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The Latin Boutique

A few weeks ago, Manuel got in touch about his new business venture, The Latin Boutique. With his sister, Vanessa, he began importing artisanal goods from Mexico and Latin America, both to support local producers and to meet the growing demand for these kinds of items in the UK and Europe.

I absolutely loved everything handcrafted in Mexico and was really keen to find out more, so I asked Manuel a few questions about his business and why traditional Latin American products are so unique.

What inspired you to import products from Latin America to Europe?

We like these handcrafted products a lot, they have been present in our lives since I can remember. Unfortunately not everyone has the chance to travel to Latin America, so we would like to bring them to people here in Europe. Also we would like to explain which regions these products are from, so people can learn a bit about the local culture, traditions, cuisine and so on.

Why do you think there is demand for Latin American goods in Europe?

I have noticed that in Europe over the last few years the interest for Latin American culture has been growing rapidly. The number of Mexican and Peruvian restaurants has been constantly increasing as well as salsa classes and other Latin music lessons and venues.

If you could bring only one artisanal item back in your suitcase from Mexico, what would it be?

A handmade unique musical instrument from San Miguel de Allende.

Traditional Mexican castanets made from 'corazón del mar' seeds.
Traditional Mexican castanets made from ‘corazón del mar’ seeds.

What can we do to keep supporting local and rural producers of these specialist goods in Latin America?

We help the local artisans promote their goods and we’re finding customers for them. We aim to promote Latin America as a tourist destination and we would like to encourage people to discover that amazing part of the world.

What is your best-selling product?

Tin mirrors and leather accessories.

A beautiful Mexican tin mirror, available at The Latin Boutique
A beautiful Mexican tin mirror, available at The Latin Boutique.

Do you have any favourite Mexican artists?

I am really impressed by works of Frida Kalho and style of Diego Rivera, and I believe that the story of their lives is very fascinating. I also find the indigenous art of Chiapas, a region located in the south of the country, especially interesting.

What is your favourite place in Mexico, and why?

My favourite place in Mexico is called San Miguel de Allende. It’s a small city located four hours north of Mexico City. I like it because it’s very quiet and with picturesque colonial architecture, the streets are paved with stones and the houses are pleasantly colourful. The local food also really unique.

San Miguel de Allende.
San Miguel de Allende.

You can find all of Manuel’s current items at The Latin Boutique, with free shipping on UK orders over £20. You can also find out where they’ll be selling their beautiful products around Manchester and Liverpool.

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A Pocket of Paradise

Cuetzalan is a small town set high in the hills of the Sierra Norte, about three and a half hours from Puebla. Its hot, rainy, humid climate make it incredibly fertile and home to an astounding level of biodiversity. It is known for its strong indigenous traditions and Nahuatl-speaking Totonac Indian population, but tourism has rapidly increased since it was declared a Pueblo Mágico in 2002.

The town is named after the exquisite (and almost extinct) quetzal bird, native to Mexico and Central America, who makes its home in cloud forests at high altitude. It’s a beautiful, delicate little creature with plumage of red, green and blue, which was considered sacred by ancient Maya and Aztec people. Most famously, Aztec emperor Moctezuma II (ruler at the time of the Spanish conquest) wore an elaborate headdress of quetzal feathers on a base of gold encrusted with precious stones: it is currently on display at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, and the Mexicans are more than miffed about it. The quetzal continues to be the emblem of Cuetzalan, the crest of which inspires the headdress of the local indigenous Quetzal Dance, and this distinctive circular shape is depicted in all sorts of souvenirs sold there from napkin holders to necklaces.

Just outside of Cuetzalan is the archaeological site of Yohualichán: it consists of five pre-Hispanic buildings once home to the Totonac people, who were until the 19th century the world’s main producers of vanilla and whose territory stretched right from the highlands of northern Puebla to the coast of Veracruz. Set up on high with spectacular views over the jungle valley below, the site is very impressive. And as we so often find in Mexico, right outside the site is the church built by the Spanish when they arrived and tried to eradicate indigenous Mexican beliefs and traditions.

Also just outside of Cuetzalan is the Jardín Botanical Xoxoctic, a beautiful botanical garden which shows, protects and develops much of the area’s natural wildlife, including an astounding range of orchids, coffee, cinnamon, passion fruit, bamboo. Additionally, there is a wonderful butterfly sanctuary and a tree which ‘bleeds’ red sap, the Sangre de Grado (Dragon’s Blood).

The deeply curving roads in the area are nausea-inducing – you’ll need to alleviate your symptoms as soon as you arrive with some of the best local cuisine – tayoyos. Like little squashed dough balls, they are made from maize, filled with a spiced mix of chick pea and avocado, and topped with green or red salsa (or go for both to create the bandera, Mexican flag).

Cuetzalan’s remote location makes its central Zócalo (main square) and Parroquia (parish church) seem particularly impressive, and one wonders how on earth they were built long before proper roads and modern machinery. A big attraction for weekend tourists is the Sunday tianguis, its bustling market. Local people descend from the hills to the town in their thousands to sell their wares, and you can find pretty much anything. There is an amazing variety of handmade souvenirs at very reasonable prices, including lots of jewellery made from coffee beans, hand-embroidered blouses and beautiful rebozos, a kind of traditional Mexican wrapped scarf.

A short climb up the steep hillside away from the Zócalo is the church charmingly called Los Jarritos, which means ‘little jugs,’ named after the little jugs which decorate its tower.

It is especially lovely to wander the peaceful streets at night when there is a refreshing lack of traffic and minimal light pollution. Just opposite Los Jarritos is the bar Peña Los Jarritos which is a great relaxed hideout for the evening: it hosts its own pole for voladores who perform in the dark amongst the fireflies, making for a truly magical experience.

En route home, about two hours from Puebla and one hour from Cuetzalan, is the town of Zacapoaxtla. It is like a smaller, quieter version of Cuetzalan and is famed for the brave contribution its population made to the Batalla Cinco de Mayo. It’s worth stopping by for a wander, toilet stop, and to fill up on tayoyos (again) before heading home.

The centre of Zacapoaxtla
The centre of Zacapoaxtla

Visitors complain that the ‘original’ Cuetzalan is now little more than a legend owing to the huge boost in tourism it has seen in recent years. This may be true, but there’s no doubt that the increase in visitors provides an important flow of business for the locals, who are able to maintain their life and culture in the hills rather than flock to the cities. Furthermore, they benefit from being able to sell directly to consumers rather than through a middle-man who would take a handsome wedge of the profit. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for Mexicans young and old to escape from the cities and enjoy a slice of the incredibly beautiful nature and wildlife their homeland offers.

Mexico’s Forgotten Poor

When we talk of ‘marginalised groups’ we are normally thinking of minorities: those vulnerable groups in society who are outnumbered and without the necessary means to represent their interests. It’s easy to wonder how a group made up of millions of people could be marginalised – surely they could, would and should group together against the powerful few to make their voices heard? I couldn’t understand how such crippling poverty could exist alongside dramatic economic progress, until I came to Mexico and saw the jaw-dropping inequality for myself.

Real poverty

What is easy to overlook is how tragically debilitating living in extreme poverty is. In the UK, we measure poverty in numbers: so many per cent living below a poverty line, such a number educated and so many unemployed. But we don’t see it, we don’t feel it, and we don’t understand it. When people live in real poverty (where they can’t afford to dress themselves, feed themselves, or shelter themselves adequately) they are living precariously from one day to the next. They don’t know where their next meal is coming from, how (and if) they will get their children to school, or where they might be living from one week to another. The ability and desire to plan meetings, strategies and long term campaigns to represent their interests publicly and politically is beyond comprehension. Survival itself is a full time occupation. The pressures of poverty in Mexico are closely linked to an intergenerational culture of violence, poor school attendance and ill health, with girls being likely to fare much worse. Mexico’s poor might be huge in number, but this by no means indicates the ability to mobilise themselves to defend their rights.

A middle class society

International headlines (carefully orchestrated by Mexico’s government and media outlets – which are practically the same thing) frequently rave about the rapidly growing middle class. It is generally believed that the larger a country’s middle class, the greater its potential for economic growth and, therefore, development. This may well be the case, but the middle class also tend to be very conservative in order to protect what they have. Wealth doesn’t necessarily redistribute itself – the government needs to introduce fiscal policy to encourage it. Mexico’s middle class don’t shop in the local markets but in Walmart; neither do they drink coffee on the street corner, but in Starbucks. Walmart and Starbucks do not employ Mexico’s poorest people, and even if they wanted to, the staff probably couldn’t afford the transport to work because the stores are located in the rich areas where the poor can’t afford to live or travel to (in December 2013 the fare for Mexico City’s Metro almost doubled from 3 to 5 pesos). In 2013 Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) calculated that the middle class constitutes 39.2% of the population, but the lower class still accounts for 59.1%.

Minimum wage

You’d think that all the “tremendous progress” of Mexico (OECD Better Life Index) would make a little leeway for the trickle down effect: thanks to the middle class spread everybody benefits and enjoys an improved standard of living. The reality, however, is quite the opposite: Mexico’s poor arguably shoulder the burden of the successful anti-inflation drive. The minimum wage currently stands at 66 pesos per day (although it varies slightly by region), approximately £3.00. Furthermore, 6.5 million workers (13% of the workforce) in Mexico currently earn this minimum wage, which is significantly lower than the poverty line. Not only is it low and lower than the poverty line, but in real terms it’s getting even lower: accounting for inflation, the minimum wage is estimated to have decreased by 43% in the last 23 years. Added to that, a government study conducted in July 2014 found that almost 60% of the workforce is actually in the informal economy, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and entirely without job security.

In August 2014 Mexico City’s Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera proposed an increase in the minimum wage to 82.86 pesos per day (approximately £3.80), stating that low wages are “at the heart of the country’s economic and social problems.” Yet President Peña Nieto, the central bank, businessmen and pro-government unions staunchly oppose it, supposedly in fear of drastic inflation. Read alternatively, they want to protect their own interests.

Social mobility

In its mad dash for development, Mexico has largely forgotten its poor. Social mobility is not only a product of the effort of individuals and families, but also opportunities. As De La Calle and Rubio explain in their recent book Mexico: A Middle Class Society, “Mexico has countless impediments and obstacles to social mobility.” It is the absence of equal opportunities that deny Mexico’s poor access to products and services and the ability to invest in the future. In other words, they live with very little stability and no security. What’s more, the government doesn’t just passively neglect the poor, but actively limits their opportunities. “The regulatory framework and incentives of the Mexican economy tend to create obstacles, skew opportunities in favour of very few, reduce competition, impede the development of new businesses, and limit individual potential,” they state. Mexico may be getting richer, but the poor aren’t seeing a slice of the pie. Rafael Ch, Director of Economic Development at Cidac in Mexico City, even claims that the middle class is diminishing because of its high sensitivity to macro and micro economic shocks: real income is actually decreasing.

Extreme economic inequality significantly drives the abuse of power; Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (amongst others) campaign extensively against human rights abuses in Mexico. Various types of gender, race and class inequality are inextricably linked to and exacerbated by economic inequality, especially when the rights and needs of the poorest, most vulnerable sectors of society are so blatantly neglected.

It is often a feature of living in extreme poverty that the most fundamental human rights to life, liberty and security of person are not guaranteed. The right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of a person and their family is not a given. We may have no control over where or the circumstances into which we are born, but we at least deserve equal opportunities to basic rights and services, and the Mexican government has the responsibility to ensure these as well as security and dignity to its people. Mexico may be desperate to develop, but it must not do so at the cost of the poor and vulnerable. Let’s not forget that decisions about those living in poverty are overwhelmingly made by the rich, who may not always have the redistribution of wealth as a genuine concern.

This post was written as a part of Amnesty International’s participation in Blog Action Day. Get involved on Twitter by following @AmnestyOnline or using the Blog Action Day hashtag #BAD2014

Being British: Through the Looking Glass

From my sun-singed-scalp and freckled cheeks to my pasty little toes, there’s no doubting that I’m as English as a crunchy Cox, and it’s not the first time I’ve written about it. I was (quite rightly, it transpires) terrified of missing English tea. I like order, precision, making lists and reading books. I appreciate it when people are timely, committed, modest and honest. I spend a lot of time observing the weather and (failing at) dressing accordingly. There are things about myself that I knew were very British before I left, and some that have transpired since. At times the line between my Englishness and my personality is far from clear. One thing’s for sure: after six months abroad I’ve learned not only a fair deal about Mexican culture, but through being the foreigner, dealing with people finding me funny and strange, and having the new perspective of looking from the outside in, a lot about my own as well.

I was funnily enough in a second-hand bookshop in Australia when I first came across Kate Fox’s book, Watching the English (2004). I snapped it up and chuckled my way through as she attempted to unearth ‘the rules of English behaviour’. I initially agreed with a lot that she had to say, but now being a Brit away from home with new insight, hindsight and general all-around-sight, I also believe Fox leaves her analysis a few cups short of a teapot. She claims that at the core of being English is social ‘dis-ease’ owing to our obsession with privacy and the home on the one hand, and crippling politeness and restraint on the other. “We do everything in moderation,” and are “the most repressed and inhibited people on earth,” apparently. Maybe so from the outside, but for me it is exactly the contrast between the image and the reality that makes being English so entertaining.

We love more than anyone else to ham up the stereotypes (intentionally or otherwise), but bag yourself an invite to a gathering of friends and you’re just as likely to see complete and uninhibited freedom of expression. Take sex, for example. Of course it’s taboo to talk about it with strangers, in public. But behind closed doors it’s another story altogether, and more often a case of TMI (‘too much for information’ for the over fifties) amongst my friends than evidence of the cautious, embarrassed behaviour we are more famous for. And that’s precisely what makes it so funny when we behave ‘out of character’. Sure, English culture is enigmatic and may seem inaccessible to those outside, but really it’s just like one huge inside joke. Work on getting that invite, it’s worth it.

Despite being English herself (and casting herself and her partner in starring roles), she titles her book Watching the English, and offers a very observation-based, distanced perspective. I, however, am talking about being English, what it is and how it feels. She offers commentary on how baffling our behaviour is to outsiders, but I think it is precisely our odd little ways that make us so intriguing (and, dare I say, enchanting) to foreigners. They don’t want to merely watch the English, but to be the English: every Mexican I meet is dying to get in on the joke. They don’t just want to go to England, but to know the Queen, to talk like James Bond and sing like The Beatles. I can understand why. There’s a lot of debate on ethnocentricity in anthropology, and it’s generally not the done thing to champion your own culture for fear of being perceived not only as self-centred (how horribly un-English), but to be harbouring some secret imperialist, colonialist, supremacist, even racist agenda. I don’t give a hooty toot, I’m not blowing our own trumpet but our Royal Philharmonic ORCHESTRA: being English is bloody hilarious!

People often ask me what I miss about England, and once I’ve reeled off the obvious, family and food (Marmite, ginger nuts, Branston pickle and cheddar cheese, English breakfast, warm scones and clotted cream, jacket potatoes and Heinz beans, to name but a few), it’s hard to define. But I spend a lot of time alone, pondering and wandering, and I think I’ve cracked it. It’s not the weather itself – of course, like every other Brit, I’ve spent enough light years complaining about it – but the quirky associated rituals. We can boast and laugh about picnics eaten in the car, barbecues cooked under umbrellas, and year after year after year as the nation is crippled by an inch of snow, all normality grounds to a halt and, love it or loathe it, everyone is comparing how much they’ve got, how long they were stuck in traffic for, and how tall their snowman is. I can’t complain about the weather here, but I have to admit, for the first few months I did find the eternal sunshine monotonous. What blasphemy – Brits are desperate to seek the sun! But I know now that it’s not the weather I found boring, but the lack of sunshine-worshipping activities – people in Puebla don’t even wear shorts for goodness’ sake. I missed ridiculing people in the parks flashing their flesh and slathering themselves in suncream, but really I was dying to be one of them and I longed to find companions to join me in my beloved silly English behaviour.

Each year, newspapers are predictably smothered in photos of Brighton beach at the first sign of a ‘heat wave,’ or of scantily clad teens shuffling through the snow in stilettos for their £2 Jaeger bombs, and we are still laughing at THAT faux pas from Michael Fish. Nobody pokes fun at us like we do. Whether we’re huddling around the pub’s open fire scoffing on a steaming pie; emptying our purses for this year’s must-have wellies and rain macs to style out the rain; urgently pulling sickies (aka ‘snowed-in’) to dash out with a sledge; or panic-buying disposable barbecues and sprinting for the beach for what could potentially be the only sunny day of the year, there’s no denying that being British comes with innumerable rites and rituals according to the weather. Our calendars are brimming with annual events we wouldn’t want to miss, rain or shine, heat or hail: it’s not talking about the weather but braving it that is the Great English Tradition. “I’ve heard the weather there is terrible” is something I hear a lot. Yes, it may be terrible, but there’s an associated activity for the best and the worst of it and everything in between. There is a general indifference to the weather here, and that makes me miss home.

Roger Scruton (England: An Elegy, 2000) claims a demise of traditional Englishness and miserably declares that there’s nothing to replace it, while Krishnan Kumar (The Making of English National Identity, 2003) states that the English have never in fact had a strong sense of themselves. And just to twist the knife Kate Fox claims that our rites of passage leave a lot to be desired. You’re telling me between them they don’t own a barbecue, paddling pool, gazebo, sledge, wellington boots or fluffy dressing gown? Poor writers, how silly they must feel, they published their books before the wonderful year of 2012 which saw the United Kingdom celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and host the Olympics. In your face, global recession of 2008, everybody I know celebrated quintessential British living that year. And you know what, the sun even shone (not that it would have mattered).

Disclaimer: yes, I use English and British interchangeably. I know the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish would probably take some issue with this, but for me, I’m both without distinction.

Heart and Soul: The Mexican Family

“I’m writing about women in the Mexican family,” I said to my host mum, “is there anything I need to say?”

“¡Somos incomprendidas!” came the reply – “We are misunderstood!”

Is there any feminist sentiment more universal than that? What separates women from men is the very same principal that unites women across every other boundary: we are something they are not.

Debate rages on in the field of feminist anthropology as to whether there is really any such thing as ‘universal womanhood’, depending on where one sits on the scale from cultural relativism to cultural universalism. I can’t answer that question, but I do know that I have felt a very strong sense of shared womanhood in my time here. This most commonly manifests itself in jokes and sentiments (both explicit and not-so) expressed between myself and my Mexican counterparts where gender provides the glue where there are otherwise crevices in age, class and experience. So I have to admit my gender bias from the outset: the very fact that I am a female (and always have been!)  intrinsically impacts my experience in Mexico and I have a much greater insight to womanhood here than I do to masculinity. I don’t pretend to be impartial – mine is a study of women, by a woman, with all its implications.

It is the worst kept secret in Mexico that women rule the roost. Infamous Latino machismo is alive and well, but you really needn’t scratch far beneath the veneer of masculine dominance to see that social life, particularly with regard to the family, is almost entirely orchestrated by women. Women are the diary-keepers (one tía in my host family dished out an Excel Spreadsheet listing all the family birthdays at our last gathering), cooks and cleaners, they tend to run the household finances and purchasing, and are most importantly the party hosts and organisers. As families are typically large and extended, this involves negotiating between and arranging a lot of people. Catering for forty-plus people ruffles no feathers, and the entire event (which in classically Mexican style starts early and never has a preempted finish time) runs without a glitch, even when this includes moving all of the furniture outside to make space for everyone and conducting numerous seatings to ensure that nobody misses out on what is always a feast worthy of an Aztec emperor.

Families are not only large, but also very close-knit – it’s not unusual for children to live with grandparents, aunties or uncles for a time for one reason or another, there are frequent reunions, and they place great emphasis on togetherness. Anything goes as a reason for a fiesta, and ‘the more the merrier’ applies as a general rule. This, paired with the prevalent lack of gardens, culminates in the ‘party in the garage’ phenomenon. It’s an actual thing – it must be because there are Internet forums headed with titles like “why do Mexicans do everything in their front yard?” Well, let me enlighten you. Often there isn’t that much space inside, and for security the cars are normally parked in a gated forecourt, so it makes sense, doesn’t it? Whip out the trestle tables, plonk a tarpaulin overhead and wire up some badass speakers, and you’ve got your very own party venue completely gratis!

Mexicans love to have their family around them, and also don’t like to see people without family, so invitations are always extended and lots of people who aren’t technically family are affectionately referred to with family-like nicknames. This makes Mexico a fantastic place to be as an outsider, because even if I hadn’t been welcomed so warmly by my own host family I would almost certainly have been adopted by another.

The importance of family isn’t only celebrated within families but is also recognised nationally (as it is in many countries) with celebration days. But tellingly, Mother’s Day is a really big deal here, whereas Father’s Day passed almost unnoticed. At my old school we spent weeks in preparation for Mother’s Day, making gifts, preparing songs, dances, and poems, and a whole day was dedicated to their performance. Father’s Day was ignored. I asked why this was, and the teacher told me it was because almost all of the children have mothers, whereas there are a lot of children with absent fathers. This made me really sad. What kind of lessons does this teach little boys and girls? Aren’t you just perpetuating the problem by normalising the father’s absence and sending out a message that dads don’t matter? To my relief, at my new job they hadn’t celebrated Mother’s Day or Father’s Day but created Family Day to celebrate family in all of its forms, which in a very poor area where traditional nuclear family is the exception and not the rule seems like a good idea to me.

Mexico also celebrates Children’s Day on the 30th of April, to demonstrate how much they are loved and appreciated. From the celebration of Children’s Day to the constant string of family parties, there is a huge culture of care in the Mexican family, and the extension of love, warmth and appreciation is most noticeably demonstrated through food and giving, usually simultaneously.

The notion of ‘independence’ just isn’t assigned the same value or meaning here, it is not something to be achieved but more likely to be interpreted as a by-product of neglect. Those poor people all alone, why don’t their families look after them? They’re really independent? What a shame, why do they push their families away? Our 20s in the UK is a decade cherished for establishing independence, for getting away from home, achieving things by ourselves and exploring things we probably wouldn’t want our parents to know about. In Mexico, you are very much a child until you have children yourself, at whatever age this happens. In the UK there is huge stigma attached to young people living with their parents past their mid-twenties, and they rarely wish to do so apart from out of financial necessity and benefit. Here, on the other hand, there is far less desire, financial nor emotional, to move out of home.

On the plus side of independence is the freedom and sense of personal achievement it offers, but the flip side of the coin is the feeling of burden – there is a far greater sense of embarrassment or even shame when we need help from family, either in our youth, mid-life, or ageing. Moving back in with family is often perceived as a kind of regression, a personal failure of some sort or the result of a lack of financial resources. It is widely accepted that care homes aren’t ideal but more suitable in terms of convenience when relatives are busy either working or just with their ‘own’ lives. Here it is very common that when a grandparent (or in fact anybody’s spouse) dies, the person left alone moves in with the rest of the family to a part of their house or an adjacent one. There is no sense of shame or embarrassment in asking for help from the family, on the contrary it is more likely for family members to fight over who can offer more assistance.

If there’s one thing we can learn from the Mexicans, it’s that there’s enough love for everyone. My absolute favourite thing about the culture here is its inclusiveness. The young and the old socialise together, and care together, and coming from a culture where we are so fiercely independent and defensively self-sufficient, it’s very touching. Right from the start it was the people’s warmth that I noticed, and time and time again people’s kindness and generosity has exceeded my expectations, from doors opened to hands shaken and food offered. Who is to praise for this culture of love and care that is the social cement of the Mexican family? The women.

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?!