Road Trip Through the Yucatan!

Having finals a week earlier than my friends at Notre Dame originally seemed like a curse. They were enjoying the winding down of their semester while I was frantically doing physics problems and identifying cell organelles. However, the tides have turned. Notre Dame students are currently taking their finals and I am on vacation throughout the sunny Yucatan on our ‘scenic’ route to Cozumel.

The rush of adrenaline after finishing our physics final was palpable. While we have had a wonderful semester in Mexico, the academics were not the highlight and we were mixed happy/sad to be leaving UPAEP for the last time. 

When asked what they were going to do once done with finals, the most popular response of the group was go to the club and dance. My response? Go read my Wheel of Time book. And folks, that’s exactly what I diduntil 10’oclock when I got ready to go to the club.

Friday dawned a bit too early and I frantically packed for our ten day vacation amid writing about Guanajuato and snagging a page of my book. (Wait, are you telling me that you didn’t write that post as soon as you go back from the trip?? – Heh, yeah. Back dating for the win.) Without much further ado, we were off!

Nine hours and several bathroom stops later, we arrived to the “hotel” in Palenque, Chiapas. The damp bedding in the middle of the jungle brought back fond memories of Quetzalan and we were all asleep within 30 minutes of our arrival.  

Despite an early morning, you can see that everyone was super excited to go climb the ruins at Palenque. We were in for a surprise. Palenque was so much more than I had expected and I cannot express how glad I am that we went . We were able to climb everything that we wanted to and our calves and quads were burning (along with my very fair skin) by the end of the day.

 

We climbed our first pyramid thinking, well, this is pretty cool. It’s got a temple on top. Then we kept going. We climbed four distinct pyramids, one of them being El Palacio. We got a beautiful bird’s eye picture of it from another pyramid/temple.

 

Dripping with sweat, we met our driver, David, as we walked back to the hostel and were off again for our next destination: Campeche. Reminiscent of Guanajuato, Campeche was the first beach side town that we have visited since Puerto Escondido. We tried to sing Christmas songs in the 85 degree weather but it didn’t last for long. We did find this really weird painting on the side of a building. Make of it what you will.

 

We walked along the waterfront as a group throwing the Frisbee around until one misplaced throw landed it in the water. Thankfully, one of the guys immediately was shirtless and climbing into the water to salvage the disk. A strong gust of wind came up causing one of the girls to lose her hat but wait! He was already in the water and could swim over to grab it. To dissuade potential swimmers from getting in the rather smelly water, there was a steep concrete sea wall that caused skidding and sliding no matter what shoes you wore – if you dared to try it. To save the guy who had saved both hat and Frisbee, we formed a human chain across the two meters of sea wall to pull him out.

 

Much to our delight, we found an empty playground on our way back to the hostel complete with swingsets, seesaws and monkey bars. There was even a small skate park! You would think that college kids would be “too mature” or “too cool” for a small children’s playground and you would be wrong. I would show you a picture but let’s be honest, I was too busy playing to take photos. We swung and seesawed until the entire structure creaked and we fled for our lives.

Even after our exhaustion from playing, we Notre Dame students prudently went to mass in the Cathedral at Campeche and since it was the day after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the bishop of the diocese was giving mass. Right before he sent us off to spread the Word, the bishop walked all the way down the aisle until he was in front of the first row of us. (We had to separate into small clumps because try as we might, we were typical and snuck into mass right before the entrance procession began.) He asked, “¿Hablan español? Do you speak Spanish?” and at our positive reply, proceeded to have us stand up (You don’t disobey a bishop during the middle of mass) and be applauded for going to church while on vacation. I don’t think I’ve felt that out of place since I was in India. Mind you, this was a congregation of around two hundred people clapping for the American college students going to mass.

It was absolutely hilarious. We had people coming up to us to say hello (in English) and even before our standing ovation were overwhelmed during the Sign of Peace. It was just another day in Mexico— sixteen Notre Dame students receiving applause from a bishop for attending mass. And to think half the group almost didn’t go…

We rushed out, stomachs grumbling and begged David to take us somewhere with good seafood. We pulled into a line of waterfront restaurants and before they even looked in the window to see that we were foreigners, the waiters were screaming and banging on the bus window to get us to come to their restaurant. The bus was still in motion. The decision came down to the Dolphin, that pink place or the Crab. We decided before exiting the bus on the Dolphin much to the dismay of the other restaurants. I didn’t find out until we were already seated that the pink walled place offered free margaritas for everyone if we went there! I was not upset with our choice though, the Dolphin treated us like royalty and we got three appetizers per table on the house. A jaunt through an indoor bazaar later and we were back in the bus to continue our pre-Cozumel tour of the Yucatan.

We arrived in Merida in time to explore the Zocalo and the markets. I was drawn to a small stand advertising Marquillitas by a very familiar panda. 

It was like a hard crepe/waffle cone pancake. I shared one stuffed with cream cheese and Nutella (Thinking of you, Margaret!) We bought some presents and a few even danced salsa among the crowd. I tried, promise. There comes a time when having ten girls and six boys becomes very unfortunate – looking for a dance partner is one of those times. We got back to the hostel that night and because Katelyn had been dying to go swimming, I dragged myself outside and grudgingly forced myself to lay in a hammock strung over the water with my book next to a nice young Canadian named Jeff. (Is that laying on the sarcasm a little too thick? I don’t think so.) We shared travel experiences and gave him some advice on places to visit since he was taking our trip in reverse.

Merida was the first place that we stayed for more than one night so I rationalized than an extra hour of sleep would do me well and turned in. We left the hostel the next morning for what we thought was a cenote or underground spring. When we got to the site we were slightly disgruntled to see more ruins. The prehispanic ruins are absolutely beautiful but after Teotihuacan and Palenque and plans to go to Chichen Itza, we had seen the best. Another shocker was the amount of English speaking tourists. I was imbued with a desire to speak Spanish to try and differentiate myself from the tourists and was informed that I was experiencing reverse culture shock. Who knew that graph the OIS office gave us would come in handy? It was extremely strange to be addressed in English by people outside of our group. We climbed some of the ruins almost mechanically working up enough of a sweat before finding an open spring and jumping into it with a variety of poses: swan dive, pencil dive, flips and the classic cannonball. Little black fish nibbled our toes as we waited our turn to catapult into the water once more. 

 

Exhausted, we bussed back to our beautiful hostel. Half of the group went back to the Zocalo to explore and half stayed at the hostel. I grabbed my book and joined some friends to read in hammocks poolside. It was quite relaxing and we stayed outside until the bugs came to call and we had to grab spray. Since we had eaten a large lunch no one was very hungry but when a group came back with supplies for grilled cheese our stomachs suddenly became empty. I was a part of the bread buttering assembly line and enjoyed my fair share of the sandwiches.

We were up and out of the hostel early Tuesday morning headed first to Chichen Itza and then to our resort in Cozumel. Chichen was packed with people even though we got there early. The office was astounded and barely believed that we were actual students of Mexico despite our official UPAEP ID cards. It was beautiful, like the rest of Mexico , and I was able to cross off a few more gifts on my list. We’re headed to Playa del Carmen to take the ferry to our resort on the island of Cozumel. Goodbye bus travel and hello all inclusive resort!

Ducking Under Tunnels: Guanajuato

Our final weekend vacation was to the city of Guanajuato in the state of the same name. I think it was the most beautiful city that I have visited all semester. Guanajuato is set up on an old silver mine. Half of the city is inside a mountain! The old mining tunnels were converted into roads and they guard the entrance to the city proper. Driving through those tunnels was at the same time awesome and claustrophobia-inducing. 

We arrived at night and spent more time than necessary scoping out a restaurant to have dinner. It ended up being delicious – as is the usual for Mexican food. I have never had such yummy tortilla soup!

The next morning we started off bright and sunny with the Mummy Museum! Guanajuato is famous for its naturally preserved mummies. There is something in the soil that dehydrates the cadavers to mummify them. The museum was extremely different from the times that I’ve visited Egyptian mummies. These mummies were still in the clothes they were buried in — down to socks and shoelaces. It was a little eerie to be honest. What really creeped me out were the babies. If a baby died, they were dressed up before they were buried and their small bodies mummified just as easily as the adults’ did. We saw the most perfectly preserved mummy in the world – a man without even the slightest crack in his skin and the smallest mummy in the word – a six month old unborn baby. We toured the “Museum of Death” right next door and I got to show off (I don’t think that’s the right word.) my knowledge of medieval torture devices from all the times Dad has taken me to Ripley’s Believe it or Not! museums and my own independent research on the time period. The devices to promote chastity/punish unchastity were rather gruesome back then. 

After the mummies, we needed a little fresh air so we went to get a bird’s eye view of the city. I’m pretty sure a fly flew into my mouth as I was gaping at the beauty of Guanajuato. The belfry of the Cathedral of Guanajuato is just behind Katelyn’s shoulder and the white building behind it is the University of Guanajuato. 

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We continued our tour to La Valencia, a very beautiful church in Guanajuato and were scared out of our skins at the tarantula that one of the guys found and decided to show everyone. It jumped at us, I swear. 

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After La Valencia, we journeyed to the Mines of Valencia. We climbed down 70 meters with the aid of electricity and ropes to assist our descent. Our guide informed us how the indigenous people of Guanajuato were forced to work in the mines to extract silver, gold and other ores to pay off ‘debts’ that sprang up out of nowhere. Something frightening was that the miners carried torches through the minuscule tunnels and if their torch went out, they could be left in the mine for up to three days waiting for someone to pass their way to relight their torch.

After the mines, we explored one of the more subtle attractions of Guanajuato: La Calle de Besos. (The Avenue of Kisses) This street is where the houses are so close together that, as the legend goes, two lovers merely had to stand on their respective balconies to kiss. We wanted to walk through so two of our guys started the line. (Un)luckily for them, the giant crowd surrounding the entrance to the street wanted a kiss. To shouts of “Beso! Beso! Beso!” (Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!), they had a wonderful man-hug. 

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We explored a big indoor marketplace with our British friend, Mark, whom we met while admiring the skyline of Guanajuato. We walked around downtown and with the assistance of Mark’s tour book found this little coffee shop where Katelyn and I enjoyed “El Beso Negro,” the most concentrated 3oz of Belgian hot chocolate I’ve ever had. It was delicious! We also walked by el Teatro Juarez where the movie premiere for Luna Escondida (Hidden Moon) was going on. We explored that theater the next day and it was absolutely beautiful on the inside! 

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We also found a newly opened museum on Don Quijote and toured all the galleries of different artist’s interpretations of the classic tale. Tucked into a corner was a Salvador Dali with minimal pomp. It strikes me as strange that in the States, a painting by such a renown artist, no matter how small, would be paraded and put on a pedestal. There are so many priceless gems here in Mexico that have nothing really promoting how incredible they are. 

On our way out of Guanajuato, we climbed up the mountain (in our bus) to see El Cristo Rey (Christ the King) which is Guanjuato’s own 20 meter statue of Jesus overlooking the city. It was absolutely gorgeous! Our trip to Guanajuato could not be complete without a rapid-fire photoshoot of our two Bearded Ballerinas so I leave you with a gem of my own.

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BRAINS!

Here’s a late Halloween scare: the semester is winding down. With the semester go the days at the hospital for our medical internship. For most of the members of our group, this was just a preview of what is to come. For me, this was my last big adventure outside of my chosen medical field. Don’t misunderstand me, I cannot wait to get started learning more about physical therapy but I do not know how many more surgeries I’ll be able to watch just standing in the corner or even scrubbing in. 

For one, about two weeks ago, I watched brain surgery. The hilarious coincidence was that the game Humans vs. Zombies was happening at ND at the same time. Amid the facebook statuses of ‘I’m a Zombie, feed me braaaiinns” I was able to say that I actually saw one being operated on. The surgeon removed a tumor from the right parietal lobe and the poor patient had so many wires coming out of them that I couldn’t name a role for each of them. There was a central line sutured to the patient’s chest providing direct access to their heart, two IVs in one arm and one in the other. 

A fun idea that I thought of to build a study or trial for regards music played during surgery. If a surgeon plays one type of music for a patient who is conscious, partly conscious or unconscious does the patient develop an aversion to or subconsciously associate pain or tissue damage with that type of music? I would be intrigued to see if anesthesia knocked out those parts of the brain that register those kinds of things.  

When I went to the emergency room, we were able to observe many different types of patients. Almost every patient that goes to Hospital General del Norte first goes through Urgencias (Emergency). I learned how to rule out appendicitis based on the order of symptoms. (For future reference: 1st pain, 2nd vomiting, and 3) fever) If the symptoms don’t appear in that specific order then you can rule it out easily. 

Not all of my days were that exciting, of course. I had a wonderful doodling session during a class on Diabetes Mellitus because I am already very familiar with the topic. The doodles start at the bottom left and improve as I woke up. They flow counterclockwise. As a Whovian (Doctor Who fan), a good motivator to get me to stay awake is to mention one of the Doctor’s nemeses: the Weeping Angels. They cannot move while you are looking at them but when you look away….they have teeth. It’s very frightening. Hence: “Must. Not. Blink.” and the angel coming closer. I had the random desire to draw Snoopy which inspired the poorly drawn Charlie Brown scene. I then looked up from my drawings to notice my compatriot also starting to doze so I drew a Game of Thrones related doodle to make him laugh. 

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Fun (not really) fact: In Taiwan, fifty four percent of adolescents younger than 19 have Diabetes Mellitus type 2! Scary! That class concluded with a quick game of hangman where the word was, appropriately, narcolepsy. 

I also got to learn a lot from the anesthesiologist on my second day of orthopedic surgery. I never really understood the depth of knowledge that they have of the nerves and how they connect to each part of the body. The breadth of information that the anesthesiologist imparted to us in rapid Spanish hopefully stuck in my subconscious because I can’t remember as much as I want to for the life of me. 

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time shadowing at the hospitals here in Puebla. If I never see another surgery, I will still be satisfied because I have been so blessed with opportunities to see them here. I have one week left of rotations where I get to choose where to go. I’m definitely going to stalk the orthopedic surgery room 1) because the surgeon speaks English and can understand my broken Spanish questions and 2) because it is extremely interesting to me. (I’ve said incredible, amazing and awesome too many times in this post.) I have one a half weeks left of school here. What happened to the semester?!?

Nothing But the Water

This past weekend we ventured on our first big student-planned trip to the state of Chiapas. It was a long drive but surprisingly it wasn’t until around ten hours in that everyone was awake at the same time. I think we collectively took enough Dramamine to knock out an elephant. 

We arrived in Chiapas about 45 minutes outside of San Cristobal de las Casas which is where our hostel was located. We walked around on the docks and got to see for ourselves why Chiapas is known for its beautiful waters. For a small fee of around $13, we hopped on what ended up being a 3 hour boat tour of the Cañon de Sumidero. I tried to compare it in my mind to the Grand Canyon in the US but it was extremely different. Here the highest peak was 1000m high (which is huge) but the river was still flowing strongly and widely through the canyon. 

One of the beautiful sights that we saw was the view that became the emblem of Chiapas. It is based on a view of the canyon from the river that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. There were so many incredible views that even the highest quality photos cannot capture. 

After ogling at the cactus (cacti?) that grew on the vertical rock face, we found crocodiles! They were up to six feet long and we definitely got a little too close for my comfort.

We also saw this incredible waterfall that is aptly named the Christmas Tree Waterfall. It looks small and puny from the picture and from the water so our guide decided that we should physically come to understand how wonderful this waterfall is. Aka, he drove the boat under it and got us all soaking wet. It was already a little chilly so that just added to the fun. 

When we finally left for San Cristobal, we found our hostel owners at Hostel Iguana waiting for us. We definitely left an impression because when the hostel owner checked in on us around 11pm, he found that we had built a fort out of the bunk beds and were inside the fort telling scary stories. I love this group. I, unfortunately, fell asleep before they got really scary so I missed out a bit but the ones I heard were spine chilling!

Not to mention that we ate our own body weight in bread and jam every morning. I am just happy that I finally took after my wonderful mother and had my own tea bags and splenda stashed in my bag. I thoroughly enjoyed my Earl Grey although the powder creamer was a little off-putting. 

The next day we visited San Juan Chamula, a village outside of San Cristobal and home to the Chamulas, an indigenous group. It was very close by because San Cristobal de las Casas is set up as a central meeting location and is surrounded by various villages filled with indigenous peoples who often cannot communicate with one another due to differing languages. The Chamulas are a very interesting people who call themselves Catholic but do not practice anything close to what is normally thought of as Catholicism. 

Let me give you a little history lesson. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, their first goal was to evangelize the peoples (well, after mining as much silver as they could get their hands on). From what you have heard of pre-hispanic culture, you may think of the indigenous groups of Mexico as savage heart-eaters but their culture actually assimilated with Catholicism rather well—to the disbelief of the Spaniards. In general, pre-hispanic religions had many gods each with their own area of expertise. In Catholicism, we have God in three Persons and all the Saints. While Catholics do not worship the Saints, Catholics pray to them for intervention with God. The indigenous viewed the Saints as gods themselves. How is this possible, you say? The Saints are each patrons of different areas and you pray to them for assistance in this area, correct? The indigenous simply interchanged their original gods with the Saints. With this foreknowledge it is easier to understand the Chamulas and how pre-hispanic cultures as a whole assimilated to Catholicism with a dash (or often a shovel) of paganism.

The church in San Juan Chamula is unlike any that I have ever seen. From the outside, it looks like any other church but inside it is radically different. The floor is covered with fresh pine needles and there are no pews or places to sit. Instead, statues of saints line the wall with candles melted into the ground in front of them. Each Saint, depending on whether or not they help the people who pray to them, have clothes put on top of them. Some even bear mirrors so that the supplicant can see him- or herself praying. The Chamulas view some of the saints, especially Saint John, their patron, as superior to God. We were not allowed to take pictures because the Chamulas, who live without electricity, as a culture cannot comprehend how cameras capture a moment. In traditional beliefs, capturing an image of yourself causes you to lose one of your souls which itself causes you to become sick until you can restore that soul. Therefore, we surreptitiously snapped a few photos before one of the guys got yelled at. 

I bought lots of gifts in the market and honed my bargaining skills. One vendor tried to take advantage of my gringa-ness and asked $150 pesos each for two scarves. Final price? Both for $180. She probably still took my money but I can deal with that. And hey, they are scarves! I may or may not be wearing one of them right now. We all know that I have a ‘problem’ with scarves. (See post: The Temptation of a Crunchy Leaf)

Later that night we returned to San Cristobal to explore the Zocalo and downtown. There were a lot of jewelry stores that we went into which showcased amber which is the most popular and present gem in Chiapas. We almost had a few girls (myself not included) get nose piercings but they were talked out of it…for now. I had a lot of fun in San Juan Chamula and downtown San Cristobal partly because I was wearing the shirt I bought in Quetzalan and blended in a little more than usual. The blonde hair is always helpful when I’m trying to fit in here.

To end the weekend we went to the Lakes of Montebello which are five lakes of varying shades put together amid gorgeous mountains. As is our luck, it was frigid and raining. Regardless, a few of us swam in one of the lakes anyways! It was absolutely freezing but totally worth it. Great people, great places and great fun. That pretty much sums up most of Mexico!

Coffee and Even More Massages: Quetzalan Part 2

The first half of this week was spent at the integrated traditional medicine and western medicine hospital while the second half was dedicated to the more tourist-y events. After my first day with the curandera, Thursday was supposed to be spent shadowing at the actual hospital. That ended up being a bust because once we were introduced to the doctors and spent fifteen minutes doing rounds as a 16 person group, the director split us up into smaller groups. The smaller groups were assigned to doctors from different specialties but there were no patients to see so we ended up standing around for an hour or so. 

Thankfully we went to hang out at the traditional medicine half of the hospital and ended up learning how to make medicinal tea, soap, and gel. We got lots of free goodies including massage oil, anti-stress tea and bug repellant. We even got anti-itch stuff after a demonstration at the hotel! There was also an interesting “post-modern” photoshoot by one of the girls with my camera while we were solving technical difficulties with the blender. Every time I go through those pictures, I crack up. These photos include extremely up close pictures of faces, ears, and to my dismay when I was finally able to review them: butts. To preserve the anonymity (and sanity) of the subjects (of whom I am a part), I’m going to keep the photos to myself and not share them with the internet. 

A commonality throughout the entire trip was the level of consumption of sweet bread. We usually started each meal with two or three plates such as the following but ended up having the staff bring out several more platters. It was extremely delicious and sugary, especially when dipped in the coffee we were served at every single meal. 

On our second day out in the community, I went with a guisero or a bone-setter to his home. He demonstrated his craft on several group members which involved, essentially, popping our backs. I was excited to travel with him initially because the musculoskeletal system is by far my greatest passion but was less impressed than I could have wished. All of his treatments centered around popping backs (which releases endorphins making you feel better) and massage. Even though I was none too impressed, the work that this man does for his community is very impressive and I give him a lot of credit for that. Also, his son is adorable.

His wife also taught us how to make corn tortillas which are traditionally made in the home for each meal. The typical fare is a soup with some solids like beans or meat and tortillas to sop it up with. Each person consumed at least five to seven tortillas with every meal. All the climbing up and down the mountain must do wonders for your figure because everyone there seemed to be in great shape despite the carbohydrate overload! 

That night we had our final immersion in traditional medicine by undergoing the ritual of Temazcal, an igloo shaped sauna-like ritual. We were prayed over before going in with incense and adorned with funny colored bandanas to keep the sweat (and toxins) out of our eyes. Eight people were allowed at each of the sessions and because the boys of our group wanted to bond, another girl and I were with an all male group. The ‘igloo’ was made of adobe and had a hole in the center in which white hot stones were placed. The woman who led the ritual scooped herb infused water onto the stones to provide the steam. It was an incredible experience that I have never had before and probably never will again. There was loud (off key) singing, beating on drums and real talk. Not to mention the sweating. Lots and lots of sweating. If I have the opportunity to do it again, I would not hesitate to bring other people with me to experience this aspect of traditional medicine and indigenous culture. Although I would hope that they have a basic understanding of Spanish because it would be challenging to translate with all the steam and humidity impeding proper speech. I would still be happy to translate if I could convince someone else to try it. 

The next day we had our tourist-y activities with our Notre Dame coordinator which were all outside. Of course, it poured and was freezing after a week of being too hot and sunny.  Despite the rain, we explored a beautiful archaeological site and made inventive anti-rain costumes. 

We also traversed through the jungle to get to a beautiful waterfall that may or may not have been worth the 1.5 hour trek. I’ll never tell. Some courageous daredevils hopped right in and swam around. I satisfied my ‘swim in a waterfall’ desire by going in knee deep before fleeing in fear of hypothermia. 

The night ended with walking through a beautiful old cemetery and a Notre Dame gamewatch. Our amazing coordinator, Lisette, paid for us to use the WiFi at dinner so we were able to stream the game and watch the Irish’s victory over Oklahoma. We sang the alma mater in the parking lot to the confusion and potential amusement of the guard at the gate.

Our final morning in Quetzalan was primetime gift purchasing time. The streets had become a thriving market overnight with what seemed like everything. The tienditas ranged from livestock to clothing to children’s toys! On the way back to the hotel, we saw a man bagging a turkey. Yep, he just wrapped a turkey in half a burlap sack and handed it to the woman. 

Last but not least, I got to share my love for Mexican street corn which is covered in mayonaise, lime, cheese and/or chile with a friend before hopping back on the bus for the four hour journey back to my bed and bad water pressure in Puebla. I freaking love Mexico.