Valpo Voyager

Student Stories from Around the World

Author: Nick Derda (page 2 of 2)

Ruins, Ruins, and More Ruins: My Weekend in Oaxaca

So this past weekend my roommate Leo asked me if I wanted to go home with him for the weekend. He lives in the state of Oaxaca. Just in case you’re geographically illiterate like myself (I still have no idea how to read a map), Oaxaca is located about 4 hours south of Puebla where the University of the Americas is located. At first I was a bit hesitant because I had kind of made plans with the other international students to do stuff over the weekend. But I figured that I would probably have tons of boring weekends to hang out with them. I mean how often was I going to be able to stay with a Mexican family. So I told Leo that of course I’d love to go.

After my classes were done on Friday, I quickly packed because Leo said we would be leaving at 1.30p. Of course, I should have realized that this was 1.30 Mexican time, which really meant more like 3p. At about 3.30 we finally made it to the bus station. It was really busy and kind of like an airport. They frisked me and used a metal detector wand on my backpack before I boarded the bus. It made me feel safe, but at the same time it was slightly scary to think that they would need to take precautions like this. The bus ride was 4 hours long! I brought homework with. After about 10 minutes of reading short stories by the Mexican author Juan Rulfo for my Mexican literature class, I gave up. I watched just watched the movie that was playing on the bus, which was The Little Mermaid in Spanish…Yep, this was indeed real life.

By the time Leo’s mom picked us up from the bus station, it was about 8.30p. I was really tired and all I wanted to do was go to sleep. Leo had other plans though. He decided to take me on a two and half hour walking tour of Oaxaca! It was a really pretty city, kind of artsy and bohemian. It really reminded me a lot of the place I stayed at in Chile this summer. There were lot of gringos there, a term Latin Americans use to refer to people from North America, Europe, and Australia. We went down a street with bars and nightclubs that looked pretty awesome. My roommate’s not really into partying, so we just walked past those.

Before we took a colectivo, a cab you share with a bunch of people, back to Leo’s house in the suburbs, he bought me this Mexican hot chocolate stuff made out of corn and chocolate and an empanada. I had had empanadas in Chile and they were fried and doughy. Mexican empanadas were basically just quesadillas with a little bit of sauce added.

At like 11p we made it back to Leo’s. His house was pretty typical for the area. He lived across the street from a convenience store. There was a cement façade in front of his house that led to a carport. In his front yard, his family raised chickens, had a lime tree, and kept a pet parrot that they brought inside at night. I was rather taken aback by this because I had never seen anyone really do this before. Inside his house, there was a large nativity scene still set up from Christmas. It was filled with several baby Jesus statues/dolls, a random assortment of Wisemen, and other decorative odds and ends. If you know a thing or two about art, then you might have referred to it as kitsch. If you’re art-phobic, you might have called it tacky. Leo gave me his room to sleep in while he slept on the living room floor. I felt a little awkward about this, but he insisted.

The next morning, Leo’s mom made us homemade quesdillas for breakfast. His dad then dropped us off at a youth hostel downtown from where we took a bus to the ancient ruins at Monte Albán where the ancient culture of the Zapotecs lived. There were pyramids, fortresses, and lots of staircases to climb. Looking at everything was really cool. It was especially interesting because Leo is an archaeology major, so he knew everything about everything at this site. His inner geek definitely came out that day. After we finished looking at the ruins, Leo took me back to all the sites we had gone to the night before so that I could see them in the daylight.

Monte Alabán

We went to a bunch of churches, heaps of them. The highlight of that visit was probably getting to see the photography studio of Manuel Álvarez Bravo, who is this really famous Mexican photographer. I had learned about him last semester in a Latin American art class I had taken. He was famous for taking pictures of Mexican intellectuals, artists, and other famous people in the 30s and 40s. It was really intense just being able to see the space in which he actually worked.

"Portrait of Frida Kahlo" (1931) by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

After that grand adventure, we returned to Leo’s house. Leo had come home that weekend because it was his sister’s 18th birthday and they were having a family party, which of course I was obligated to go to. Family parties are usually awkward. This one was especially bad because I didn’t know anyone there and everyone spoke Spanish. I tried making conversation with some people sitting at my table, but I ended up making a fool of myself. Oh well…C’est la vie. Anyway, it was an eye opening experience. At least now I know how much work I have to do with my conversational Spanish.

After surviving that horrendous experience, Leo took me to another set of ruins in Mitla the next morning. The ruins at Mitla were smaller and had been built by another ancient culture whose name escapes me at the moment (sorry, Leo told me about so many things about Mexican history this weekend that I had trouble remembering all of it). After the ruins, we went to see this tree located at a nearby church that was 2,000 years old and supposedly the widest tree in the world. We had some transportation issues getting there and back. The bus broke down on the way there and apparently didn’t go the other way back home. We had to take a taxi and another bus before finally getting back to Leo’s house.

I finally got back to UDLAP at 2am. I was really tired and had class the next day at 9a. I could barely stay awake in class on Monday, but it was seriously worth it. I was so glad I went!

Náhuatl, erotic literature & lots of free time. Yep, definitely not in Valpo anymore.

The random lake in the center of campus. A nice place to take a break in between classes.

Classes started a few days ago…They have certainly been an experience. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I have a Mexican culture class that seems like it will be really interesting. We’ll be learning about everything from the formation and influence of Náhuatl, which is the native language of the Aztecs, to the role of women in contemporary Mexican politics.

I’m also taking a class on Mexican literature that sounds right up my alley. On the first day of class, instead of telling us to just introduce ourselves with the standard name, major, country of origin, our professor asked us to tell about our life stories from birth until now. The prof is fascinating. She’s from Argentina and married a Mexican engineer. She has two master degrees and two doctorate degrees and her research focuses on the deconstruction of gender in Spanish erotic literature. Needless to say I had a total GEEK OUT moment when I heard all of this. The prof is your standard eccentric academic type who just does whatever and makes no apologies for it. I just love people like that.

One of the books I'm looking forward to reading in my Mexican literature class.

I’m supposed to be taking this nifty community service class where we get to work a few hours a week at an organization of our choosing. For the month of January, we are supposed to be meeting with the organizations and trying to figure out which will be the best fit for us. The class time block is supposed to be on Monday. Of course, the times the organizations are supposed to visit campus are scheduled on everyday except Monday and at times when most of the international students have class. Usually I would get frustrated by this, but now I’m just kind of like, “whatever, this is how things work in Mexico.” Who am I, as an outsider to this culture, to critique this.

I went to my first translation class yesterday and realized very quickly that it was just going to be way too difficult for me. The class was composed of both Mexican and International students, all of whom had a better control of both languages than I probably ever will. I decided right after class to drop it. UDLAP has this policy where you can only drop and add courses during the first three days of the semester. It was just my luck that I decided that I didn’t want to take this class on the last day that I had to drop it. I spent three hours trying to drop that class and get into a class about Mexican Civilization. It was a bit scary because I had to talk to all the administrative people in Spanish. Somehow I managed to communicate my ideas across to them. After volleying back and forth between the foreign language department chair and my international advisor, I finally got it all straightened out.

What I was not prepared for over these past few days is not having anything to do. I only have one or two classes a day and none of them have really assigned any time consuming homework. This has resulted in a lot of boredom, hours on Facebook, and reading the one or two books I brought with me. Most of the other international students are having similar troubles. I’m hoping that once more activities get going on campus and once my class workload starts to pick up.

Last night I also went to La Casa Verde, which is this campus ministry-type place that is located off campus. It was your standard, run of the mill campus ministry. The missionary discourse was a bit much for me. This business of “empowerment” really turns me off. It’s just really theologically problematic to me. But perhaps I’ll give it another chance before I totally write it off.

Other than that, things have been pretty calm around here. I’m starting to settle into my surroundings and get to know this place well. Yesterday I finally met all of my suitemates and they are a lot friendlier now that that initial ice has been broken. Overall my experiences in Mexico continue to be great. Cheers!

I still can't get over how beautiful the campus is here. This is what the anthropology building looks like.

Week One, No Sweat.

So I’ve been in Mexico for a few days now, but it still feels somewhat surreal. Traveling to Mexico was not as big of a deal as I thought it would have been. We had a little trouble finding the Amigos Internacionales from the university who were supposed to meet us at the gate, but we found them before we bought our bus tickets to go to Puebla.

The bus dropped us off at a station from where we then had to take a cab to get to UDLAP. The cab driver dropped us each off at our dorms, which were in all different spots of course. I went into the reception area of the dorm and they asked me for my student ID number, which of course I didn’t have. Luckily they were able to look up my name and give it to me. My RA, Pepe, showed me where my suite was and then helped me and some other international students go to the International Office to find out what was on the agenda for Orientation Week.

After that, some other Valpo students and I went hunting for someplace to eat. We stumbled upon this little restaurant that sold “oriental tacos,” which are just like tacos in the United States except the tortilla is a little thicker. The people at the restaurants probably thought we were idiots because we tried to order a “for here” order at the “to go” register. But they were nice and told us to sit down and brought us menus. So it all worked out. After that we wondered around campus, which was completely deserted for an hour or so and then went around and saw each other’s suites. No one else had moved in yet because classes still didn’t start for a week, so we had the suites all to ourselves.

For our first few days here, we had orientation type events. It felt like freshmen year all over again. I met so many people and probably forgot their names like two minutes later. There are people from all over the world here, which has been really interesting. The only problem is that everyone speaks English. Most of the international students from Europe and from other places abroad find it easier to speak English than Spanish. So it is going to be very easy to use English instead of Spanish, which is rather frustrating considering I’m here to improve my Spanish speaking abilities. I’ve been trying to make an effort. Hopefully that will persist. I found out today that my roommate doesn’t speak English, so hopefully that will help me out a bit.

On Tuesday a bunch of the International students and some of the Amigos Internacionales went out to a Karaoke bar. It was a fun place, but the drinks were kind of watered down. We went out every night after that, which made me feel burned out by the end of the week. The Mexicans told us that students at UDLAP usually go out every night of the week with the exception of Sunday. I know that I won’t be able to keep up with them, especially because I want to maintain a high GPA this semester.

We took a tour of Cholula and Puebla during this week as well. The pyramid in Cholula was pretty awesome. When the amigos told us that we were going to see the pyramid, I immediately thought of the pyramids in Egypt. So it was quite a surprise when the bus dropped us off at the pyramid and it looked like there was nothing there except a hill. We went into a tiny museum that showed a miniature model of the entire pyramid. It looked a lot cooler from this view. The pyramid was built on three levels. We had the opportunity to climb this giant staircase that led to one level. It didn’t look like it would be that hard, but it was very easy to get dizzy very quickly. They amigos told us to walk up and down the stairs in a zigzag formation to avoid the dizziness. It seemed to help a bit. At the top of the pyramid was a church that had been built by the Spanish. It was highly ornate and there were statues and paintings everywhere. It was a little strange for me to be snapping pictures while I was there though because they were people worshipping within the space. It just didn’t feel right to be treating this sacred space like a tourist attraction.

The following day we went on a tour of the center of Puebla. We toured more churches that were decorated in the Baroque style. The architecture and the decoration within the church clearly showed a European influence. Our tour guide, who is an UDLAP history student, told us that when we walked through the door of the large cathedral, our sins would be forgiven. Several students on the tour walked through the door a bunch of times just to make absolutely sure that all of their sins wouldbe absolved. Haha. By Saturday, all of the planned orientation eventswere over.After meeting

up with some other Valpo students and some new friends we made from Austrailia, we ran into one of the amigos internacionales, Pedro, and he took us on an impromptu tour of Cholula, which was rather helpful. We foundout about a lot more bars, clubs, and restaurants that we didn’t know existed. There was this one place that the Mexicans call “Container City.” It’s basically a bunch of shops, bars, and nightclubs that are housed in these old giant storage containers. Apparently it’s a very hipster-ish place. I’m not really sure if I’m hipster enough to be there, but I’ll probably end up making a trip over there at some point.

On Sunday we made another impromtu trip to the pyramid in Cholula. We got a little lazy and decided to take a bus back to campus. At first public transportation was a bit scary, but all you have to do is ask the bus driver if they stop at the place you are headed to. After that, we met up with some other people and went to a place called Rok Pub to watch the Packers game. I’m not really that into football, but it was stillfun chatting with all the people who came with.

Classes are already starting this coming week, and I’m a bit nervous about them. I’m sure they’ll be fine and I’m just having those before school jeeters. Hopefully the rest of this semester will be as fun as this first week has been!

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