My Beloved Friends
I had worked for 6 months in Toluca as a volunteer. Working in the TV dep. with these cute persons, they taught me not only Spanish but also work...and, of course, Mexicans....haha!!
The left one is Mike, who is always like me to tell Chinese stories and teach traditional things. At the right is Juan, I call him Juanito as he likes to call me my Chinese name, Chierong...the right 2nd is Milca, she's one of my best friends in Mexico. She's my dear princesa del espejo...
And there are others who cares me very much as well, like Lilyana, Inda, Anita and Lupis...will put their picture here recently.
*the photo was shoot in our office...see that camera and videos?
"Theresa & I"
Okay, Theresa & I were the nautiest exchangees of 2000 in Toluca/Mexico. Most of time we stay together...When we finished our work, we would meet each other. Do something, like go to movies or have a cup of tea. Or we watch MTV together in my house.
She is from Frankfourt/Germany. But not like the impression of most German, she's sooooo cute and sweet that she always invited me to travel together and taught me something about Germany. I also ICQ with her friends in Frankfourt sometimes.
¡Øshoot in front of my house in Toluca. The dog who back to the camera named Shaggy. ^_^
Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Mexico, where I worked when I was in Toluca.
Monday to Friday, every morning I went there by bus. Then we will go out to shoot every event/lecture which held by our university in town.
Intro to culture, where to live or visit, FAQ
"Intro to culture for first time visitors"
If you just want to get away from your daily life, perhaps swim with the dolphins or drink some tequila at a hopping club, then just go and enjoy. You could also do some eco-tourism or good works tourism and remain oblivious to the full beauty of Mexican culture.
Mexican culture is an evolving mosaic whose complexity may make appreciation of its totality difficult for the first time visitor. This is especially true in the capital and in the tourist-resort areas. As I have written in my tips, you can pretty much find elements of all of Mexico in Mexico City, but many will be hidden inside outwardly similar buildings and modern clothes. There are enclaves of different populations within the city, but they will be hard to identify by outward appearances. Many of these people have lived in the city for many years, and if even if not born in the city, they consider themselves more as parts of the city than as immigrants to the city from the country. In contrast, it is extremely hard to find anyone born in Cancun when you visit Cancun. Your taxi driver may be from as far away as Tijuana, or from anywhere else in Mexico. When I asked my first driver where he was from he said that he was just in Cancun to work. This seemed to be everyone's response.
The most important requirement for learning about Mexican culture is attitude.
This starts with recognition that the common ideas held about Mexico are generalizations. They are limited and inherently false. To get beyond these generalizations whether romantic or denigrating will require both study and close observation.
Some new generalizations to help you start:
1. Mexico has Indian, Mestizo, Criollo (European of Mexican birth) European and modern. (Oh yes, even a few with African genes.)
2. Each of these categories is more diverse than it is uniform.
3. The modern is the latest addition. It is homogenizing and may obscure an individual's background.
4. The variety of climate and geography found throughout Mexico has a major impact on the culture and lifestyle found in each area.
5. Just because you are in Mexico, it does not mean that Spanish is the first language of everyone you meet.
"Two weeks and too much to see."
Many times people plan to see too many places in too little time. The distances they plan to travel would require many, many hours on the road leaving you very little time to visit. Another problem is that their list is mainly one of cities rather than attractions with two of the cities (Mexico City and Guadalajara) being very large and certainly requiring days rather than hours to visit. Of course, you can just limit yourself to the "efficient" city tour and then move onwards but this would seriously limit the pleasures of your visit.
Many think that by renting a car they will be able to be much more efficient in their travels. For lots of countries or trips this would be true, but for Mexico I think this would be a big mistake. Driving conditions are not easy and Mexico probably has the best bus system in the world. Convenience, cost and variety of levels of service are fantastic. Any long road trips one contemplates could include sleeping on the bus thus saving hotel expense and time. (See Mexico tips on VT for lots of comments on transportation in Mexico.)
I have read two week travel plans on VT forums like a recent one that included 1) Pacific Ocean cities and beaches, 2) Central Mexico towns like Guanajuato, Puebla and Oaxaca, 3) the Yucatan Peninsula with cities, ruins and beaches, 4) two major cities, and 5) Veracruz. This sounds like 4 weeks of exhausting travel rather than two. I think that even after removing two of these five one would be planning a rather superficial visit. With the exception of #5 each of these requires about a week with the trip to the Yucatan being the toughest.
Better, in my opinion, is to plan circular travel. For example if you wanted to go to the Yucatan from Mexico City: You could go Mexico, DF - Puebla - Oaxaca (Monte Alban and Mitla) - San Cristobal (via Salinas) - Palenque - Merida (Uxmal, hacienda, caves) - Chichen Itza - Cancun (Tulum, Isla Mujeres)- then back via Campeche - Villahermosa - Veracruz -El Tajin - to Mexico City. Lets see: Puebla 1-2 days, Oaxaca 2-3 days,To San Cristobal and visit 1-2 days, Palenque 1 day, to Merida and visit 1-2 days, Chichen and onto Cancun 1 day, Tulum 1 day, Isla Mujeres or beach 1 day, travel to Veracruz 1 day (ouch) or with a stop in Campeche or Villahermosa 2 days, Veracruz 1 day, travel to Mexico city via Tajin 1 day. I count 12 days using the minimum. So even this leaves only 2 days in MC. One might ease the toughness a bit by flying one way to or from Cancun the return to Mexico City by land.
IF YOU FIND YOURSELF TO BE ONE OF THESE PEOPLE, I have two suggestions: 1) Chose a theme or focus for this first trip, and 2) Mentally commit to making another visit in the future.
"The next San Miguel de Allende?"
There are lots of towns with a little of what has made San Miguel famous, but most have something that San Miguel lacks -- industrial growth. Since right after World War II San Miguel's greatest growth engine has been its attractiveness to foreigners as a place to stay, study Spanish and live. Some say it started with the GI bill.
Excluding places of beach resorts, I am familiar with only five places in Mexico (There must be more including some with less attractive climates.) that are relatively untouched by the industrial growth bug and considered of high tourist interest: 1)Guanajuato - its geography limits its central city size and makes it unattractive to industry. It could never GROW into "the next San Miguel". It has its own identity of being a smaller, more romantic colonial attraction. 2)Patzcuaro -like Guanajuato it is small and frequently visited. It also has less traffic but the costs are higher than in a city without as many foreign residents or visitors. It does have room to grow. 3) Cuernavaca - famous for its many language schools, mild climate and rich residence. Expect high costs, but traffic is probably not too bad. 4)Oaxaxa - a larger city much further south, also with a lot of tourism but less foreign residents, and with space to grow but with little industry. It is the central capital of the culturally fascinating State of Oaxaca. It is (hopefully) now recovering from effects of an awful social-political conflict. 5)San Cristobal de las Casas - relatively remote and perhaps with the least attractive climate, it has seen a lot of growth in population since I visited over 30 years ago, but its seems to have had little industrialization. The surrounding Mayan culture is a lot different from what you find in San Miguel.
There are a number of very small places that could or maybe have been discovered and may grow into San Miguels: Tlaxcala and Dolores de Hidalago are two that come to mind.
There are a large number of cities in Mexico that demonstrate the "jelly donut" type of growth seen commonly throughout the world. (Examples: Florence, Italy; Sevilla, Spain; Arequipa, Peru; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; ...) The center is the old cultural core and the surrounding city is the boring, bland and often more industrial growth areas. Where geography permits, these areas can extend many miles. Depending on the economic vitality of the city and tourist attractiveness of living in its center, these can be places where you could find a place for an extended stay without tourist expense. Traffic may still be a problem just because this is a common result of city growth. Some of these cities can give you a "little of what San Miguel has" but they will never grow into the next San Miguel. Some moderately sized possibilities include Zacatecas, Queretaro, Leon, San Luis Potosi, and Merida. Other larger city possibilities are Veracruz, Puebla and even Toluca.
"Mexico was paradise, so how about retirement?"
Regularly I see questions on VT like a recent one from someone who just had an idyllic visit to Playa del Carmen and was convinced that she should buy a home or condo in Mexico for the retirement she plans for in ten years. There are lots of retirees living well and happily in Mexico and one can find a good number of sites with encouraging advice, but consider the following response I wrote to her and apply it to where you discovered "paradise":
'I think you have just identified an excuse for a couple more trips to Playa del Carmen, plus perhaps a few trips to alternatives. Although the prices you find in person would almost certainly be better than what you see on the internet and the value will very likely increase over the next ten years, I would urge you not to buy now because Playa del Carmen will be different in 10 years, and during the interval the headaches of absentee ownership could be recurrent and nightmarish. You could lose your whole investment through Mexican courts, scams or hurricanes.
Historically the issue of ownership of property in Mexico by foreigners has been complicated by politics and national pride. A nightmare I can easily imagine is of someone buying a home and after a period away returning to find it occupied by a "poor Mexican" family claiming title. As long as you have money to defend your rights, the business of selling to foreigners is strong, and you live in Mexico you could be hopeful that the title you bought is valid and will be enforced.
'Come to think of it, you have identified an excuse (as if you need one) to travel for the next ten years looking for someplace for retirement. Good luck.
"Where to go with family for a taste of real Mex.?"
This can be a challenge especially when one child wants to see the beach and another is studying Spanish. Add limitations of time and money and it just might not be possible to satisfy everyone.
Of course, all tastes will be real but some are more representative of the culture (or cultures) than others. To varying degrees the well known beach areas are international resort areas and therefore offer a less "real" Mexico feel. Still this may be enough. If this is what your kids want I would suggest considering one of three areas: 1) Mazatlan --a real city first and beach resort area second), 2) Acapulco --a historic city with a very long history of being a Mexican and International destination plus being reasonably close to Taxco and Cuernavaca for excursions, and with Michoacan not being out of reach, and 3) Cancun or one of the nearby smaller resort areas --the most plastic, manufactured of these places but with good accessibility to cultural sites and experience with the Mayan-Yucatecan cultures. (Better still would be basing yourselves in Merida and make the beach an excursion.)
In making a choice you might consider which is the most economic for you to reach by air. You can save a lot of money by searching for bargain international flights. It is often cheaper to fly to the Yucatan Peninsula than to fly to Mexico City. Also there are now internal airlines with low cost fares.
The challenge of trying to experience part of Mexico rich culture in a short stay would be the reason I would skip the beaches and focus in on inland moderate to small cities or towns. Oaxaca would be my first recommendation. A circuit of Guanajuato, Queretaro, and San Miguel de Allende (part of the central colonial towns) is attractive with different style and sized towns. Michoacan with the City of Morelia and the Lake Patzcuaro area is worthy of an extended visit. If you wanted to stay closer to Mexico City you could visit Tlaxcala, Cholula and Puebla. There are other areas that are all together different like the state of Veracruz (when the humidity is not bad), but they might be better saved for a later visit.
A comment on Mexico City: There is nothing little about Mexico City. Since it takes at least 5 days to get comfortable, and more days to really explore it fully, it might not be the best place to spend a lot of time on your first visit to Mexico. If you are flying into Mexico City you might find it less stressful to just stay a day or two and take a city tour and/or a floating gardens/pyramid tour then struggling with the logistics for a full week. An alternative is to take a bus out of the city directly from the airport.
"How do you travel with family?"
In my opinion it will be important to not be too committed to a tight schedule. (For example, except for the night of your arrival, a special holiday or a planned extended stay in an all-inclusive resort, I would suggest you go to towns and look for a place to stay using a guide book like Lonely Planet rather than worry about having a reservation.) I would also suggest you order several Mexican themed books (in English, perhaps English translations of Mexican novels) to carry with you for the inevitable travel delays.
Beyond age appropriate games and books the challenge is to choose things to do that your children can enjoy as much as you do. And the greatest challenge is how to keep teenagers happy, engaged and interested. This might involve doing some things that do not interest you. Going to a wrestling match, a "rock" concert, or a cafe-club with live music. A charro rodeo, a bullfight or a soccer match might be of interest. (Heaven forbid that they should want to go to a mall or a theme park! but it could happen.)
Depending on their ages and your level of confidence you have four ways to deal with a difference in interests: 1) We do everything together, majority rules. 2) Mom's (or Dad's) word rules (Ex: "We are NOT going to that dark, sleezy looking bar in the bad part of town with the prostitutes outside, I do not care what the vote is".) 3)We will alternate choosing what we will do next or at least allow each of us to choose one thing that we all will happily go to even though we do not want to. 4) "If YOU do not want to go with us you can stay in the hotel." This could even be extended to the "I do not feel like walking the plaza again (or shopping anymore or playing video games or going for a snack at MacDonald's) so you guys just go ahead and I will stay at the hotel, but be back by X time."
I am sure you have a good relationship with you kids, but just as older children will enjoy and benefit from some respectful egalitarian treatment, the traveling will be easiest if you establish some ground rules. Here are a few suggestions: 1) Everyone carries their own stuff. 2) Before moving from one place to another we always have a baggage, ticket, ID count. 3) If one of us wants to go to the bathroom or something and leave their luggage to be watched by another, this other person must be clearly apprised of their responsibility. 3) We make as few time deadlines as possible, but when we do they are absolute, and a serious sanction is applied. (For example, $1 per minute fine from money budgeted for purchases is paid to each of the other travelers up to 15 minutes; beyond that "death". 4) We will obey Mexican law and/or US law and/or Mom and Dad's as to smoking or drinking alcohol. 5)(This last suggest may be the hardest to arrange with teenagers but can be really helpful when in airport crowds or open markets.) Everyone wears our brightly colored matching traveling outfits when we are making a big move. (This could be just a T-shirt, a jacket, a hat, a full jogging outfit any combination of same colored clothing that can be easily spotted in a crowd.)
A last pair of suggestions as made on my VT page and photo album could be titled: "Carry money, not laundry" and I think might be particularly acceptable to teenagers. Have them pack their worn out or unliked clothes to be taken as throwaways. On the trip you take money to buy souvenir replacement clothes. Underwear can be replaced when you return to the USA. good luck.
"Driving a group of students to Mexico City?"
Are you crazy? Why drive? I would consider having my personal car or van in Mexico City to be a headache with little redeeming value. It would also represent an unnecessary liability/responsibility for someone taking a group of students. You can if you wish hire a van and driver for excursions around Mexico City for a reasonable price. I can understand the attraction of being able to stop along the way to and from Mexico City both as part of a plan to see smaller cities or even as an element of spontaneity, but I would still prefer to travel by bus. (The bus system in Mexico far surpasses anything in the USA. It may be the best in the world.)
Traveling the cuota roads can be considered reasonably safe. Still you should prepare yourself mentally for the possibility of being stopped in Mexico. Not all cars with flashing lights carry real policemen and not all policemen in uniform are honest. Do not, if possible, stop at an isolated area --try to pullover at a gas station or store or cuota office where there will be witnesses. Do not allow yourself to be willingly separated from the students. Do not follow "officers" to an undisclosed isolated location. With this being understood, you still should respond to anyone presenting themselves as an officer with respect and courtesy. Keep your cool. Apologize if you are made to understand that you committed a violation. Thank the officers. Even if you feel guilty do not agree to a bribe or if possible even show that you understand the idea of paying a fine directly to the officer. (Some may find this last statement unreasonable, and I can certainly imagine circumstances where just paying a little bribe would be easier, but do not do this without some serious negotiation.)
Taking a group of students to Mexico entails accepting a lot of responsibility --I commend you. Your willingness to do this represents a gift your students will never forget. You may be crazy, but in a good way. Good luck.
(There is a tip to be found under my Transportation Tips on pretty much the same issue for driving one's family to Mexico City. Check it out.)
"A little preparation"
OK you can not really escape looking like a tourist but with a little preparation you can make your experience better. Instead of just asking for "La Cucaracha", "Guadalajara, Guadalajara" or "Alla en el Rancho Grande" ask the mariachi band to play "El Rey" (It has a great refrain that you can join in singing.) or another song rarely requested by tourists.
My favorite request because of its haunting melody is a Oaxacan folk song called "La Llorona" --pronounced 'Yo-row-na". Although not really a mariachi song and perhaps most beautiful with a marimba group, I have never found a mariachi band or a guitarist who did not know it.
La Llorona (Cancion popular)
There are a good number of different versions of the folk story throughout Latin America. Most are more cautionary and less romantic than the Oaxacan. (Although short -too few verses-, the song based on the Oaxacan story as sung by the Spanish singer "Rafael" from the 60s is personal favorite. You will find it on U-tube) Here are just 5 of over 40 verses I've found. I am sorry I can not figure out how to add the Spanish accents, and let me apologize ahead of time for my less than perfect translation. (By the way, Llorona died a tragic death due to a mis-understanding or mis-communication so she is fantasmagoric.)
La pena y la que no es pena, Llorona, The pain and that which is not pain, Llorona
todo es pena para mi, All is pain for me,
ayer penaba por verte, Llorona, Yesterday I suffered to see you
y hoy peno porque te vi. Today I hurt because I do
Salias del tempo un dia, Llorona, As you were leaving the church one day, Llorona
cuando al pasar yo te vi, when you passed me, I saw you,
hermoso huipil llevabas, Llorona, You were wearing a beautiful huipil, Llorona
que la Vergen te crei. That the Virgin created for you
Ay de mi! Llorona, Poor me! Llorona
Llorona, llevame al rio, Llorona, take me to the river,
tapame con tu rebozo Llorona, cover me with your shawl
porque me muero de frio. because I am dieing of cold.
Dicen que no tengo duelo, Llorona, They say I feel no sorrow, Llorona,
porque no me ven llorar, Because they do no see me cry,
hay muertos que no hacen ruido, Llorona, there are dead that make no noise, Llorona
y es mas grande su penar. and it is greater their agony.
Todos me dicen el Negro, Llorona, Everyone calls me the black one, Llorona,
negro pero carinoso, Black but affectionate,
yo soy como el chile verde, Llorona, I am like the green chile, Llorona,
picante pero sabroso. hot but tasty.