Spring Break in Cabo

Spring Break really needs no introduction, but in case you haven’t watch any American ‘college’ movies, here’s what it is:

Spring Break is normally a week holiday (yes only a week!) that kinda correlates to the UK’s Easter weekend, but it doesn’t always. Spring Break is notorious for college students descending on countries with warm weather, beaches and cheap booze, or places where the drinking age is 18. One of my friends who I met at Davis at our study abroad orientation, joined a sorority, she told me and another study abroad friend about plans to go to Cabo in Mexico for Spring Break. Naturally we hoped on board as we wanted to have the full American college experience.

The weekend that finals finished, off we jetted to Cabo. As soon as we stepped off the plane we felt the heat! We decided to book our trip with an all-inclusive company, with a wristband that meant breakfast and drinks were included in a reasonably priced hotel room. When we first arrived we have to go through an orientation where we got said wristbands, some free merch, and had a safety talk run by ex-cops. They emphasised the 3 big no-nos in Mexico: no drugs, no going anywhere alone and no urban peeing. Once that was over we got a shuttle bus all the way around to where our hotel was.
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Our hotel was lovely, and only a 7 minute walk to the beach. The first night we watched the sunset on the beach, and then got some yummy tacos and margaritas. I have to say as much as we wanted to have the Spring Break experience, we also prioritised just doing what we wanted in order to make the most of a holiday with friends. So for the majority of the week we spent lazing on the beach or by the pool, reading our books, working on our tans, and trying out different restaurants along the strip. At night we would pre-drink in our hotel room, and then go to a few of the bars our all-inclusive wristband had scheduled. Then we would hit El Squid Roe, one of the weirdest and most unique clubs I have ever been to. El Squid Roe had booths all along the sides and smaller tables down the middle, filled with people dancing. There were three stories and upstairs was like a balcony running the whole way round.  Basic club house remixes blared from the speakers, and every inch of the space was filled by bodies dancing away. My favourite club was called Mandala, it played pop and RnB music and had a decent sized dance floor.

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I have to admit I was a little apprehensive about going on Spring Break, my usual choice on holiday is somewhere with a bit more of a traditional cultural experience, with sightseeing etc. If it hadn’t been Spring Break perhaps Cabo could have been more like this, but at the time we went Cabo was overridden with college students, giving it a much different feel. From what I had seen in movies, a lot of Spring ‘Breakers’ can be very entitled and rude to local people and I did not want to be lumped into that crowd. Luckily my friends and I managed to steer clear of anyone that gave off those vibes, and we had a fun holiday together.

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Overall I would definitely recommend going on a Spring Break holiday with your new friends, its a way to bond about more than just classes or being study abroad students, and a fun way to spend a holiday off uni. I would also recommend Cabo as a destination, we had a lot of laughs and fun on the beach and walking up and down the strip.

Street Art: Montreal, Toronto and Mexico City

Salma Rana, Queen’s University, Canada

One of my favorite things to do when I visit a new city is to see the artwork home to that place. Other than museums, something that have I loved about my travels was the beautiful street art embedded within the cities. These told me unique stories about the culture and history of the cities they were created in. Below I give you some of my favorite pieces and recommendations of neighborhoods you should visit if you get the chance.

Montreal

A friend and I ended up in St-Laurent by accident. After climbing up Mount Royal, we thought we would take a different route back, to get more of a feel of the city, and ended up there, a boulevard home to some of the most incredible art, music, fashion and food festivals. There are murals painted on all corners of St-Laurent, and we were so captivated that we ended up walking through the whole boulevard until we arrived back to our hotel on the other side of the city.

As I observed the beauty painted on boards above parking lots, on the sideways of shops, and even on the road below my feet, I remembered the words of Rainbow Rowell, “Art wasn’t supposed to look nice, it was supposed to make you feel something.”

Eyes by D*Face
Location: Rue Clark / Rue Prince Arthur
Portrait of Mary Socktish, by Kevin Ledo, for Montreal’s 2014 MURAL festival
Located at a Rue Prince Arthur parking lot
A Jackie Robinson tribute by Fluke, for the 2017 MURAL festival

Toronto

Toronto is bustling with gorgeous murals throughout the city, with many neighborhoods and alleyways dedicated to creativity. I absolutely love Kensington Market in particular, because as well as amazing artwork, the choice of food is abundant – from halal burger places (Burgernator and Top Gun!) to ice cream shops, bakeries and cafes.

 

Kensington Market photos shot by Basmah Rahman

Mexico City 

When my friends and I arrived in Mexico City, in the early hours of the morning, the first thing I noticed on the drive to the hotel was how there was vibrancy everywhere. Even in the dark I could see that all the shop shutters were painted in a rainbow of colors. We stayed in Centro Histórico, and I definitely would recommend taking a stroll before stores open (9/10 am) because the store shutters are genuinely so beautiful.

The shutter of a store opposite our hotel in Centro Histórico
A stroll through the streets of Centro Histórico

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Outside station Xochimilco, shot by Christy Ng
Art featuring decorative sugar skulls are all over Mexico, used in festivities celebrating Day of the Dead

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The People of Mexico

Salma Rana, Queen’s Unversity, Canada

Needing a break from the cold Canadian winter, a couple of friends and I flew out to Mexico for reading week. We spend most of the week in Mexico City and the last couple of days in Cancun. Everything was incredibly beautiful, from the colourful streets and detailed architecture to the delicious food. However, I want to dedicate this post to what made the trip truly special.

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Mercado 23, Cancun

The people I came across in Mexico were so happy and grateful. The photo above, of a man cheerfully selling us corn on the cob, is one of my favourites from the trip. I did not want to leave his presence, it was so full of warmth and wholesome energy. I think this captures some of the spirit of the people there. Like this man, the people I came across were so content with all they have, which may not seem like much to us, but the size of their hearts and smiles outweighs any sort of material comforts we might compare against.

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Christy in Centro Histórico, Mexico City

The people of Mexico were so incredibly accommodating, and I am still processing the kindness I was given throughout my visit. There were many incidences when I couldn’t express what I wanted to, due to my lack of Spanish skills. However, every single time someone would pull out their phone and launch google translate before I could even do so, or find some other way to make sure I didn’t leave without getting what I wanted. At one point, a mother who overheard my conversation, as I was struggling to communicate with the sales adviser, brought up her son and exclaimed excitedly and proudly, “my son speak.. English!”, while telling her son to help me out. At another point, my friend left without collecting her change after buying coffee from the cart. Even though the change was equal to less than 20p, the boy making the coffee chased her up in order to give her money back.

A lot of the shops we visited and the places we ate at were local, and the kind of hospitality we received was extraordinary. The waiters, waitresses, shop owners, tailors etc. genuinely wanted us to have the best experience from the moment we entered, and they were so proud of where they worked and so happy to be there.  I think these photos below sum up what I am trying to say. I asked the owner if I could take a photo of the shop and the way he stood along with his products, so proudly and yet slightly shyly, was just amazing.

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Centro Histórico, Mexico City

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These experiences were a reminder to me, about the kind of person I want to be. I want to be much more grateful for everything I have and count my blessings as much as the people of Mexico. Just like them, I want to be content with and proud of whatever I do. A friend pointed out that this kind of thankfulness doesn’t come as easy in the West, but it is something that we should aspire towards.

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Floating Gardens of Xochimilco

 

Follow my instagram @ichbinsalma for more photos.

Second Semester and Leaving UDLAP

By Rosa Dennis (Universidad de las Americas Puebla, Mexico)

After what was a long first semester, second semester seemed to whizz by. Maybe because I felt a lot more comfortable with my Spanish abilities, the University and generally life in Choula, which came to feel more and more like home. As the weeks went on, I found myself travelling less and spending more time enjoying the beautiful scenery around where I live, taking day trips and generally having a slow and very relaxed place of life. I moved house and lived with a bigger group of Mexican and international friends, who were all very lovely, we had many shared dinners and played games and hosted parties – it was a wonderful semester.

favourite housemates
My favorite housemates

My university life was even less busy than the first semester, even though I had more challenging classes. There were Political and Economic Anthropology, Applied Anthropology and my favorite, which was a Political Ecology class. This was my only class taught in English during my whole study in Mexico and really enabled me to get involved in discussion and debate in a different way to my classes in Spanish. (Although my Mexican classmates found my very British accent very hard to understand and preferred it when I spoke in Spanish.)

Alongside my academic studies, I was also able to take a module in community service . This entailed working in a local NGO or foundation which engages in the extended local community around the University. This is something I had always wanted to do in Mexico alongside my studies – it was an amazing opportunity to get involved in a different part of day-to-day life. Through this organisation called ‘Raíses que nos Unen’ (Roots which unite us), I was able to go to local communities on the outskirts of Puebla and assist in leading classes in education and literacy with children and adults. This really opened up my eyes to the difference between the privileged world of UDLAP and rural Mexican villages only twenty minutes away which face severe poverty and illiteracy. Through this work, I was able to understand and experience the real Mexico, which enlightened my studies and ability to relate to social problems and the goings-on in one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Working with the children in the schools.
Working with the children in the school

As the semester continued, the work got harder as final papers loomed and I had to consider what I was going to write about for my final paper for Manchester, an essay based on a part of culture which interested me. As anthropology is about engaging in culture, and Mexico is so rich with cultural heritage and diversity, I found it hard to stick to just one topic. During my year in Mexico I have constantly sought to engage with people about their understanding about Mexican culture, which is very different depending on location and socioeconomic elements, as evidenced by the disparity between UDLAP and the communities which I have been working and visiting. However I found that what unifies all Mexicans is their relationship to food. I used this as a way to analyse all parts of Mexican culture, using food  and cuisine as a unifying feature.

This study into Mexican culture really made me realise the wonderful culture which I have been a part of during these past 12 months. The experience of an exchange is like no other: you can 100% replace your normal life with that of a student studying on the other side of the world. I have been so lucky through the diverse exchange program which Manchester offers to partake in this life changing experience which has been one of the most incredible so far.

Saying goodbye to my favorite people
Saying goodbye to my favorite people

Academic Differences and Adventuring…

By Rosa Dennis (Universidad de las Americas –  Puebla, Mexico)

Hellooooo, I am sorry its taken me so long to write another update about my experiences of studying abroad in Mexico,  but I was very busy towards the end of the semester with  final essays and then straight away I left for the Christmas holiday to travel around Mexico and explore more of this wonderful country. I can safely say that it has been an amazing experience. This semester has been so full of adventures I don’t really know where to start, but as always the academic side needs to come first!

So, when November came around I was in a panic with four 10 page essays to write, no clue about what to do them on, and the stress of having to write most of them in Spanish. Its hard enough reading and understanding in Spanish, let alone writing 3,000 words! Due to a stroke of luck, unlike everyone else I knew, I had no final exams, just essays and presentations. This style of assessments does suit me better as I prefer assessments where I have time and don’t need to cram all my knowledge into my brain and then try to regurgitate it in 2 hours! However, unlike Manchester, where there are essay questions and specifications about what essays must include, here I was very much left to my own devices. I could  write about any topic in the sixteen weeks of lectures, the only specification was it had to be 10 pages long.

This was very scary, however after many hours in the library reading and researching, I decided on my topics. From Spiritual Art in a Huichol community of northern Mexico, to how development is affecting rural communities in Bangladesh, and the changes in Catholicism in young people in Mexico. I found all topics very interesting, however they were not related and I found it difficult having to switch from one to the other. However, this diversity is the beauty of Anthropology as one can study anything and everything in any part of culture, and it seems that this even more relevant in the Anthropology that I am studying in Mexico. I can only speak from my own experiences, however this academic freedom does seem only present in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Many of my friends who study Business and Economics had lots of exams and presentations, so this style is definitely not for everyone.

However, after I finished my many essays and spent many evenings in the library, I was very unsure of the grades I would receive. Everyone is graded out of ten, and to pass you need a 7.5. As an international student there is less pressure for me to get these high marks as my year abroad does not count towards my final degree at Manchester.  However, as I am a student who does try, to my surprise I managed to get between 9 and 10 in all of my modules, finishing the semester with an average of 9.6, a mark any student, national or international should be very happy with.

Yet I can safely say the level is much easier than Manchester. I am not sure if this is because it is a private university and therefore as the students already pay a lot of money to attend that the high qualifications are almost considered a right, or that the level is just much lower than I expected, but this difference really made me appreciate Manchester’s high academic expectations. When I tell my Mexican friends that at home a 60 is good and above 75 is almost unheard of, they seem to laugh and think I am a terrible student.  Nevertheless, the ways of qualifying and how we are taught to think independently and criticise what we know to be true is something which isn’t echoed in the Mexican education system. This makes me sad, as many of the students don’t  have the academic desire to want more and to find out more for themselves, they are just happy with what they get given. I feel this is not the same in all universities, but seems to be very prevalent at UDLAP, which is considered to be one of the best universities in Mexico.

As I had no exams, I was able to fully enjoy the months holiday we got in-between the first and second semester to really travel in Mexico. In the past month I have spent more than eighty hours on a bus, and God knows how many kilometers I have traveled, but it has been totally amazing. Some of the highlights are: exploring ruins and waterfalls in a jungle town called Palenque, spending Christmas on the beach and being able to spend time with all my friends from around the world who I have gotten to know during these past four months. It has been a blast, and now I still have two weeks holiday to go. I am meeting my dad tomorrow, who is coming to visit me to explore some of Mexico together before I start the second semester, which I am sure is going to be full of so many more adventures and stories to tell.

Here to an exciting 2015… and I am sorry for the lack of photos but here is a taste of my adventuring over the past few week!

waterfalls

andventure mexico

travelling

La Vida Mexicana

By Rosa Dennis (Universidad de las Americas, Mexico)

After being in Mexico now for over a month, I am more than qualified to give a report about what studying in Mexico is really like. It has taken me a while to get into the swing of things here, but now I can say I am truly settled. I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like before I arrived, but somehow things do always fit into place. I live in Cholua, which is a small town 10 kilometers from a bigger city, Puebla which is the 5th largest city in Mexico. Choula revolves around my university, the Universidad de las Americas, and provides enough accommodation, bars, restaurants to keep all of the 10 000s of students happy.

The university is beautiful. It is based on a campus, which is very unlike Manchester, and has lakes, forests and even meditation gardens. This environment is a wonderful way to relax, study and enjoy the beautiful weather which Cholula has to offer. You can expect sunny days of 20 degrees or more until around 4pm, when the sky turns grey and eventually thunders and tips it down for about half an hour. This is the rainy season, however, I always get fooled by the beautiful mornings and often find myself wet and without an umbrella!

The lake of the Campus, with ducks and all!
The lake of the Campus, with ducks and all!

However, apart form enjoying the surroundings, I must not forget my prime purpose in Mexico – which is to study. As an Anthropology student, all forms of culture and people interest me. There are around 200 international students from all over the world, which makes lots of opportunity for socializing, chatting and understanding the differences in many university systems all over the world. This is amazing opportunity as you really can make friends with people all over the world.

 

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All the international students on the first day                 of the induction week!

Although I am only 3 weeks into my courses, I am beginning to get a feel for my classes and lecturers. I am taking 3 Anthropology modules, Historic Ethnology of Mexico, Word Ethnology and Anthropology of the Body. All are very interesting, however all are taught in Spanish. This is challenging as I have to understand an 2 and a half hour lecture on one aspect of culture, (usually Mexican) and be able to respond to questions and make comments. This is made worse by the fact that many of my lectures are in the evening! However, I am slowly getting there and feel that every class I am more confident to talk and ask questions. The style of the lectures is more informal than in Manchester; there are no lecture theatres as everything is taught in classrooms and anyone can say something or interrupt the lecture if they feel inclined. This is a really nice aspect as it takes away some of the formalities between lecturer and student as everyone’s voice is valued equally.  I am also taking a Spanish For Foreigners module which should get my grammar and writing up to speed as I am expected to read and understand 80 pages of information on Mexican culture weekly!

Trying to enjoy the beach even with the cyclone!
Trying to enjoy the beach even with the cyclone!

Being in Mexico, everyone has a desire to travel and to get to know this beautiful country as much as possible, however, getting the balance between travel, study and chilling is difficult. As Mexico is a very large country, one must take a bus for at least 6 hours to get somewhere of interest. Last weekend, me and some friends went to the beach with the intention of swimming and enjoying the Pacific Coast, however we did not expect the cyclone which was also hitting the Pacific that weekend. We still had a good time, however, less beautiful than was hoped, but to expect the unexpected seams a big part of Mexican life.

Enjoying the delicious Chilli en Nogada!
Enjoying the delicious Chili en Nogada!

 

 

I still haven’t mentioned the food! One of the most important aspects of Mexican life, and God it is tastyyyyy! As you would expect cheese and beans are thrown on everything, however it is much more diverse that the classic Tex Mex that is found in the  UK. Chili is put on everything, from fruit to rice, and Mexicans do like it hot. If a Mexican says it isn’t spicy, it almost definitely will blow your brain out. Yet there are other delicacies, at the moment the Chili en Norgada is in season. This is a pepper which is filled with fruit, nuts, meat and an array of different spices, covered in a hazelnut sauce and fried. It is delicious, although super filling.

So I hope I have given you an insight on Mexican life and how I am enjoying everything so much here. In the weeks to come there are more travels, adventures and of course studying to come……Adios,y nos vemos pronto!