Monday, 20 March 2017

A new start...again

A new chapter in Cáceres

My next destination had to be Europe, I was longing to be somewhere closer to home, and I wanted to choose somewhere not just for adventure but to settle. It’s time to put down roots. But this time I ruled out learning a new language from scratch. After 18 months of pigeon Thai, and 11 months of Spanglish, I decided to stick to a country where I had the foundations of a language, at least enough to hit the ground jogging. After many hours scrolling through ESL job sites, I sent out a bajillion CVs to start the recruitment process with various schools. I finally decided on a little English academy in Cáceres, in the west of Spain, and this is where my adventure begins.

I’ve been settling in really well and have found a nice routine between pilates and language classes, popping to the panaderia for a baguette, wandering through the old town soaking up the sunshine, and sipping coffee while reading in the adorable café around the corner whose garden boasts a view of golden fields stretching out for eternity. Since moving to Cáceres, my stress levels have plummeted and my appetite for adventure has returned. 

Declared a World Heritage City by UNESCO, Cáceres sits comfortably in the west of Spain, in the region of Extremadura, just a couple of hours from Portugal and with larger cities like Seville and Madrid within easy reach. It’s near enough to get to easily but far enough away to escape from hustle and bustle of city life. It’s a traditional little place, where shops shut for siesta and not a soul can be seen doing business on a Sunday, it takes some getting used to, especially when you’re craving a Magnum on a Sunday afternoon. Another unique aspect of the Cácereño lifestyle is the times they eat. Dinner at 10pm? What about sleep? But, after just a few weeks I slipped right into the flow and now it makes perfect sense. In fact, sense is my word of the moment - work/life balance and good wine at low prices are just two of the sensible things I have noticed about life in Spain.

I remember my life in Bristol consisted of bouncing from festival to festival in the little parks around the city, and I’m pleased to see that Extremadura has returned that pastime to me. With free little festivals popping up every month or so, the region has already welcomed me with beer festivals, fancy dress parties, Irish music sessions, rock bands, and a medieval festival where the old town of Cáceres was festooned with medieval banners and market stalls. I have yet to experience the festival of San Jorge, the patron saint of the city, where a dragon is burned in the main square, and WOMAD which draws music from all over the globe. As yet the jury is out as to what the best festival is but I am enjoying the judging process. So far I think the leading contender is El Carnaval. While Irish folk are stuffing their faces with pancakes drenched in sugar and lemon juice to mark the beginning of Lent, the Spaniards throw a massive nationwide party, when they get dressed up in costume and have amazing parades. 

I ventured along to Badajoz which is reported to hold the third best parade in Spain, after Gran Canaria and Cadiz respectively. Accompanied by Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother, I rocked up dressed in fairy wings and a painted face, and stood in place to watch the passing parade consisting of over 40 floats. I have been told that the parade entrants come from all over (there was even a drumming group from Bristol) and the performances are practised for months in advance, while the phenomenally detailed costumes are made by hand. The parade was out of this world and blew every other procession I’ve ever seen out of the water, and yes, I’m including that time some dude on a tractor threw Kit Kats into the crowd in the 1986 St Patrick’s Day Parade in Cork. 

So, as I wait for the next festival to roll around, I will continue to enjoy the lifestyle the Cáceres has to offer including delicious Jamon Iberico, café con leche with early morning churros, and the golden primavera sunshine. I’m working on the español..

Images: Sinéad Millea.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Why the long pause?

Mexico round up

Where have the last ten months gone? As most of my Facebook newsfeed has been informing me, 2016 was pretty much a shit show. My adventures in Mexico were not exactly an exception and processing my experience has taken some time so I hope those reading it will consider it a fair review. Since my last post, Sinead Nua has been on a rollercoaster, a stressful, nauseating one albeit with stunning views and beautiful people.

I took a job in a school that seemed to be setting the ESL forums alight with terrible reviews. But, in defense of the school in question, the reviews were written 7 years ago, and I know how so much can change in seven years. My previous school before that also had a terrible review but I worked there for 18 months and loved every minute of it. An experience is dictated as much by what you put in as what you get out. So, I took a punt on it and packed my bags for Mexico.  As you can see from my previous few posts, I met some wonderful people and had some super adventures. I can’t even begin to describe the hospitality and friendship I met there, and especially from so many of my colleagues, so anyone reading this, please know that you made my experience so much better. But I have to admit that one of the criticisms of the school is still a current problem, and despite my most diplomatic attempts I couldn’t improve the situation I was in, so I packed it in. Life’s too short.

I really must emphasise the positives however, I had a Principal who appreciated her team, and colleagues who were a joy to meet each morning, and who introduced me to various regional snacks because they quickly learned the way to my heart is through my belly. My students were a group of confident, clever, hilarious little monsters who I still miss every day, and my connections with them were strengthened by the relationships I made with their parents. My time at the school taught me so much more about being a teacher than I had realised it would and I am really grateful for that. During my time there I thought it best to enjoy the good points and block out the bad ones. But this came at a high price.

Six weeks in, I fell victim to Chikungunya which obliterated my immune system. Apparently it can stay in your system for up to a year so I’ve really only just shaken that off. What followed was a barrage of parasitic infections, a throat infection that felt like Chikungunya all over again, insatiable sinusitis, some weird alien like skin condition (classy), and of course, the cherry on the germ ridden cake, Zika. I could hear the infection fairies shouting, “Pile it on lads, there’s room for more, sher there’s not a white blood cell in sight”. My local doctor wasn’t exactly helpful, prescribing me a cocktail of crap and not even explaining the dos and don’ts, or delving further into the problem. I had diarrhoea for 2 months because he just kept writing out prescriptions instead of sending me for tests. In the end I went to a private doctor and, several months and $3000mxn later, I was diagnosed with a parasitic infection that was cleared up in a matter of days. A couple of these issues are what you’d call a run of bad luck, but all of them together were a sign that Mexico hated me and wanted me out. At least that’s how I looked on it at the time. Now, I reflect on my lifestyle there and realise that all of it was stress induced. The pace of life in Tuxtla Gutierrez was so frenetic, I could hardly breathe. I felt like I was rushing from point to point, barely even stopping to decompress or eat properly. My energy and motivation quickly waned until I felt like I was existing simply to work. The salary was relatively normal for the area but, as a single person living alone and saving for a relocation, it was impossible to save without a second job and even with that I still left the country with very little to get me started again. You don’t go to Mexico for the money, you go for the experience, and on that it definitely delivered. I am very grateful for the opportunity I had to live in Mexico, what I learned there, and the friends I made there but now it’s time to return to Europe...

Images: Sinéad Millea.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Howling, Trekking, and Fear Free Summits

A Weekend in Palenque

Since moving to Chiapas I’ve had a visit to Palenque pencilled in on my ‘to do’ list.  I remember keeping Ayutthaya on it during my time in Nakhon Sawan, but this trip never transpired.  It seems the places on my doorstep are infrequently prioritised.  Not that Palenque is on my doorstep with 275km separating us, but in Mexico this distance is practically a stone’s throw away.  The whole country is 1,972,550 square km, dwarfing my little Ireland.  In 10 hours by bus I would only reach the neighbouring state here.  After 10 hours on the road from my home town, I would find myself in serious need of an amphibious car.
So I hopped on the ADO overnight bus with my travel pillow, and ingested a couple of travel sick pills following some very sound advice from a friend whose entire family threw up on the windy road trip.  I slept through every bend and turn and woke up bright and bushy at the Palenque ADO station.  I hopped in a taxi and 60 pesos later I was at a hostel on the road to the ruins, which was a rookie mistake as there are a zillion Colectivos that take savvy travellers along the same route for 20 pesos, #facepalm. 
I wandered into a little establishment called ‘El Panchan’, where I was hoping to find an
available room.  In an earlier attempt to pre-book, I found the website confusing as it had information on three different accommodation options, all of which looked almost identical, and some vague directions on how to book.  I contacted them asking if I could book a room and gave my dates and was either told, “Yes, it’s available”, or “if it’s available”, and then our communication dropped off despite a follow up mail from me.  The difference between these two sentences is a simple accent, and I couldn’t tell whether the response was the former or the latter (with the accent lazily omitted).  Sometimes the language barrier leaves me withered and I usually end up winging it rather than have a confusing e-mail thread that leaves me frustrated at how little Spanish I really know.  So I rocked up as early as possible and hoped for the best.  I was checked in by 10am after having a delicious breakfast accompanied by two much needed coffees in the friendly bar.  The confusion of the website made sense when I arrived and had a look around.  It seems El Panchan is more of a community with several small businesses operating independently under one umbrella, so to speak, so the booking system explained on the website is rather pointless in my opinion.  How can you know which one you’re actually booking?  Anyway, I ended up in El Jaguar, in a triple room with private bathroom, and a décor resembling a humble jungle.  It was pretty quaint and smack bang in the middle of the actual jungle.  I had read that you can hear howler monkeys at night.  Some reviewers on Tripadvisor complained of the blood curdling noise keeping them awake, but I was really excited at the prospect of the experience.  I unpacked a few things for the day and set off to find the ruins.
As I mentioned, there are Colectivos that travel the route so it’s easy to get to the ruins, but it was a pleasant day for an amble so I wandered along the road for the short walk.  I stopped along the way for a visit to the museum in the hope that I might get a crash course in Mayan history.  The exhibition is very interesting and well laid out in a comfortably air conditioned space, with information in both Spanish and English.  I brushed up on some facts, all of which tumbled out of my sieve-like head within seconds.  The upside was that it made for a nice cooling break in my walk, and it was here that I purchased my ticket into the Archaeological site. 
The route to the ruins was an upland hike through the jungle, which surprised me as I had
the presumption that they would just be sitting at the roadside.  I had no idea.  I’m not one for reading a lot on a place I’m about to visit.  Once I get the feeling I want to go there, then I just about research how to get there but as for what to expect, I just roll with it.  Why bother, if you’re going to see it anyway?  Plus, reading up on places sets expectations and plans, and I’d much rather see what happens.  Nine times out of ten, amazing things happen when you don’t know what to expect, and trusting your gut can bring you some great adventures.  So I trundled on up to amongst trees, past waterfalls, and over a wobbly wooden bridge to find the remains of a great city in its untouched natural environment.  Feeling the sweaty recollection of the Pagodas in Bagan (, I scaled the Palace and sat to enjoy the view before the paralytic panic of acrophobia set in.  I sat in the midday sun and cursed my Swiss cheese brain for not bringing sunscreen.  Here comes another lobster face.  I heard some sniggering guys mention the red queen as they descended alongside me, but I remembered this being something to do with the history of Palenque and put my paranoia in a box.  In a temple facing the Palace, the burial place of an unidentified woman was discovered, so called the ‘Red Queen’ because she is thought to have been noble and she was covered in a red powdered mineral called cinnabar.
I wandered around the ruins, and even scaled another without fear, to my delight.  I hope that as I age I might shed a fear or two.  Losing my fear of heights and of deep water would be welcomed.  Maybe I could swap them for a fear of pepperoni pizza and red wine so I can finally get my arse in shape.  I paid a visit to the line of peddlers surrounding the ancient city and found some gifts for myself.  I also had my eye on a little toy I thought my nephew would appreciate.  The seller greeted me in English so our conversation continued in my first language, and while I queried the price I overheard him discussing it in Spanish with a colleague.  I held my tongue until he quoted a number in English that was four times the price he set in Spanish.  I repeated the numbers I heard in my novice level of the language and his face dropped.  I politely wished him a good day and bought the exact same thing from another seller who didn’t take me quite as far to the cleaners.  It can be a benefit to feign ignorance as a foreigner.  Then you can separate the businessmen from the swindlers.  The guy I bought from made a satisfactory 200% profit while I left happy that I didn’t pay the other guy.  This brought back a memory from Nakhon Sawan when I was waiting at a mechanics workshop while he repaired my motorbike.  He called out to a woman across the street, made some hand gesture, pointed to me, and said something that I didn’t understand, and then the two of them laughed AT me.  I waited silently, shoving down the temptation to smack him with a wrench, until he fixed my bike.  Then I mimicked the gesture he made, and asked him in Thai, “What is that?”  After his jaw crashed to the ground in shameful disbelief, I informed him that I understand Thai and gave him my ‘don’t feck with me’ look, because really I don’t speak perfect Thai so I don’t know what ‘feck’ translates to.  He apologised profusely and my bike repair was, of course, free.  Motto: Be kind, always.
So, with my souvenirs in my backpack, and smugness on my reddened face, I returned to my hostel for some lunch accompanied by a spicy Michelada and followed by an afternoon snooze.  I spent the evening reading and sipping more Micheladas until sleep weighed my eyelids.  I woke to the sound of an amazing live band and considered getting up to go see them, but in my hazy state I went back to sleep and snored right through the music.  I heard tales of the fantastic atmosphere the following day but felt no regret.  Sleep is mandatory to a teacher whose alarm clock stuns her awake at 5am each morning.  Said alarm clock is slowly losing components due to being flung at 5.05am each day.  As for the howler monkeys, I heard only one to my disappointment.  I had hoped to have been woken by the chilling roars overhead; I wanted to feel the thrill of the scare.  There are some things I don’t fear after all. 
After a satisfying breakfast of eggs, frijoles, and French bread, I went to meet my guide for the day.  I had arranged a walk through the jungle with a guy called Gabriel, who operates at El Panchan from a shop where his Canadian girlfriend sells her handmade clothes and jewellery. We waited for the rest of the group to arrive, consisting of one other, a Romanian guy called Alex.  The three of us set off by Colectivo to one of the jungle entrances open to the public.  The jungle is vast and only sections are available to the unfamiliar tourist.  Our guide however grew up in this area so his knowledge of the jungle is rather like my knowledge of my Mum’s back garden, he knows every square inch.  Although I must admit that this comparison may be inaccurate.  I was 21 years old when I discovered a big flowering Cherry Blossom tree gracefully standing at the far corner of my Mother’s garden.  I blurted out, “Where did that massive tree come from?” assuming it had been planted like that.  My Mother informed me that it had been there since we moved in, 15 years before.  So much for knowing every square inch of that place, but I think since then I’ve recorded the details of my childhood home more carefully for fear of embarrassing myself any further.  Gabriel took us along the path, where we stopped for a little chat with the jungle.  Yep, that’s what I said.  Gabriel explained that it is believed that the jungle is a living being and that we must respect her (I love that she’s a she) and ask for permission to enter.  This seemed strange to me, but while I sat there I realised that it’s not totally bonkers to realise that we are not the only living beings on the planet.  So although asking the jungle for permission to enter may seem unorthodox to me, showing respect for it seems completely reasonable.  It was suggested that we might want to speak to the jungle in our own language, so I silently asked, “An bhfuil cead agam dul isteach?”  I figured I’d try the tactic of asking for permission in Irish, so a silence may be understood as acceptance, a la planning permission posts in newspapers.
We moved on along the path and quickly diverted down through the tress towards the
river.  Gabriel stopped to point out some interesting things along the way, and picked leaves and twigs to tell us about their properties.  One you can boil in water and the liquid provides relief for stomach ache, the other smelled deliciously like a peppermint inhaler I carried with me in Thailand for relief from heat related headaches.  I took in it’s refreshing scent as we sauntered through the jungle, winding around spiky tree trunks and carefully stepping over ant armies.  Gabriel led the way with his finely tuned eyes watching out for snakes.  I just nudged that fact right out of my head, best not to think about it or I wouldn’t go any further.  There was life and activity all around, from insects underfoot to howler monkeys overhead, even including the plant life.  Gabriel’s advice was to look before you touch, or you could end up being bitten or spiked.  Every life form in the jungle has it’s own defense system and we are it’s most fierce enemies. 
We stopped for a moment to dig mud out of the ground; this reddish pliable clay was to be used later in what Gabriel called, “a spa treatment”.  We stopped at the river where there was a little waterfall and prepared to get in.  I had a swimsuit on under my clothes so I peeled off my jogging bottoms and t shirt and got into the water, spreading the clay all over myself.  Alex announced that he had forgotten a change of clothes so he whipped off everything and in he went.  Gabriel was delighted with the inhibition so he disrobed fully too and got in the water.  So there was I, covered in mud, surrounded by naked men.  An interesting development.  I had a swim and washed the mud off at the base of the waterfall.  Feeling refreshed, I got out of the water to dry myself off, taking great care to keep my eyes fixed on the penis free zone ahead of me.  I suppose, being at one with nature, it made sense to be naked but, baby steps eh?
We moved on up through the jungle, via the river, stepping barefoot up through the almost dry waterfalls.  During this time of year the river is ankle deep, but in rainy season the waterfalls flow energetically.  We stopped at many ruins that have become part of the natural environment.  Much of the immense Mayan city in Palenque is yet to be discovered, and a lot of it sits in the jungle entangled in tree roots.  I wondered what the view was like to the Mayans who built this city as I looked up at the shell of a building and tried to picture it as it once was.  Now, much older than the trees that envelope it, it sits encased in the jungle that has claimed it.  We climbed on top of a ruin and took a moment to absorb the smells and sounds around us, including the unmistakable roar of howler monkeys.  We decided to follow the sound until we discovered a group of them perched at the top of the tall trees.  I learned that they don’t come down, unless they fall!  Their whole lives are spent in the trees, and the spikes on some of the other trees we saw earlier began to make sense.  Each life form in the jungle has it’s own form of self preservation, enabling everything to co-exist.  As careful as we were not to be destructive, one creature did fall victim to our curiosity, the humble termite.  We approached a nest which Gabriel poked his finger through and withdrew a pinch of residents for us to taste.  I thought they couldn’t be any more gross than the cockroaches I ate in Chiang Mai so I gave them a try.  Strangely they tasted sweet and crunchy, like tiny carrots.  Gabriel told me that the insects would take an hour or so to repair the hole he made, but that he does the same thing the very next day with a new group of walkers.  Those poor termites.  I can picture a tiny facial composite of Gabriel with the words, ‘Beware of this human’ inside the nest, and the little termite cries of “Goddammit” with each hole punched.
We headed back towards an exit where the sight of food stalls, tour guides, and souvenir sellers brought us tumbling back to civilisation.  I jumped on a Colectivo and returned to my hostel to collect my bag and scoff some lunch before my seven hour bus journey to Tuxtla.  Lunch was a delicious plate of fried tacos washed down by a Michelada (naturally), and enjoyed with the melodies of merry Latino music that was being performed live in the bar.  When posters for happy hour were erected, announcing 2 for 1 cocktails, I was tempted to stay but the thought of being tipsy on those windy roads sprung me back to reason, so I picked up my bag and bid El Panchan hasta luego (see you later). 

Images: Sinéad Millea.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Dances with Parachicos

Fiesta Grande de Enero

I wasn’t so put out about Christmas vacation coming to an end this year.  I had a party plan for January, no dry month for me this year (who am I kidding?  I did that once, ages ago, and only lasted til the 29th).  I had been invited to celebrate the Fiesta Grande de Enero, in Chiapa de Corzo, with my Chiapanecan colleague.  The festival is a celebration of many feasts that fall during the month of January, including those of the patron saints, Our Lord of Esquipulas, Anthony the Great, and Saint Sebastian.  There are several different aspects to the festival, all steeped in history. 

At the beginning of the festival, men dress as Chiapanecan women with full make up and head dress and parade the streets.  I have heard that this tradition was born out of the protection of women who wanted to celebrate, the men dressed as women to accompany them.  Another story I’ve read about is that these men, referred to as ‘Chuntas’, represent the servants of Doña María de Angula, who I will tell you about.  These days it’s an opportunity for the men to have some fun and express their feminine side, and it provides those who would rather do this more often an opportunity to do so in a safe environment in, to my observation, an ordinarily macho society.

There is also a day when the Chiapanecans, the women of Chiapa de Corzo, fill the streets in their colourful dresses, but the evening I attended was when the Parachicos danced in the streets.  These are the men who dress in sarapes, which are poncho-like striped shawls, bristly hats made of a fibre called ixtle, and wooden masks that are decorated to mimic a Spanish face.  These take a bit of getting used to.  The eyes are painted, with holes underneath them for the wearer to see through.  You haven’t felt fear until you’ve looked into the painted eyes of a Parachico mask for the first time.  But once you get used to them, they’re pretty cool to watch.  The Spanish influence comes from an old colonial story about a rich Spanish woman called Doña María de Angula, whose son had a paralytic illness, which no doctor could cure.  She travelled in search of one and arrived in Chiapa de Corzo where she met a healer who directed her to bathe her son in a small lake.  To distract the young boy, some local men dressed as Spaniards and danced for the boy.  This is said to have cured him and the tradition of the dance lived on.  It became known as ‘Para el Chico’, which translates as ‘for the boy’.  This term has evolved and now the dancers are known as ‘Parachicos’.

There are many patrons of the festival who convert the front room of their homes to an area housing a statue, and decorated with offerings.  The status of patron is a much sought after one as it is a great honour.  The public are invited inside to pay respect to the saints, and the Parachicos are offered food and drinks.  During the evening, the Parachico dancers parade between these homes and stop to dance.  They fill the room and spill out to the street to perform a rather mesmerising stomp-like dance in complete silence.  All that can be heard is the sound of their feet pounding the ground.  I stood in the midst of all of this and looked around to see masked men, all dancing in unison, as if sharing one mind.  It was hypnotising.  At each stop the dancers drink, so as the night unfolds these guys get pretty intoxicated.  I was stumbled on my many, but here in Mexico politeness is of utmost importance so they were the most civilised of drunks as they apologised for bumping from person to person through the crowded streets. 

After following the parade for about an hour or so, I accompanied my friends to a house where the residents had put tables and chairs outside and served Micheladas to thirsty festival goers.  Many homes became small businesses, selling 6 packs, food, and drinks.  The petite cobbled streets were alive with activity, where people danced to live bands and drank until the wee hours of the morning.  I reluctantly left the party to return to my bed, as the stark reality of a 5am alarm call can dim any party atmosphere.  I envied the residents of the town, where most businesses close to allow people to continue the celebrations, but thirty minutes along the highway to Tuxtla, it’s business as usual.

The festival comes to a close in late January with a reenaction of a naval battle on the river, a huge fireworks display, and two days of parades.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the people in Chiapa de Corzo spend Febrary sleeping off January.  However here in Mexico people have bags of energy.  I’m still searching for the source..

Images: Sinéad Millea

Monday, 8 February 2016

!Feliz Navidad!

Christmas in Quintana Roo

Since the birth of Sinéad Nua, I’ve been chucking challenges at myself from left, right, and centre.  This one was going to be a little tough.  As a self confessed Christmasaholic who believes the festive season is all about sharing and caring, I was daunted by the prospect of spending the holidays alone, yet excited at the challenge of doing so.  Having travelled solo before I knew it was a doddle, but at this time of year one can be lonely for anyone so far from home. 

I flew to Cancun a couple of days before Christmas and hopped straight on a bus to Tulum to arrive late and tired at my hostel.  I ate in a local vegetarian restaurant and took my first breath of holiday air.  The past few weeks had been frenetic to say the least, between juggling two jobs, I still had the thin air of Tuxtla fighting to make way to my lungs. At 534m above sea level the city sits much higher than my port town so getting used to breathing the air takes time, as does getting used to wearing a uniform as thick as Joseph’s Technicolour Dreamcoat in the low 30s.  I needed that vacation.

The relaxation seeped into my muscles pretty quickly, and by the time I had hired a bicycle I was well on my way to chilling out.  It was Christmas Eve and I was pedalling along in search of the ruins that sit on the coastline.  I wandered around with admittedly very little knowledge of Mayan history and culture.  I promise to read something in my time here, hand on heart.  I was equally fascinated with the plant life surrounding the ruins, as the ruins themselves.  Beautiful fans of exotic leaves captured the sunlight and boasted intense shades of green.  Of course the sporadic rain showers guaranteed shininess, and slippery flip flops so I returned to the sanctuary of my hostel and started work on one of the several books I had packed in my weary rucksack.

 On Christmas Day I followed a lonely road towards the nearby cenotes.  I stopped at Gran Cenote, the most visited one, to find a nice garden where people sat on rugs having picnics, and lots of snorkelers exploring the underwater caves.  I got in but my status as ‘scaredycat’ has reached dangerous proportions and I freaked out a little at the thought of drifting into a cave and getting trapped forever and having to live on stalactites.  Irrational fear renders one, at the very least, completely bonkers.  I got out after about five minutes and congratulated myself on at least doing that.  Next stop was the beach; I deserved a Chelada for being such a brave little soldier.  Cheladas are one of my favourite discoveries since arriving in Mexico, along with Micheladas, Sincronizadas, Chilequiles, and Gorditas which are aptly named; Gordita translates as ‘chubby girl’  I fear I am becoming somewhat of a Gordita myself.  A Chelada is a beer with lots of fresh lime juice and salt, and is an amazing refreshment on the beach.  The beauty of Cheladas, and Micheladas, is that they contain such punchy flavours you have to sip them slowly, so my alcohol consumption has reduced quite a lot since moving to Mexico, which is always good news.  I watched kite surfers cruise back and forth, listened to super cool chilled beach choons, and read the book I had been neglecting over the past few months.  It was certainly the most relaxed Christmas I’ve ever had, I even forgot it was Christmas.  What was there to remind me?  The bikini clad sunbathers?  The soft white sand?  It was lovely to bask in it and forget about the madness that Christmas carries, end of season sales, getting everything preened and plucked in time for that one day, lifting a big ass turkey out of the oven that you know you’re going to be cursing for the next week.  I recommend a beach Christmas, if not for just one year.  After my afternoon of sunbathing and general lolling about, I decided I would treat myself to a posh dinner. I found the perfect place, a restaurant that had a big open fire used for cooking in the kitchen but not really required for heating purposes, I suppose nostalgia got the better of me for a moment.  It reminded me of a cosy country pubs where you’d go after a brisk walk through endless fields, and settle in for a delicious pint and a Sunday roast.  I ordered steak and red wine, and more red wine, and more red wine, and a chocolate brownie, and rolled back to my hostel in jeans that were far too tight for a meal of that magnitude.  I needed to be horizontal and in elasticated trousers for a while.  Not so vastly different from an Irish Christmas after all.
The following day I ventured a little further on my two wheeled stallion and found a sleepy beach in a tiny bay with sun loungers, palapas, and a pretty view of the Caribbean.  I had an obligatory Chelada that washed down guacamole and tostadas and rested my bulging belly in the sunshine.  I cycled back to repack my bag for an early departure to Playa Del Carmen by Colectivo the following morning. 

My hostel in Playa was located just off a big busy highway, with a construction site next door and a huge hole in the road right outside.  Feck.  But, inside was a haven with a garden, a pool, and a seating area with an outdoor kitchen.  I felt a little more at ease about my choice of accommodation, especially when I learned that the beach was only a ten minute stroll away in a straight line so even I couldn’t get lost on the way.  I had heard that PDC didn’t have a lot to boast, but I enjoyed the twinkling lights of 5th Avenue, and the atmosphere created by swarms of people parading the narrow pedestrian street that peaked and troughed along the coastline of the town.  I visited the beach for a day of sun worshipping and was disappointed to find the large hotels had a monopoly over it, and had rows of sun loungers that were strictly for guest use only.  They even went to the trouble of appointing security guards who patrolled the area protecting their many unused sun loungers against guerrilla sunbathers.  I’ve been to many beaches where restaurants and hotels have built
their businesses on the periphery, but I’ve always been able to sit on the loungers in exchange for a small purchase.  I found this commandeering of the beach space rather greedy and it made the presence of the hotels along the coast all the more oppressive and ugly.  You can’t see for hotels.  It wasn’t until I went looking for the ferry to Cozumel that I found the beach space for commoners like me, and was disappointed to see it was nicer and less crowded.  Lesson learned, explore more on day one!  There was one upside to the beach I frequented.  It was home to a chocolate café called Ah Cacao, where the speciality was a decadent spiced hot chocolate.  I told everyone who would listen to visit and try it.  While taking a break in the air conditioned café, I noticed advertisements on the wall for ‘Chocolate Therapy’.  I thought that was in the drinking of it, but evidently there are soaps, body oils, and creams on sale also.  Bloody waste of good chocolate if you ask me, but I guess slathering yourself with the stuff is less fattening than drinking it as much as I did in my three days in Playa. 

Back in the hostel the evenings were pretty social, and on one of the evenings a group of Australian guys broke out the barbeque and made a huge meal which they divvied out amongst the hungry folks who were chatting and sipping beer around the table.  I thought it polite to pop out and buy some beer, but they already had a crate load of that too, so I drank my own and enjoyed the banter.  The following morning was a struggle but so worth it, and as it rained a beach visit would have been a wash out.  Better to have a sleep in and a subway meatball sandwich..

 Next stop was Cozumel.  I was excited about spending New Year on an island.  So far on my travels I have learned one important thing, although I can settle almost anywhere, I do prefer to vacation in small places, preferably islands, where I can bimble around and have adventures on my own.  However Cozumel is big.  I had no idea until I got there how big, it’s easy to forget it’s an island.  My idea of cycling around in a day quickly got flung out the window and I hired a moped instead.  I drove on the main road around the island, which took hours.  It was an invigorating ride though.  On one side there was infinite sea, and on the other, seemingly endless lush vegetation that glistened beautifully in the afternoon sun.  With very few other vehicles on the road I felt like I was alone on the island, I felt free, independent, and thoroughly elated at having the opportunity once again to explore a beautiful place so far from home.  I returned to my hostel, parked up, and planned my New Year festivities.  I decided that I would remain in the hostel and take advantage of the exclusive use of the rooftop to ring in the new year by myself, and before anyone feels sad and sorry for poor old Sinead Nua, let me tell you this.  I had some good friends with me, wine and cheese.  I dropped my buddies, Malbec and Edam, off in my room while I went for a freshen up, and met my room mate, a German guy who was also travelling alone and was about to head downtown to check out the bars there.  I wished him a happy new year and went on my way.  I showered and headed for the roof where I met a family who were relaxing before going for a meal at a local restaurant.  They were from the North of Mexico and told me they vacation every year for the holidays.  They were surprised to see a woman travelling alone, and I think they assumed I was lonely.  I politely declined their invite to dinner; I was looking forward to my time alone.  I try to see the good intentions in people who look out for a woman on her own, but I feel disappointed at times that this has such a stigma.  When you’re done with this post, take a look at the article I’ve pasted below which gives the perspective of many women who have travelled alone.  It’s an inspiring read, no scary stories, nothing to confirm the fear that a woman isn’t safe alone.  I wish we could move past old fashioned sexist attitudes towards the capabilities of women.  Right, I’ve vented for long enough.  Let me get back to Cozumel because my story is about to get a little more interesting.  So, I said goodbye and happy New Year to the lovely family on the roof, found a playlist on Spotify, and tucked into my picnic.  Shortly after, my German roommate arrived back carrying a six pack of beer and a disappointment at the lack of atmosphere downtown.  I cleared some space and we chatted, and were joined by the third resident of our small dorm, a guy who had just flown in from Japan and who was suffering with jetlag.  We chatted about our experiences in Mexico and exchanged suggestions on where to go until our Japanese friend announced the time.  It was already 11.50pm and I had completely forgotten that it was New Year’s Eve.  We went to the edge of the roof to watch as locals celebrated with floating lanterns, it was nicely understated.  Then, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, captivating music wafted over the rooftops and lured us to the streets; well two of us, our Japanese friend gave in to the jetlag and went to bed after midnight.  My German acquaintance and I followed the sound through the neighbourhood, but ended up lost in a warren of sleepy streets, determined not to give up.  I had Malbec in my blood and I wasn’t ready to give up the night.  We encountered some local men chatting outside a house and I asked in my pigeon Spanish where the music was coming from.  Luckily one of them, a market seller, spoke English so we were able to communicate in a common language.  My Spanish is not Spanish you see, it’s Spanglish in a Cork accent.  Nonsensical, in a word.  We chatted for a bit before having cans of beer thrust at us.  We politely obliged, until one beer turned into several and an invite to dinner.  So I found myself in the middle of a family celebration, eating chicken and mashed potatoes at 2am.  So much for a quiet one.  Ironically I had earlier basked in a smug glow of the possibility of waking early to drive out and watch the sun rise.  Let’s just gloss over that one.  My night turned
out to be the most spontaneous and warmest of my entire holiday.  I excused myself shortly after they broke out the karaoke, and at 4.30am I retired for a long beer infused sleep.  The next day I sought out a reggae bar that I had clocked on my epic adventure around the island, and decided to nest there for the day soaking up the sun, reading, and eating nachos, the perfect hangover cure.  That evening, my new friend and I had made a plan to drop off some gifts to our hosts from the night before. We learned that they had partied on til 6am.  I wouldn’t have been awake long enough to join them.  My second, and final, night on Cozumel was quiet and relaxing in the garden of my hostel, where the music lulled me to sleep on my terrifyingly high top bunk.  I worried about rolling onto the floor below, a plummet that would have left me in a sorry state, so I hugged the wall for the entire night.  The fact that I slept soundly was testament to my tiredness.  After breakfast of the best Chilaquiles in the world, I set off for the ferry back to Playa Del Carmen, where I was to meet my fellow New Year’s Eve adventurer.  He had kindly offered to drive me back to Cancun, where he was catching his return flight to Munich.  While he looked forward to proper Bavarian beer, I longed for the blue sea of Cancun.  It was nice to have the company for the trip rather than another cramped van journey, and I arrived at the door of my hostel relaxed and ready to let Cancun show me it’s magic. 

I was too early for check in so I went to the roof where there was a bar, Jacuzzi, and plenty of places to lounge and I read in a hammock for a couple of hours.  I had booked this specific hostel, called Mundo Joven, purely because it boasted a rooftop Jacuzzi, but unfortunately in the three days I stayed there I never saw the remnants of a party cleaned out of it so I decided to steer clear of the murky water, with sand sunken to the bottom, and a floating party hat left there God knows how long before.  Disappointing, but the place turned out to be a pretty good hostel, scuzzy Jacuzzi aside. 

I had read an article a week before about an underwater sculpture gallery off the coast of Cancun, but with no specific location.  I thought if I could find out where it was I would definitely visit, it sounded incredible.  Whilst reading up on Isla Mujeres, an island just a short ferry ride from Cancun, and recommended by several people, I found it.  There it was in black and white, the MUSA underwater museum.  I was so excited, I planned a trip for the next day, but I still had a whole day before that so I checked into my dorm and was quite impressed by the set up they had.  Each bed had it’s own locker right beside it, with a power point inside so you could charge your gadgets while they were safely locked away, pretty clever. 

After packing a beach bag I caught the bus to the beach area, which was just a ten minute journey.  I got off at the very first of the many beaches and found myself amongst countless Mexican holidaymakers, and despite being the only white person on the beach, I mean Irish white, almost transparent, I managed to blend into the background and whiled away the afternoon reading in a hammock and enjoying a giant Michelada, for which the bar relieved me of 150 pesos, a pretty cheeky price considering a Michelada not enjoyed in a hammock on a beach might cost around 45.  However it had two beers in it, and it kept me occupied for the afternoon.  I stayed in my hammock until my eyes could read no more and I went looking for some dinner.  I thought against eating on the beach incase I would have to take out a mortgage on a fish taco, so I stopped in a place that looked like it had a decent vibe and some good local food.  I was right about the food, the Burrito I ate was delicious, but there was something fishy about the vibe.  I was too hungry at first to take anything in apart from the menu so I sat and ordered, and pulled out my book while I waited.  It wasn’t until I was a few mouthfuls into my dinner that I noticed all the eyes on me.  The place was filled with men.  Shite.  I had blindly decided once again, since Myanmar, to dine in an establishment not frequented by women or tourists, and as a blonde female foreigner I stood out like a baboon’s arse.  I was too hungry to care so I finished my dinner and took off.  There was nothing to be alarmed at, people are always interested in someone who is different and sometimes that involved the odd stare here and there.  At no point was I ever in any danger, and to think that would have been naïve and paranoid.  I prefer to think the best of people, I like to people-watch myself, and have probably been guilty once or twice of making someone uncomfortable by mindlessly staring at them whilst thinking something along the lines of, “I wonder where she comes from?”, or more likely, “Should I have chicken or fish for dinner?” because sometimes people just stare thoughtlessly and are of no threat whatsoever. 

I returned to my hostel for a shower and a trip to the rooftop bar to check out the evening atmosphere.  I met some friendly girls who all showed an interest in joining me in my plan to visit Isla Mujeres so we arranged to meet after breakfast and set off for a daytrip. 

Isla Mujeres was as beautiful as it had been described, and the weather was perfect.  We caught a taxi to the side of the island where the underwater museum was pin pointed on the map only to learn that the only boats with licenses to go there set off from the downtown area, where we had just come from.  There was an overwater sculpture museum on the peninsula which offered glorious views and some interesting pieces of modern sculpture.  One of the girls in our group was fluent in Spanish and had a great talent for polite negotiation.  She managed to get hold of the number of a local guy who ran tours so we haggled his price down in exchange for a trip to the MUSA museum only.  There were other stops on offer, but this was our one and only priority.  We got a great price and arranged to go over to him after lunch.  We had spotted a cute little café from our taxi further back on the road so we, confused by the difference between walking and driving, thought it was only a little jaunt away and that we could walk it.  We ended up dragging ourselves limply along the road as hired golf carts and taxis whizzed by, with every turn in the road revealing not the café, but another bleedin’ turn in the road.  We gave up, one of us having fallen victim to a foot blister, and hitch hiked.  An American couple in a golf cart stopped to our rescue and drove us to the café, apologising all the way for their slow cart.  I assured them that, compared to our walk, it felt like flying with Concord.  The air flowing through our hair cooled us down and we arrived with a thirst for a cold drink and a hunger for some great local food.  The fish tacos did not disappoint.  I even tried the chef’s own hot sauce, which comes with a spice warning.  I carefully dabbed the tacos with a suggestion of the sauce which was enough, I am still building my tolerance but it’s a work in progress.  When I first arrived in Mexico, just having the sauce in the vicinity was too much spice for me.

 After lunch we went in search for our boatman, not quite sure of whom we were to be met with, or what his credentials were.  When he brought us to his business we were relieved to see he was the real deal, a professional boat tour company, with clean equipment and knowledgeable staff.  We were kitted out with snorkels, fins, and life jackets and were escorted to a nice boat, in which we sped out to view the sculptures.  We stopped in open water, and were each helped to jump into the sea where a guide swam ahead for us to follow.  As we approached a piece of sculpture he pointed down and we marvelled at the view below.  I had read about each piece so it was fascinating to see them with my own eyes, particularly the VW Beetle which offers a home to marine life, and the Banker, a tongue in cheek piece which comments on the recent financial crisis.  Each of the sculptures depicts man’s affect on the planet, and in turn helps counteract the damage to the marine life by nurturing the growth of coral on the pieces.  What’s beautiful and fascinating about this project is that it will never look the same as it does right now.  Next year, the year after that, and forever, the coral and seaweed will grow on and around it, changing the shape and the colour, the sea will eventually claim it as its own.  I was humbled to see it with my own eyes, and along with my spontaneous New Year family, it was one of the highlights of my entire trip. 

The girls headed back to a market they had heard of and I spent the evening sipping beer on the beach and watching the sun set over the horizon.  Following a massage (are you even surprised?  You should know me well by now!), I returned sleepily on the ferry to my hostel where I met the others who had picked up a few new buddies and were playing drinking games, except nobody had any alcohol.  What is it with kids these days?  I had an early night in preparation for another beach day in Cancun, but lady luck frowned on me and it flippin’ lashed all morning.  When the rain stopped, the clouds that were left behind roused little motivation to head towards the beach so I got the cracking idea to go to the cinema and eat nachos instead.  So I did.  My last day in Cancun was spent in McDonalds eating ice cream and the cinema eating nachos, and I don’t even feel any shame.  I had an adventurous two weeks so wasting a day being a sloth brought no guilt, and it was a nice relaxed ending to my vacation.  I flew back to Tuxtla sporting a smidgen of a tan, and a belly that now protrudes quite rudely over my jeans.  Bloody Gorditas. 

¡Feliz año nuevo!

Images: Sinéad Millea, Rica Wichmann, Aleksandrs Ziskins.

Monday, 23 November 2015

A ghostly weekend

Dia De Los Muertos

My initial understanding of the Day of the Dead festival was that it was Mexico’s version of Hallowe’en.  I now realise it’s much more than that.  Like our Pagan inspired festivities during All Hallow’s Eve, Dia Los Muertos is centred on souls who have passed before us.  But while we run from door to door dressed as the latest comic villain, the Mexicans give the event a more personal touch.  Altars are constructed and displayed in homes and businesses, and are dedicated to people who have passed away.  They are usually decorated with marigolds, and filled with the favourite foods and drinks of the person being remembered, as it is believed that they will return on the night to eat and drink from it.

Cemeteries are, in my mind, places of mourning, quiet but for the deafening din of loss.  However, on the night of this Mexican celebration, they are festooned with flowers and altars, the food is eaten, and music is played in celebration of those who have died.  It’s bright, it’s colourful, and it’s noisy.  For me this seemed a strange tradition, for I am not a fan of cemeteries, I don’t like to think of our dead there in that hollowed ground.  But in Mexico it is believed that the spirits arrive and visit for one more night, an ideal that most long for after losing a loved one. From my perspective, I feel ill at ease with having to face the memories of someone who has gone, to feel their loss all over again, so I was yet to be won over on the ‘partying at the graveside’ front.

At school we had a celebration of our own and the teachers constructed a fabulous altar dedicated to the children’s song writer, Cri Cri (Francisco Gabilondo Soler), who died in 1990.  Each of the Kindergarten teachers played a part of one of Cri Cri’s animal characters and we put on a show for the students where we danced around to a selection of his songs.  I played a mouse and, with hindsight, I realise that dangling costume elements may not have been a great idea as I jumped about escaping little hands that were trying to pull off my tail.  You live and learn in the world of Kindy teaching.  After the performance everyone sat down to the food and drinks that were displayed on the altar; Mexican favourites such as tamales, pozol, and pan de muertos. Having experienced my first Dia Los Muertos celebration, and witnessed delight rather than sadness, I felt more at ease with the idea of the celebratory customs and began to feel like it was a much more positive tradition for all involved.

With my lifted spirit I took a trip to San Cristobal de las Casas for the weekend to see what the folks there had in store for their celebrations.  You may remember from my last post, I spoke very highly of this pretty town in the mountains and, as I had a visitor from England, I thought it the best option to make a good impression.  I arrived late on Friday night, after a week of prepping for Halloween and Dia Los Muertos activities in both the schools I work at (It turns out the Mexican cost of living is higher than that of Thailand, and the salary is lower.)  I fell exhausted onto my bunk bed in the hostel, not even a nightcap to be had, and woke on Saturday, rested and ready for the weekend.  After some exploring in the bustling market we had a chocolate break in a little chocolate café on the main street where we people-watched and plotted our next move.  We headed in the direction of one of the big churches, where we were met by a lady reading tarot cards.  I couldn’t resist, I handed over 100 pesos for a rather generic reading advising me I had a decision and, although I should look at all my options, I already have the tools I need to make the right choice.  So with that golden nugget in my back pocket, where my 100 pesos could have been, I trundled on up the several million (or so it felt) steps to a brightly painted church overlooking the town.  I basked in the golden afternoon sun as I heaved breath back into my lungs.  I need to get back to the gym; I admit I’ve been milking the ‘no exercise’ rule given to Chikungunya convalescents for long enough now.

The day jaunted along in the beautiful glow of the sun which made everything so much more iridescent, the shiny gold of a VW beetle contrasted with a dark wall of graffiti, and the brightly coloured shops and churches.  It all inspired so much relaxation.  The day evolved to night as we sipped another glass of wine, and while the marimba bands serenaded us as we washed down the delicious tapas, we decided we were far too settled in and cosy to go back to our room to refresh.  By now I was far too relaxed … 

While I chatted and sipped beer, my 8 year old leather handbag from a previous trip to Hong Kong was sitting beside me on a chair.  In the blink of an eye it got swept away by an inconsiderate opportunist, along with my market purchases, my Kindle Fire, my crappy old smartphone, my sunglasses, and my wallet with my driving license and the rest of my weekend’s funds.  The money I can earn again, the phone was so old it had cataracts, the sunglasses were cheap old things from Tesco Lotus, and the driving license is replaceable, although it will cost me the equivalent of 2 evenings at my second job to replace.  What knocked me most about this whole ordeal was losing my tablet.  I know what you’re thinking; first world problems, right?  I suppose you could call losing the thing that kept me connected to my family while I am living 5,000 miles away (already feeling homesick) a first world problem but, for me in that moment it was a kick in the guts and a rip in my heart.  I acknowledge now that this is rather an overreaction; however I’ve not had something stolen from me since my coat was taken from the cloakroom in first year (7th grade), so you can imagine my disgust and lack of experience with this sort of thing.  Anyway, over the next week I decided that it was probably best to just forget it, as it’s been implied that there’s nothing anyone (one would normally turn to) can do in these situations, even if they cared enough to bother with the paperwork, so I admitted defeat and bought the cheapest Samsung tab I could find and loaded it with all sorts of security software that will allow me to shut it down and shut out a venomous klepto should I fall victim again. A word to the wise: keep all personal information off mobile devices.  Just think of what the sticky fingered feckers have access to once they hack in.

My premature departure from San Cris, and it’s continuing Dia Los Muertos festivities, on Sunday was with nauseous feelings, and I’m not talking about the wine from the previous night.  I just wanted out of there.  I was also saddened that the short time my friend had with me had been shortened further, having to comfort me while I mourned a device.  I was so frustrated that the handbag incident had threatened to ruin my view of such a wonderful place, a place that I had heard so much about in my research into living in Chiapas, and once again I felt intense anger at that being taken away from me too.  

However, positive thoughts will prevail.  I intend on going back to San Cristobal to give it a chance to redeem itself, with my head held high and my handbag superglued to my shoulder.

Images: Sinéad Millea.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

¡Viva México!

ESL teaching in Tuxtla Gutierrez 

                                                         "And if we go to Mexico,
                                                            Will it be a new leaf?"
                                                                     - Mundy

I decided I was due a new adventure, and what a whirlwind it's been! A new language, a tropical disease, an earthquake, and 24 new little brains to educate. Pull up a chair; this is going to be a good one!

After four wonderful months getting reacquainted with my mother country, and all the reverse culture shocks it threw at me (wearing shoes indoors, WTF?!), I took flight again for pastures new. I relocated to Tuxtla Gutierrez, in the lush green state of Chiapas, in Mexico. Why? Why not!

I landed in the city's tiny airport and was escorted to my new home, a little apartment in a neighbourhood called 'Jardines de Tuxtla', where the streets are named after flowers. It's picturesque and friendly and I think this will be a good base for me. After my long flight, I hit the hay and dreamed of guacamole mountains.

My first day at school whizzed by in a jetlagged blur and, jetlag aside, this is pretty much how the next six weeks has been. I arrived late due to visa issues so my four week orientation got condensed into two days, which were spent furiously making classroom resources and decorations. I'll be happy if I never have to see a hot glue gun again til my dying day. But it was all worth it when the students showed up and excitedly explored their home from home.

Whilst researching my new adopted city I came across news of earthquakes that had occurred here and this sparked a bout of paranoia, what the hell am I supposed to do in the event of an earthquake??  Everywhere you go there are safety notices on ‘sismos’ explaining, with stickmen illustrations, the steps to take but, in true Sinead Nua style, I had many questions.  I hoped for an earthquake drill at school to educate me and open a forum for my many queries.  They say you should be careful what you wish for, and ‘they’ would be right.  One week into teaching a colleague came running to my classroom and announced we needed to go downstairs, and in the urgency all I heard was “earthquake”.  I leapt to my feet and guided the students out of the room, down the stairs, and across the school grounds to the safe zone, all the while cheerily chatting and reassuring the munchkins that it was only pretend.  It wasn’t.  And I didn’t even notice.  Earthquake: check, I’ve so got this (as long as it doesn’t happen while I am snoring in my flat that is…)

Mid September marks Independence Day in Mexico, when everywhere gets festooned with Christmassy looking decorations (the colours of the Mexican flag are red, white, and green), and the locals treat themselves to a day of partying on the streets.  I took the opportunity to travel to San Cristobal De Las Casas with some of my new teacher friends.  San Cris is just an hour from Tuxtla and, due to its elevation, is far cooler in temperature.  It’s a small town that has a European village feel, with great little bars and restaurants, and a terrific market selling all sorts of Mexican clobber, the shopaholic inside began doing somersaults.  I popped my mezcal cherry and spent the following day nursing a brutal hangover.  My rookie mistake was thinking it was a shot, it’s supposed to be sipped and enjoyed slowly.  Typical bleedin’ Paddy.

Since day one in Tuxtla people have warned me of two things to be cautious of, Chikungunya and stomach upsets.  Foolishly I did not take heed and found myself flattened for a whole week with symptoms of both.  I contracted Chikungunya from a wily mosquito, one of the several million that bit me over the past few weeks, and was reduced to a creaky, sorry state.  Chikungunya is similar to Dengue in that it cannot be prevented with medication or vaccination; you just have to avoid meeting that infected and thirsty mosquito and smother yourself with repellent that smells so potent it makes me worry for my safety around naked flames.  The stomach issue, called Proteus, was a surprise for me, having spent two years happily eating street food in Nakhon Sawan, one of which had a rodent visitor the size of a badger.  However, as explained by my doctor, there is bacteria present here that my system has not become accustomed to yet, so it’s important to take caution at first.  Noted, I now eat my own cooked food rather than play taco roulette at the local cantinas, well borin’.

Despite my shattered immune system, living in Tuxtla has been an easy transition so far.  The language barrier is less limiting than what I experienced in Thailand, aided by my (admittedly weak) knowledge of French, which is kind of the cousin of Spanish. The people here are as friendly and tolerant of my inexperience as the locals in Nakhon Sawan were, and I am again reminded of the importance of treating 'the other' with respect and compassion, something yet to be learned in other areas of the world, my own country included.  So, I look forward to exploring the countryside and learning more about the Mexican culture.  The Day of the Dead festival is looming, and it’s promising to be a humdinger.  I shall keep you updated!

PS, Between frantically scrambling to prepare for school and lying in a heap on my sofa I have not yet explored with my camera, but photos are promised as soon as I get my arse in gear!