All posts by Ellie Cusack

My first slice of Kid Pie

One month in, and I’m embarrassed to say that time is still proving quite the little enigma. Since my last post discussing ‘ahora’ and ‘ahorita’, ‘un rato’, ‘un ratito’ and ‘ya’ have all been added to the equation, meaning that despite learning more Spanish vocabulary, discussing short term plans is in fact increasingly impossible! So ‘un rato’ is supposedly a short while and ‘un ratito’ a shorter while. And ‘ya’ is the closest thing to British right now, although it technically translates as ‘already’. Yep. What the…?! And this is a hurdle I face at least twice a day. It’s just something I never even thought about at home. “Lunch will be ready at 2.” “Ready to leave in 5 minutes?” “See you in 10.” It’s never vague. I try to stick to using this method of asserting specific times but I think it makes me seem very strange: why is this girl so moronically obsessed with exact timings?!

At least I know what time I need to be at work and what time to leave: a schedule, hurrah! What a relief to know where I’m supposed to be and when! I am working in a school and orphanage with the youngest class of six-year-olds. And while the debate in anthropology between cultural relativism and cultural universalism rolls on seemingly for ever more, one thing is undeniable: children are charming beyond words, everywhere. The adorability of the children is just one of many similarities between the school in Mexico and schools in the UK. The children are impeccably turned out upon arrival and leave grubby from head to toe; they’re eager to help and even more eager to please; they’re usually happier scrabbling around on the floor than in their seats; the girls have pretty bows in their hair and the boys are more inclined to push and shove; music lessons inevitably turn into a completely uncontrollable riot; and the classroom is frequently filled with the waft of little bottoms.

Despite my appalling lack of Spanish, I’ve found that being armed with an open pencil case has an international language of its own, which has absolutely saved my bacon!

I would like to share a classic teaching scenario that has had me laughing ever since:

¿Qué rima con Victoria?

“…zanahoria.”

Qué rima con Fernanda?

“…demanda.”

“¿Qué rima con Kevin?

“¡CACAHUATE!”

In English: the teacher asks for words that rhyme with the children’s names, only for a little girl to reply to “what rhymes with Kevin?” with “PEANUT!” No, Camila, peanut does not rhyme with Kevin!

Outside the classroom, I’m essentially an overgrown toy to play with, and can most often be found being tickled and poked with jabby little fingers, or yanked about along with cries of “¡es mía!” “¡no es mía!” I’d be lying if I said I minded.

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Culture Shock: Traffic and Time

I think it’s fair to say that I was pretty blasé about coming to Mexico. Not because I didn’t have any feelings about it, but because I made a conscious decision to suppress them. I was adamant that I wanted to come with an open mind and to minimise any preconceived ideas and expectations. One thing I was particularly unsure about was where Mexico lay conceptually in the continent of ‘America’. I’d always thought of Mexico as South America, but it’s actually geographically north of Central America, and is a member of the North American Free Trade Agreement – so did it technically count as North America? And what would it be like?

In all honesty, I had assumed Mexico to be far more US-influenced and Western than it is. Of course, there are coastal tourist hotspots that are full of North Americans, but residing in the ‘cultural and religious capital’ of Puebla as I do, European culture especially is largely unknown and irrelevant to most people here. From an anthropological point of view the Latin American culture is fantastic for me, but in terms of culture shock: it’s BIG! I spoke in my post ‘Participant Observation’ about my first impressions, but the food, climate and people are things that any tourist can learn about Mexico. Living with a local family allows me to experience real Mexican life, and the culture shock comes largely from the ‘comfortable chaos’ that is so characteristic of life here.

One thing that I learned about pretty quickly was the concept of time, or more accurately, lack of. When it comes to plans, schedules and organisation, time just doesn’t seem to be a consideration! I had learned that the Spanish for ‘now’ is ‘ahora’. In England, now means, err, now. And if you say now you mean now. Simple, surely? No no, in Mexico ahora is more like ‘maybe now but actually more likely at some unspecified time in the future’. If you mean right now, it’s ‘ahorita’. “Ok, got it” I thought to myself. In a couple of weeks, however, as I grew increasingly bewildered by my constant readiness and waiting, I realised that even ‘ahorita’ isn’t really right now either, but more like ‘slightly closer to now than ahora’. It’s funny, and confusing, but this is the Mexican way, and it certainly isn’t for those of a neurotic disposition!

If you think the Mexican notion of time would make you nervous, it’s probably best that you don’t read on: the traffic in Puebla is riotous at best and terrifying at worst. If you’re taking the bus, just try not to look out of the window. On my tenth day my taxi crashed with another car (don’t worry mum, I’m fine!) and full-on fisticuffs ensued between my taxi driver and the other driver and passenger involved.  A few days later, I was on a bus when another bus flew past and smashed the wing mirror. My friend Juliana who was sat next to me had glass in her lap. You ain’t seen potholes ’til you’ve been to Mexico. There are speed bumps at random intervals on the motorways. Most of the cars on the roads look like they haven’t have passed an MOT in the last twenty years. Seat belts aren’t compulsory for the back seats in Puebla, and there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of passengers any given car can carry. The list goes on, you get the idea.

Despite all this, however, getting the bus is worth the fear for the pure entertainment. Bus drivers are blessed with freedom of expression and you just never know what kind of experience you’re going to get: Mr Horn-Happy was my least favourite but I really warmed to the proper MexiLAD who likes to play Robbie Williams and has smothered his windows in Playboy stickers. One day a whole band got on the bus, the harpist parked himself next to me and they played a jolly little tune. The drivers tip a scraggly old guy for hopping on the bus to spray the aisles with air freshener and give the dashboard a quick wipe. Being six inches taller than the average Mexican woman, I can’t say the seats are spacious, but I use my hip to knee length advantage to wedge myself in and reduce the frequency with which my bum lifts off the seat. Sorted.

A typical bus in Puebla (with San Francisco Church in the background)
A typical bus in Puebla (with San Francisco Church in the background)

The chaos is fun: you’d honestly have to be the most miserly of gits not to have a good time here, it would be such hard work NOT to get swept up in the sunshine spirit and totally infectious zest for life. There’s no such thing as a party animal, it’s just a given. So what’s there to do but party on?!

Día de la Candelaría

My first Mexican celebration! February the 2nd: Día de la Candelaría. I had seen shops full of dolls in elaborate clothing and wondered what on earth they were, especially as towards the end of this week I saw people carrying them on the bus and tending to them as if they were real babies. But these were adults, what were they doing with these unusual dolls, stroking their faces and carrying them either in baskets or seated on chairs?! After discovering that Monday is a bank holiday here in Mexico called Día de la Candelaría I researched it on the internet and there popped up a vast array of images: niños Díos! It translates literally as God children but more acurately they are figures of baby Jesus. The dolls are traditionally laid into the Nativity scene in the home on Christmas Eve and then dressed in a new outfit and taken to church on the 2nd of February, the last day of the Christmas season, to be blessed. I didn’t take any photos because I was afraid of being perceived as some little gringa making a mockery of their customs, but it’s definitely worth googling if you’re intrigued.

The 2nd of February falls forty days after Christmas and is celebrated by Catholics as the feast of the purification of the Virgin. It is Jewish belief that a woman is unclean for forty days after giving birth, so it is thought that the baby Jesus would have been taken to a temple to be presented to priests on this day.  In Mexico, the religious origins of the festival have also been mixed with indigenous elements, and it is traditional to eat tamales at the celebrations. Tamales are a delicious Mexican food made with corn meal dough (like a dense sponge cake) that can be sweet or savoury, filled with pineapple, chicken, cheese, tomato or chilli. They are wrapped in sweetcorn sheath or banana leaves and steamed. ¡Muy ricos!

My Mexican family won’t be celebrating with their relatives until next weekend because my host mum is away at the minute, but my host dad took me to the Church of San Francisco today to see what was going on. The church was very busy with row upon row of Pueblans holding their niños Díos, waiting for Mass to begin. Most interesting, however, was the mummy of Friar Sebastian de Aparicio, encased in a very ornate silver…box?!  Born in 1502 in Galicia, he sailed to Mexico in 1533 and worked as a cattle herder. He soon realised the difficulty of transporting supplies across Mexico and conceived and promoted the idea of building roads from Puebla to Veracruz and an enormous highway from Zapatecas to Mexico. This of course had huge economic benefits for the communities involved. He also taught native people how to use ploughs, how to build wagons, and to domesticate horses and oxen. Consequently he became known as the ‘Angel of Mexico’. He continued to live a pious and modest life: in 1574 was accepted as a friar, and spent the next 26 years of his life travelling through the state of Puebla seeking food and alms for the friars and those they supported. He died from an entangled hernia at the grand old age of 98 and his body was beatified by the Catholic Church. He has since been residing at the San Francisco Church in Puebla. He is also a Patron Saint of Travellers, so I was happy to pay him a little visit!

So that was my first taste of Mexican festivities, and I’m looking forward to experiencing many more in my year here!

Participant Observation

How on earth do I begin writing a blog on ‘first impressions’ from 10 days that have rendered me dumbfounded and  speechless (quite literally – my spanish is still embarrassingly bad)? And especially without bowing to the extensive range of cliches available for those travelling/on a ‘journey’ – ‘rollercoaster’ anyone? Well I don’t know really, but I’m going to give it a go because I know I’ll hugely regret it if I don’t document these precious firsts.

As an aspiring anthropologist, I suppose I’ve been indulging in/attempting a very loose and untechnical kind of participant observation. For those not well versed in anthropological theory it’s essentially trying to learn as much as possible from paying close attention to what’s going on around you, getting involved, asking questions, adopting behaviours, and above all attempting to proceed without causing offence or making a complete idiot of yourself. In other words, mere mortals: ‘watch and learn’. Well for anyone who’s fascinated by different people and ways of life it’s a lot of fun and incredibly interesting, so most of my time is spent feeling slightly bemused and LAPPING IT ALL UP!

It would be the most abhorrent of insults to my host nation not to place food at the very top of my initial observations. And when it comes to food I have been taking a very active approach to participant observation! To say it’s an experience doesn’t do it justice; the food is INSANE. I’ve always been a bit of a food devil but there honestly aren’t words to describe it. From our first few meals in Mexico my fellow English friend Tom and I noted that mealtimes were proving ‘success after success’ and it has since become a bit of a catchphrase for us. Every day I try something new that is absolutely nothing like anything I’ve ever had before. It’s no wonder that the Mexicans are incredibly proud of their cuisine, it is amazing and simply inimitable. And it’s also no wonder they’re all so happy, as theirs is the ultimate comfort food. Chilli is truly addictive, and after a mere ten days in this country I honestly don’t know how I went for twenty five years without adding it to every meal. (Having said that, I still take my pineapple as it comes rather than the Mexican way of adding salt, lime juice and chilli powder!) There are British sweet treats that I crave (banoffee pie first and foremost), but my preferences in savoury grub have been indelibly altered. Just in case you aren’t drooling yet, I promise a blog dedicated to food with details and pictures soon!

Second to food has to be the climate. The past ten days have been like British summer – a good one: blue sky and sunshine from dawn until dusk, averaging 18 degrees in the day but with chilly evenings. The Mexicans, however, believe this to be awful. Wrapped up in layer upon layer of winter woollies (including the dogs), I am the only person walking the streets in a sleeveless top. When I explain that this is what we spend all year wishing for all in England, I am met with cries of “¡pobrecita!” For example, milk is never served straight from the fridge but heated so that it’s not hot, nor warm, but just not-cold! This is very strange to me, but with temperatures set to soar in the next few months I can only be grateful for the gentle warm-up.

Thirdly, los mexicanos. The Mexicans are great fun, generous, humble, expressive and very well-mannered. They’re very polite like the Brits but in a totally different way. Our politeness is modest and reserved whereas theirs is very exaggerated. This can be embarrassing and uncomfortable for someone whose ability to get involved is limited at best and I live in constant fear of offending someone because I’ve said ‘no thank you’ rather than ‘thank you ever so much for the offer but I can’t because of a, b and c, but I will take you up on your very kind offer another day’. The concept of insisting can be very confusing and I often don’t know whether I’m supposed to say yes or no, but by the time I can string more than three words together I’ll no doubt be performing with all the pasión displayed in their telenovelas.

My host family are incredibly gracious and patient with me, and the scope of human kindness often leaves me feeling very emotional. They know next to nothing about me but are willing to take me into their family and treat me like one of their own. And they signed up to host me for a whole year! It’s very frustrating not to be able to express my gratitude, and ‘muchas gracias’ feels like it loses its meaning after the twentieth uttering each day. What’s so poignant for me is that this generosity and warmth isn’t only offered to international volunteers on contracts of a fixed period but on a widespread scale. Mexican relationships aren’t just the odd act of kindness and ‘good deeds’ that we encourage in the UK but lifelong commitments to look after those around them and even adopt them into their extended families. We are so choosy in the UK, everything is carefully considered, articulated and ordered: the Mexican approach is one of comfortable chaos, which can be difficult to embrace but I endeavour to do so!

Weaned, weaning, weans

Weaning. Such a funny word.

So in just over a week I’m leaving the dreary storm-battered land of In-ger-land to live and work in Mexico. For a year. Some days it feels like a big deal, some days it doesn’t at all. I’m sure there are lots of serious and sensible things I ought to be doing in preparation, but for the minute there seem to be only two important factors to consider: missing tea and missing my cat.

Twinings English Breakfast is the diuretic equivalent of a soundtrack to my life. It’s been there through good times, dark times, hard times, fun times, bored times and busy times, lonely times and social times, and quite honestly I’m dreading living without it. So this is my first weaning programme: drink less tea. There is simply nothing as glorious as a warm milky brew (I don’t care what you say, you’re wrong), therefore, the weaning programme must commence tomorrow. I don’t want to (won’t cope to) go cold turkey so I’m going to cut down to one cup every hour as opposed to every half hour. And upon my arrival in Mexico, I intend to replace my love of tea with a love of tequila.

Second weaning programme: cut affection from pet cat. It’s only fair…on me. I totally sympathise with people who don’t like my cat, but she’s not (quite) as evil as she looks. Named Darcey after Darcey Bussell because of her little white ballet shoes, aka paws, she’s the complete personification of every anti-cat joke ever to adorn a tea towel. She’s not that nice, and she’s not that friendly, but she is incredibly fluffy. After all, isn’t that what pets are for? If it isn’t fluffy, I just don’t get the point. Anyway, enough of the description, you either like cats or you don’t, the point is, she won’t even remember me. The more I love her, the more she hates me (who says cats aren’t clever?) so maybe my premature detachment will be best for the both of us. From tomorrow, the aloofness/aloftity/aloofaying is mutual. On my return from Mexico we can start afresh, she might even fall in love with me…

So there you go – a life without tea or the fluffy sheep-cat, that’s about as far as my thoughts about moving abroad have gotten so far.  Oh and also, “yippee, I’m going to Mexico!”.

P.S. I wrote the whole of this with the spelling ‘ween’ before checking it. I’m no writer, please forgive and feel free to laugh at my expense, you’ll find no pretence here.