I spent 5 weeks in Puebla, Mexico in 2005. This is an e-mail I sent to my family and friends in mid October, 2005.
I know that I didn´t speak to all of you before I left town again, so you may be surprised to find an email from me from Mexico. Well… ¡hola! I am writing to you from a small town called Puebla about 2 hours away from Mexico City. This town is full of history and the Spanish program I´m doing here is excellent. It’s much more intensive than the one I did in Costa Rica, if you can believe that. Because it’s October, there are only 9 students TOTAL in my school and just one other woman in my class. We have 4 hours of classroom instructions in the morning and then in the afternoon we get an one on one conversation session for 2 hours while exploring this historic city AND I get about 2 hours worth of homework everyday. Needless to say, I am spent by the time I collapse on my bed around 11PM. I was really surprised to find out that a lot of students who come here stay for 4 or 5 months at a time and the average age of the students here is 36. They are really serious about learning/teaching Spanish and the director of the school asked us to sign a pledge the first day, saying that I would make it a priority to learn Spanish and that I would not speak any other language while I´m here. Even the director himself, after giving us a 2 hour orientation in English the first day, switched to Spanish and has not spoken a word of English since then. All the teachers have degrees in Spanish, Spanish literature, or linguistics, and the study material I´ve received here is great. If you are interested in immersing yourself in Mexico and learning Spanish, I would highly recommend this school.
Now, a bit about where I am. Puebla was established by the Spanish in 1531 on the main route between the port of Veracruz and Mexico City. Puebla has an appearance of an European city because it was built from scratch by Spanish designers rather than having it built on an existing city. There are many interesting things about Puebla but the two most famous things from Puebla are 5 de Mayo and mole Poblano. Many think that 5 de Mayo represents the Mexican independence day but the actual Mexican independence day is September 16. On May 5, 1862 a small troop of ill equipped Mexican army defeated a much stronger French arm and it marked the first major victory by the Mexicans. Even though they lost the city to the French the very next year, they still celebrate the bravery and the battle fought on May 5. The city of Puebla is the 4th largest in Mexico but the historic part of the town is still really charming and beautifully preserved. There are over 70 functioning churches in Puebla alone and the center of town, zocalo, was named a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1999. The more commercial and modern part of the city is full of Wallmarts (there are 4 in Puebla), Starbucks, and there is even a Sears. Luckily the school is located in the historic part of town and I live not too far from there, just about a mile away. One last great thing about this place is the weather. All year around, the weather here is similar to New York’s spring, give or take a few degrees. It’s sunny and beautiful everyday!
I´m living with a retired couple in their large house. They raised 6 children there and some of them still come by. There are 5 bedrooms, and 3 bathrooms, a formal dining room, a living room, and a study. They have two beautiful gardens full of birds of paradise, lime trees, and even a papaya tree. The father of the family, Doctor Alfonso, is a retired medical doctor who runs marathons and still keeps an office right by the garage for consultations. Last night while he was showing me his trophies and medals from various races, he told me that he was 82. He gets up at the crack of dawn and runs an hour everyday. The mother of the family, Doña Esperanza, is 78 and walked me to and from school the first 2 days. We discovered that we both practice yoga and on Tuesday, she took me to her yoga class which was wonderful. A bunch of ladies of all ages get together at this house and set up their mats in a converted garage. Their teacher, Lidia, comes by 4 times a week to teach yoga for an hour. It cost me less than $1.50 for my class. Can you believe it? They were lovely ladies and I plan to practice yoga with them while I´m here.
The cooking in the house is mainly done by their maid, Doña Juana, who is 70. She is a wonderful lady who likes to talk with me and her son is also there to chat with me everyday. She likes the TV program ¨Smallville¨which is called ¨Superman¨ here. How funny! They eat their big meal at lunch here so I eat a small breakfast of fresh fruit, some toast, or a quesadilla. And Doña Juana makes me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice every morning. All the lunches are included in the program and the students and some of the teachers, along with the school´s director, go to lunch together everyday. The school has selected two restaurants, one Mexican and one vegetarian near the center of town, and you choose a day in advance which restaurant you want to go. You get a small starter like a chulupa, then soup, main course, and dessert, with all the fruit juice you can drink. I´ve tried both restaurants and love them both. How lucky am I? Oh, I should also mention that I had the famous mole Poblano at home. Mole Poblano originated from Puebla and what I had was authentic, as far as I could tell. It was made by an aunt of the maid´s daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law explained to me last night that about 15 or so ingredients go into the sauce, including chocolate and 3 different types of chillies. What is interesting is that there is no water or any other kind of liquid in the sauce. Nevertheless, it is a sauce with incredible depth and flavor. It was excellent.
As I mentioned in the beginning, after lunch we get 2 hours of conversation. The school gave me a list of 50 or so places of interest around Puebla that we get to go explore with our guides. The guides are usually in their last semester of university and have gone through interviews and exams about the places in Puebla in order to become our conversation partners. My guide this week is Angelica, who just finished law school- we get a new guide every week. She would either suggest a place for us to go or I can ask her to take me to a place I want to go visit. This week, we went to a museum, 2 churches including the largest cathedral in Mexico, a very old library, and to a artisan market. If it rains, we can go back to the school and play board games in Spanish or watch Spanish movies (they have about 50 movies in Spanish). Or you can just go to a cafe for a cup of coffee or get a drink (we had a beer yesterday). The program also includes 2 excursions outside of Puebla.
On Wednesday, we went to a place called Cholula where there is a LARGE pyramid. It is the largest pre-industrial structure in the Western Hemisphere. It’s not very high but the base is twice the size of the pyramid in Egypt On the way we stopped at two incredible churches, one in baroque style and the other in an indigenous style. In order to convert the indigenous population in Mexico, the Spanish used all kinds of ways to make Catholicism easier to understand. In these churches, you can see anything from a sun god to decorations of tropical fruits and chillies- things the indigenous population could relate to. Very interesting.
Tomorrow I may go back to Cholula again to really explore the pyramids and the surrounding churches. And on Sunday, I’ve been invited to go to a birthday celebration of my hostess’ sister. I am looking forward to see what they do and eat. I’m keeping myself busy here in Mexico.
I hope all is well with you and you haven’t gotten too wet from all the rain in NYC.