Mandy and the World

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

The Village People

on August 1, 2013

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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2 responses to “The Village People

  1. Amber Lorenzo says:

    I loved reading about your time in zacapoaxtla. My husband has family there and we are considering moving our family there in the near future. I have not been able to find many articles about schooling for young children and just seeing and reading about this little preschool made me smile imagining my 3 year old participating. I know this post is 3 years old but thank you for sharing your experience with the public!

    • mandyhill25 says:

      Thanks Amber, I’m glad you found it useful! Zacapoaxtla is a beautiful village and the people I met there were all lovely. I still have very fond memories from my short time spent there. All the best if you move, I’m sure you and your family will enjoy it!

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