The last of Mexico: Todo Cambia

Cambia lo superficial

Cambia todo lo profundo

Cambia el modo de pensar

Cambia todo in este mundo

 

Cambia el clima con los anos

Cambia el pastor su rebanos

Y como todo cambia

Que mi cambie no es extrano

 

So sung my daughters and their school on the stage in San Cristobal a few weeks back, making even their hard-eyed mother weep just the tiniest bit. It’s Mercedes Sosa, for those who don’t know (I didn’t) and could be translated a bit like this. “The superficial changes/Likewise the profound/The way we think changes/Everything in this world changes. The climate changes with the years/the shepherd changes his flock/ And since everything changes/It’s not strange that I have changed too.

A fitting sign off from San Cristobal, where we’ve spent a predictably large amount of time saying goodbye. It’s always like this when you stay somewhere – you have ages stretching in front of you and then, suddenly, it’s all gone. This surprises everyone, not just us. Paul’s Mum, Madeleine, arrived for a very welcome visit in our last week – taking our mind off the bittersweet of goodbyes, but also reminding us that is really is time to go.

What to reflect on? Staying six months in San Cristobal was the right decision in so many ways. We’re so grateful for the break it gave us from on-the-road living. The girls feel so at home here. It’s changed them, I hope for the better. Some things I have noticed – and family at home may notice too.

  • Their tastebuds are more Mexican

Tamarind sweeties, lime and salt and tacos: these were not favoured snacks at home, but are now firm favourites. Daisy and Clover love a glass of Jamaica (hibiscus tea served cold) and a maize tortilla (extra points if it’s blue). I don’t think I’ll ever like maize that much – perhaps you need to get to it early. Hope they can remember how to use a knife and fork?

  • They speak Spanish to each other

I often listen to my girls talking together – it’s a polyglot mix at the moment. In a way it feels like we’re ripping them away at just the wrong moment when it comes to their language learning. We’re determined they won’t lose it though – expect to see a lot of Spanish in the Bigmore household going forward.
It’s been a joy to see them able to go off with a group of Mexican children at various parties and playdates, and to watch them being able to join in – even if what they are saying is less than perfect. As I say to the girls, the joy of speaking a foreign language is all about the communication, not the tenses and reflexives. I can see the delight in their eyes everytime they are understood. Priceless.

  • They’ve got more confident

Mexican children are expected to greet even unknown adults politely (as long as they are known to the parents of course!), with a kiss on the cheek and a firm handshake. The girls haven’t always managed this, but they are getting better about not hanging back when an adult speaks to them. It’s good practice I think. They’ll also go off to the loo together in a restaurant, ask for the soup of the day or any other questions they have.

Some of this is just growing up in general, but life on the road has allowed us to give them more opportunities.

They’ve also not been able to compare themselves directly with classmates – as their achievements have been so different because of the language. For two summerborn girls who are used to being some of the smallest, least confident and sometimes slowest to understand in their year groups, that can be a huge boost.

The Semillas de Luz school was not fond of ability-based tables – so the girls have only had to consider their personal improvement and achievements. I think that’s as it should be. Though I need to stop treating Clover like an eight year old – the tendency to just expect the same of both of my daughters is magnified when they’re taught together and spend so much time together. I probably baby Daisy too.

  • They’ve got taller

Can’t really blame that on the tacos, but they seem huge. We’ve replaced a lot of clothes. They’ve still got too many – but we’ve squashed them into the bags.

  • They are self-sufficient

Perhaps Daisy and Clover are now a little too close. It’s going to be hard for them to go into separate classes after all of that time together. Clover without Daisy (on a rare day that Daisy had off school sick) was a little sad, but soon got over it. Daisy was just suspicious that Clover might be doing something really fun. But they are really good at playing together and not getting bored, with really very few resources (though we are grateful for the tablets).

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  • They are somewhat too unsophisticated for their UK classmates

Probably my fault. I know nothing about Taylor Swift and all that, and Daisy has been with the younger children rather than the older ones, and still loves her dolls and teddies.

I hope their friends won’t find their lack of knowledge of sports teams and pop music too offputting. Perhaps someone could put me together a playlist? Or an acceptable clothing list – I’m taking it a Che Guevera t-shirt and a hippy scarf isn’t de rigeur amongst the children of South East London – perhaps I’ll be grateful for school uniform.

 

What happens next? Two weeks out of a Spanish-speaking environment as we tackle Brazil pre-Olympics, followed by a dip back in as we journey through Peru and Bolivia, finishing up with Ecuador and the Galapagos. Really exciting, but marks the ending of our adventure. Two months to go. Speeding up so fast.

 

 

 

Mexico: We don’t need no education

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Well, actually we do. Of course we do. And if you’re a British parent (particularly one with a child in a state school) you can hardly fail to have thought long and hard about your own child’s schooling in the last few weeks.

Whether it is the government’s complete inability to correctly administrate a pointless grammar test for ten and eleven year olds or its inexplicable desire (and entirely explicable U-turn) to hand over all schools to private businesses, education pays second fiddle only to Brexit and the junior doctors in the headlines.

The teachers here are a bit scarier- they’ve been on strike for the last week over plans to test their performance. All the state schools are shut and there have been some awesome marches -and some burning of state property. I’m not suggesting that’s the answer, but you know, it’s different.

Out here, of course, we’re far from the UK’s less flammable education concerns. But Daisy and Clover must re-enter the UK education system in September, so we’d be crazy not to keep up with developments. It would be easy for onlookers to write off what we’re doing as a bad experiment in letting children run wild, but actually our girls are learning and changing- and we are learning too.

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Back in the UK, with the girls in a great state primary, it has been easy just to let the teachers get on with it. They are the professionals after all. Despite being on the school governing body (I do finance, never curriculum!), we’d never really got to grips with the maths and English standard required of our children or the new methods they need to know to carry these out. As long as the teachers said the girls were doing OK, that was fine with us.

A year of homeschooling neatly shifted the responsibility for our children’s learning right back at us. It’s up to us to decide what’s important and what isn’t, and to give the girls the skills to thrive.

It’s an awesome (in both senses) responsibility, and quite a learning curve. As the girls prepare to leave the small collective school in Mexico for some more time on the road, here are a few thoughts for anyone else who’s thinking of doing this.

 A) My children have brains like sieves!
Amazing sieves, but sieves all the same. How can it be that one day they understand something but they next they don’t? I’m hoping it’s all filtering down in order to go in somehow – but we’ve learned that you can’t just teach something once and then expect it to stick. Probably obvious to those teachers out there, but little and often really works. On a good day, I try to think of their learning as like a spiral staircase – you have to keep going round and round it to get to the top – where the top is a final understanding of how fractions relate to decimals. On a bad day- ARRRGGGHHH!

 B) Children can get by in class without really understanding the basics
Again, perhaps unsurprising in a class of 30. Teaching the girls maths and English has made us realise where the holes are – I’m hoping their foundations are now a little stronger, even if they might not have advanced as far as their peers. The current UK curriculum expects some tricky concepts very early on – it’s easy to parrot something you don’t understand. But when it’s just you and your Dad or Mum there’s nowhere to hide. Mwahahahha!

C) Some of the curriculum is just silly
Yes, we can now all do a fronted adverbial of time, manner and place. In fact, we do them over breakfast, along with determiners and conjunctions. But who invented these things anyway – and is writing with a fronted adverbial really any better than writing without? At least Clover no longer thinks that grammar and Grandma are the same thing….We’d rather have Grandma than grammar at breakfast to be honest, but needs must.

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D) Other options are available
Step forward, Colectivo Semillas de Luz, a Mexican alternative school with an emphasis on yoga, gardening and singing. The girls have spent six months in a school of 20 (two classes), where parents are expected to be heavily involved, and ‘chalk and talk’ is virtually non-existent.

It’s been a great choice. Caring, family-like and accepting of two girls who spoke no Spanish at all on the first day. A school this small can be flexible – Paul went to for the first month or so as translator, and the girls have been allowed to be in the same class – as well as easy to navigate. Emotion is encouraged (they sit round a candle to discuss their feelings every morning) and the girls now love yoga. `Clover has, rather worryingly, forgotten how to sit on a chair. She’d rather squat. Of course, this is healthier, but I’m not sure how London primaries take that sort of thing.

The girls have no teachers, only ‘helpers’, which is a lovely philosophy and there are no surnames, no uniform, no heavy discipline.

I’m not sure we could stick collective schooling in the longterm, but it’s been great for a reevaluation of priorities for all of us. British primary education is a bit of a pressure cooker. It’s good to have taken the lid off for a bit.

E) So much of learning is about national culture, but the girls’ future is global
We’ve kind of slacked off the project work that the primary curriculum demands, so instead of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Fire of London, the girls have studied the cities we have been living in, and the cultures they find here. And while both the Industrial Revolution and the Fire of London are important bits of the UK’s history (and of course, often just vehicles for other learning), I’m not sure the girls’ world will be a purely British one when they grow up. They may study and live elsewhere in the world. Is learning about the Mayans less important than learning about the Romans? While that is decided by where you come from, who knows where our children will be going?

F) Egrets, we’ve had a few
Well actually, we’ve seen a few (lovely birds), but we’ve had some regrets as well. Perhaps we should have done a bit more to start with – getting back into writing longer pieces was painful for them both when we got to Mexico. We don’t have a beautiful holiday diary to take home – because they complained SO much about writing one, and I wish I’d been stricter on that.

On the other hand – I watched them have a playdate in Spanish yesterday. Their tenses are all over the place and they use some odd words but they speak a foreign language comfortably and confidently, with an accent any adult language learner would kill for. How cool is that?

So yes, there’s much more we could have done, and I’ve literally no idea whether they’ve done enough – the proof will be in how they cope (emotionally and academically) with years 5 and 3. Fingers very much crossed.

G) Teachers are amazing
How come you’re all so patient? Flowers all round- teaching is hard!

So in short, would we homeschool longterm? Probably not – but now I can see why people do. It’s lovely to be more flexible, and great for the children to get individual attention – and if we weren’t putting them back into the UK system we could avoid some of the daft grammar stuff as well.

The image I always see when I think about the girls’ development this year is of a tree cross section with the rings showing. Someone told me once that you can tell the good years for a tree (lots of water and sun) by thicker rings, while the leaner, meaner years have thin rings.

I’m hoping this year of learning together has produced an ultra-thick ring of learning and development for the girls. I know it has for me. Though I should add that I’m not actually thinking of cutting them in half to see – unless I have to go through their times tables with them again this week. If I do, all bets are off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The H Word: when there’s no place like home

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My heart is warm with friends I make, 
And better friends I’ll not be knowing; 
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, 
No matter where it’s going. 

Edna St Vincent Millay, Travel

NOSTALGIA, pining (for the fjords?) – call it what you want, I think that homesickness is something that nowadays everyone expects you to have grown out of at some point before the age of seven. Up to that point, it’s perfectly OK to demand to go home from a sleepover because you’re scared of the shadow in the corner and you are missing your Snoopy duvet cover. After that, suck it up.

That’s not always been the case, however. According to a book I haven’t read  (isn’t Google grand?), homesickness used to be seen as a legitimate killer. In 1865, the book notes, 40 soldiers in the American Civil War died of it. They called it ‘nostalgia’, but it seems to be the same thing.

Meanwhile, Dieu Donne Hack Polay, at the Centre for International Business Studies, states in his paper on Expatriates and Homesickness, that sufferers can experience “gastric and intestinal pains, lack of sleep, headache, feeling of tiredness and some eating disorders”.

So it’s science, folks, and nothing to do with my duvet cover (which doesn’t have Snoopy on it anyway, for the record). And now I’ve got academic backing, though thankfully none of the above symptoms, I don’t mind admitting that, at the moment, home feels very far away.

We’re nearly three quarters of the way through our trip and two weeks into our stay in our last casa in San Cristobal. Which is lovely, by the way – bags of space, loads of light, a great view and still only ten minutes from the girls’ school. The weather’s great (spring has sprung), and the girls are loving their days at Semillas; playdates, school trips and all.

So what have I got to whinge about? Absolutely nothing, except that I miss you all. This week I’ve been thinking of old-style missionaries, sent off with their coffins into the Congo and not expected to return, and of settlers in the US (because Daisy is reading Little House on the Prairie) making home as they go. Unlike them, I can keep in touch with my friends and family with the swipe of a touchscreen. What’s more, we chose this trip – and it’s a wonderful privilege. This kind of cogitation makes me feel guilty because I’d really quite like a night out with my UK friends right about now, when I should be making the most of the wonder that is San C.

The girls get homesick too, as does Paul – though he won’t admit it. He would like you to know that he’s mainly pining for Brockley’s Rock – which is our local chippy, and the London Beer Dispensary. I don’t mind telling you that there’s a little bit of bravado there though. He’s missing everyone at home as well.

With Daisy, homesickness takes the very specific form of ‘missing my cousin Izzy’, who she adores and who stands for England, bunk beds, baths, schoolfriends and everything she wants to have from home. When she’s tearful about Iz, I know she needs something familiar on Netflix and fishfingers for tea – or perhaps a special trip out with mummy or daddy for hot chocolate.

Clover gets clingy. She’s never far from my lap when she’s missing home. She’s really too big to curl up on me now – legs and elbows everywhere, but lots of cuddles and a story usually sort her out, thankfully.

Fortunately homesickness isn’t particularly contagious. We don’t all get it at the same time. The girls have it less at the moment because they’re loving their new school, while I think I’m more isolated working in our new house because it’s a little further out of town, which may explain why I’m feeling it now.

How do we beat homesickness? The one thing that doesn’t work for me is ‘counting my blessings’ as my Mum used to put it. I’m not Pollyanna. Telling myself how lucky I am and how I must make the most of each day is just a recipe for a guilt trip.

Instead, I’m trying getting out a bit more and (terrible phrase, this) reaching out a bit too. I’ve made more plans this week, and written more emails. I’ve been running three times, been to three Pilates classes and baked a lemon drizzle cake – so the house smells like home. Small things like that work, so that I think that I’m nearly back to my usual bouncy self.

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So why am I telling you this now? Partly I suppose, because I don’t want people to think that a year on the road doesn’t have its drawbacks. They are massively outweighed by the positives in our case, but anyone who tries this needs to be prepared. Also, this blog isn’t just a great big show off about what a wonderful time we’re having. This is real life on a family gap year – warts (well, verrucae anyway), dogbites, regrets and all.

But mainly, I wanted to thank so many, many people for keeping in touch. It’s fantastic when you Skype and FaceTime us, and brilliant when you send emails and contact us on Facebook. When you don’t, we know it’s because you’re busy, and we totally understand that too. But a million thanks for when you can and do. In the absence of any ruby slippers, every bit of contact really matters. Because there’s no place like home.

 

 

 

Feeding the children on the road: No-one actually starves

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I’ve just been observing the girls as they came in for their morning cuddle. How they are growing! Daisy, who was leggy as they come before we left home, is becoming taller and broader, and Clover, who still had some vestiges of her baby roundness when we left the UK, is now mainly legs and pointy elbows.

It’s not surprising then, that they are constantly hungry. Returned home from a night out last night to find our babysitter pointing out that the children had noshed their ways through apples, cheese and bananas since we’d put them to bed mere minutes after giving them a full meal.

But how do you feed children when you’re travelling? It’s one of the big questions we get asked, with many parents pointing out that their children are ‘fussy’- and therefore they couldn’t possibly leave the UK/France/Centerparcs.

So let’s get this straight. My children are fussy. I think, perhaps, all children are fussy – though some more than others. Actually, many adults are fussy too, but we have a lot more control over what we put in our mouths, most of the time.

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Where we are tremendously fortunate is in the fact that neither girl has any food allergies or intolerances, so we can at least give them whatever is offered with impunity, assuming we know that it’s clean and safe. We realise this would be a very different trip if we were grappling with a nut or dairy allergy, or coeliac disease (although ironically the latter would probably be much less of a problem here than it is in the UK, since the diet is maize based). But with that caveat over, I think you can travel with a fussy child and still get them fed. And here’s how.

Get a kitchen when you can

Thank you Airbnb. The house and apartment rental service makes it far easier for us to get a space with a kitchen – which makes it easier to control what we eat. With a kitchen in most parts of the world (even right in the middle of major cities) we’ve been able to save money and take the pressure off by cooking for ourselves.

That’s not to say that cooking is always a great or economic option when you’re somewhere for one or two nights- after all you don’t want to be travelling with half-opened ingredients, and it can be hard to find recognisable items in the local stores – central Bangkok was particularly bewildering, and Belize just not very set up for food stores.

But having a kitchen allows you to do the following:

Pancakes

Yes, the girls practically live on them, but why not? Better for you than sugary cereal and you can nearly always find eggs, flour and milk in relatively small quantities when you need them. Tempura flour works in a pinch (easier to find in Asian convenience stores than the normal stuff). Daisy likes her pancakes with lemon and sugar – easy (and you can swipe sugar sachets when you’re in restaurants if you don’t want to buy a whole bag). Clover likes Nutella – a surprisingly global foodstuff, but we often take a jar with us on short trips.

Funny tasting milk – even buffalo milk in India – goes unnoticed in pancakes. That’s breakfast sorted.

Pasta and sauce

A good stopgap when you’re tired of restaurants – you can nearly always score a bag of fusilli and some cheese or some tomato puree. Many times you can get fresher stuff too. Macaroni cheese goes down well when we have an oven. Feeding tired children is easier in an apartment than out on the street.

Noodles/stirfry/fried rice

Ditto – easy to find, quick to do. Put in fresh veg when you can find it. 

Yoghurt and fruit

You don’t actually need a kitchen for this one but a fridge is handy. Keeps the stomach healthy too – pretty vital when you’re travelling. Having a kitchen means you can wash fruit from the markets properly. Otherwise make sure you peel it. Mexican custom dictates that we currently soak all fruit and veg in a mixture including iodine for fifteen minutes if we’re going to eat the skins. Not sure whether it makes any difference really, but when everyone else does I guess it’s foolish not to. We’ll have no cholera here – we hope….

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Of course, in Mexico, we cook lots and lots of stuff – but for the times when you’re moving on every day or so, that’s a list that can keep you going.

Pack your ‘food heroes’

When we were children, even a trip to France involved packing whole boxes of British food (tinned new potatoes anybody?). You can’t do that when you’re travelling light, so you’ll be glad to know that we didn’t smuggle half of Sainsburys out of the country. What did we bring? Teabags – naturally – though we’ve now run out despite regular refills from visitors so we’re surviving on the Mexican stuff. We also bring what the girls call ‘drop squash’ – the tiny bottles of Robinson’s squash that take just a few drops to make a fruit-flavoured drink. I don’t love the aspartame content but they’re really useful when the only restaurant option is fizzy (currently banned because I am ‘so mean’) and the children want a treat because you’re ‘drinking wine again’.

 

As I mentioned we often take Nutella on short trips, and some sugar sachets. We also pick up longlasting snacks in various places. In South East Asia it was mainly nuts and a particularly chewy sweet that was a bit like a sesame snap. In India we ate a lot of crisps (oops) particularly on long distance train journeys. But we also bought bananas every day to take with us (no mess). Here it is often energy bars (you can even get the Nature Valley ones) as well as nuts again – though there’s also a nice line in pre-prepared fruit and dried fruit.

Let it slip sometimes

The children’s diets are 80 per cent good, I reckon. Their fresh fruit and veg consumption has been immense, simply because we’ve been to so many places where it is so cheap and good. Here they eat buckets of strawberries and mangos (quite literally, they sell them in buckets), as well as apples – surprisingly hard to get hold of and much missed, and the aforementioned bananas. In Mexico (and in fact in most of the world) bananas come in many more varieties than at home. We prefer the little tiny ones or the big red ones – those are probably not their horticultural names.

 

However, before I sound too smug, there have been days when their diets have been execrable. I’ve mentioned the whole ‘Indian train’ thing – at one point they only ate crisps and snacks for 24 hours when no food turned up and I didn’t really trust the vendors on the train (especially the one with the can of tomato soup who had got on 24 hours previously and was breaking up croutons with the same bare hands he was using to scratch his bum).

I was slightly stressed about my slipping standards already when Daisy, who had taken the heavily-promoted Healthy Eating Week very much on board at school, in the UK remarked that this wasn’t very impressive and I should be giving her breakfast cereal. Where she thought I was going to procure Shreddies on the Second Class Sleeper to Ernakulum Junction I don’t know. Some days the food choices have been less than ideal, I admit. And there is still a heavy ‘fishfinger component’ to their diets even here … but then (shhh) I love fishfingers too.

Don’t panic

I do. I panic often. Faced with a menu that I can’t find a thing they’ll eat on, or a lovingly cooked meal from local friends that I know they’ll reject, I flap. But then I repeat this mantra

  1. They won’t starve – they can always make up for it later – and there are always bananas, right?
  2. Most people will cut children a lot of slack with eating. We make them try – to be polite. We make them say thank you. And we explain that lots of eating is cultural – the children just aren’t used to the same tastes. It’s easier now they aren’t babies.

Sometimes even I can’t eat it (pigs stomach stuffed with its own intestines?) – then I need people to cut me some slack too. I try my best, for politeness’ sake.

 

Don’t expect nuggets

Children’s meals? Not really – and in Mexico the favoured meal for kids’ parties is chickens’ feet (suck those toes…) so even if there’s a kid’s menu on offer it may not be what you expect. Fortunately most restaurants allow children to share meals or will bring you an extra plate to share with them. And when it gets terrible there’s always (shh) McDonalds or Burger King – well, not always, but often anyhow.

So yes, it’s not always been organic alfafa sprouts and quinoa (in fact, it’s never been organic alfafa sprouts and quinoa – I think that might just about be the end of our marriage) but the children are eating just about fine. And in San C, they’re currently enjoying an amazing abundance of fruit and vegetables that we’d never be able to afford at home. Eleven mangoes for 50p means they can have them for every meal if they want, and I’m not even going to get started on the homemade guacamole…Maybe it will make up for the days of terrible nutrition on the Indian trains, or maybe not – but we’re grateful for good food and a good kitchen right now. Provecho – as they say here, and which I can only translate as ‘Bon Appetit’.

 

 

Adventures in Mexico: Palenque and Taxco

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Mexico is big. Really big. You might think it’s a long way down the road to the chemists..etc..etc.As well as being big, it’s massively diverse, which is why we are thankfully able to shrug off the fears about violence in the country touching us when we travel. Chiapas, thankfully, still feels incredibly safe- Zapatistas notwithstanding.

But we do occasionally get out of our San Cristobal comfort bubble, and when we do things can be quite different. In the last month we’ve done two Mexico trips, the second of which in particular, highlighted the problems Mexico has faced and is facing..

Trip one, on the way back from Belize, was a quick stop in Palenque, to see some Mayan ruins. The girls, after all, are living in a city famous for its indigenous culture, so not to see the cities left by the mysterious Mayans would have been a shame. They’ve been before, but didn’t remember it. Whether they will this time or not is not clear.

Paul and I have been reading a book called 1491, about indigenous culture before Columbus arrived. It’s highly recommended, eyeopening, and has helped us to see Mayan culture a different way, and Palenque with fresh eyes (just as well, as we’ve seen the stone pyramids a good few times now). The girls played Ever After High dollies around the site, but enjoyed the Chetumal Mayan museum, which allowed them to try out the bizarre Mayan counting system (base 20, anyone?)

Trip two, on the way to Cuba, was three nights in Taxco, the silver mining town where Paul did his first Spanish course. Taxco is one of the pearls of Mexico’s tourism scene – impossibly steep streets filled with white buildings and white VW beetles, where every other shop sells silver and the rest sell handicrafts.

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We go to visit our friend Yareri, who owns a restaurant there, and also because it is a beautiful place. But this time we really noticed how Taxco and its surrounding area have really suffered from the narco-trafficking related violence in the North and Centre, which barely touches us in the South.

Having flown into Mexico City we went straight from the airport to Cuernavaca, a monied town where rich Mexicans used to have their holiday homes. However, it was recently named the most violent town in Mexico. The streets were empty of people (and if you know the Mexicans and their love of parading round the main square of an evening you’ll know how weird this is). We stayed in a lovely, if oldfashioned, flat for the night – and chose not to go out except to go straight to the bus station in the morning. Here, the pictures of the women who have disappeared from around the area (violence against women is also a huge problem) were another stark reminder of Mexico’s problems.

Taxco was better, but still subdued. Many restaurants and shops have closed, and Yareri has moved her restaurant inside a local hotel, partly to deal with the downturn in tourists. Times have been hard, she said, though the violence has decreased massively in recent years and the tourists are coming back. Just look at these views to see why you should be one of them!

In Taxco we bought silver (naturally), ate quails eggs for breakfast (so cheap out there that Yareri can’t get her restaurant staff to eat them), and went to visit the old Aztec silver mine that’s been found underneath one of the local hotels (Posada de la Mision, if you’re going). The girls are very impressed to have their own rocks with seams of gold and silver running through them – always fun to pack too, of course.

We enjoyed discussing politics with Yareri  – curiously I always feel my Spanish improves after a few glasses of wine at the Sotavento restaurant… I suspect the mistakes are just more in evidence…

It was good to see Taxco again, but sad to see the harm that violence has done to this wonderful place where families depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Soon enough it was time for us to travel back through Cuernavaca to the airport (with only one vomiting child incident along the way – is Clover the only person in the world who feels that a slice of Sachertorte is the best way to get over being violently travel sick?), ready to catch our flight to Cuba in the morning. Three weeks ahead of Obama as it happens – it’s good to be ahead of the curve. Hasta la victoria, siempre (as they say…)

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Mexico: Our bread and butter time

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My Mum, with the relish only the primary school teacher can give to this phrase, used to describe this time of year as the “bread and butter term”. No Christmas fun, no sports days, just plain old learning was her reasoning. Jam for the summer term, and jam for the lead up to Christmas, but never jam today.

Sometimes bread and butter can be a good thing. Short as our ‘bread and butter’ time is in San Cristobal we are enjoying hunkering down and getting on with it this month. Which means we have very little to report that would interest anyone but our dearest friends. But for those who are interested, here’s what’s going on.

School      

The girls are back at the Semillas de Luz, and becoming more fluent in Spanish. It is great to see them playing with friends, using words to communicate and even doing their school presentations in a foreign language. Daisy is doing architecture this term (making Angkor Wat out of junk modelling) and Clover has a music project (instruments from rubbish). There is still a lot of gardening, and they’ve just been to the bug museum where Daisy held a tarantula. They are enjoying themselves.

Poor kids are also being pushed through the UK curriculum in the afternoons – and doing well. Paul is being rapidly put off ever becoming a teacher – but thankfully is more patient than I would ever be.

My one contribution is to the literary end of things. Having finished When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (a great favourite – and good for the travelling child) and Tom’s Midnight Garden, we’re now onto Wonder – which is a fabulous book with lots of different narrators, looking at the life of a child with a facial disfigurement. (better than it sounds, I promise). Daisy has just finished Heidi and is on to Charlotte’s Web, and Clover is reading Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. I am very grateful for their Kindles, which allow us to download what the girls want when they run out of reading matter.

That, and Duolingo (a free language learning app) once a day is keeping us all busy.

Spanish

Not theirs, mine! I’m still having lessons with Reggie at the lovely Instituto Jovel, and getting to the point where I can express what I actually want to say. It’s not so much the vocab, more the constructions where I need to say ‘I would have done this but then this happened’ that I struggle with. Paul remains awesomely ahead of me.

Pilates

A killer. Someone said it was gentle. I’m not finding it so. Three times a week – it must be making a difference by now. It’s also expanding my vocabulary – I’m now good on ‘wrists’, ‘ankles’. ‘bend’ and ‘stretch’ – not to mention being able to grunt sarcastically in a sort of Spanish way.

Work

Thankfully the wifi here works well, so so can I. January has been frantic – I feel very fortunate to have a job I can do from here, though there have been a few 4:30am wakeups to do calls – after which I have slumped back to bed. The time difference means I’m always behind.

 

Play

Seeing friends, going for tacos, trying out San Cristobal’s much-improved bar scene and hosting the odd playdate makes life seem fairly normal. Sometimes I forget I’m in Mexico until I step out of the door. This is a beautiful place and we’re lucky to be here.

Planning our next steps

Two more countries to go in February. First up, Belize (neatly coinciding with the Pope’s visit to San C, which promises to be incredibly uncomfortable) with some lovely friends, followed by a trip to Cuba with my parents. Lots of planning.

So all in all, we’re busy but boring at the moment. More excitement to follow on our next trip (which involves an overnight bus to Chetumal, avoiding some rioting locals in Oxchuc) and then beach time followed by Mayan ruins. For now, Hasta Luego.

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Mexico II: The earth moves for us

I wish I could find the scientific study that I read once, that stated that time seems to pass more slowly if you are doing the same thing all of the time. Which is why, when we’re at home and in a proper routine, the term seems to go in a flash, and yet we’ve travelled round ten countries in the same space of time and seem to have been away for ages.

That same study probably explains why the last three weeks have gone so quickly. We’ve made our home in San Cristobal at Casa Berta – the sweet house we’re renting on the hilly side of town. The children now go to school every day (well, they’ve just broken up for Christmas, but up until the 18th they were there Monday to Friday), while Paul goes in with them to help with the translation. I stay at home, work and have Spanish lessons.

With a routine back in place, time has really flown, but within all of the routine there have been some things to report.

1) An earthquake

At 6.6 on the Richter Scale, Wikipedia informs me that “everyone” should have felt this week’s earthquake in Chiapas. Everyone, that is, except Clover, who informs me she didn’t notice a thing. Readers, I am ashamed to admit that I was asleep when it happened (had just finished a feature and had got up early to do so, in my meagre defence for napping at 1pm) – and was in enough of a stupor to blame the builders next door for the rattling glass windows and the fact that the tiled floor was moving around like a snake. By the time Paul and I had worked out what was going on, the ‘temblor’ (as they call them here), was pretty much finished.

Daisy’s account, from school, is that she was planting things in the soil and then it started shaking and everything fell off the soil and they all had to sit on the floor. Then everyone was screaming “un temblor”. Clearly that’s a word she’s not going to forget in a hurry. All a bit too exciting, but nothing damaged except the local post office (St Cristobal is very low rise and fairly earthquake proof), and it’s a good story to tell. Wouldn’t want to be in a stronger one though.

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 2) Settling in at school

Perhaps it is unsurprising that life at the Semillas de Luz Colectivo, San Cristobal, is very different to life at Dalmain Primary School SE23. There’s a lot more sitting round a candle and talking about your feelings, to the accompaniment of music that would be more at home in a patchouli-scented massage parlour for a start.

Then there’s the aerial dance rope – can’t see British health and safety allowing that, especially when it’s hung over a foam mat only a couple of centimetres thick. All the children like to do crazy somersaults from this, having twisted themselves up to near the ceiling before spinning down. Clover has made herself feel sick several times by spinning too much. Such is the commitment to aerial gymnastics that the girls are insisting on taking classes twice a week, and can already hang upside down with the rest of them.

Then there’s the yoga, which Daisy says is ‘just waving your legs about Mum,’ even though the teacher says she has a ‘natural gift’. She likes the lion pose because you get to roar a lot. Other classes include permaculture (a grand name for watering the plants) and English (doing OK with that one…) while Clover spends most of her time stroking school cat Bigotes – whose name means whiskers, or moustache or croissant, depending on your point of view.

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But are they learning anything, I hear you ask? Yes, Spanish in the main. They’re already putting together words and starting to try sentences (though the verbs are mostly missing at this point). I’m awed by this – I think they’ll be better than me very soon. Also so impressed that they are willing to get out and about with their new friends – going to lots of parties just as they would in the UK. Unfortunately they then have to come home and keep up with the UK curriculum – but you can’t have everything.

3) Seeing old friends and making new ones

It’s been great to catch up with the friends we’ve made in San Cristobal, so we’ve already been to birthday parties, and had people round for dinner and tea. The girls have enjoyed hanging out with Itamar and Pablo – our godson and his sister. Although they struggle to communicate in words, they still play beautifully. The international language of Lego and rough and tumble seem to work just fine.

San Cristobal always seems to welcome wanderers home with open arms so it is easy to slot back in to life here. Even my old Spanish teacher has been willing to have me back (and has been very polite about how much I’ve forgotten) so I’m working hard on convincing him I do know what I’m doing. Reggie remains a hard taskmaster, with his interest in international economics ensuring that my mind works hard on both language AND content (we moved swiftly in the first lesson from the typical ‘describe your daily routine’ to ‘what will happen now China has joined the IMF’).

New things we’re trying include a particularly crazy form of Pilates, run by a woman who seems determined that we all need to be able to get our legs behind our heads. It certainly increases my vocabulary as I try to listen to her explaining how to contort myself into various ridiculous shapes. However, I worry that she thinks I only know one phrase: ‘no puedo’ – I can’t do it.

4) Just getting on with it

Routine is bliss when you haven’t had it for a while. Making breakfast? So exciting! Working in the sunshine and nipping upstairs for a cup of tea and a view of the mountains? Sublime. Cooking chocolate chip cookies with the children? A massive treat. We’re trying to make the most of it all. Especially since over Christmas we’re on the road again – down to Guatemala while our landlord rents out our house to someone with far deeper pockets than us. We’ve had an earthquake – it must be time for a festive volcano now?

 

 

Mexico: Putting down roots

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Ah, Mexico. Given that half the people we know think we’ve been here all along, it’s good to report we’ve finally arrived. Mexico is our second home, though the girls don’t really remember the two maternity leaves we spent in San Cristobal de Las Casas, walking each of them through the dawn streets wrapped in a sling, and taking them to Spanish classes.

Despite all of our good intentions, neither of them speak a word of Spanish (we were SO going to teach them from birth, but rather like feeding them only organic carrots and never allowing them fizzy drinks it just hasn’t happened) so six months in Mexico was always going to be quite a shock – especially since it is about time they went to school.

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We broke them in gently. Four days in DF (Mexico City), giving them a crash course in Mexican culture, including the Diego Rivera murals in the Zocalo (though they mostly wanted to stroke the cats rather than look at the pictures of the Aztecs making maize and sacrificing each other) and the surprisingly good zoo in the Chapultepec Park. We learned that Daisy still likes refried beans, but that neither of them really like tortillas (bit of an issue really). Of course, in DF, we continued to speak in English, so it was a bit of a shock to them (and me) when our good friend Enrique picked us up at Tuxtla airport, and we had to reignite the Spanish on the way up to San Cristobal. The girls, predictably, were somewhat silent.

And so here we are. Staying in a wonderful house called Casa Berta, where we’ve slightly more space than we need, and finally a kitchen that is a joy to cook in. The girls are getting accustomed to the San Cristobal market, which comes complete with chickens held by the feet and lots of colourful indigenous women selling beans and spices.

It’s hard to explain the appeal of the city if you’ve never been, but imagine an old Spanish colonial city, high up in the clouds, surrounded by mountains and forest. Cobbled streets full of low-level coloured houses ensure that the city is a magnet for Mexican tourists from elsewhere in the country as well as independent travellers, while the city is at the centre of a ring of indigenous villages where both men and women still wear traditional costume and practice traditional culture – and speak their own Mayan languages as well.

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In the streets, indigenous men and women mix with ‘coletos’ – traditional San Cristobal dwellers of Spanish descent. And then there are ‘los hippies’ who have made San Cristobal their home. Many arrived to support the Zapatista uprising in 1994, when the indigenous people rose up against their post-colonial overlords under the charismatic leadership of Sub-Comandante Marcos. Almost 20 years later, some land outside the city is still in Zapatista territory.

‘Los Hippies’ bring their own culture to mix with that of the Coletos and the traditional Maya. Think Stoke Newington in the Cloud Forest. So if you want your Mayan calendar read, or to practice yoga on any given day you won’t struggle to find someone to help you. You may not be able to buy a cagoule (it rains quite a lot) but you can buy a lot of weavings, friendship bracelets and pseudo-Mayan medicaments.

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Thanks to this, San Cristobal gives us a lot of educational opportunities to choose from for the girls. The only thing we can’t do is send them to state school, since we’re here on tourist visas (and since the state teachers have been on strike ever since we’ve started living here this is probably just as well). From the many options we’ve chosen Las Semillas de Luz, just round the corner. Given that the school is called Seeds of Light, you may have some idea of its ethos. Yoga features very heavily. I’ll write more to explain how they are settling in very soon…

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