Mad times in Mexico
Updated: Oct 21
We had a Mexican themed day at our house last week. We’re trying to show the kids a bit of the world even though we can’t leave Australia. I used to live in Mexico and I love the country, I wanted to inject our rainy day at home with a bit of Mexican vibrancy and excitement. But it’s quite hard to replicate, because it’s so much more than tacos and mariachi music.
I was in my twenties when I left my career in London and flew to Mexico to volunteer as an English teacher in Tulum on the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish and hadn’t set foot in a classroom since I jumped for joy out of one years prior, but I wanted to learn the language and get a qualification in something that would enable me to travel and live around the world.
Before starting the teaching course my best friend and I backpacked around Mexico by bus having a whale of a time. The people were friendly, the history fascinating and the landscape magnificent. We climbed mountains and rode speed boats on rivers through canyons as alligators basked in the sun. We visited pyramids and explored ancient cities, Mayan ruins with names like Wall of the Skulls because of the scale of human sacrifice. Still quite terrifying being there even 1500 years after the Mayans, really gives you the willies.
When we got to Mexico City we felt very small in such a huge metropolis. Aztec ruins alongside colonial architecture and brightly coloured, noisy street markets, meat filled dough tamales steaming on every corner.
I’d been fascinated by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo since watching Salma Hayek’s portrayal of her so I was excited to go to her blue house. Painted blue to represent her admiration for the indigenous people of Mexico, at her bequest her husband Diego Rivera turned the house into a museum for Mexicans after she died. The colours! Not only blue walls but yellow floors and green doors all wrapped around a tropical courtyard. Everything’s been preserved as it was, her paints sitting patiently, wheelchair pulled up to her easel.
Her portraits cover the walls just as print, towel and cushion versions cover the houses of hipsters around the world. Her work is extraordinary, thought provoking and frightening. Pain and passion - very Mexican. I find her art so honest - this is my body and this is what it’s been through. Deal with it or don’t, I don’t care. I’d like to paint like that.
After my friend and I had lapped Mexico she went home and I went to Tulum to learn how to be a teacher. 20 of us lived in a camp on the edge of the jungle. Just two bedrooms with an outdoor kitchen and toilet, home to scorpions and questionable hygiene. We ate rice and refried beans and slept in bunk beds swathed in mosquito nets and surrounded by rotating, humming fans. There wasn’t any hot water but cold showers didn’t bother us in such humidity, all piling in at once in our swim gear to save water. When the water truck arrived to fill up our tank it was a day of celebration and like every task at camp it was all hands to the pump. We were British, French, Australian, American, South African. All very different but maybe not so much.
We bought bicycles to cycle into town and to our school – a community college for teenagers wanting to speak English to work in tourism. They were lovely kids, shy but really eager to learn. It turns out I am not a great teacher, don’t make me. Or cut hair, I can’t do that either. But my students and I became friends and they invited me to their families’ houses for celebrations. We were still gringos to them, tourists and not Hispanic, but I think they liked us.
We took Spanish lessons back at camp and miraculously we slowly learnt how to navigate life there. During the week we’d plan our lessons and teach and on weekends we’d snorkel in the underground water pools called cenotes and explore their caves. Meet at bars on the beach, drink coronas and eat totopo corn chips and salsa and huge cocktail glasses full of fresh ceviche for under a dollar. It was a good gig.
There were some hairy moments; we got sick, I had my bag stolen and had to bribe a cop to get it back, our car broke down in the jungle one night... it's not really the place to be naive - but that's good, I probably needed that lesson.
On my last day I went to our favourite restaurant to meet everyone and say goodbye. I sat on the steps outside the bar underneath a huge Mexican flag. For absolutely no reason at all the flag pole decided at that moment to come loose and fall on my head. I should have been concussed but after a year I was so exhausted it just woke me up a bit. When my friends arrived the waiter and I were still laughing because it just felt very Mexican – right, you’ve had your fun, now off you pop. Today, looking at the photos, I realise how ridiculously brown and thin I was getting. Perhaps the flag pole thought I was one of its own?
So how do you get all of Mexico across to your little family from your house in Healesville? You can’t. I’ll just have to take them there some day, wander off the beaten track, treat the people with respect, look out for flags. Ahh, Mexico.