Mexico 2006 – My cultural immersion experiment
I had been to Mexico twice before, once many years ago in Manzanillo, and more recently in 2003 in Puerto Vallarta. Essentially both of these vacations were typical tourist experiences and ever since I got the taste for real discovery, starting with my Cuba trip last year, I have wanted to discover new places by immersing myself, getting to know the locals, even studying the language to really get a good feel for the country and its people.
Early this year I read an article in the Toronto Star’s Travel Section about Cuernavaca – “The City of Eternal Spring”, a city just 90 km south of Mexico City, on the main highway to Acapulco. Cuernavaca is also one of the world’s largest centres for Spanish language learning – an attractive proposition. Something struck a chord and I decided to make Cuernavaca the main destination of my 18-day stay.
La Catedral Metropolitana, Mexico City
My friend and co-worker Vanessa is originally from Mexico City and she was planning to spend a week with her family anyway, so the two of us arranged that I would join her and her family for three days to explore the Mexican capital. From my first impressions, to explorations of downtown including the Torre Latinoamericana and the Monumento a la Revolución, and the Zócalo and Mexico City’s astounding massive Cathedral to the city’s wonderful urban park, the Bosque de Chapultepec, Vanessa worked out a 2-day whirlwind sightseeing program that was phenomenal. It gave me a really great overview of the city. Together with her family we also had a great dinner experience in the beautiful areas of Coyoacán and San Angel. I couldn’t have had a better guide, local expert and bodyguard than my friend Vanessa.
Upon my arrival in Cuernavaca I got to know my first bed and breakfast hostess, Marta Elena, who runs a wonderful B&B in town and who shared with me her really interesting, even inspiring “riches to rags” story. Then I embarked on my first day of studying Spanish at the Ideal Language School and explored two local must-see places: the Robert Brady Museum and the Jardín Borda.
I expanded my local friendships during a dinner with Marta Elena and Roxana, who was my second bed and breakfast hostess. I became very close to both women, both of whom extended wonderful hospitality to me. The next day Marta Elena and I went on an interesting adventure excursion out of town to a river resort called Las Estacas, upon which we visited a complex of greenhouses growing beautiful orchids and in the evening I made another new friend in a little cafe right opposite Cuernavaca’s cathedral.
Statue in front of the Palacio de Cortés, Cuernavaca
The next day Vanessa’s cousin took my on another country excursion, this time to Lake Tequesquitengo, the largest lake in the State of Morelos. That outing was followed up by a doctor’s visit since I had injured my ankle. So I even got a taste of the Mexican health care system…
Mexico as a close yet exotic destination (with great weather, I might add) has long held a fascination for me and for many other thousands of people. Cuernavaca has a large expatriate community and is becoming a favourite retirement destination. To explore this topic further I talked with Andie Grater who is the President of the local Cuernavaca Newcomers Club, a social club that also dedicates itself to philanthropic endeavours.
Andie is also a local B&B owner and shared with me her experiences of culture shock and psychological adjustment related to living in a new place. The next day she took me to a Newcomers Club meeting that included an extremely interesting presentation about human impact on our planet.
Chapel beside the Cathedral of Cuernavaca
Cuernavaca is also a centre with vibrant cultural activities and I was present during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a photo exhibition featuring two South African photographers who both documented the era of apartheid. Then it was time for me to explore the Palacio de Cortes, which also doubles as the Museo de Cuahnahuac, featuring the history of Cuernavaca and an impressive mural by Diego Rivera.
The weekend had come and it was time for another excursion out of town to beautiful Taxco – the city that silver built. I had an opportunity to see the famous Palm Sunday procession, Taxco is world renowned not just for its handcrafted silver jewellery, but also for its unique Semana Santa (Easter week) traditions.
The second full week had begun and I started my Spanish studies at the Cetlalic Alternative Language School. I also visited “Casa Vamos”, a bed & breakfast whose revenues are dedicated to a local non-profit organization and I experienced an evening with a very sad ending.
My most intense day in Cuernavaca included language studies in the morning, three interviews (two of whom were with local non-profit organizations who help impoverished people in the local community) and a fascinating guided hike during a local nature area during the afternoon and a dinner in a legendary local restaurant.
The pyramid atop of the sacred Tepozteco Mountain
The next destination on my itinerary was the enchanted village of Tepoztlán, just 17 km outside of Cuernavaca. A local resident, an artist by the name of Annabella, took me under her wings and showed me this beautiful magical town. Along the way I even got to meet a former Miss Hollywood, now a local legend. I also completed a strenuous climb to the top of the local Tepozteco mountain to see the ancient pyramid located at the top, long thought to be a centre of cosmic and spiritual energy.
Well, my last day of school had arrived and I capped the day off with a visit to the popular Cuernavaca Spring Fair. The next day I went on another excursion, again to Taxco, to experience its world-famous and unique Good Friday processions which include penitentes, people who are repenting for their sins, dressed in black robes, disguised by black hoods, and walking in shackles, carrying heavy bundles of thorn stalks or flagellating themselves. For me this was a very eerie experience…..
The famous Santa Prisca Cathedral in Taxco
My final day had come. I spent the morning in Taxco where I had the incredible opportunity to interview one of the participants of these processions and find out why anyone would want to participate in rituals involving self-flagellation, pain and suffering. It was fascinating learning more about this truly unique tradition that is shrouded in secrecy. Then back in Cuernavaca my good friend Marta Elena and I celebrated our last evening together with a great meal in a beautiful local restaurant.
So, compared to my earlier trips to Mexico, this experience was full of interactions with the locals and I really had a chance to get some insight into life in Mexico. Most people know Mexico for its resorts along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, but the interior of Mexico with its pre-Hispanic and colonial treasures and its diverse landscapes is a phenomenal place for exploration.
Along the way I discovered many beautiful places, cities, villages, nature areas, and I fell in love – with the diversity and the beauty of these regions in the centre of Mexico, and with the people that I met. Their friendliness, warmth, openness and hospitality were truly astounding and I hope to be back soon.
Lily in front of Santa Prisca