Looking Back: My First Day Abroad

Monday, April 21, 2014: My first full day in Oaxaca, Mexico.

My roommate and I woke up and went downstairs for breakfast where we were encountered by another girl who was living in the house. Over papaya and granola (no yogurt for me) we learned that she was from New Zealand, a student at a Maori immersion school studying abroad for a semester. In the next few weeks we became friends, and I got to experience a little of her culture.

After breakfast, our host family drove us to the school, Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca. We began our time at the Spanish language school with a language test. At the conclusion of this test, I was placed in B1 (levels range A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 with C2 being the most advanced level). After the exam we were released to our classes.

My weekdays began to follow a schedule:

  • 9am-12pm: Spanish class
  • 12pm-1pm: Group conversation hour
  • Lunch break
  • 3pm-5pm: Cultural workshop (excluding Friday)
  • 5pm-6pm: Intercambio (excluding Friday)
  • Free time!

In Spanish class, we spoke and the teacher tailored the lessons to areas in which we were deficient. If she noticed we were deficient in reflexive verbs, she went over it and made us practice. My Spanish got much better in the short time I studied at ICO because of this teaching method.

During our group conversation we just spoke, and if we stumbled around the words and grammar, it wasn’t a big deal. The idea was to practice speaking, not to be perfect. I really liked this and the first day already I felt that I had been missing this in my Spanish classes of previous years.

Since it was the first day, we were then briefed on life in Oaxaca. It went a little like this…

Free tea and coffee available in the cafeteria daily. (This is the original source of my tea habit, which solidified in Northern Ireland.)

No toilet paper in the toilets because the Mexican plumbing system can’t handle it; throw it in trash cans instead. (Not as gross as it seems.)

The difference in food may upset your system for a few days. (It did.) Don’t drink the water or even use it to brush your teeth. (I didn’t. But I will add, be wary of swimming in it, too.) No raw food or fresh produce that was washed in said water, unless it was processed by your host family. (Even though the strawberries and sliced mangoes look lovely at the market.)

It’s illegal to participate in demonstrations, so don’t get involved. (Saw one, stayed away.) And of course, we received the usual “how to not die in a city / stay away from these areas” talk. (Heeded; survived.)

With that out of the way, we went on home for lunch. A little note on meals in Mexico: breakfast and dinner are usually pretty small, with lunch being the biggest meal of the day. Breakfast is eaten about 8am or 9am, as you would in the States. Lunch is at about 2pm. Dinner was the most difficult for me to adjust to, being eaten at 8pm. Cereal and fruit were normal dinners for us after exploring the city.

As I said, we had cultural classes in the afternoon after we got back to school. I decided to take the cooking class, even though I don’t consider myself an excellent chef. For the first cooking class, our instructor took us to both a chocolate shop and local market in the city center.

The chocolate shop, Mayordormo, had cocoa beans, machines to grind the beans and make chocolate right in front of you, and a variety of chocolates for eating and drinking! Anyone visiting Oaxaca should try the Oaxacan chocolate. It’s definitely different from that of the States, but it tastes a lot more rich and natural to me.

Freshly ground cocoa at Mayordomo.
Freshly ground cocoa at Mayordomo.

Mercado 20 de Noviembre is a market I went back to again and again. It has vendors selling clothing, pottery, alebrijes, jewelry, and a variety of food. On a typical day in May, the food section sells fresh bread, fruits and juices, mezcal (a type of alcohol), different meats, and chapulines (toasted grasshoppers).

Mercado 20 de Noviembre

As our cultural class ended, we walked back to the school and met our intercambios (language exchange partners) for the first time. The language exchange was one of my favorite things, because we took turns in English and Spanish. My partner told me about her university, and I really enjoyed learning more about her life in Oaxaca.

After our school day was officially over, my roommate and I decided to make a trip to the grocery store, supplying us with most of what we would need over the next three weeks.

Their grocery store was not so different. You could buy batteries, shampoo, and food, just like in the States. A lot of their things were even the same brands as ours, such as Lays, Oreos, and Fruit Loops. One thing to note is that they had a lot more fresh produce, meats, and bakery products compared to processed foods. After seeing this, I wrote in my journal, “No wonder the locals seem healthier than most Americans I know, not to mention a lot of them also walk everywhere.”

My roommate and I walked home to a lovely sunset. After getting everything in our room completely settled and chatting for a while, I got ready for bed. I remember that night after my first day-long experience of Oaxaca. I thought about all the amazing cultural differences and similarities I had seen as I drifted off to sleep, listening to the sound of some strange creature outside my window.

Thinking about this day, I often wonder what others’ first full day abroad was like.


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