Monday, 10 February 2014

food glorious food

Over three months here and I am yet to broach the subject of food. This is a gross omission on my part, as my life pretty much revolves around food when I'm in England and it's even more of a big deal to me here.
Let me first start by saying that Mexican food is probably not what you think it is. Burritos  nachos, enchiladas and the rest as you would recognise them in England don't really exist here, at least in the south; they're much more of a US / Mexican hybrid (think tikka masala and it's connection to genuine Indian cuisine). Initially I was a bit disappointed by the food I found here. Village shops are decidedly lacking in fresh fruit or veg, and most come a from the processed foods, crisps, biscuits, and fizzy drinks food groups (Mexico has the highest Coca-Cola consumption in the world, and recently pipped the states to become the most obese nation in the world too). When it comes to local restaurants, th  food is nice but variety is not overwhelming. When I mentioned this to people, the explanation always given was that this is a recently populated region; therefore, there is no regional cuisine and the restaurants tend to reflect this. Hence menus filled with endless variations of meat cooked with tomatoes and  onions, served with beans, rice, and tortillas and a side of spicy salsa; nice enough, but nothing to get excited about. Back in the house where I'm staying, a limited kitchen (one electric hob; a couple of pans) meant that my homecooked meals pretty much reflected these menus, albeit with a strong focus on quesadillas (tortillas filled with cheese, folded, and fried). So far, so average. However, this all started to change when I started spending time at people's houses.

Mexicans (at least the Mexicans I've become friendly with) are extremely generous people. Once you get to know them, the offer is always open to pop round whenever you want. And if you take them up on that offer, then you will always be fed whilst you're there. And the food I've eaten at people's houses has all the flavour, variety, and all-round deliciousness that I was hoping for when I came here. Tamales are a particular favourite of mine, but I've also been fed - and wholeheartedly enjoyed - hand made tortillas served with salt and pork fat (handmade tortillas are a completely different species from the shop-bought variety), empanadas, stews made from wild game freshly hunted in the forest, tostadas (delicious mini deep-fried tortillas topped with shredded meat), spicy chicken broths, and much more besides. Fresh produce is also a lot more plentiful then I originally thought. People grow bananas, coconuts, oranges, papaya, and limes in their gardens, and delicious (and previously unknown to me!) Veg is available at greengrocers shops in Xpujil. Another highlight are the guys who travel from village to village on their bike-come-delivery truck; delicious ice-creams, pastries, and even fried chicken available to buy literally from your doorstep.

All in all, the food here ha  turned out to be everything I hoped for. Which is great for me - although not so great for the clothes I bought with me!

Mexican Christmas!

It is very strange experiencing the Christmas build-up in a tropical climate. Normally in the weeks leading up to Christmas I am wrapped up as much as possible whenever I leave the house, and eating as much hot and stodgy food as possible. Christmas adverts go on air sometime towards the end of October and Christmas becomes pretty much the only thing people talk about from the beginning of December onwards. Here in Calakmul the experience has been very different - which I guess is not going to come as a surprise to anyone! It is very weird hearing Christmas songs when you 're sunbathing in 30 degree heat. And the build up is much less commercialised - it is not the centre of everyone's universe in the weeks or even days leading up to it. However some things never change wherever you are - and the kids were getting just as excited here about the imminent arrival of Santa then they do in England! We've had some really fun classes spent learning Christmas songs and making Christmas cards. Finally enough, the typical Christmassy symbols are the same here as they are in England, so they all covered their cards in snow men - despite the fact that none of them have ever seen snow in real life.
I spent the actual festive period in Merida, which is a really lovely old colonial city towards the north of the Yucatan peninsula. The big meal here is on the 24th, and I spent it at the home of a Uruguayan family. There were about 20 guests and enough food for about 100 - Turkey, beef, lamb  to name but some of the meats on the spread! Uruguayans have a specific way of cooking meat - kind of very gentle barbecuing - and it was absolutely delicious. All washed down with plenty of noche buena beer - which literally translates as Christmas Eve beer.
The 25th itself is generally a slightly more laid-back affair. I spent it on the beach and my Christmas meal was cerviche with tortilla chips. Again, it marks a departure from what I'm used to but it made for a very nice break from the norm. New year's eve was also spent on the beach. I think I could definitely get used to spending the festive season this way!

Monday, 9 December 2013


So you may have guessed from the fact that Valentin sits on th edge of one of Mexico's biggest nature reserves, and within central America's biggest rainforest, that there would be some interesting wildlife around here. You would be right. It's hard to comprehend just how much wildlife there is here, however, until you 're here. I thought I knew what to expect. Turns out I was wrong! Even in the countryside in England, wildlife seems like it is constantly being pushed to the edges of daily life. Seeing an unusual bird is a rare occurrence, and it is pretty uncommon to see any wild animal larger than a Fox. There just Isn't that much room left after all the farms and villages.
Here is different. Ejidos are small and spaced widely apart. Xpujil is the largest town in 150km in any direction, and it has comfortably less than 5,000 inhabitants. Forestry management programmes from the government down have long discouraged deforestation, which means that each Ejido incorporates a significant proportion of woodland. In this environment, animals thrive alongside people. Since my arrival here I have seen a huge variety of animals - monkeys, toucans, snakes, crocodiles, wild turkeys, woodpeckers, wild pigs - to name but a few. Several of the more exotic animals I don't even know the names of! A couple of weeks ago I saw a jaguar. This is a pretty unusual occurrence even for here. It was a baby so not much bigger than an average dog. But it's markings were unmistakable and it was a completely beautiful sight to see it running across the road.
 However for me a particular highlight has been the birds and butterflies. They are always there, at the edge of your vision, adding a splash of Orange or gold to the already vibrant landscape. They sit outside the window whilst you 're doing the washing up. They dive in front of your bike as you 're cycling along. There is one particular butterfly that I think is really special. It is huge - so big that you can hear it's wings rustling like two sheets of paper as it flies past. And it is an incredible electric blue. It's not scared of people, and a couple of times I've been outside and one has come to settle on my knee.

The animals here are one of the things that makes this place really special. Although saying that, I would happily get rid of all the chickens that still wake me up at 4 in the morning!

Monday, 2 December 2013

village life

So after a couple of weeks, I feel like I'm settling into my new home. The pace of life here is definitely different to what I'm used to in London! A typical day begins at, when the roosters start crowing in the mistaken belief that it is already the  morning, rather than the middle of the night. Hopefully I'll start learning to sleep through this before long! The day starts early for most people here as well - normally people are up and about by 7. After breakfast my mornings are typically taken up with lesson planning, and the afternoons and evenings are spent giving classes. I am lucky enough to be teaching a lot of really enthusiastic, interested pupils, and although the classes last between 2 and 2.5 hours, they go past in a flash. I also spend a lot of time in xpujil, and am really enjoying cycling in my spare time. There are some very interesting routes to take in the countryside - it's amazing how quickly you can find yourself in the middle of nowhere!
Darkness falls around 5.30, and evenings tend to be very quiet in the village. There are no bars, although there is one restaurant which serves huge and delicious empanadas which are cheaper than any dinner that I could prepare at home. The shops are open until about 9, and apart from anything else they are a good place to go to catch up on all the telenovelas.
Thankfully the hotel has WiFi so although the village is quiet in the evenings, I am not getting bored. I am also beginning to experiment with Mexican cooking - the shops are full of products that I've never seen before, let alone cooked with. So far I haven't got much further than cooking quesadillas but hopefully this will change before too long!
The people in the village  are shy but very friendly. It makes a nice change to say hello to everyone you see when you 're out and about.
This laidback lifestyle takes a bit of getting used to, but I'm actually loving it. Who knew that life in the slow lane could be so enjoyable?

Monday, 25 November 2013

arrival at calakmul

So the last stage of the journey was a 3 hour trip from Tulum to Chetumal, followed by another 2 hour trip to Xpujil. Unfortunately the 3 hour trip morphed into an 8 hour trip due to an on going teacher's strike which includes road blocks of all major roads. The alternative route, through rural villages, was very interesting and I very much enjoyed 8 hours spent looking out the window watching the world go by. Slightly less enjoyable was when it started to pour down, and it turned out that the bus had a leaky roof. Consequentially I arrived in Chetumal after the last bus to Xpujil had left, closely resembling a drowned rat! The final leg of the journey, which I embarked upon the following day, was much less eventful. Xpujil is a long way from anywhere and it felt that way, as the road made its way along a progressively less populated and more tree-lined road. My first impressions of Xpujil were that it resembled the sort of frontier town that you would expect to see in a cowboy film set in the wild west. The main heart of the town is a long street that runs along the length of the main road. That is not to say the town doesn't have it's charms; the surrounding landscape is of course a plus, as is the very friendly and laidback atmosphere which the town abounds in.
I was met from the bus by the local project coordinator, Noe. The first place he took me too was a town called Zoh Laguna, a very interesting place about which I will talk a lot more about in forthcoming posts. After a very nice lunch where I discovered that people in Calakmul like their food almost as spicy as I do, we continued on to my new home: the small village (or Ejido as they are known here) of Valentin. My first impression was that the place has more chickens than people - which is lovely until they wake you up at 4 in the morning with their cockle doodle do-ing! Home for me here is a room in a community centre built by the Ejidos. It includes my own bathroom, which is a very welcome luxury I was not expecting! The place is painted in cheerful colours and has a lovely covered porch which contains possibly the most comfortable deck chair I've ever had the good luck to sit on.
So in synthesis - a very encouraging beginning to my time here!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

the journey begins...

Hello Mexico!

I arrived on October 30th, just in time for the famous day of the dead celebrations that I've heard so much about. The images of sugar skulls and two days of remembering and celebrating dead loved ones are well known around the world so I was very much looking forward to seeing it for myself. I arrived in Tulum after a 20 hour journey, so my affinity with the living dead was even higher than usual. Two days to enjoy the celebrations before heading down south to begin my English teaching in Calakmul - seemed like the perfect plan! I emerged after a 12 hour sleep into the dazzling sunshine in Tulum. What a beautiful place - the perfect place to begin 6 months in Mexico. To any one thinking of travelling to visit Mexico, I recommend you visit this laidback town, only a couple of hours down Mexico's Caribbean coastline from Cancun. The beach itself is worth the visit - miles of perfect white sand looking out onto the cleanest, bluest sea I've ever had the good fortune to come across. I kicked off my first day in Mexico with a Mexican breakfast in a restaurant right on the beach. Scrambled eggs with refried beans, tortillas, guacamole, and rice - definitely makes a change from the usual bowl of cereal but I think I could get used to it! After a day enjoying a sunshine - especially considering I'd just escaped the rainiest Autumn I can remember in England - I got together with a few other people from my hostal to go out in the town and see a bit of the day of the dead celebrations.

Unfortunately, it turns out that day of the dead isn't celebrated in Tulum in the way that I had expected - instead the evening was much more similar to the Halloween festivities that I'm used to seeing in England. Groups of kids dressed in a range of costumes sang songs to passersby asking for sweets. Including the scariest Chuckie I've ever had the misfortune to come across! As I found out later, the day of the dead celebrations that most people associate with Mexico are mostly located in states like oaxaca and Chiapas. However, the town's ice-cream parlour did a one-off pumpkin flavoured ice cream to mark the day which I can highly recommend.

Despite this slight disappointment, I had a wonderful couple of days in Tulum, the highlight of which was visiting the Mayan ruins which are situated on a ridiculously picturesque cliff overlooking the sea. They may not be Mexico's biggest or most structurally impressive Mayan buildings - but they are utterly captivating and I really came away with the sense of what it might have been like to live  there when the town was in it's prime. The site was also crawling with huge iguanas - it's a truly disconcerting experience to stand looking at an ancient old building, only to see some of it suddenly walk off!

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end, so Saturday saw me at the bus station on my way down south. Next stop - Calakmul!