A Floating Fiesta: Xochimilco

Just an hour south of Mexico City’s Zócalo lies the ecological reserve of Xochimilco (pronounced So-chi-mil-co), the Náhuatl word for ‘place where flowers grow’. Here you will find a network of canals and a series of artificial islands, more romantically known as ‘floating gardens,’ called chimpanas. They originally formed a part of Tenochtitlán (the pre-Hispanic name for what is now Mexico City) – the Aztec city on a lake that the Spanish conquistadors called ‘the Venice of the New World’; today Xochimilco forms a part of the Federal District of Mexico City.

In recognition of its cultural and historic importance and danger of disappearance it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, in order to raise awareness and implement measures for its protection. UNESCO declares it an “exceptional agricultural system, based on the combination of environmental factors and human creativity…one of the most productive and sustainable agricultural systems in the world.” However, its productivity and efficiency remain severely threatened due to new agricultural technology, excessive ground-water extraction, development pressures and contamination. There are now extensive efforts by authorities at local, federal, state and national levels to promote sustainable conservation and management policies in the area.

After taking the metro to Tasqueña, followed by the Tren Ligero to Xochimilco, there are lots of guides to show you to one of nine embarcaderos (boat landings) in the area. They are so helpful, in fact, that one followed us the entire way on his bicycle to make sure we went the right way, no doubt directly to the boatman who pays his commission. Upon arrival it is very important to haggle your way to a good price. This will depend on the number of you in your group and how long you want your river tour to be. We paid $100 each for what was supposed to be half an hour but was actually an hour, and as unpaid volunteers living in Mexico we also consider ourselves very seasoned bargaineers! You should also factor in that the boatmen expect a tip, so try and join forces with other tour-seekers looking for a good deal.

The boats are gondola-style vessels called trajineras, each charmingly named in classic feminine Mexican nicknames like ‘Dulce Lupita’ and ‘Ana Paolita’. They are wonderfully and uniquely decorated in traditional Mexican colours and styles: with up to two hundred boats on the water at any time it is quite a sight to behold. As soon as you reach one of the main canals the atmosphere is as bright as the paint, and the air vivacious with laughter and music as the boats float cheerily along, each one’s passengers admiring the others in a joyful display of the Mexican spirit of sociality. Smaller boats weave their way between them offering chela (cold beer), esquites (sweetcorn), potted flowers and knick-knack souvenirs. There are also boats with Mariachi bands, ready to hop aboard and sing you a pretty ditty, for a small fee of course. Luckily not all of the visitors were penny-pinching like us, so we enjoyed a lot of music at the expense of other boats and their entertainers! There were two lanes in each direction so there was a lot of meandering and overtaking, carefully negotiated by the distinct whistles of the boatmen. Nevertheless, we did encounter one head-on crash, much to the amusement and uproar of all those on board!

There is also the option to alight at various points to peruse the garden centres, buy refreshments, or if you have a taste for the grotesque, request to stop by the infamous ‘Isla de las Muñecas’ – Island of the Dolls. Here you will find dolls with missing limbs and decapitated heads hanging from the trees, the origin of which is shrouded in mystery and legend in true Mexican folk-history fashion. It is said that Don Julian Santana Berrera found the drowned body of a little girl and hung the first doll – which he also found in the canal – in respect. But he was haunted by the girl’s spirit which had manifested itself in the doll, so he began to hang more dolls in order to appease her. The dolls are supposedly possessed by the spirits of dead girls, and are said to move and whisper to each other. After 50 years of collecting dolls, Don Julian died in 2001 by drowning in the very same spot where he found the girl; the floating island became a tourist attraction, and visitors often bring their own dolls to add to the collection.

A trip to Xochimilco is a delight for the senses and a must for anyone visiting Mexico City. It offers a refreshing taste of the frivolity, fervour and fiesta-atmosphere of traditional Mexico in stark contrast to the colonial grandeur of central Mexico City built by the Spaniards atop of the ancient Aztec city. Sure it’s a tourist hotspot for both internationals and natives alike, but there’s absolutely nothing forced or synthetic about it, and above all you’re guaranteed to leave with a smile.

New Horizons

I’ve been living in Mexico for 5 months now (enter obligatory ‘where did the time go?!’), and have 7 months left. On Friday I had my last day of work at a children’s home and school, and tomorrow I begin working with street children in Puebla’s largest open-air market. Of course I was really sad to leave the sproglets I had grown so close to, but changing job half way through is also a great opportunity to reflect on what I have learned so far and what my goals are for the rest of my time here.

After my studies I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the third sector, helping vulnerable people and working with rights and development, but I had no real ‘front line,’ ‘on the ground’ experience before I came to Mexico. As the daughter of two teachers, teaching was always something I was relatively hellbent on avoiding, but I suppose it is also inevitably a fundamental part of my upbringing and approach to things. So as much as I had no intention of teaching during my time volunteering in Mexico, I began my job at the children’s home and it was teaching that I ended up doing there.

I started working in the classroom and I didn’t really like the formal structure of things (even though it’s nowhere near as formal as the British education system) – I never wanted to teach, I thought, I like having fun with the children and playing more of a social role. I like engaging with them and feeding their curiosity, I don’t want to tell them to go away and sit down and listen in a one-way stream of ‘education’. But the longer I spent in the classroom, and the more I understood the needs and characters of the children, the more I came to appreciate what it really is that they learn there, and it’s so much more than Spanish, Maths and Colouring Inside The Lines.

As there isn’t an extensive system of state social care like there is in the UK, the role of the teacher in the Mexican classroom (particularly in schools like the one at the children’s home) is much more closely linked with the personal, psychological and physical wellbeing of the children. As I built a close relationship with the teacher I worked with every day in Primer Grado, she explained to me the problems of the children and how concerned she was for their personal development and educational progress given the difficult circumstances that had led to them living in the home. I realised that even at the age of 6 their education is the single most important factor in their ability to better their future, their economic situation, and their behaviour towards and contribution to their family, community and society. The teacher was not only teaching reading and writing, but also potentially influencing wider social change, especially in teaching against violence, sexism and racism. When they are at school they are in a safe and secure environment, the importance of which cannot be overstated. It dawned on me then: perhaps teaching is the most effective type of social work there is?

If you are a lively, engaging, inspirational teacher, you are offering children a much brighter view of the world than they maybe experience at home, and every child deserves an equal chance to have hopes and dreams, to discover where their talents lie, to participate in social and political life, to be conscientious citizens and create a better world. My mind drifts back to Mr McMillan, my year 5 teacher who had travelled to Mozambique and was probably the first person to teach me about poverty and other cultures and ways of life, and Mr Mallindine, my secondary school geography teacher from years 7 to 11, who taught us not only about maps, rivers and rocks, but also geographical and environmental politics and resource inequality. They inspired me more than I ever could have known at the time. I still don’t know what I want to do, but I know what I want to be and what I want to give.

Teaching has really been experiential learning for me, and reminded me of many things that I largely lost touch with in the nine years since I left compulsory education; adulthood can be so serious. More than anything, I can attest to the power of praise, and that has no age limit. There is absolutely no feeling like helping to achieve a child with something they’ve struggled with – seeing immense pride on their face and feeling a warm nuzzle of gratitude. It also becomes very difficult to separate laughter, confidence, knowledge and happiness. I really feel like patience is the golden thread linking all of these things. Teaching, like life, is a work in progress, and the more you sow, the more you reap.

I may or may not have subconsciously learned something about teaching from my parents, but I definitely inherited the ability to make a complete fool of myself (some times more intentionally than others) with the benefit of making people feel more at ease. I have found this ‘skill’ to be especially valuable in working with vulnerable children. I feel like they were comfortable with me largely because my spanish was (and is) so terrible; there was no shame in attempting something and getting it wrong. We were on mutual ground and shared reciprocal respect: I was learning just like they were, and that undoubtedly helped us to bond. Both inside and outside of the classroom, kindness goes a long way, and it isn’t always as much in the words exchanged as a smile of encouragement, or simply saying or doing something ridiculous.

Of course I was terribly sad to leave my littlies – there wasn’t a post before me and I won’t be replaced – so the children who had one-to-one help from me just won’t get it any more. That makes me feel awful. But I have to be realistic about the impact I can have in my year here, and I hope that my legacy (although that word is far too grand) is one of positivity. The school’s resources are so overstretched, and I gave those children attention and encouragement that they just didn’t get before. They have also had a taste of intercultural difference and now know that England isn’t a state in Mexico, and that yellow isn’t pronounced gel-o.

So tomorrow I embark on a new adventure and a new job, in ‘social care’ as I originally wanted. Honestly, I won’t be at all surprised if I’m desperate to get back to the classroom, but time will tell. Wish me luck!

¿Tienes novio?

Another day, another feria in Puebla: today was the turn of San Antonio de Padua. Saint Anthony – a compassionate man, and acclaimed worker of many miracles – is known as ‘the finder of lost articles’ and, more specifically in Mexico, as the Saint of matchmaking. To be ‘attached’ is, in Mexico, probably the most important character-defining feature. The question I am most frequently asked, often by the same person on each and every encounter, is “¿tienes novio?” meaning “do you have a boyfriend?” When I meet somebody, no matter who, it is guaranteed to be mentioned within the first few seconds of introduction. My response of “no” is usually met with a “why not?” – and even on one occasion with a sympathetic “don’t cry!” …Right. Being intentionally or happily single just isn’t an understandable or valid status here.

San Antonio exterior
San Antonio exterior

So imagine the furore when, on one holy day each year, women have the opportunity to appeal to that holy miracle worker and finder of things lost, San Antonio, to cure them of their shameful single status and the pitiful lament of solitude and match them with a man. People had told me about this tradition, and I had thought it amusing and interesting, but today I experienced how serious it really is. The young and not-so-young alike amassed at the church of San Antonio to pray for their most desperate wish to be granted: Please God, find me a boyfriend.

San Antonio interior
San Antonio interior

There are a number of procedures you can follow to maximise your man-catching potential. First option: fill a little felt purse (available for purchase at the entrance) with thirteen coins of the same denomination to deposit in the church; second, buy a red ribbon (also available for purchase) and tie it around the statue of Tony; or third, buy a red candle (handily available for purchase – spot the pattern?) to light and deposit at the altar. The most dedicated take no chances. I did none of these things, so it seems I may be destined to singledom forever BOO HOO.

I didn’t leave with hopes of being bestowed with a boyfriend, but with a great big beasty bread called pan de fiesta (also known as pan de burro). Contrary to popular opinion, I think I’ve got my priorities right.

Doing the Tourist Thing: Atlixco

Living in the city of Puebla, the fourth largest metropolitan area in Mexico and the capital of the state of Puebla, we are never short of things to do. But having been here for a few months, we decided that rather than continually spending our weekends at our favourite haunts in Puebla’s downtown, we ought to explore some of the cities in the surrounding area. And so one Saturday we chose to go to Atlixco. We had heard that Atlixco is famous for the cultivation and export of ornamental plants and cut flowers, and I LOVE flowers. I had the idea that the hour drive from Puebla would be like driving through the ‘Garden of England,’ the Kentish countryside, in the journey I often took between my home town of Hastings and the city of Canterbury where I went to university. This was not so. I don’t know what we did wrong, but we didn’t see any flowers. None, despite asking vendors in the market. Maybe we just missed the season. It’s also famous for its festive lights, so maybe we’ll try another visit in the run-up to Christmas.

It was a perfectly nice city, but nothing extraordinary, and really we’re spoilt living in Puebla because there’s honestly no Zócalo I’ve seen to rival ours. Pueblans will proudly tell you that this is because Puebla was at some point supposed to be the capital city of Mexico so got the best Zócalo, but there are a lot of stories Pueblans like to tell visitors about the city..! Zócalo is the name for a central square, and each one is supposed to serve three purposes: religious (home to an important church or cathedral), civil (political/public offices), and social (normally some benches and trees). Disappointingly, the most prevalent feature of Atlixco’s Zócalo is purely commercial: an ugly and imposing branch of The Italian Coffee Company, the Mexican version of Costa. The chain-you-can’t-get-away-from has trademark ugly green and wicker décor, and horrid looking ‘cakes’ screaming “we’re not fresh!” from their cellophane wrapping. I bought a coffee there once and won’t be making that mistake again. I feel a bit harsh putting my scathing review of The Italian Coffee Company under Atlixco’s post because there’s more to the town than that, but we all rolled our eyes when we saw it dominating the Zócalo.

We began scaling the hill up to what looked like a church at the top, but there was no clear path, and after trying a few dead-end streets and passing a few too many guard dogs pacing up and down growling, barking and bearing their gnashers, we abandoned the mission and headed back down to the square. Since being bitten on the behind I prefer to keep my distance. Some dogs are strays, some are semi-owned, and some are owned but completely neglected. Another flop in Atlixco – it wasn’t really our day.

The best thing about our trip was the food. Mexicans know that the best place to eat is in the market, so we headed straight there and weren’t disappointed. There isn’t a formal menu, the cooks just give you tasters as you wander through, and if you like it you take a seat, order the meat by weight, purchase tortillas from one of the ladies selling them in the market, and enjoy. We had a tray of cecina, beef that is salted and dried before being fried; carne enchilada, chilli-dressed meat which comes in many forms, but is essentially slow-cooked in a chilli and tomatoey sauce; and a salad of nopal (cactus), pickled carrot and jalapeños (¡pica, pica!), avocado, tomato, cheese and lettuce. All washed down with Boing fruit juice and refreshing Corona.

In every town centre you needn’t look hard to find a shop selling handmade ice lollies and ice creams of every flavour imaginable. On this occasion I had a triple scoop ice cream of cherry, coconut and pistachio, yum!

So although I won’t be hurrying back to Atlixco, it was a nice enough afternoon – good to explore somewhere different, and if nothing else reaffirm my love and appreciation of Puebla!