In Mexico, the first day of November is el Día de los Muertos. This holiday is becoming more well known in the US due to the popularity of movies like Coco, but there’s no comparison to seeing how the day is actually celebrated. The week before the holiday at UPAEP, there was a competition of ofrendas between different student groups, some of which are pictured below. In this case the altars were mostly dedicated to various famous figures. As the actual day approached, more and more ofrendas were constructed in downtown Puebla in honor of important people. There was also a lot of Pan de Muertos for sale, which is a sweet bread made special for the holiday, and it is commonly used to decorate altars. The OU in Puebla group had the opportunity to visit a bakery and see how the Pan de Muertos is made. The buns are decorated with criss-crossing strips of dough (which represent bones) and a ball on top (which represents a skull).
On November 1st, I went to the town of Atlixco. Atlixco is known for it’s flowers and for having the “best climate in the world.” In the Zócalo, there was a long area covered in marigolds and other traditional flowers, forming a complex and beautiful pattern which could be viewed from a walkway above. We also visited a cemetery there, where people were constructing altars to their family members. We didn’t linger long, but the general feeling was one of happiness and festivity, but also respect.
This post will be a bit silly, but as I was going through pictures to make a different post, I noticed several pictures of tamarind flavored foods. Tamarind is a seed pod which contains a sticky, and delicious, paste. It’s not common in the US, but it is everywhere in Mexico, and I fear I may have become a bit obsessed. One of my favorite things to do when traveling is try new fruits and other produce that is uncommon (or prohibitively expensive) in the US, but are abundant in their native soils. Unfortunately, this means I’ll be left craving it when I get back to the US. Tamarind is commonly used in Indian cooking as well, so I’ll definitely be frequenting the Indian and Mexican markets in Oklahoma City once I get back to the US.
One of my classes being taught by the OU faculty in residence, specifically Dr. Marc Levine, is an archeology class on ancient Mesoamerica. We’ve gone on a previous field trip to Oaxaca, where Dr. Levine does research, but this time we went to Mexico City. On the first day, we went to Teotihuacan, the ruins of a major Aztec center. The site is enormous, and it’s not difficult to picture it as a city. We were able to climb the pyramid of the sun, which provided a beautiful view of the region.
Among other things, we went to the National Museum of Anthropology and to remains of Tenochtitlan contained within the city itself. Most notable was the Plaza de Tres Culturas. This plaza was also the location of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. Standing in the place where this tragedy that I’ve learned so much about took place, and knowing how much the freedom of speech and freedom to protest has improved since was very moving. We were also able to go see two performances over the weekend. One was a classic, and very fun, musical called Mentiras. The other was a performance by the Ballet Folklorico, which was beautifully danced and joy to watch. Our final visit was to the Museum of Tolerance. I cannot stress enough how moving an experience this was. I firmly believe that anyone who visits Mexico city should take the time to visit the museum and take a guided tour.
One of my two UPAEP classes this semester is evolutionary ecology. I’m really enjoying the class, and we went on a field trip recently. We drove to the town of Jalapa in Vera Cruz and went to the botanical gardens there. We had a guided tour where we learned about the ecological diversity of Mexico and the different plant species in the garden. This is a really great opportunity since Mexico is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.
These sorts of gardens preserve not only botanical diversity but insect diversity as well. As an aficionado of bugs and insect photography, I spent a lot of the day running between my classmates as they pointed out interesting bugs I could photograph. You can see some of these photos below.
September 16 is Mexican independence day. I spent most of that day on a hike (which I’ll post about later), so the bulk of my celebration was actually a few days prior. UPAEP held an event called Noche Mexicana. There was music, dancing, and a plethora of booths where campus organizations sold typical Mexican food. While most of the night was devoted to the live music, there were also several dance performances by the university’s folkloric dance group. Also, near the end of the evening was a presentation of the Mexican flag and some words by the rector. He finished the short ceremony with the “grita de independencia” which is a loud shout of “viva Mexico” in celebration of the country’s independence.
Mexico has a rich history of distinctive art forms and handicrafts. One practice which is distinctive to Puebla is the making of talavera. This is a specific method of making beautiful ceramics which dates to the colonial period, though it also has much earlier roots. We were able to take a tour of a workshop called Uniarte Talavera, where these ceramics are produced by hand following old traditions. The work looks tedious, but the workers were very kind in allowing us to observe them at their craft. The resulting talavera beautiful and masterfully made.
I may have mentioned in posts from this spring that prior to traveling to Cuba, my class stayed in Puebla, Mexico for two days. I’m now back in Puebla and will be spending the semester here! I’ll be studying at the Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla, better known as UPAEP. OU actually has a study center here, meaning I’ll be taking two classes with OU faculty in residence and two local classes: Ecología Evolutiva and Historia Política de Mexico.
So far I’ve been settling into my classes and exploring the city. Mexico has a long and rich history of murals stretching back to pre-hispanic times, so I’ve included some photos of that tradition being carried on today. Beyond just appreciating the color and beauty of the city, I’ve also had the opportunity to start exploring the history of the city. There are a ton of museums here as well old fortresses (including those from the battle of Cinco de Mayo) and nearby archeological sites.
I was really lucky to have been able to go on a hike one weekend. Puebla is located in a valley and is surrounded by mountains and volcanic activity. I really love hiking, so I’ve been looking forward to exploring the trails here. The mountain we hiked, and nearly summited, was la Malinche. It took us four hours to ascend and two to go back down. The thin air at this elevation made the going difficult, but we still managed to climb to around 14,600 feet (4,461 m). For context, the city of Puebla rests at 7,000 ft (2,135 m).
There were a surprising amount of dogs on the trail who would follow us for stretches. We also got caught in a could which you can see in the time-lapse video below. Some of my classmates have let me know about a local mountaineering group, so I’m hoping to do this more in the future!
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Sometimes I forget that another country is just a half-day’s car ride away from where I live. During my semester in Italy, I thought it was a miracle that you could drive from one country to another, my brain not quite recognizing that essentially the same thing is possible here in Oklahoma. Sure, it’s not the most exciting car drive, but Mexico is a truly beautiful place.
This is my fourth spring break spent at Casa Hogar Getsemani, a children’s home in Morelos, Mexico, and each time I go I fall more and more in love with the people who live and work there. It’s an almost-idyllic place: pastel-painted houses, a mini-farm with ducks and chickens, children laughing and playing on the outdoor playground. It’s such a gift to be able to spend a week there each year, cooking meals for the kids and house parents and doing anything possible to lend an extra hand. It’s hard to put these kind of experiences into words, though, so I’ll include a few pictures to maybe give a little peek into the past week.
Last Wednesday, two days after Christmas, I joined a group of five other people on a four-day trip to Reynosa, Mexico. Our purpose was to bring backpacks filled with school supplies across the border and distribute them to families in the more impoverished areas of the city. The first and the last days were solely spent on driving, as the trip from Oklahoma to Reynosa is around 17 hours. Thursday and Friday were spent taking the backpacks across the border in small batches so the border control would allow us to pass–I made a personal record of ten trips across the border in two days. We brought the backpacks to a local church where we organized them and prepared them to be passed out. The pastor and his family spoke no English, so it was amazing to be able to converse with them in Spanish and help to translate during interactions with the families. Bud and Ruth Bivens are a missionary couple who have been working in Mexico since before I was born, and they are some of my favorite people in the world. It was so encouraging to be able to spend time with them and listen to some of the many stories they’ve collected over the years.
The most heart-wrenching part of the trip was the handing out of the backpacks. Watching a father struggle to hold back tears after his children are given something so simple as a backpack really challenges your perspective on what really matters in life. Having a mother smile wide and hug you after handing her a gallon-size Ziploc bag full of rice and beans is not an everyday experience. This part of the trip is the hardest to put into words, I think because there is something almost sacred about the experience of fulfilling the call of James 1:27 in such a direct manner. There is no difference between me and the people who I am handing backpacks to except for the situations we were born into, which neither of us had any power over. It is only by the grace of God that any of us are in the positions and situations we are in, and we should never take that for granted. This new year, I would challenge you to go deeper and deeper into a heart of gratitude. I would also challenge you to look closely at what good there is in your life and see how far you would have come if you had been born in different circumstances. Shaking your perspective of yourself in the world a little is good for the soul.
I created a video of my experience, which is a first for me because I’m much more comfortable taking pictures. The video is different, though, in that it contains only the parts of the trip where we were not handing out backpacks, because it doesn’t settle right with me to exploit the circumstances of others so I can get more Facebook likes or website views. I didn’t want the families we were speaking with to feel as if our mission to them was done only because we wanted to record the experience in order to feel a sense of personal fulfillment. They are humans and they deserve dignity and respect.
I’m honestly so grateful that I was allowed to go on this trip. It challenged my perspective of what I believe is important. I was also able to use the Spanish that I’ve spent years learning and speak and laugh with families. My favorite encounter was with an older couple from Altamira who I had a 30-minute conversation in Spanish with about the goodness of God in their lives. As we parted, the husband blessed me and said, “If you ever need a home in Altamira, you have one with us.” The Lord’s plan is so SO much better than mine, and as I look back I am able to see the beginning pieces of the story He is beginning to tell.