Thursday, May 31, 2007

Second half of the semester

Yet again it’s been a long time since I’ve written. I’ll try to fill you all in on my life this second semester before I head off to Puerto Rico in a week and a half. It looks like the last time I wrote I was getting over my sickness that landed me in the hospital. Fortunately, things have much improved since then, though this semester has offered more ups and downs than the last one. I’ll see if I can remember at least the most important events of the semester.

Right before our spring break, our program hosted a literature conference called “Palabra y Género” or “Word and Gender.” I wasn’t involved in the planning due to a large amount of physics homework right at that time, but I did enjoy going to several of the events. Elena Poniatowski came to speak at the opening of the conference, and for those who know about literature in Spanish, that was really exciting. I didn’t know much about her beforehand, but I enjoyed her speech and am now trying to read one of her books, though I admit I’ve started others without finishing hers. Another highlight of the conference, this one being big even for me, was that Sandra Cisneros, a chicana writer, came to read from her books and answer questions. That was truly fabulous! I hope to get my hands on the book from which she read. It sounded fabulous! The most amazing part about her coming was that we invited her to come out to dance with us, thinking for sure she’d say no. To our surprise, she said she’d love to!! We organized an outing to a bar/dance club and had a fabulous time dancing the night way with Sandra Cisneros. It was pretty incredible.

Merilie and I with Sandra Cisneros dancing in the background (in black).

After a huge push at school came our glorious spring break: two and a half weeks of vacation (well, it was vacation most of the time). During the first week I went to Oaxaca with most of the girls from Smith. We first went a quiet, funky beach called Zipolite, where we paid $6 a night to stay in a simple hotel on the beach and about $8 a day to eat/drink.

Me on a cliff over looking the beach.

It was fabulous. The ocean was beautiful, though the waves were a bit too big to really be able to swim.

The beach and huge waves

We had hammocks in which to relax when the sun got too hot, and there weren’t too many people. The food was also delicious. We took a 5-hour boat tour (for about $20) to see marine life and got to swim with a sea turtle, snorkel and see TONS of dolphins and two whales. It was pretty amazing.

Swimming after snorkeling on our boat tour.

After a few days at the beach, we headed to Oaxaca City where we stayed at the house of a friend of ours from our history class.

My Smith friend, Merilie, our Mexican friend, Elizabeth, and I in the zócalo of Oaxaca.

We cooked our own food, which required us to buy supplies at several food markets, always an experience in Mexico. Wandering around Oaxaca took us into several churches and to a chocolate shop… multiple times. Oaxaca is famous for their chocolate and in the store they actually make the chocolate before your very eyes. It was neat to see them measure out the quantities of cocoa, cinnamon, sugar, almonds, and other ingredients to make the type of chocolate the customers request and then to see them actually grind everything up and make the chocolate.

The ingredients for a batch of chocolate.

Making the chocolate.

We also visited two ruins sites, Mitla and Monte Alban, went to see odd cliffs whose faces were long ago worn away by water from cold natural springs so that today the rocks look like waterfalls, and tried lots of mescal, the local alcoholic beverage made from cactus.

Our little Smith group at Monte Alban: Hayley, Lauren, me, Merilie, and Meara.

After a week in the state of Oaxaca, I left my friends and went to Mexico City. Ben (my brother) flew in to Mexico and our adventures began. He was here for about a week. We started off in Mexico City. Gerardo and Julio took me to the airport to pick up Ben. The first day we bummed around Coyoacán, a nice area of Mexico City that used to be its own little town. It’s known for having been and being the home to artists in Mexico. We visited the Frida Kahlo museum at Ben’s request, danced to some drummers, watched a clown do his act for quite some time, and drank delicious cold chocolate. We also visited downtown Mexico City, seeing the main attractions that were still open late in the day. At night we drove back to Puebla to Gerardo’s house in Chipilo.

We woke up on Saturday for the “Saturday of Glory” celebrations in Chipilo. Saturday of Glory is the day before Easter and in Chipilo the townspeople still practice the old Mexican tradition of throwing water on each other on this day. In most parts of Mexico, this is now banned because it’s a waste of water, but somehow in Chipilo, the tradition lives. I think it once had something to do with cleansing, but today it seems everyone’s forgotten the original significance. In Chipilo the tradition has morphed into a huge town-wide water fight that lasts for hours. It’s a day you can’t go outside in Chipilo without getting wet and the more important the person is in the town, the more determined people are to soak them. No one, not even the priest, is safe. And poor unsuspecting passer-byers, such as bicyclists, are in for quite the surprise when young people with buckets of water surround them and mercilessly drench them. Ben, Julio, Gerardo and I had a blast dowsing each other and the rest of the town with water and receiving the same treatment from everyone else.

On Easter, we played Chipilo’s traditional egg rolling game with a group of older women. It’s similar to marbles. You roll brightly decorated, hardboiled eggs down a ramp constructed from a clay roof tile. The object is to hit the other eggs that have already been rolled. If you succeed, you take both eggs and can roll again. It’s really quite the strategy came, as we discovered. You have to pay attention to how each egg rolls to know which one to select after the first round in order to hit your target. Neither Ben or I were any good at the game, but some of the older women were. Everyone got into the game, shouting and cheering, which made everything more fun.

Afterwards, we mounted bicycles to ride to Cholula. There Ben and I visited the pyramid and the church on top of it while Julio and Gerardo rested in the shade, guarding the bicycles. We went to the zócalo to eat the typical Mexican snacks of potato chips with hot sauce and sorbet-like ice cream of odd Mexican flavors. After watching the sunset over the alfalfa fields and volcanoes, Ben and I headed back to my house in Puebla.

We spent Monday trekking around Puebla, seeing the sights, and then had a delicious meal of mole poblana that my host mother prepared. Tuesday brought a real treat when Gerardo, Ben and I hiked up la Malinche, the hikeable volcano on the edge of the Puebla valley. The Malinche is 14,639 feet high. It is the highest mountain I’ve climbed and was great fun to hike, though Gerardo got blisters on the way down. The weather was fabulous. The sky was clear and the temperature perfect. We could see all three of the other volcanoes that mark the boundaries of the valley, including the Pico de Orizaba, which I’ve only seen once from Puebla. The only bad thing, besides Gerardo’s blisters, was that we forgot the camera. What a bummer. Oh well, we all have the pictures in our brains, which will just have to be enough.

We spent the last day in Mexico City, visiting Ben’s college friends, Tim and Alana. They’ve opened a fashion store in one of the ritzy neighborhoods in the city which we got to see. After work, they took us to their large house in Coyoacán and we spent a pleasant evening there.

(Note: Ben took all the pictures during his visit and has yet to pass them on to me, so I unfortunately, don't have any to put here)

After Ben left, I had to get down to work. Our modern physics professor left us a monster take-home exam to work on during break. I managed to squeeze in a couple days of work around Gerardo’s birthday, which also fell on the last weekend of vacation. When it came time to turn in the exam, I was ready to be rid of it, but hadn’t finished all of the problems. The exam didn’t end as scheduled because the professor extended the deadline and then didn’t come to class on the new deadline. All of this gave us more time to work, which meant we all finished more of the problems, but it also made my life 100 times more stressful. The exam ate all my free time and was constantly on my mind. I, along with the rest of my class, didn’t study as much or as well as I should have for an exam in another class because of the modern physics exam. This resulted in an extension to finish the second exam. That meant more time stressing about physics, which was less than desirable. When the exams finally finished I was exhausted and burnt out on physics for the semester, but still faced another three weeks of school. Yuck.

Fortunately we had a program trip to Guanajuato to help shake my mind from physics. It was the first time the program had taken a trip there, so we had free time almost the entire weekend.

My two best friends, Lauren and Merilie, and I at a look-out point over the city.

Guanajuato is an interesting place. It is an old mining town and the Spaniards and later the mestizos got quite rich from the mines. The layout of the city is different from any other. There isn’t much space above ground for roads, so most of the large arteries of the city are underground in old mining tunnels or newly built tunnels specifically for the roads.

Some of the tunnels.

It’s a very pretty town, with winding streets, colorful buildings, and lots of small parks and plazas.

Merilie and Abby in a little park.

It’s also famous for its mummies. Bodies that are buried in Guanajuato are mummified in a matter of years (5, I think) due to the lack of oxygen and the composition of the rocks (or something like that, I didn’t really understand very well how it happens). Anyway, their bodies are preserved almost exactly as they were buried. There is a lack of space in the Guanajuato cemetery. If families can’t pay for the upkeep of their family member’s tomb, the government removes the mummified body from the cemetery. The family has a certain amount of time to claim the body. If they don’t the government decides whether to cremate the body or to put it in the mummy museum. It was pretty weird to go and see all the mummified bodies. The strangest ones were those that still had their clothes on. It was odd to see a body in clothing from decades ago.

One of the older mummies with his clothes still on.

Another highlight of the Guanajuato trip was an evening stroll with minstrels, which is also a Guanajuato tradition.

The minstrels.

Upon our return from Guanajuato, I had to write several papers to finish off my international relations classes, which for some reason, always end two weeks before the official end of the semester.

My parents arrived the first week of May. We had a nice, though short, visit. Between my remaining classes and an exam, we went around Puebla, had some nice meals, visited Cholula and Chipilo, and they met my host family and some of my friends.

Julio, Gerardo and I in front of a church outside Puebla during my parents' visit.

We also saw the 5 de mayo parade in Puebla. Puebla was the site of the famous battle between the French forces and the Mexican peasants during the French Intervention in the 19th century. Puebla is named “Heroic Puebla” because they managed to beat the French in the battle. It was one victory for Mexico in a line of defeats as France took control of Mexico. The parade was huge and lasted for hours. First came the military forces of all types, followed by tanks and other military vehicles. Then came the schools, thousands of students and teachers marching. Each school had their own marching band, flag or tambourine girls, and float celebrating some moment or place in Puebla’s history. After the schools came all the medical rescue teams, the ambulances, the water rescue crews, the wilderness rescue crews, etc. Finally, to end the parade were probably about a hundred men and women on horses in the traditional charros costume of Mexico.

Photos of the parade:

Men dressed as Puebla peasants to represent those who came to fight against the French.

Representation of the French forces.

Some modern military brigade.

Tambourine girls.

A float commemorating a famous family of Poblana revolutionaries in the Mexican revolution.

A marching band.

A clown type figure.

A cowboy in a the charros costume.

Women on horseback in the traditional "china poblana" costume from Puebla.

The last couple weeks of school proved to be a combination of stress about my physics classes and having fun at end-of-the-year events. We had a pool party at the small, sulfur-spring fed water park a block from my house.

At the pool party.

Cooking hotdogs at the pool party.

We also had the end-of-the-year program party with mariachis, a dance performance by the students in the folkloric dance class, a dinner, and dancing to a live band.

Folkloric dance.

me, Max, and Lauren, the three students that stayed for the year.

Corinne, the assistant to the director, and I.

My host parents and I.

My friend Merilie’s parents came to visit in the last weeks and Gerardo and I accompanied them around Chipilo and on a trip to Atlixco.

A flour in a greenhouse in Atlixco; the town is famous for its temporate climate and beautiful flowers

Gerardo and I in the zócalo of Atlixco.

School finally ended, and to my surprise, I did fine in both my physics classes.

The last official day of classes, my friend Meara and I left for a 10-day trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. We visited Campeche, Mérida, Valladolid, Holbox Island, Tulum, Cancun, and the ruins of Chichin Itza,.

Campeche is a quiet, small town on the gulf. It was one of the first Spanish settlements in the peninsula. After many pirate attacks, the government finally built a huge wall around the city. It was cool to climb up the towers around the wall. We also witnessed a catholic revival at the cathedral and watched as two men put caulking on the church towers. One climbed up with a harness and a rope and the other stood in the bell tower and handed things down to the hanging man. It was a usual thing to see. Another joy in Campeche was seeing the sun set over the gulf, watching it slip slowly away into the blue.

Sunset over the gulf

Me at fort looking over gulf in Campeche.

Zócalo of Campeche at night.

Mérida actually turned out to be less interesting than we’d hoped. It was beautiful, no doubt about that, with tons of grand old mansions along a nicely restored avenue. It also had delicious sorbet and sorbet and milk floats. However, it didn’t seem to warrant the two days we’d planned to spend there, so we moved on early to Valladolid.

Beautiful mansion in Mérida.

We spent the first evening exploring the little town. We went to an old monastery and read a notice about a conflict over a cenote, a natural cave filled with water formed by fractures around the crater from the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs. The cenote in question is under the monastery, the adjacent road, and a private home. Apparently the owner of the private home had blown a hole in the ground to access the cenote and was setting up lines for scuba diving. The owner didn’t have permission to do it and the local agency for protecting the cenotes wasn’t doing anything. Interesting.

We visited the Chichin Itza ruins in the morning the next day. We were surprised by how much we liked them; we thought our interest in ruins had been about spent from all the ones we’ve seen this year. However, it was actually really neat. The site has more surviving stone carvings than most and is just really BIG.

Me in front of the main pyramid in Chichin Itza.

A really building totally covered in cool carvings.

A HUGE lizard in Chichin Itza. We saw lizards of all sizes all over the place in the peninsula.

After getting all hot and sweaty in the almost-summer Yucatan weather, we rented bikes and rode to an underground cenote outside of Valladolid. It was weird to be swimming in clear water in a cave among stalactites. Not an experience I’ve had before.

Meara and I in the cave of the cenote.

Our next stop was the Island Holbox, at the tip of the Yucatan, just barely still on the Gulf. We witnessed two beautiful sunsets over the water and spend our two days lazing around on the beach. The sand was white and fine like flour. The water was incredible. It was lukewarm and a lovely blue green. The waves were gentle, especially in the mornings when they were almost inexistent. We could walk into the water for a LONG way without having the water over our heads. In fact, we never did go in far enough to not be able to stand. It seemed like too much walking! The beach was also totally covered in shells. I’ve never seen so many shells in my life. It was fun walking along looking for treasures and I actually found quite a few nice, intact shells.

Shells on beach of Holbox Island

Fisherman feeding unwanted fish to birds at Holbox.

After a long day in the bus, we arrived in Tulum, south of Cancun on the Caribbean. It was my first view of the Caribbean Sea and it was beautiful! The water was a light blue, and again the sand was white and the waves gentle, though not as small as on the island. We stayed in a cabin with a sand floor and hammocks for sleeping. The first night was a bit rough as we were getting used to the hammocks and because we didn’t think to put on bug spray. The next night we were careful to cover ourselves as much as possible and spray ourselves down. I slept much better.

My first view of the Caribbean with our cabin on the beach below.

Meara and I on the beach in Tulum.

We visited the ruins of Tulum, which astonished us with their groomed grounds and American-museum-like signs. These ruins are definitely more visited than many we’ve been to, we assumed for their closeness to Cancun. The archeological site is small and the ruins themselves aren’t very impressive compared to others in Mexico. The beautiful part is that they’re on a cliff next to the sea. They were abandoned 75 years after the Spanish arrived on the peninsula, which makes them different from other Mayan ruins. It was kind of incredible to think of the Spanish explorers sailing by and seeing this walled city on the cliff, brightly painted and with fires in the watchtowers.

Me at the ruins of Tulum.

Besides visiting the ruins, we spent a lot of time on the beach and jumping waves. We also ate some delicious international meals: one of homemade pasta with a delicious 3-cheese sauce and homemade bread and another of crepes filled with goat’s cheese and spinach. Yum!

We spent our last night in Cancun because we were to fly back to Puebla from there. We got the taste we wanted of the place without overdoing it. We took a bus ride through the ridiculously ritzy and commercial hotel zone, got off just long enough to take a peep at the ocean, and then got back on to go back to our hotel in the center of town. The ocean was an incredible light blue, but the waves looked too rough to swim comfortably and the beach space was highly restricted by the hotels. The most incredible part of Cancun was the price for the hotels. We saw some that cost $360 a night. I’m sure there are others that are less expensive and probably others that are even more expensive. Crazy! We entertained ourselves by having a tasty organic dinner and watching the Mexican soccer finals between Pachuca and America. Pachuca won to my delight!

Now I’m back in Puebla, trying to get things in order to leave Mexico. This weekend Gerardo and I are going to the beach in Oaxaca to spend a week together and when I get back I’ll only have a day or so before leaving Mexico. I’ve been saying good-bye one-by-one to my various groups of friends.

My friends from my math class last semester: Carlos, Bob, and Luis Daniel

The office staff: Poly, the secretary, Patricia, the director, and Corinne, the director's assistant.

Lauren, my track coach Miguel, and I

Yesterday I had to say good-bye to my best friends from physics. Some promise they’ll come visit and the others say I’ll either have to come back or they’ll have to learn to swim well in order to cross the river to the States. Hopefully I’ll come back to see them before too long.

My best friends from physics: Adriana, (me), Claudia, Lorena, Carlos

As always, I’m excited for the next stage of live, but am sad to leave this one behind. Next time you hear from me, I’ll probably be in Puerto Rico!