What I Learned from Mexico

I’ve shared a bit about my time in Mexico, and this is the final post. If you want to read the other posts about my Oaxaca trip, then here they are:

If you read all of those, then you’ve basically got my experience in Mexico in a nutshell. To wrap it all up, I want to share the top three things I learned while I studied in Mexico.

No. 1: Language

Really, I did learn a lot about Spanish and speaking a foreign language. It wasn’t just the verbs and all that, but it was also how to try. I had always gone through language classes thinking that conjugation and spelling were the most important parts.

In reality, the most important thing is listening (which is harder than you might think!) and trying your best to respond. I didn’t always use proper grammar and sometimes I didn’t know the vocabulary, but I was always able to communicate the general idea of what I was trying to say.

No. 2: Travel sometimes sucks, so laugh

I cannot even begin to explain how many times we were caught out in thunderstorms, nor can I explain how uncomfortable it was to be sick and try to have a good attitude about it.

Even though I was not happy at all to be sick or soaking wet in a storm, it happens. Travel is not always glamorous. Sometimes it just sucks. Laughing at the fact that you had five shots in your rear end makes it suck less.

No. 3: Experience over material stuff

In the past, I have been notorious for packing everything under the sun in order to cover every single, “What if?” Now, I have learned that the more stuff you have, the more you have to carry around and deal with. To be honest, I could have taken a lot less clothes and such. I didn’t really need two whole suitcases for just three weeks.

I should have been more creative with less so that I could enjoy myself more. But it’s not just packing, it’s also purchases. Did I really need to buy something everywhere I went? No, and I didn’t. It was enough for me to enjoy the day, take a few pictures, and buy a few gifts for family here and there.

Ultimately, I learned a lot about living in another country, no matter how brief my stay was. In reality, three weeks is not enough to get to know a place completely foreign to you. I feel like I just scratched the surface.

I was so thankful for this time abroad, especially for the generous scholarship I received. I hope many more people (especially students!) enjoy this lovely country and the city of Oaxaca in the future.


Getting My Second Wind in Oaxaca

This post is a part of looking back at my 2014 Oaxaca trip.

My second week in Oaxaca tends to be what I remember when I think about my time there. This was the week that I felt most comfortable, that I finally was getting the hang interacting with locals in Spanish, and that I spent the most time exploring.

One evening that I really appreciated was when my roommate and I took a walk around the city. We found a gorgeous fountain with some statues of Oaxacan figures, including the large circular male headdress that I saw in almost every informational blurb about their culture.


Many evenings we walked the streets and talked to vendors, in between getting caught in rain storms of course. One of my favorite was this woman.

Metal Bugs

She spoke no English, but her work is amazing. She made all of these bugs from colored wire and other crafty bits. At first I didn’t want to buy one because I thought, “This will never survive the flight to the US.” Then, she offered me a container that she had made from the bottom of a soda bottle to protect it. I love dragonflies, so I bought one. She seemed very excited when I asked if I could take her picture.

The third and most significant thing that I remember about that week was a visit to a woman’s home that my professor arranged. We brought our own food and she cooked a traditional meal for us. She didn’t have much. Chickens roamed the yard and her kitchen was outdoors. She had built her own kiln in her yard, which she used to make pottery to support her family.

Oaxacan Dinner

Oh, and her grandson. That was what hit me the hardest: seeing her grandson, a young boy the same age as my host mom’s grandson. My host family lives in a large house, with cool stone floors, all the modern conveniences that Americans have, and even a maid. That boy certainly never wants for anything.

But this boy… This boy had none of these luxuries. His clothes didn’t fit right. I’m not sure what kind of education he received, but I’m guessing he goes to a disadvantaged school, as this wasn’t the city center. I don’t think his family had a lot of food. These boys lived not even an hour away from each other, but they seemed to be worlds apart. I think that these boys will never leave my mind.

I wanted to go into policy before this, but this is one experience that will always be a driving force for why I want to work on policy and help change the systems that make these boys’ lives, and that of their families, so different.

That’ll make you think about your developed-nation privilege for a while.


Exploring the City: Oaxaca

Much of my first week in Oaxaca was spent exploring the city. Oaxaca has many beautiful parks, pedestrian streets and historic buildings.

Catedral de Oaxaca (Cathedral of Oaxaca)
Catedral de Oaxaca (Cathedral of Oaxaca)
Iglesia de Guadelupe (Church of Guadelupe)
Iglesia de Guadelupe (Church of Guadelupe)

On the second day, we wandered through a side door into a church with gorgeous decoration on the inside.

Santo Domingo Gold

Santo Domingo Look Up

When we came out the other side I was amazed at how gorgeous the exterior of the church is. I asked a local (in Spanish!) which church it was, and he said that it was Santo Domingo! The Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is one of the most famous and oldest churches in Oaxaca. This Catholic church was built from 1570 to 1666. While it was used by the military in the past, today it is fully restored.

Santo Domingo
The front of Santo Domingo.

Santo Domingo was my favorite church in Oaxaca. We took in a lot of Oaxaca that first week. Though it was a good week of trying new food, getting caught in late afternoon storms, and visiting the Friday market at Parque Lleno, it wasn’t until the second week that I started to talk to more locals. After that, I started to feel I was getting to really know the city.

I’ll leave you all with this short post today. News of my next big trip will come soon, since I finally got the letter in the mail!


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.