I’ve been meaning to write this instalment for ages, but haven’t gotten round to it. My
sincere apologies for loosing touch for such a long time! I have no better excuses than the
fact that I’ve been enjoying myself a lot and kept quite busy the last 6 weeks or so. My
written Afrikaans has really atrophied, so this letter will be in English. The only
Afrikaans I’ve spoken of late has been in phone calls home and when I need to discharge
my frustrations (Die taal is BAIE gemaklik vir kragtige uitdrukking!!) about my messy
What has happened since the last communiqué? A lot! I’ve travelled to some very
interesting places, met inspiring people and discovered more about Mexican culture.
Also, the academics have kept me busy in the few weekends I didn’t travel. Yeah,
Political Philosophy is a very interesting field to spend some time in. My lecturer also
gives me some flexibility with regards to the study material, as I’m interested in some
particular issues that the rest of the (introductory first year) class isn’t interested in.
Hence, I’ve written an essay on whether the state should take neutral position w.r.t.
different conceptions of the ‘good life’ and am currently doing research for an essay on
the relation between politics and economics. This week I also have to do a class
presentation on some of Hannah Arendt’s work (cool stuff!) and have Spanish tests and
The Spanish is coming along all right, especially since I’ve gained some confidence in
speaking it (however horribly!). The local people have really been helpful and patient in
this regard. People don’t laugh and make you feel stupid when you use the wrong
conjugation of the verb – they just correct you when you have finished your sentence.
I’ve made some good Mexican friends in the past month and have been speaking
colloquially more often; which has helped a great deal! But still, I am a bit of an
entertainment act at times. The other day I asked where I could urgently go to a mental
hospital [sanatorio] instead of the ladies room [sanitario].
The students around here work very hard. Like SA, the returns to tertiary educations are
very high and observable. Resultantly, students don’t want to jeopardise their futures.
Also, the UDLA1 is a private university. If I understand correctly, it is the most expensive
university to study at in Latin America. Which has three implications: 1) students pay
large amounts to study here, and don’t want to screw up; 2) the administration of the
university and the types of services accessible 2 are very different; 3) most of the students
come from very affluent families. The parking lots are stocked with SUV’s, BMW’s, VW
Bugs3, and I even saw some Rovers. The vast majority of students go on at least one
exchange programme during their studies, and most have travelled abroad extensively
and speak English very well. Most students have spent some time in the USA, but there
are still very strong anti-US sentiments around here; along with a lot of exchange
Universidad de las Americas, Puebla
For instance, there is cable TV in all the dorms – in every flat / section, gym is free, there are coffee
lounges in the library, free wireless internet over the whole campus etc.
There is a VW manufacturing plant in Puebla
students from the US. Things get very uncomfortable at times. I think the exchange
students who are here might be the converted few who are actually trying to learn
Spanish and make amends with other North Americans (Don’t forget the Canadians! I
met some interesting Canadians.). The portrayal of Mexico in American media and films
is quite biased: it mostly shows people of meagre means who (illegally) immigrate in
search of a better life. Sure, that happens. But for every immigrant there are millions (yes,
the order of numbers is correct) of Mexicans who choose to stay in Mexico. Furthermore,
the (alleged) exploitation of Mexican resources by American MNC’s (labour, petroleum,
depleatable natural and mineral resources) is also bemoaned very vocally. The term
gringo / gringa4 is not so neutral as some language guides may suggest…
Child playing with inflated tube of plastic at night in the town square [zócalo]; Walkway in Oaxaca;
Pancho (a friend whose house we stayed in) and his cousins.
I’ve really made some very special friends. Mexican families have been very warm and
friendly and opened their homes and hearts to me. Family is everything around here.
Machismo culture (of which I have had quite enough, thank you) is strong, but it seems
as if the roles reverse as soon as people leave the public arena: the women are really
strong characters and the men abide by the rules of the women of the house. It’s and
interesting and unexpected role reversal. Also, most places are very child-friendly. So
children are taken along everywhere. Interestingly, the children are very quiet and
obedient. Children can be seen everywhere, but one hardly ever hears one cry, shout or
deliver a temper tantrum.
Xochimilco; Marina and Cindy in a restaurant owned by a colourful ex-US Marine in DF.
Since we last spoke, I went to DF (Distrito Federal – Local for Mexico City) again, with
my Dutch friend Marina, Cindy from Brown Uni in the US and Barbara from Canada.
We went over a long weekend and saw all the touristy sights. My favourite was
Xochimilco which is a suburb laced with waterways. So, we ended up taking a barca to
Folklore suggests that the term was derived during military conflict with America, when the US Army
wore green uniforms. Thus, the people would chant “Green, GO!”
the floating market, on which you have lunch (and copious amounts of alcohol) and have
mariachis5 serenade you. Marina and I also travelled to Oaxaca City over a weekend. I
think it has been my favourite city in Mexico so far. It’s about 4 hours drive from the
coast and has a very friendly and cosmopolitan feel about it. There are also many
archaeological sites (eg. Monte Alban and Mitla) and Oaxaca is famous for its artisans,
cheese and chocolate. Good stuff! I also went on a school trip to Veracruz. The city
reminded me a lot of Cape Town. It is also a coastal city which was one of the first
established harbours for European settlers. We took a tour of the old fort and naval
museum which reminded me a lot of the Kasteel. We also went to the aquarium. Sadly
the weather was quite inhospitable - there are many nice beaches around.
Market stall for Chilies in Oaxaca; Ancient mosaics at Mitla; Old Fort at Veracruz.
The best trip I’ve taken so far was over a 5 day weekend with 5 Mexican guys and 3
American girls. We travelled to Chiapas, the state that borders on Guatemala. It is
beautiful! It is a mountainous region with plentiful water. We visited a number of sites
and towns, and stayed at our friend Pancho’s house. We received a warm welcome and
really enjoyed the time. I made some very good friends. Some of the highlights include
Palenque, which is an ancient Mayan city overgrown by jungle; Agua Azul, a number of
crystal clear waterfalls; the town of San Cristobal de las Casas, where we stayed with
Pancho’s family and canyons around San Cristobal.
Pancho, Charlene, myself, Alberto, Bartho, Alejandro, Keri, Alexis and Lisa; The ruins at Palanque;
The root for the term is the same as for ‘marriage’. It is customary for mariachis to serenade to a newly
wed couple. But, this form of entertainment has grown so popular that mariachi bands roam the streets and
café’s in search of anyone who is willing to pay to be serenaded. Its really good fun and often older people
in at a social gathering would pay mariachis to play a few songs to young couples. The only reward they
demand (very vocally!) is a kiss at the end of the song(s). Yes, public displays of affection are very
common around here, to the point of being encouraged!
The Mexican lifestyle is really attractive. The food is very good, I especially like the fish
and meat I’ve had here. Furthermore, I’ve become a fan of all sorts of moles [thick cook-
in sauces] which are sweet, chillie based sauces with different variations – my favourite
is Mole Poblano which contains chillies, nuts, cinnamon and chocolate and is often used
for chicken. I’ve had a lifetime’s share of frijoles6! Like the food and climate, the people
are warm and friendly. I’ve recently gotten to know my friend Bartho’s family quite well
and they are warm and engaging people who welcome you in their homes and lives.
Mexican people have an upbeat view on life, and although work is important, family and
community come first. And great pleasure [mucho gusto] is taken from eating, drinking,
spending time with loved ones, dancing. Oh! And do these people dance! We went to
crafts market in Puebla yesterday (Sunday) and a huge tent canopy was raised. Slow
cubano music was playing and people were dancing on a cement floor. There was an old
couple of about 65 years, wearing matching lilac outfits and they still outshined everyone
else. This seems like a weekly ritual, the kind of thing that people look forward to all
I’m starting to appreciate the music here. Apart from the mariachis who sing traditional
folk songs, there is a great variety of popular music. I’m getting used to Reggaetone7 and
sentimental Spanish love songs8.
I cooked a traditional SA meal on Friday evening and really missed home, borrie to make
bobotie with and not having to explain why malvapoeding is called malvapoeding9. It
was traditional in the sense that I prepared bobotie, aartappelslaai, broccoli and
cauliflower with white sauce and cheese, sweet carrots and malvapoeding. What is a
traditional SA meal? People keep asking that and I struggle to come up with a concrete
answer. I’ve come to reaffirm that diversity is really the outstanding characteristic of
South African society: when people ask me questions about SA it’s really hard to give a
short answer10 without digressing into our colourful history and cultural diversity.
Extremes exist, contrasts are evident and in order to get along with other people one is
made aware of very different circumstances, practices and ideas. Resultantly, no “typical
South African” traits exist and one is equipped with at least a working knowledge of
several possible ways of life that coexist in SA. People are very interested in SA, but
haven’t encountered much (useful) information about SA. One of the highlights of every
week is an English conversation table I’m involved in. The idea is for Mexican students
to practice English, but also aims to assist cultural exchange. I’ve learnt a lot about
Mexican life, but it has also been an enlightening experience to reflect on and discuss my
life in South Africa.
Refried beans – which do come back to haunt you…
Think Sean Paul meets Shaggy in Spanish. Pumping in all the local pubs & clubs with a very distinct bass
line and toe-tapping rhythm. Not really toe-tapping, more like, uhm, body-gyrating!!
A firm favourite of los borrachos [guys who are tipsy].
This edition’s lucky prize goes to anyone who can comprehensively answer this question. The winner will
receive home baked malvapoeding on my return.
I admit that there might be a strong sample selection problem at work here: I am not known for my
brevity. Take this simple letter for example…
I’m looking forward to coming back to SA in June, but Mexico has a special place in my
heart. I would like to come back at some stage, but will probably not be able to do so for
quite such a long time period again. The prospect of travelling in more Latin-American
countries is very appealing!
The time has really flown, and I’ll be back soon. Apparently I’ve chosen 5 good months
to be away from Cape Town! I have some interesting plans (that involve a lot of
travelling) for the next 2 months, and will send another update luego11.
I look forward to seeing familiar faces again and am very eager to hear news from the
Undefined time in the future, as in ¡Hasta luego! (Until later, when we meet again). Mexicans aren’t
known for their punctuality, and the promise to do something luego is a very vague one.