the children for longer in future (if you or anyone you know would be interested, email me!).

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The ceremony was adorable- the 3 and 4 year olds were costumed up as mice and birds for their respective dances, and the graduating class of 5-year olds were more dressed up than I was for my valedictory! The girls were in floor length gowns and curls, and the boys in little shirts, vests and slacks! And despite all the running amok during rehearsals, they all pulled together on the night and did really well in their performances!

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It was a really nice end to my time in Zacapoaxtla. I really wish I could have stayed longer, but there was still so much more I wanted to see and do in my time in the area, so felt I needed to keep moving. Admittedly, it was challenging at times, mostly due to the language barrier, but I think it was really good for me to be surrounded by Spanish and I was whole-heartedly welcomed by the Aldama family and the community which made it all worthwhile.

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