The Geography Lesson that Brought Me to Shame

Did I ever tell you how I broke my culture shock? The defining moment when I went from “I hate it here, why don’t they do things my way?” to “Well, this might be ok after all!”

I was in my second year of university here in Cancun. I had a world geography class that totally blew my mind. As I looked up at the world map for several weeks, I thought to myself, “This is wrong. Why is the professor teaching wrongness? Why are my classmates not correcting him? Does nobody care or even notice that the map is wrong?” (Gosh, I’m such a typical American.)

In the US, we’re taught early on that the world has 7 continents: North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and Antarctica.

In Mexico, they’re taught that the world has 5 continents: America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania. Under this model, what we Americans consider to be North and South America is actually one large continent of America, and Antarctica doesn’t factor in at all!

MIND. BLOWN.

But wait! It doesn’t stop there! North America is everything north of the Panama Canal, right? Well, that depends on who you ask.

Get this: Mexicans don’t consider Central America to be part of North America.  Here, the large continent of America is sub-divided into 3 regions: North America (Canada, the US and Mexico), Central America and South America. In this model, Central America is no longer part of North America, it just borders North America.

North America in blue, Central America in yellow, South America in green... 3 regions making up the continent of America

After a few months of fuming to myself, I decided to look it up on Wikipedia to prove that I was right. Instead, what I got was this:

Number of Continents

And that’s when it hit me. My way isn’t the only way.

Even though I was taught something as fact, there still might be millions of other kids in other parts of the world learning it differently.

It was a huge step for me as an expat to realize that I can believe there are 7 continents, and my friends can believe there are 5 continents, and people on the other side of the world can believe there are 6 continents, and we are all correct.

This led me to realize that just because Mexicans don’t do things the way I might want them to, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Sometimes their way is even better than my way! (Except when they put ketchup on their pizza. After 7 years, I still find that unacceptable.)

I spent my first year in Mexico trying to make everyone more like… me. Then I spent the following 6 years trying to become more like them. All thanks to one geography course.

Saturdays at the "Tianguis"

The last 2 Saturdays, Jorge and I have gone to his aunt’s house to sell our used stuff at the local tianguis (pronounced “Tee-AHN-geese”), a kind of Mexican flea market. In his aunt’s neighborhood, people set up stands along the street to sell snacks, books, used clothing, video games, makeup, and the list goes on and on. In previous years I’ve sold my used clothes to earn up to $500 pesos in a day (about $50 dollars for my US readers). We haven’t been so lucky the last 2 weekends because we keep getting rained out, but we’ll keep trying until there’s sunshine. At any rate the afternoon is never a total loss since Jorge’s aunts always have tamales, brazo de reina, and fried fish on-hand for lunch!

Here are some photos from Cancun’s Saturday tianguis

This last photo is my makeshift used clothes stand. I love so many of the clothes I’m selling, but many no longer fit me since I’ve lost weight. And some of those shoes have amazing memories! I haven’t had the chance to wear them in years (I wear a work uniform 6 days a week), but haven’t been willing to let them go for a very long time. I also have 2 bridesmaids dresses from my wedding, but I doubt I’ll be able to sell them at the tianguis since they’re more expensive items.

What kind of local markets do you have in your city?

My First Alux Encounter

When I first moved to Mexico, I was fascinated by all the stories about run-ins with ghosts, hauntings and mythical creatures. Being the skeptical American that I am, I brushed it off as a cultural difference for several years.

But now… I’m starting to realize that Mexico is just filled with some crazy, crazy stuff.

Long-time readers may remember the stories about the mythical Yucatan alux (pronounced “ah-LOOSH”) that friends and family had told me. The stories made me start to think, “Maybe there’s some truth to this.”

And then on New Years Eve, I’m pretty sure I saw one.

Jorge and I were riding in a 15-person van from Cancun to Chabihau for his cousin’s wedding. During the 4-hour drive along the highway, we pass through mostly jungle with a few small villages along the way.

Around 7 pm, it was already dark. We were just leaving one small Yucatan village and entering the jungle again, going slowly because of the village’s speedbumps. Up near the driver, I saw the head of a black figure standing right by the van, in the middle of the road. From the height, the shape of the head and the way it moved, I immediately thought it was a child, except it was … blacker than black? As in I couldn’t even make out features or anything, just an outline filled in with entirely black. I was unsettled and wasn’t sure why.

As we passed the thing, I turned back and saw that the figure was actually hunched over and huge. It was shaped more like a dog than a child, but at the same time the street dogs in the Yucatan aren’t giant or black (at least none that I’ve seen!) Plus… dogs just don’t move like that.

I later told Jorge and his family that I’d seen an alux, and they didn’t seem the least bit surprised.

Mexican Traditions: Cake and the Baby Jesus

Those of you who took high school Spanish might remember a popular Latin American holiday: El Dia de Reyes (or “Three Kings Day”).

Falling on January 6, this holiday is celebrated throughout Mexico. The three “Reyes Magos” (aka the Three Wise Men) bring gifts to little kids, Santa-Clause-style.

Another popular tradition on El Dia de Reyes is cutting the Rosca de Reyes (King’s Cake). If you find a tiny plastic Baby Jesus in your slice of cake, that means you have to bring tamales for everyone to enjoy on February 2nd, El Dia de la Candelaria (Candlemas Day).

This past Friday, my office department ordered our Rosca from a popular local bakery called Tere Cazola, complete with cream cheese filling. (yum!) I did not get the Baby Jesus figurine at our office Rosca-cutting! Saved!

My Jesus-less slice at the office

In the evening, however, Jorge and I were invited to a get-together with some of our friends. I wasn’t feeling well and stayed home, but Jorge cut my piece for me. Turns out I  got the Baby Jesus and will be one of the lucky 3 friends bringing tamales to our get-together on February 2nd.

My coworker's slice of Rosca, complete with Baby Jesus

In other words… El Dia de Reyes is a great excuse for Mexicans to throw TWO parties: the rosca-cutting on January 6th, and the follow-up tamale party on February 2nd. Gotta love Mexico, right?

Hopefully I’ll get to blog about all my tamale-parties on February 2nd! Can’t wait 🙂

Año Viejo: New Year’s Tradition in Yucatan

For New Years, we once again went to the fishing village of Chabihau in the state of Yucatan to visit Jorge’s family. This year there was even a wedding! Jorge’s cousin Yeni (pronounced like “Jenny”) got married to her long-time beau, Armando.

We also did some crocodile watching out on Chabihau's salt lagoon

I’d heard before about a special tradition in the Yucatan known as “Año Viejo” (“Old Year”), but this year was the first time I got to see it. On our ride from Cancun to Chabihau, we passed through several villages that had dummies set out by the front gate of the homes. These dummies are known as “Años Viejos“, and they’re filled with rockets and fireworks.

Read that again… rockets and fireworks.

On December 31, the Año Viejo dummies are set out by the front door, and at midnight they’re ignited in the street to represent the end of the “Old Year”. Make sure to keep your distance! It can get pretty loud.

An "Año Viejo" in the town of Cansahcab, Yucatan

From what I could gather from Jorge’s family, it seems Año Viejo is a popular tradition throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, as well as in the state of Veracruz.

Since I was at the wedding at midnight, I didn’t get to see the Año Viejo lit up this year, even though we did have some regular fireworks and sparklers. Oh well, there’s always next year!

What did you do for New Year’s?

Catrinas and Calaveras in Cancun

Mexico is known across the globe for its vibrant and colorful holidays. Here, even death itself takes on a joyful vibe every year on El Dia de los Muertos (“The Day of the Dead”). Held on November 1 and 2, this holiday celebrates loved ones who have passed on with altars to the deceased called ofrendas and an annual visit to grave sites.

Since Day of the Dead falls so close to Halloween, the two holidays are often combined here in Cancun. Children roam neighborhoods trick-or-treating with parents and friends, while the streets fill up with images of La Catrina, an elegant lady skeleton symbolizing Day of the Dead.

One of the many Catrinas I found in Cancun’s Parque Las Palapas tonight

 Tonight was an interesting one for Jorge and me. We had several groups of trick-or-treaters stop by, and we gave them some classic Mexican candies. (Jorge’s enjoying the leftovers as I write this.) Then we took a stroll around Parque Las Palapas, which had lots of family activities, people in costume, and a show with colorful Mexican dances.

My best friend Viri had an ofrenda for her brother and grandfather set up at her home, and her parents were kind enough to let me take some pictures. It has many of the classic ofrenda elements, with incense, marigolds (Flor de Muerto), pan de muerto, candles to guide the way of the deceased, sugar skulls (calaveras) and some of their favorite food and drinks from when they were living.

I always feel like Day of the Dead is a fascinating mix of intimate family memories and vivid social traditions, bringing together families and communities alike. This year in Cancun was no different.

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Community Manager for the Mexico Today Program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things Mexico shared here are completely my own.

Day of the Dead Traditions Begin in Cancun

“Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) is one of the biggest holidays in Mexico, falling on November 2. Mixing in with Halloween traditions from its northern neighbor, Mexico’s Day of the Dead traditions offer a surreal combination of vibrant color, sadness, respect, comedy and culture, all in honor of loved ones who have passed away.

Even though many locals accuse the young city of Cancun as devoid of culture, I beg to differ. Even though most of our population comes from all over Mexico and the world, you’ll still find each Mexican family’s own version of a Day of the Dead altar. A few days prior to November 2, Mexican families begin to set up altars in their homes to honor the deceased.

Traditional Day of the Dead altar decor usually includes the following:

  • Marigolds
  • Calaveritas (small decorative skulls made of sugar)
  • Papel picado, colorful sheets of paper with shapes cut out
  • Photos of the deceased
  • Candles
  • Pan de muerto, a traditional loaf of sweet bread used only at this time of year
  • Food and drinks that the deceased enjoyed when they were alive

As the cold weather begins to set in (NOOO!), Cancun will start to make their altar purchases over the next week or so. Hopefully I’ll be able to document some of my friend’s family altars. For now, I’ll leave you with some photos from last year’s Day of the Dead in Cancun:

Mexico's Aguas Frescas

I remember my first taste of agua de horchata. I was living in Acapulco and I stopped by a little neighborhood cafe with a girlfriend. She told me it was a refreshing drink made with rice, vanilla, cinnamon and sugar. This piqued my curiosity because I had a hard time understanding how rice could be refreshing. The waitress set a glass down in front of me filled with what looked like milk with a slight beige tint. I took a sip, and my love affair with aguas frescas was born.

Aguas frescas roughly translates to “refreshing waters” in Spanish. They’re delicious drinks with a water and sugar base, infused with fruits, cereals (like rice or wheat), or even flowers. You can find them at any food establishment throughout Mexico, whether it’s a taco stand or a five-star restaurant, and they provide an incredible alternative to water or soda.

My friend Leslie Limon is also a huge fan of aguas frescas. She’s a beautiful American woman raising a family in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. (Oh, who am I kidding? She’s practically Mexican!) On her blog, La Cocina de Leslie, she posts mouthwatering Mexican recipes, including aguas frescas.

Since she is so much more talented than I am in the kitchen (ahem), I’ll share some of my favorite recipes from her blog…

Agua de Jamaica (Hibiscus Water) Leslie refers to this drink as part of the “aguas frescas trinity” (Jamaica, Horchata and Tamarindo, the three flavors you’re sure to find everywhere in Mexico). It’s a personal favorite… very refreshing and made from dried hibiscus flowers. Talk about exotic!

Agua de Pepino (Cucumber Limeade) I tried this for the first time at the Mexico Today Kick-Off Event in Oaxaca. I just wish I’d discovered it sooner! I prefer mine with extra lime.

Agua de Sandia (Watermelon Water) No explanation needed for this one! Just as refreshing as it sounds.

(Leslie, you’re missing my favorite! I’d love to see your recipe for agua de melon.)

During my trip to Oaxaca, a few of us also got to experience an aguas frescas tasting with the city’s famous Aguas Casilda. They set up a table offering clay pots of refreshing drinks, then combined them to make unique flavors.

Berta Cruz from Aguas Casilda pouring some lovely "agua de horchata"

"Agua de horchata" mixed with "agua de tuna" (the fruit, not the fish!) (although here in the Yucatan, we'd call it "agua de pitaya")

They offered us different combinations of tuna (aka pitaya), horchata, lime, and even pumpkin. The pumkin water didn’t look too appetizing, but trust me, it was delicious!

A makeshift Mexican flag made with "limon", "horchata" and "tuna"

It was an incredible experience to taste these incredibly fresh aguas frescas. If you want to learn more about different flavors, you can check out Aguas Casilda’s website by clicking on the button (Make sure to click on the “Sabores” tab to see everything they offer… pretty impressive!):

Next time you’re in a restaurant in Mexico, make sure to ask, “Qué aguas tienes?

Have you ever tried any aguas frescas? What’s your favorite flavor? (Mine is agua de melon… canteloupe water!)

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Community Manager for the Mexico Today Program.  I was also invited on an all-expenses paid trip to Oaxaca as part of my role.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things Mexico shared here are completely my own.

Yucatan Folklore Part 1

On New Years Eve, we went to Jorge’s Uncle Mike’s house for a gift exchange with his dad’s side of the family.

As I’ve mentioned before, most of Jorge’s dad’s family lives in a small town in the state of Yucatan called Yobain. This little town is filled with lush jungle vegetation, locals riding their bikes, people chatting with neighbors on doorsteps, and beautiful white-washed stone walls around many of the houses.

The Yucatan Peninsula is filled with incredible stories and superstitions handed down by the Mayan culture, and the town of Yobain is no exception.

After all the gifts were handed out, I sat around with Jorge, his father (also named Jorge), his Uncle Mike, Uncle Tony, Aunt Elsy and cousins Isis, Yaresbi and Damaris. Uncle Mike, one of the youngest in the family, spent the next hour telling us about some of the run-ins their family has had with Yucatan’s spirits, and I found myself with chills running down my spine.

This week, I’ll be telling you several of the stories Uncle Mike told us that night.

First of all, you should probably know a little more about the culture. The jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula are believed to be inhabited by “aluxes” (The “x” is pronounced like an “sh”… “a-loo-shes”). You’ll hear different stories about their appearance or where they came from, but everyone agrees that they have a child-like mentality. They love pranks, and will quickly get even with you if you insult them.

The first story took place years ago when brothers Mike, Jorge and Tony were walking through the streets of Yobain at night. Back when they were kids, this small town had no electricity and the streets were dark. They were walking along when they heard movement among some nearby trees. Startled, Tony calmed his brothers by saying it was probably just some other kids.

The three brothers continued walking until they reached the town’s central plaza. Here, they heard noises behind them but didn’t see anything, and began to feel frightened. Suddenly, Jorge was lifted up into the air by both arms by some invisible force, and the brothers could hear laughter. When Jorge reached a nearby corner, an older gentleman stepped out of his home. The invisible forces dropped Jorge back to the ground and left.

After hearing this story, I asked my father-in-law if he remembered this happening to him. He said that yes, he did.

More alux stories to come this week!