Hi!! I’m Caitlin and I am a 4th year Spanish and French student at York! Last August I moved to Cholula, Mexico and studied at the Universidad de las Américas Puebla (UDLAP) for five months. This experience was the best thing I have ever done, and I hope that this blog can inspire people to “take the leap” and study abroad like I did.
Arriving and getting settled at UDLAP
Moving away from home is never easy, never mind moving to the other side of the Atlantic but I wouldn’t have changed anything for the world. Yes, it was frightening, and I did get homesick at first but in December I was crying so much I didn’t want to leave. I hope that this blog can give you all some advice and I am looking forward to sharing some of my favourite memories with you.
I decided to live in a private accommodation block called Urbanite which is just a two-minute walk from campus. It was very nice and modern and much cheaper than anything I have ever stayed in in York. However, it just wasn’t right for me. I felt lonely whilst living there as I had my own private studio. As I began to make friends who all lived in other housing, I spent no time there except to sleep. I made lovely friends who still live at Urbanite now, but it just wasn’t a good fit for me and everyone has their own preferences.
With respect to the university, UDLAP is the most welcoming campus I have ever been to and they really make you feel a part of the community there. They have a fun-filled welcome week run by their Amigos Internacionales who help you get settled in, socialise amongst each other and organise fun parties and trips. We had a fun day of team games and it was such a huge laugh.
I also by chance met a travel group called Cholula Capital at one of these parties and this is where I found my best friends for life. They own lots of private international housing for students and my biggest regret was not living there whilst I stayed out in Mexico. I did try to leave my accommodation and move to their housing but unfortunately, this was not possible for me. It all worked out in the end though because I barely spent any time at my flat and became the 12th secret roomie of the international housing.
Choosing my classes in my first week was a struggle as it was difficult to avoid clashing and there were so many interesting things to choose from!
I took two Spanish language classes for foreigners (Español 3 lengua y communicación y Español 4 cine y literatura), two tourism classes (hoteles y restaurantes y servicio de bebidas) and then a business class (fundamentos de administración).
In hindsight, the business class was not my greatest idea and I did struggle in it as it was for native speakers and I had never studied business in my life. I met some lovely people in the class, and I was so happy when I finally managed “sacar 6” and we all cheered even though it is a fail.
Support from teachers
The other classes I loved so much and I did work really hard whilst I was there. All of the teachers love their subject and they are so passionate about sharing it with you as an international student. Magdalena for Spanish 3 was my favourite teacher and she was an amazing support for me whilst I was there. I went to her all the time for extra help and she even paired me up with a language buddy called David who wanted to learn English. When I left in our final class, she gave me a hug, said “que te vayas muy bien Caitlin” and I was crying my eyes out and I am still so grateful to her for all her support. I don’t think my Spanish now would have ever got to this level without her and her kindness to me.
Lots of classes have group work so even though we don’t have to pass for our degree, you will need to cooperate with others, and it isn’t just a jolly holiday, unfortunately. That being said though…my teachers really wanted me to travel and explore Mexico. If you miss a class because you are travelling, they are usually very lenient and supportive so long as you catch up with the work and are punctual with your assignments.
I would say though that it is very difficult to get good grades whilst abroad but it’s important not to beat yourself up. You are taking a class in a language that isn’t your own and you are expected to hold your own against native speakers. You also usually get graded on participation, so you do actually need to speak in class even if you are shy. It is nothing to worry about though and the teachers are really friendly and help you out.
Coming to Mexico as an ab initio student, I was so nervous about improving my Spanish and I put lots of pressure on myself to speak. In my first week, I met so many locals. They quickly became my best friends out there and they were always happy to practice Spanish with me.
A different kind of Spanish
However, coming to Mexico I knew that different words would be used but I didn’t realise that this kind of Spanish would sound so different that I barely understood anything for a very long time. I remember being so upset and frustrated with myself every day because in class my friends, classmates and even my teachers would use slang that I had never even heard of before.
In my business class, my teacher would often use the word “chamba” or “chambear” and I had no clue what he was talking about at all. It was really frustrating for me because I was sat in class beside natives who would get it straight away and could do the exam and I didn’t even understand what the questions said (never mind the answers!).
Slang is a part of life
It wasn’t until I had conversations with my close friends about how I was struggling that I realised that slang is just part of life here in Mexico. Even Spanish speakers from other parts of the world don’t understand some of it that we use here. This made me feel a lot better about myself. I carried a little notebook everywhere I went to keep notes of it all although most of it is rude that I cannot repeat…
Of course, as a foreigner, it is expected you won’t understand. But if you really want to know the language, you need to learn a few words otherwise communication would be really difficult without them.
Slang is constantly evolving and changing here too. Sometimes in class, my professors were laughed at for the slang they used because they sounded too old. One time we were discussing nightclubs with our teacher, he called them “discos” and he was laughed out of the room by my other classmates because they told him he sounded like a grandpa… I was sat there not getting it as we had always been taught to call them “discotecas” but in Mexico, they are called “antros”. A useful word to learn for all my long nights on Calle 14!
Repeat everything you see and hear
I quickly learned to just repeat everything and anything anyone said, and it would make communication so much easier. Mexican Spanish uses so much wordplay and memes are a great way of learning language and culture amongst your own age group – not just academic Spanish! There are some basic responses and words you can learn too by just repeating everything you see and hear. Everything is tiny in Mexico too (bolsita, animalitos, besitos etc.) and “mande?” is probably the most useful word you can learn.
Travelling and making the most of your time abroad
I am so glad that I took advantage of every opportunity I had to travel and had a great group of friends that wanted to do this with me too. Every weekend I went to a new city and all of my trips were jam packed with opportunities that I will never have the chance to do again. If you worry about having travel buddies to go around with – don’t worry! There is a huge international community at UDLAP, you can meet friends from all over the world and everyone wants to have a great time and see Mexico as a local. There are some amazing places I would recommend as a MUST SEE:
Guanajuato / San Miguel de Allende
I went here on Día de la Independencia and it was an incredible experience. The monument of El Pípila and the views from the platform are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There is a huge celebration in the square and everyone was singing Cielito Lindo which is something that I will remember for life.
San Miguel de Allende was really beautiful too and there is stunning architecture here. It is so expensive though as lots of Americans retire here so I would make sure you keep lots of cash spare.
Las Grutas de Tolantongo, Hidalgo
This is by far my favourite place I visited. It is a collection of natural hot springs in the countryside which you can swim in. There is no phone signal and really just helped me to disconnect from everything for a weekend. Cholula Capital ran a trip here to the quiet side of the river and we camped for two nights. I loved roughing it and I have some amazing memories here.
I stayed in Oaxaca during the celebrations for Día de los Muertos and I absolutely fell in love. It was incredible to see the cemeteries and embrace the culture. We also visited Mezcal factories and tried every single flavour they had on offer and I left with one very sore head at 1pm. My favourite part was seeing Hierve del Agua which you may recognise from the tv show “race across the world”. It is a petrified waterfall looking over the valleys and the views are just incredible. You can also swim in some of the clay pools however they aren’t warm like the ones in Tolantongo and I was shivering for the rest of the afternoon.
We also visited Monte Albán which is a huge Zapotec pyramid complex. It is so nice to see so much of the indigenous history that is preserved here, and it helped me to learn so much more about Mexico.
For some boring safety bits…
Always look after yourself and your own personal safety and try not to get swept up in how much fun you are having. Punctuality is not a thing in Mexico and I would often joke with my friends when making plans “do you mean 7pm Mexican time or 7pm English time?” if it’s Mexican time it’s more like 8:30. Just make sure that if you are waiting around for someone to turn up you should make sure that you feel safe to wait for them.
If you are a girl, I would just be mindful that as an international you will get a bit more attention than you might be used to. If you are uncomfortable on a night out, nightclub staff are really protective and will help you. I did have a few unpleasant experiences with some men as there is some level of machismo culture, but it was always very minor and was sorted quickly. In more rural towns I was often stopped and asked for photos because of my blonde hair and blue eyes which was a huge shock for me. I don’t even know how many families holiday photos I appear in haha.
Always surround yourself with people you trust
Mexico has a bad reputation, but I would honestly say it is like any other country I have been to and as an international you are really protected. From my own personal experiences, I felt safer here than I did living in Liège for two months. Don’t be afraid to make friends and step out of your comfort zone. Mexico is a beautiful country and locals will welcome you with open arms.
When I arrived in Mexico, I barely ate anything at first. I had been frightened to death with so much scaremongering about food poisoning and food hygiene that I missed out on some amazing street food dishes until I got brave enough. I miss Mexican food so badly now that I have debated booking a flight just so I can have one last elote…
I would recommend you try as much as possible before you leave and when you travel lots of towns have their own regional dishes which are a must-have.
Caitlin’s must-eat list
Elote/ Elote en Vaso/ Esquite/ Coctel de elote
Kind of like a barm cake in England – every town and region has a different name for it but essentially it is corn, mayonnaise, cheese, chilli powder and lime juice.
Tacos al Pastor
These are pork tacos you can get from any taqueria. You top them with cilantro, raw onion and then salsa verde. I thought salsa verde was guacamole like an idiot and burned my mouth off.
Chilaquiles (verdes o rojos)
My all-time favourite breakfast food. Tortilla chips topped with cream, cheese, tomato sauce or a green salsa sauce and an egg. Ceviche My friend made me try this when I visited him in Cancún. It is a cold fish soup with cucumber, shrimp and I had octopus in mine. …it was an experience
Tamborines/Tamborsitos/ Pulparindo/ Chilli Lollipops
My friend Nathalia made me try these little tambourine sweets which are Tamarindo flavoured. They are so different to any candy we have in England and you have to try them! I also had chilli lollipops from time to time. The stereotype is true – there is chilli on everything here.
Street rotisserie chicken
The greatest chicken I have ever had. There are chicken shops in every town in Mexico which roast the chicken over an open fire, and you can get onions and chips with any chicken you buy. I still dream about that chicken I had. AMAZING
Agua de Jamaica /Horchata
Agua de Jamaica is a hibiscus tea drink that everyone has. Horchata is like a sweet white drink made with cinnamon. Both are must-tries and super yummy.
Deep-fried tortillas covered in cinnamon sugar and then you can add dulce de leche if you want too. My favourite dessert and me convertí en una gordita after eating these.
I really hope that you enjoyed this little blog from me, and I will be writing many more in the future. I wanted to show you guys how amazing the year abroad can be, and to grab every opportunity with both hands! Ciao ciao Caitlin
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