Monday, August 28, 2006


So, in addition to going to classes, which, by the way, have started now, we have had a couple excursions in and around Puebla as a group since we got here. The first few days we were here, we rode in the Turibus, a double-decker bus with an open top, around Puebla to give us an idea of what historical sites there are here. I can tell you, there are a lot of churches! We must have seen about 10 just on our 2-hour (traffic included) loop! There are also a couple neat markets downtown on the weekends. This past weekend Cassandra, a friend from the program, and I walked around one of them. It was quite an odd collection of things. There were crafts, antiques, plastic toys that looked like they could have come from a fast food restaurant, used books, Christian paintings and statues, jewelry, and things that looked like they came from someone's grandmother's house/basement/attic. It was a bit strange. There is another much larger market on the weekends that we have yet to check out, but which I hope to do soon. Markets are a big deal here. In the pedestrian street I climb almost everyday in the center of town to go to class or to the program office, there are always lots of vendors with their blankets spread among the walkers and the restaurant patios selling their handy crafts. There really are some beautiful things there: jewelry, handmade candles in elaborate shapes, more jewelry, books, beautiful cloth, to name a few.

The weekend before last, we visited Tonantzintla and Cholula. Cholula is close to being swallowed by Puebla and you wouldn't know Tonantzintla is separate from Cholula if no one told you. In Tonantzintla we saw a couple beautiful churches with Talavera tiles on the front. This is a very common way of decorating churches in and near Puebla. Instead of covering the front of the church with stone carvings of Biblical characters or stories and other decorations, the fronts are decorated with these colorful tiles. Often there are a few tiles with the characters or stories painted on them and the rest is decoration (though not in Tonantzintla). All the colors make quite a contrast to the dark grays of the stone churches in Europe or to the white churches in the US.

Bright colors here are the norm, not just in churches. Store buildings are painted all sorts of bright reds, yellows, oranges, purples, pinks, all different colors. Instead of using a separate sign for the stores, the owners paint the store names and advertisements directly onto the buildings. Some are quite elaborate and again, colorful. It seems like a good idea to me to paint directly on the building. Why spend the money on a sign when you have a clean palate right there waiting to be used?

Back to the excursion: The insides of the churches in Tonantzintla were also interesting. The town has a huge indigenous population. The indigenous people were the ones to build the churches. For this reason, many of the people depicted in the churches have faces that appear more native than Spanish. The angeles in the churches of Tonantzintla are famous for this reason.

In Cholula, we visited the archeological site. Cholula claims itself to be the longest continually inhabited town in the Americas, but I think this has to be a hard thing to prove. Anyway, people have lived there for a LONG time, that's the point. The town grew to one of Mexico's largest cities and powerful religious centers between 1-600 AD, at the same time as Teotihuacán was powerful. Cholula fell to the Olmeca-Xicallanca around 600 AD and later to the Toltecs/Chimichecs around 1300 AD and later it fell under the Aztec's rule.

In Cholula stands the widest pyramid ever built (this I do believe). The Cholulans built over the pyramid numerous times so entering into the archeological tunnels into the pyramid, we were able to see parts of the older pyramids, such as the stairs that scaled the sides. Now, the entire pyramid is overgrown and covered in dirt and grass. In fact, the Spaniards didn't know it was a pyramid when they arrived. They thought it was simply a large hill near the town of about 100,000 people. Today, there is a church on the top of the pyramid. The legend goes that some colonial clergyman noticed that the indigenous people of Cholula frequently visited the top of this hill. He went to investigate and found a small altar with offerings at the top. He decided that the devil was present there and so he planted a cross in place of the altar. The story goes that a bolt of lightening struck down the cross. The priest put a second cross up which was also struck down. Finally with the third cross, "God prevailed" and the cross survived. This is said to be the first exorcism in Nueva España.

The day we climbed to the top of a pyramid, there was a wedding going on inside. All I have to say is that that bride must be crazy because the only way to get to the top of the pyramid is to walk, and it was a hot day. It must have been horrible to walk up the whole way in her beautiful, heavy wedding dress with a long trail!

This past weekend, we visited Cacaxtla, Xochitécatl and Tlaxcala, all fairly close to Puebla. Cacaxtla and Xochitécatl are in the middle of fields of agriculture and are archeological sites. Cacaxtla was the capital of the Olmeca-Xicallanca group (the group that took over Cholula around 600AD. After Cholula fell, the Olmecas became the chief power in the southern Tlaxcala and Puebla valley. Its peak was between 600-900AD. At Cacaxtla we saw several pyramids, they largest of which was the most interesting. The pre-Hispanic people build buildings to be used from the outside. High priests lived on top of the pyramids, not inside them, for example. They used different levels to create privacy. The Cacaxtla pyramid was once covered with dirt and vegetation, but archeologists have uncovered the top. We learned how archeologists decipher the uses for different rooms: in rooms that were frequently used, usually bedrooms, they find concentrations of carbon dioxide and other compounds that humans release, high concentrations of proteins indicate an area used for washing and carbon deposits show where cooking was done. We could actually see the burnt areas from fires that had been preserved over a thousand years! This pyramid was also built over several times, so we saw various levels of construction.

The Cacaxtla pyramid is most famous for its murals with the vivid reds and more importantly blues. Cacaxtla is far from the Mayan region in the Yucatan Peninsula and yet the murals at Cacaxtla use a blue can only be found in the Mayan region (I forget what our archeologist guide said it is made from). Also, the people in the murals have head deformations like Mayans (the Mayans, even today, place two pieces of wood on the front and back of a baby's head to give them a longer forehead and a sort of pointed head). However, though these Mayan influences are seen in Cacaxtla, there is no evidence that the people were actually Mayans or that there had been an invasion or something. The other clues are missing. Archeologists still don't know why this Mayan influence is found in the murals. They really were beautiful murals! It amazes me how well something like that can last through so many years!

After Cacaxtla, we went to Xochitécatl, which is right nearby. There wasn't as much to see there, but it what there was was interesting. Xochitécatl is known for its representations of woman. Many small statues and pendants of women have been found. Some even show women during pregnancy and have a little door in the front that can be opened to reveal the baby inside. It is also the location of a round pyramid, a structure much less common than the square pyramids.

Finally, we visited Tlaxcala, the capital of the state of Tlaxcala. This was the city in which Cortés gained his first allies. The Tlaxcalans were under the Aztec rule and wanted to overthrow them. When Cortés arrived, they first battled fiercely and then decided to join him. After the Spaniards defeated the Aztecs, the Tlaxcalans were given special treatment. They didn't have to pay tribute to the Spanish crown like the rest of the indigenous people and their tributes to the church were less. The first bishop in Nueva España had his seat in Tlaxcala. The seat was later moved to Puebla when the Spaniards built it as a town for Spaniards. There really wasn't much to see in Tlaxcala other than the cathedral, which wasn't one of the more impressive, but is the oldest in Mexico. One interesting thing we've learned about the churches in general is that at first the indigenous people were scared to enter them. As I said before, they were used to living on outside large structures. The idea of entering into a huge, dark, structure must have been terrifying. For this reason there are many outdoor chapels where priests gave the sermons to the indigenous people until they became used to the churches. There are also quite a few smaller churches built specifically for the indigenous people. The people were smaller than the Spaniards so they required less space and were probably more comfortable in a smaller space than in a gapping Spanish church.

I think that about sums up the excursions we've had. Oh, except one thing. I wrote in my introduction to my trip to Mexico that Puebla is surrounded by high peaks/volcanoes. On our trip to Cacaxtla, we had some amazing views of Popocatépetl, the second highest mountain in Mexico and active, constantly smoking, volcano, and Iztaccíhuatl, also known as the sleeping woman, the third highest mountain and dormant volcano. These two volcanoes share a legend. It goes like this:
Iztaccíhuatl was a beautiful princess. Popocatépetl was a powerful warrior and Iztaccíhuatl's love. The tribe of Izta and Popo went to war and Popo had to fight. His side lost and he was taken captive. Rather than tell his daughter of her lover's failure, Itzaccíhuatl's father told her Popocatépetl had died in battle. Izta's heart was broken and she fell into a deep depression and died. Shortly after, Popo returned, looking for his love. When he found her dead, he carried her to the top of a mountain and laid her there. He stayed and watched over her until he was covered in snow and he too died. Now the two of them are forever there in the mountains. The mountain Iztaccíhuatl looks like a woman lying on her back asleep. Popocatépetl used to look like a man kneeling with one hand to his forehead until the volcano erupted and blew off the top. The story however, remains unchanged.

1. Colorful Talavera tiles on front of church in Tonanzintla.

2. Angels of Tonanzintla with indigenous features inside church.

3. Ceiling in church built for and by indigenous people in Tonanzintla.

4. Church on top of overgrown pyramid in Cholula.

5. Inside archeological tunnels in Cholula's pyramid. Stairs of earlier pyramid over which the later pyramid was built.

6. On top of the pyramid in Cacaxtla, looking at the living spaces of high priests. Notice the stain from fire. This was probably the kitchen of a house.

7. On of the murals in Cacaxtla. The blue is the Mayan blue I talked about. This mural is of a tradesman, the person sitting down. His wares on on the board behind him and include shells and feathers of Quetzcalcoatl (also from the Mayan region). The stalks of corn are a part of the creation story. The people of Cacaxtla believed that the gods made humans out of maize. On the left, there is a lizard, which has been identified as a lizard which, when touched, has hallucinogenic effects. Using hallucinogens or other mind altering drugs to connect with the gods or gain knowledge of the supernatural was a common practice for high priests in pre-Hispanic times.

8. Market in Tlaxcala.

9. The smoking Popocatépatl and the valley below.

10. Iztaccíhuatl, the sleeping woman. See her head on the right, her bust where the snow is, and her feet sticking up on the left.

11. Popoctépatl and Iztaccíhuatl.

Sunday, August 27, 2006


1. Christina, my roommate in DF, and I in front of the Palacio de las Bellas Artes where we watched the Ballet Folklórico in Mexico City.

2. Christina in Taxco, the silver mining town, with the indigenious market, town, and surrounding mountains behind her.

3. The church in Taxco, the mountains, and the old VW bugs that are still in use throughout Mexico. Who knew so many of these cars could survive the wear and tear of the years! These bugs are being used as taxis, a common sight in both Taxco and the DF.

4. Part of the mural, "Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Almeda" or "Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Almeda," by Diego Rivera. This part shows a man asleep on a bench, dreaming of the Zapatistas (the man on the horse and the other soliders above the sleeping man), indigenous people being expelled from the park by a solider (you can only see his hand in this picture), which was for the educated society (in the bottom center of the picture), and some of Diego Rivera's family on the right side; the woman with a baby is one of his wives. There's a lot more just in this part of the mural, which is about a quarter of the entire thing, but I can't remember who everyone is.

5.The Ballet Folklórico (folkloric ballet) in the Palacio de las Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

6. The group on the steps of La Pirámide de la Luna in Teotihaucán.

7. Courtney reaching the top of the Pirámide de la Luna in Teotihaucán.

8. Cassandra on top of the Pirámide de la Luna with the Pirámide del Sol behind her and the Plaza de la Luna below her. The main avenue between the two pyramids is the Avenida de la Muerte.

9. La Pirámide de la Luna from the top of the Pirámide del Sol.

10. The Palace of Queztalpapálotl with the figures of the gods Tláloc, god of rain, on the left, and Queztalcóatl, god of war or of knowledge, on the right.

11. The restaurant inside a cave where we ate lunch near the archeological site of Teotihuacán. The cave was used in pre-Hispanic times as a storage place for food and as the location for a market. Today it is a neat (though expensive) restaurant.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

First day of "classes"

Well, classes started today at the BUAP (Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla), or rather, today was the first day that classes were scheduled to start. Before I go into the long narrative, I should probably explain a little about how the university functions:

First of all, it is HUGE!!! I don't know how many thousands of students go there, but I remember that it is bigger than the town of Berea and maybe even bigger than Northampton. The university is divided into Facultades, which are like schools within the university. There is the Falcultad of Arts, of Physics and Math, of Law, of Business, of International Relations, of Letters and Philosophy, of Psychology, etc. Each Facultad functions pretty much on its own. Each one has its own rules, library, and eccentricities. The students here study "careras," or careers. They study only in one facultad and they don't have many choices in the classes that they take; their classes depend on their carera.

Within each Facultad, there are "colegios." These colegios are like smaller schools within the facultad. For example, within the Facultad of Arts are the colegios of music, drama, and dance, and within the Facultad of Letters and Philosophy are the colegios of Philosophy, History, and Literature. Sometimes these colegios are in the same building and sometimes they are in separate buildings.
The university is also divided into two campuses, the old campus in the center of the city and the new one a little further out. The buildings in the old campus are in amongst all the other buildings in the center of town. They are mostly old houses that weren't built for the university. They are built in the typical Spanish style with a patio in the middle surrounded by at least two stories of rooms with doors out onto the balconies around the patio. They are oddly shaped, some are connected patio to patio (but not balcony to balcony) and have multiple staircases by which you access the various balconies, and some are not.

The new part of the university, called the Ciudad Universitaria (University City) or the CU, is more like a huge American university. All the academic buildings are close together and are separate from the rest of the town. There are green lawns and trees, cafeterias, and athletic facilities.

Ok, now for my experience of the first day:
I was signed up for a theater class at noon and a literature class at 3:00 pm. Charlotte, another girl from the program, had the theater class with me so we went together to look for the class. We arrived in the facultad of arts and asked for the theater professor we needed (the number of the classroom wasn't printed in the schedule of classes). The secretary informed us that the professor for which we were looking wasn't going to come in until tomorrow and also, that he doesn't have a class on Monday. She gave us three times during which he teaches on Tuesday and Thursday. We asked if they were three times for the same class (as in one would come to all three classes), or three sections of the same class, or if they were all different classes. She didn't seem to understand. We tried asking if we needed to come to all the class hours, and she said that depended on which material we wanted to take. When we asked which class was theater, she said she didn't have the schedule yet for the theater classes. We decided this lady wasn't very helpful, or didn't understand us, or we didn't understand her (though I don't think the last was true) so we left. We went back to the program office and asked our secretary to call and see if she could find out what was going on. After calling two numbers and talking to I don't know how many different people, she figured out that we went to the wrong building. There are two buildings for the arts school and the professor we wanted teaches in the other. Apparently the two buildings don't communicate very well about when the professors have class. The fact that it took our Mexican secretary so long to figure out where we needed to be made us feel better about our difficulty understanding the other secretary ourselves.

Thinking we were going to be 40 minutes late, we hurried back 5 blocks to the other building. We asked the secretary there and learned that the professor hadn't yet arrived. We were a bit relieved not to have to walk in on a class in session on our first day. We waited another 20 minutes or so and then I began to ask the other students who were waiting if they were waiting for theater. They weren't very helpful, saying that some of them were waiting for the same class, but then no one admitted to being the ones who were waiting. I went back to sitting with Charlotte. About five minutes later, two students, a guy and a girl, came up to us. The girl very sweetly asked if we were waiting for theater. When we said we were, she told us that she had just gone to the other building to ask about the professor and learned that he isn't going to come in until the next week. She was very sweet and said she hoped she'd see us next Monday. I don't know how she got that information out of the secretary in the other building! Maybe the secretary had just learned or maybe the girl spoke with a different person.

This was our first experience with the Mexican education system. Fortunately we had been warned that this often happens (the professors don’t show until the second or even third week of classes), so though it sounds like a stressful series of events, I actually felt pretty relaxed. I figured if we were in a country where professors could arrive late, our being late because we are new and were confused wouldn’t be a big deal. Then when the professor didn’t show, my thoughts were simply affirmed.

Charlotte and I were both scheduled for a second class today, I at 3 and she at 4. We went to the zócalo and sat on a bench for a while watching the huge number of pigeons and fewer number of people. There were balloon vendors with a mass of helium balloons all connected to a stick they hold. Each vendor’s mass of balloons is about 10 feet high (at least twice the height of the person) and so, including the height of the person, the top balloon is at least 15 feet above the ground. The masses must also be at least 5 feet in diameter. We wondered how one buys the top balloon. We imagined ourselves going up and saying, “Excuse me ma’am, I’d like the monkey balloon please” “Yes, that’s right, that one, way up there on the top. How much does it cost?” Maybe we’ll do it one day to see if you really can buy the top balloons.

At about 2:45 I went looking for my second class. By asking various secretaries I found the right building. The classroom number had changed; good thing I talked to the secretary instead of just going to the class. I climbed the stairs, dodged a couple poles the filled most of the balcony, and found my classroom. It was locked and there was a note on the door informing that the class won’t begin until next Monday. I already like that professor for leaving a note!

So, I returned to my house two hours before I’d expected, without managing to go to a single class. I got to eat lunch earlier than expected, at 4:30 instead of 5:30, and I don’t have any homework. ☺

I do hope to have class tomorrow, however. I should at least have one because I have my folkloric dance class tomorrow. They have been having classes during the summer and it is a special arrangement through the program that we get to take these classes and dance with the folkloric dance group throughout the semester. The chances are also good that I will have the second class as well because it is a physics class and from what I hear, the science classes are a bit more formal with their schedules.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Week 1: Playing Tourist in Mexico City

I arrived in Mexico City last Wednesday, August 9. My flight was uneventful and I didn't have any problems with security, customs, or immigration. Apparently I just missed some horrible delays. For the first week I was staying in a hotel in Mexico City with the other 11 students in the program. We are from Wellesley, Smith, McCalester, Oberlin, Wheaton (of Massachusetts), and Harvard. There is only one guy in the group. As a result, we got quite a few stares, whistles, and shouts walking around the city in a pack of white, blond by Mexican standards, girls. Despite feeling like a spectacle no matter where we went, I enjoyed the week.

Throughout the city there were large, peaceful protests about the elections. I don't know how much you have all been following the news, so I'll give you a brief summary of what is happening. Mexico had their presidential elections in July. The two main candidates were Lopez Obrador and Calderon. Calderon is from the party called PAN, or the National Party of Action, and Obredor is of the PDR, the Revolutionary Democratic Party. Calderon was announced the winner by a small margin. However, many people believe that Obredor actually won and that there was fraud ie cheating either in the process of voting (like people paid to fill in empty ballots) or in the process of counting. The supporters of Obredor have taken to the streets in huge numbers, demonstrating their right of peaceful protest. They want the votes to be recounted throughout the country. So far, the judicial assembly has ordered that some votes be recounted, supposedly votes in regions where cheating was most likely. Of course the supporters of Obredor aren't satisfied with this, so they are still in the streets.

It was interesting to be in Mexico City, or the DF (Federal District) during the protests. While there is conflict around the protestors in other states of Mexico, most of the DF supports the PRD, so there wasn't any real conflict there. Also in the DF protestors aren't required to get a permit to demonstrate. Anyone can close any street for any reason whenever they want, or so I was told. The protestors have taken over the Zócalo, or central plaza, and many of the main streets in the city. They have set up their tents and they stay there day and night. It was quite impressive to see how well organized they were. There was plenty of food, and water, port-a-potties, and even organized social events. There were chess tournaments, miniature soccer courts, and carnival rides for the kids. There were speakers and musicians constantly on the bandstands. There was a concert of political Ska music in the Palace of the Revolution all day everyday the entire week we were there. Everything was very calm.

Not only was it interesting to see the people exercising their right to protest and stand up against what they believe to have been foul play in the elections, but it was also a great time to be in the city as a tourist. There were hardly any other tourists so we had the museums and other historical buildings to ourselves. We didn't have to wait in a single line and got to see everything we had planned, except the National Palace. It is right in the Zócalo and is a huge government building, so it was closed to the public.

While in the city we visited the Archeology Museum where we learned about the pre-Hispanic cultures in Mexico and got to see many of the artifacts they left. All week we had a wonderful tour guide who guided us through the museums and told us all about Mexico's past and present. We also visited the Castle where Maximilliano lived during his short stance as emperor of Mexico, appointed by Napoleon III and where the last battle of the Mexican-American war took place. During a free day, I went with some friends to see the National Museum of Art and the Museum of Diego Rivera where there is a HUGE mural called “Sueños de una tarde de domingo en la Alameda Central,” or “Dreams of a Sunday afternoon in the Central Alameda” (la Alameda is a park in Mexico City). The mural includes many important characters from the history of Mexico and it is as if they all came together to chat one afternoon in the park. The mural is totally full of faces, about half of which are famous. It was really incredible to see and to think about the amount of planning and talent and knowledge of the history had to go into making the mural. Looking at it demonstrated for us how little we know of the history of Mexico and inspired us to read the summary provided by my Lonely Planet guide.

While in the city we also visited the National Cathedral, the central plaza, and the palace of the arts. There we saw the Ballet Folklórico show, which was magnificent. It is a demonstration of many of the traditional dances from different parts of Mexico and periods in the country's history. The costumes where beautiful and the dancing was amazing. There was one that was an indigenous dance about hunting deer. The man who played the deer was spectacular. His control of his body, his strength, leaps, and imitation of a deer demonstrated his amazing dancing ability and physical condition.

In addition to our excursions in the city, we visited Taxco (pronounced Tasco) for a day and Teotihuacán for a day. Taxco was built as a silver mining town during the colonial period. Today, they still mine a little silver there and all the houses must have colonial exteriors. It is in the mountains south of the DF in the state of Guerrero. There is more silver jewelry there than the eyes can absorb. It was quite overwhelming. I did enjoy wandering around though, looking in the shops and exploring the winding streets. The whole town is on a mountain so the view from the higher streets was magnificent. I also liked poking around the Indian market there. It seemed more calm and I felt less like a greedy European descendent looking at the wares there than I did searching through the stores and stores of silver.

Spending the day at Teotihuacán was quite the experience as well. I've seen so many pictures of the famous pyramids, the Pirámide del Sol and the Pirámide de la Luna. I enjoyed climbing both and admiring the mountains and ruins below. It was as impressive as I'd expected; the number of photos I’ve seen didn’t dull the experience. A part of the site I had never heard of turned out to be the most impressive. There is another pyramid, called the Palace of Quetzalpapálotl, there that was already covered by earth by the time the Spaniards arrived. As a result, the statues and carvings along its stairs and on the facade remain intact (the Spaniards didn't know they were there to destroy them in order to get rid of the images of the Aztec gods). Now archeologists are uncovering the temple, little by little, and are finding heads of the gods, depictions of the creation of man, etc. It was truly incredible!

Now I am in Puebla, with my host family. In the house, live the mother, Rosa, the father, Adolfo, and the son, Moses, and me. Moses is 22. In total I think the family has 5 children, but Moses is the youngest and the only one who lives at home. He goes to the University of the Americas, which is next to Puebla in Cholula. He's studying law and speaks French, English. He studied in Paris for a year and spent a month or so in Nashville, TN. He has just started to teach classes of English and French this summer. Adolfo is an accountant. Other than that, I'm not sure exactly what he does for work. I think Rosa stays at home, but I don't actually know. Tonight I also met their daughter Minerva and her husband, Anuar, who just returned from a business trip in Veracruz. Minerva is a drug rep. and she has been working for a well-known company in Mexico for I think about 4 years. She just got promoted at her business conference. Apparently she is the first of her group of drug reps to be promoted. Everyone above her had wonderful things to say about her and what good work she does. Her parents were extremely proud to hear about the promotion.

The family also has two dogs, Corina and Kiriku, a pointer and a Chihuahua. They are both adorable even I hate to admit it the Chihuahua. I think I may have to give up my loathing of tiny dogs, to at least make space for Kiriku among the normal sized dogs I love.

That's all for now. Tomorrow we are meeting as a group to begin learning about Puebla.

Mexico City:

1. Protests in the Zócalo, seen from above. The building is the National Palace.
2. Protestors in the Avenue of the Reform, a principal street in Mexico City.
3. VW bus decorated for the protests. Old VWs are very common here.
4. The famous Aztec sun calendar. Museum of Archeology.
5. Mayan god emerging from conch shell. Museum of Archeology. The Mayans believed the first humans were born from conch shells.
(More to come soon! The connection in my house is a bit slow, so I can only upload a few photos at a time).