Final reflections: post-year abroad survival

What a year.

Mexico has brought me intense happiness, challenges, new understandings, questioning, all among its colours, smells, music, arts, joy, volcanoes, beaches, deserts and jungles. But it hasn’t all been rosy! I have been tested in friendships and relationships, in Mexico and the UK to push my mental strength to its limit – and been pushed possibly most of all by my return to the UK. 

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Guanajuato

It’s been said before, I’ll say it again. Reverse culture shock is worse. Coming “home” is an odd sensation: things are the same but different. Also: what is home? You’ve changed but many things, many people and many places are mostly the same. This can be hard to get to grips with, and doesn’t really seem to get easier the more it happens. But there are definitely ways to deal with it, and work towards adapting. The main point that I have realised over the last 3 weeks is that: it’s okay not to be okay. In my case I have felt lost, sad, confused, anxious, ungrounded – but also happy, fulfilled and excited for the future: it’s a very turbulent time, which when you think about it a little bit more is very reasonable, considering the huge amount of change, upheaval, learning, growing and living that has happened in the last year. Frankly, if I felt great, then I would be more worried. So give yourself credit! And embrace the sadness, nostalgia or melancholy that you may have, because there is an awful lot of processing, reflecting and learning to be done, and it’s definitely not an easy nor a quick process. 

With that in mind, be kind to yourself. Listen to your mind, embrace the difficulty, sadness, happiness, all the emotions. You have every right to feel however you do (and maybe you feel completely fine, and things were harder when away – that’s cool too!). But what you feel is valid and there is a reason you feel it. So be kind, take your time, talk it out with friends, family, your partner – and you can start to work through it. It will take time. You’ll get there. You’ll get through it.

Post-exchange travel

Many partner universities finish their semesters earlier than Manchester – in my case, the start of May, so I took advantage of this to travel around Mexico and Central America – having 2 months’ more travelling to what my friends teased me was already a year of holiday/travelling! 

As soon as I finished my assignments, I made the most of the luxury of not having any exams at the end of the semester, and booked a flight for a solo adventure in El Salvador. Having said goodbye to my pals and my home for the last year, Cholula, I made my way over into Central America. El Salvador has a really bad rep internationally because of high homicide rates, and very problematic gang violence, however this tends to be restricted to certain areas and El Salvador is generally a safe place to travel. I can vouch for this, having travelled solo around El Salvador for 10 days, and staying with amazing people through Couchsurfing the whole time, seeing beautiful landscapes filled with lakes, volcanoes, jungle, waterfalls, beaches, and above all, possibly the kindest people of all the countries I’ve travelled to so far! 

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Cerro Verde as seen from the top of Santa Ana Volcano, El Salvador
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Mural in Ataco, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

I then made my way across the border in a chicken bus into Guatemala to meet a friend from the UK, to travel all the way from the El Salvador border up to the Mexican border. Along the way, I climbed Volcán Acatenango (brutal) to watch Volcán del Fuego erupt during the night, visited the amazing diverse villages around Lake Atitlán, exploring candle-lit caves and naturally turquoise limestone pools at Semuc Champey, and toucan- and spider monkey-spotting around the Mayan site of Tikal. I left Guatemala with a heavy heart, knowing that I’ll certainly be back as soon as I possibly can to keep exploring more of its beautiful country and vibrant indigenous cultures. 

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Sunrise seen from the summit of Volcán Acatenango

Crossing the border back into Mexico, I felt like I was coming home, though the journey was something of an intense one: I ended up travelling with a caravan of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala midway through their journey across Central America, just starting their crossing from one end of México up to the other, most aiming to cross into the United States. It is important not to understate the enormity of this journey that often takes months, and the difficult political situations that make it not a decision, but a necessity, for many people to leave their homes, families and countries to make this long journey in the hopes of a life elsewhere. 

I returned back to México to meet another friend from the UK to explore the mountains and beaches of the state of Oaxaca, and then the cenotes, ruins and beaches of the Yucatán peninsula while in 40 degree heat. From there, I met up with three of my closest friends from UDLAP to go to Cuba for 10 days, for lots of music, dancing, a few mojitos, cigars, lots of rice and beans and plenty of fun, while learning lots about the complex political situation (which I cannot understate). 

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Coloured streets of Trinidad

From Cuba, I returned to Mexico City to have one final day of eating as much food as I could possibly manage, saying a teary goodbye to my best friend, and hopping onto a flight back to the UK. I won’t lie, I wasn’t looking forward to coming back to the UK as Mexico means so much to me, and is a beautiful country with amazing people, food and places, and has been the setting for possibly the best year of my life. That said, two months of travelling made the transition to UK life somewhat easier, as I came to terms with the impending return to the English ‘summer’ and the idea of having to look at my bank account! Of course, travelling might not be for you, for whatever reason, but being abroad is an awesome opportunity to take advantage of. Perhaps solo travel is something you haven’t tried yet? Go away for a weekend during the semester as a first step. Intimidated in hostels? Couchsurfing is an awesome way to meet people, stay with locals and learn about local life in ways that you can’t in hostels. Scared by language? Start learning the basics before you go – such as with TV programmes, and we all know there are plenty of apps out there. The point is: make the most of being wherever in the world you are, because it’s not every day that travel is so easy. 

Goodbye UDLAP

By Lily Baker Haynes, Universidad de las Americas

My time here at UDLAP is coming to an end – and of course, it flew by. I arrived here fresh-faced and having no idea what to expect… and I finish having learnt a lot, met amazing people and leaving a part of my heart here in beautiful Cholula.

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One of many amazing sunsets behind volcano Popocatépetl

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A Mexican Manifesto

It is hard to encapsulate and create an image of the beauty of Mexico without visiting – but I’m going to try anyway…

Mexico’s diversity is something I have been absolutely blown away by; although not difficult when you consider that by area, it is the 13th largest country in the world, and fits a large number of European countries within its boundaries! This gives rise to an astonishingly diverse range of cultures, which vary dramatically between states and regions, with varying music and dance, clothing, language and customs in each community. Given that my workload is not nearly as heavy or demanding as in Manchester, I have been able to really take advantage to travel extensively and far and wide in this amazing country. From cities in which the colonial legacy is obvious such as Puebla and Oaxaca, to small indigenous towns of Chiapas, from vast archaeological sites of previous civilisations, to the vast metropolis of Mexico City, from beautiful beaches of the Pacific Coast in Oaxaca or the Gulf in Veracruz, to dense pine forests inundated by the migration of monarch butterflies in Michoacán, from the mountains and volcanoes surrounding my own home in Cholula, to the waterfalls and Chiapas, Mexico is a country rich in, climatic, environmental and cultural diversity. Naturally, this could not make it more interesting for a Geographer!

 

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Among Monarch butterflies in Michoacán

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Why are you going to Mexico? Do you speak Spanish?

As we start Semester two (how are we here already!), I want to dispel some myths about studying abroad in another language, as it’s definitely a thought on many people’s minds when choosing where they would like to go for their year abroad.

Since before starting at Manchester, I knew that I wanted to study abroad in un país hispanohablante (a Spanish-speaking country). I had studied Spanish since the start of secondary school and was very keen to be able to practise and develop this skill – it is pretty cool to be able to express yourself and communicate with others in another language. I had taken a classic gap yah: worked for six months and travelled for 6 months in South America. Starting at Manchester, I took LEAP courses in Spanish and Portuguese (which I would highly recommend to students; a great way to diversify and broaden your degree and knowledge while also picking up those all-important credits). The stage was more or less set – and luckily enough I got my place to come to UDLAP here in México.

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Styles of learning and assessment at UDLAP

It has now been a month of being in Mexico, and 4 full weeks are behind me, but I definitely have found it harder than I realised to balance everything I want to do together with all the things I need to do. From various people who have studied at UDLAP before, the workload was supposed to be lighter and accommodating to lots of time not spent at uni or thinking about uni-related commitments. However, the first week at UDLAP was filled with bureaucracy and form-filling, which made me more grateful than ever for Manchester’s efficient administration. Into the first week of classes, it became more clear that, for my modules at least, it was more like A-levels again, and quantity over quality.

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The start of a Mexican adventure

My arrival into Puebla, Mexico is heralded by the view of the majestic Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl volcanoes, and brings me towards the end of my journey from London to Cholula, Mexico. Having arrived into Mexico City at 4am, it has been a long journey, but one that I have been looking forward to for quite some time. Even when applying to study at Manchester (which feels like a lifetime ago!), studying in Mexico was a vague possibility, that has suddenly become very real in the last few months, and even more so in the last 48 hours!

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